The Otesha Project is a five year old, grassroots, youth-run organization which uses cycling and theatre to empower young people to make more just and sustainable life-style choices. Otesha Canada has presented to more than 80,000 people to date. This Ottawa based organization has proven so inspiring that there is now an Otesha UK and an Otesha Australia. We asked one of the cyclist actors to share what the experience of an Otesha cycling tour is like from the inside.
By Stefanie Bowles.
Years of studying governments and public policy issues left me with what I think is a common perception of governments as powerful. I had to revisit this understanding of power when I started actually working for the government. I would look around me and think—ok—I’m here, who has the power? My experiences with Otesha—I signed up to join one of their two-month bicycle tours from which I recently returned—gave me a new perspective on power.
We were eleven total strangers from across the country, between 20-28 years old, who signed up to live in a mobile community together for two months. The message we were to live and present theatrically was one of sustainability and social justice as articulated in the Otesha Book (to which the play we performed corresponds) with chapters/scenes on food, transportation, clothing, coffee and media. We had no leaders, and were encouraged to modify the script to make the message something which reflected our own ideas of justice, sustainability, humour and communication.
We certainly had our own ideas. While we were all Canadian citizens, our group was very diverse, and included many kinds of difference: linguistic, religious, cultural, geographic, gender, sexual orientation, academic discipline and rural-urban. As “walking the talk” was central to our message, every life-style choice, every bite of food, and every piece of clothing were scrutinized for their ethical implications. Not only did we have to bike 1300 km together, sleep in tents or crash in school gyms together, we also had to eat the same things: our limited food budget was to be spent according to our collectively defined “food mandate.”
Our incredibly intense food mandate discussions cut straight to the heart of our identities. Was veganism a uniquely North American practice which did not respect other cultures, in their use of dairy for example? Would agreeing to the moral superiority of a vegan diet be agreeing to the moral superiority of white people? Does vegetarianism make sense for rural northern Ontario communities who have long winters? Does the market signal we send when we buy organic have a net greater environmental impact than buying non-organic local? If a grower is local, does that mean you should have more confidence in their agricultural practices? Are any of these proposed changes personally sustainable? What do I need to be satisfied?
In answering these questions, this disparate group of strangers had to create a new social order which respected all our identities and beliefs while responding to modern problems. The world's religions have had centuries upon centuries to develop an ethical set of beliefs and practices, but we had to make up our own pretty much on the spot. It involved negotiating different ways of communicating (we needed to be very respectful and careful). It required compassionate ways of relating to each other (we learned to be hyper-sensitive and positive). It required new relationships to material things, to food, to work (do it yourself), and to language (English wasn’t accepted as universal). It necessitated finding compromises between personal time and collective time & interests. There were tears and tempers, and some people needed to take breaks, even extended breaks.
Along our journey, we sought out and stayed with people and who were creating their own social orders. These included “intentional communities” (i.e. alternative societies) of the back-to-the-land variety (Morning Glory Farms, Killaloe) and of the anarchist variety (Dragon Fly Farms, Lake St. Peter). We stayed at organic and biodynamic farms (Riverglen Farms, Ottawa; Loonsong, Manitoulin Island), and eco-wellness and spirituality centres (Galilee Centre, Arnprior). My social-scientist head was spinning after a whirlwind three days where we stayed at/visited three alternative societies: how is social organization most effectively expressed, through family, ideology, religion or a combination thereof? And who knew all these places were in biking distance from each other in Southern Ontario?
This constant ethical exploration had an outlet in our play, which was different every time it was performed. The script we were given was written by a tour the year before, and was very well received as it was both funny and inventively physical (characters’ bodies are used as props). Plus, as it was performed to youth by youth who were actually walking the talk, its message was transmitted like lightning: we grabbed their attention, didn’t let it go, and were greeted with thunderous applause from all the schools we visited. Post-cards poured in detailing all the actions we inspired.
The tour I went on presented to over 2,300 people. Not only did we inspire others, we inspired each other—living with this group of relative strangers was like holding a mirror up to yourself. The process of deliberating about the message we were bringing to communities generated extensive self-reflection.
Like a microcosm of society with all its modern difference, this tour brought theory to life. We had to hash it out, to really work together to forge ethical practices and inspire others. How it stayed positive is instructive. Otesha’s ability to catalyze positive social expression is based explicitly on their focus on small changes, on hope, and on empowering yourself.
Otesha's power stems from their moral authority and the courage to “be the change you wish to see in the world”. The mandate to "be the change" may seem simple. It is actually enormously challenging. This is also one of the things that gives it such power. “Otesha” means “reason to dream” in Swahili. The success of their model gives us all a reason to dream.
Photos: Stefanie Bowles