It all started with the “Humans of Cave Junction.” It was my first formal project to participate in the community. I would create an Instagram account (inspired by the NY original) and walk the streets of downtown CJ. I would meet people, share with them that I’m new in town and doing a little project to get to know the humans there. Ask if I might take a moment of their time for a couple of quick questions. Maybe connect with them. I’d make sure it was okay to take a picture, then let them know I’d share the stories and images online. It was a chance to create something beautiful and useful while getting to know this new community.
(You know that dream, the one where you’re in public, naked? That feeling? It stalked me all through the five weeks or so of the project. I’d been in Josephine County for months, living with and processing enough of the new experience to keep moving forward, even though the process was dissolving my sense of self, my identity. I had no position anyone could see, no role I wasn’t giving myself, nothing I wasn’t doing into being. I was also solo. While walking the streets of CJ, the breeze was wafting into some intimate places it’s never visited before in public.)
During those weeks, I met many of the humans without homes in CJ. At the park, behind the grocery store, on the streets, along the Redwood Highway. When I asked to talk, to take pictures, they all said yes. They all just gave me their time, their stories, their privacy. They gave me permission to use all of it, without a second thought. They gave me little pieces of themselves, without asking for anything in return.
I met humans in Southern Josephine County who are used to giving their power in exchange for resources to live, who often tie themselves into knots trying to show how “good” they are, how worthy of support. Authority in this culture has taught them that they are worth nothing unless they produce, unless they stand on their own two feet and pull themselves up by their bootstraps. They have been taught that addiction is a personal failing, that mental illness is a weakness. Authority has taught them that this is how things have always been and that this how they ought to be. It also teaches them that nothing ever really changes.
They have been taught that if someone does something “nice” for them, they need to show gratitude, show respect to the person giving them something, sometimes by getting on their knees to say “thank you.” They have been taught that their “bad” position is a result of their badness, their own stupid actions and decisions. They have been taught that authority is the only “good” person here because it always makes the right moves, obviously. They have been taught to obey without questioning authority and to supplicate. There is no dissenting opinion from authority here. None.
I have never shared the “Humans of Cave Junction” pictures or recordings, never did populate that IG account. It’s never felt ethical, unless I can share the benefits with the humans whose gave up parts of themselves for a little warmth. (Sure, I met their expectations: I gave them things they needed, like gloves and blankets because the only warming center in town had closed and it was about to get very cold.)
What the humans without homes gave me, though, is much more valuable: an actual understanding of the humans in the middle.