Creating with Conflict
It took the convergence of two perspectives in my life to embrace my complex identity and to integrate it into my life’s work.
Trained as a landscape architect and steeped in the tools of design, writing was always an afterthought–so the moment a teacher tasked us with a specific writing assignment is notable. The task was simply this, write about a favorite place–a favorite place of now or a place of childhood. Twelve pages later, I had a detailed, complex memoir of the 4 mile stretch of gravel road between our family farm and the country church. And it hit me like a ton of bricks.
In that moment I realized I had a unique lens of understanding. Where others saw primarily featureless landscape, I saw so much more. I didn’t see empty fields of black dirt, I saw the buzz of harvest–the family meals in the field, the breakdown of the combine. I saw hard work. Where others saw an un-kept farmhouse (with its crumbling foundation and sagging roof) I saw a childhood friend. I saw a family shaken by the farm crisis. By suicide. When I saw the looming storm clouds on the horizon, I saw worry. When I saw the little white church on top of the hill (with only half dozen vehicles on Sunday morning) I saw hope.
In that moment I discovered a lens of seeing the world that was mine. I uncovered a new perspective. Flash forward a number of years–paper writing and grad school in my rear-view mirror–and I had my dream job working with a top-notch urban design firm of planners and landscape architects. Working alongside my idols and mentors, we were designing sustainable communities that integrated systems of renewable energy, local food production, green infrastructure, wildlife corridors and bike and pedestrian systems.
I could either flounder in the in-between space, or embrace the need and the challenge. It was not an easy resolution. It was a decision to create with conflict.
But then in 2011, while actively involved in the professional association and in the midst of projects I was deeply attached to, I diverged.
As an urban dweller and a farmer’s daughter I felt caught in the middle of a food and farming war–stretched across the growing divide between consumers and producers, between urban and rural.
I became an advocate for a food and farming system that did better for the health of our people and the health of our environment. I was determined this was a battle worth fighting for. But I was disheartened and broken that we were waging war against each other–demanding a healthier food system as consumers and citizens, but with little awareness and acknowledgment of the complex systems that ruled our food and farming landscape.
I could either flounder in the in-between space, or embrace the need and the challenge. It was not an easy resolution. It was a decision to create with conflict. The good kind of conflict–the kind that can shake us lose from our narrow understanding of our interests. The kind that exposes key information–assumptions, prejudices, values and needs–all essential to finding solutions. The type of conflict that is rooted in empathy, built on the acceptance that we don’t have to agree to respect and care for one another.
Where one perspective revealed a unique viewpoint I had to offer the world, the other perspective made me realize the world really needed it. In retrospect I needed the work to bring meaning into my own life. My life, my experience as a young five-year-old girl, peering through the hallway door to my father sitting at the kitchen table, with his head in his hands. Completely distraught. Overwhelmed. Unsure how he was going to pay the loans to keep the farm, the machinery, the farmhouse–the family legacy and heritage.
It was what I felt, not what could be read (in the latest book) on the good food movement, that in the end pulled me away to work with a non-profit based out of the farm crisis I was born into. I chose to work for the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy–an international non-profit who had been fighting for 25 years for a food system that pays farmers and workers fairly, protects the environment and provides enough healthy food for all. I found work with a mission and worldview that I wanted to fight for. And at this convergence I realized a new way forward towards greater wellbeing in my career.
You do this by revealing instead of obscuring, by building friction instead of hiding it, and by making clear that every one of us (designer included) are nothing more than participants in systems that have no center to begin with.
My work since the transition has only confirmed that there is a need for designers in so many unorthodox places. Designers are needed to restructure policies (that drive and interact with the systems we design), strategically align movements of people and missions, and plan for the social change that follows and precedes landscape change. They have an incredible skillset and gift that is needed.
In this work, we must be humble. Empathetic. You do this by revealing instead of obscuring, by building friction instead of hiding it, and by making clear that every one of us (designer included) are nothing more than participants in systems that have no center to begin with.
Trained as a designer I will always be in the profession of problem solving. I will utilize my ability to envision and help execute what is not yet in front of us. It is a unique ability and responsibility to help others see the complexity in the landscape, in society, in individuals. It is an opportunity to seek not the answers, but to instead probe the questions.
Embracing complexity is not just a challenge, it’s a special connection to wellbeing. And it’s almost certain to bring more humanity and empathy into the world. For me, taking my design skills and my personal lens and applying them in a non-traditional setting maximized my capabilities. It has maximized my potential to be part of real, authentic and lasting change on the landscape. My biggest challenge now? To lean into this tension and to continue to create with conflict. To stay in relationship with one another–to not always agree, but to respect and love one another anyways. Because the world needs us; and it needs us working together.