The summer of 2020 has been one of whirling change, grueling uncertainty, and upheaval on every level – but for many, it has also been one of connection, soul-searching, and growth as we are forced to confront aspects of life that we have long been avoiding. Many white Americans have awoken to the racial inequality of the United States. Married couples have been forced to confront issues during quarantine together. People living alone have been forced to look within themselves for a sense of stillness amidst chaos. Our culture has developed a newfound appreciation for healthcare workers, teachers, and minimum wage workers. And the Zoon Garden Team has experienced the challenges and rewards of seeking connection and authentic conversation during a time when physical closeness is impossible.
This summer, Zoon Garden has used its platform to host conversations with political, economic, and media experts to gather their thoughts on polarization. We’ve discussed the connection between environmental issues and systemic racism, the issue of affordable housing, the digital nomad lifestyle, media literacy, bus life, and the construction of brand narratives – and amidst the discussion of these important topics, the team has experienced genuine connection, friendship, and resilience in communities across the United States.
“We became a family,” says author Jordan O’Donnell. “We laughed, we cried, we yelled, we spoke deeply, overcame an incredible amount of adversity, and had the greatest summer of our lives.”
As the book tour draws to a close, the team aims to integrate their experiences into a return to "normal" life. O'Donnell plans to continue work on the Zoon Garden documentary in time for submission to Sundance. Many interns are returning to their homes and schools. But no matter where they go, they will embark with new friendships, deep compassion, and a hunger for truth.
You can buy Zoon Garden: The Decline of a Nation here.
Last week, Affordable Housing Tips published an article featuring breakout author Jordan O’Donnell on the topic of the digital nomad life – that is, what it’s like to work remotely while living on the road. This week, we turned that question to the rest of the Zoon Garden Team.
“Being on the move can apply to not only the physical, but also the mental and spiritual. For this trip, we've been on the move in all three,” says Leanne Weaver, the team’s Website and SEO Manager.
Physically, the team has transported their vehicles and belongings across the country. Mentally, they are on the move daily as they formulate and re-formulate promotion plans amidst a shifting cultural landscape and dissolving norms in the face of COVID-19. Spiritually, their sense of wonder, belonging, and trust is in a constant state of growth as they affirm and challenge one another, and are affirmed and challenged by their external circumstances.
“While on the move, things are crazy fast paced and always spontaneous. The plan would be to drive into our next city and get some work done, but then the car would break down and we'd get stuck on the side of the road for six hours,” says Shannon Nonora, Zoon Garden’s Media and Marketing Specialist. “Things usually happened like that on the road. While that was definitely challenging in terms of getting work done and having very small amounts of rest, those are the moments where we bonded as a family. The best thing about being on the road is how much you can connect to the other people on the trip.”
Other challenges the team has faced on the road include limited space, lack of privacy, and absence of amenities such as running water and electricity. These issues clearly can be frustrating – yet it seems that it’s all worth it for the sense of connection and freedom that the group experiences.
“The experience definitely puts you in a position that humbles you and makes you appreciate some of the simple amenities,” says Weaver. “But I enjoy the free-spirited nature of the trip, being able to redefine what ‘home’ is. Each place we've been has helped us reflect on different aspects of ourselves.”
Guest written by Team Members Shannon Nonora & Grace Tierney
The Zoon Garden Team has spent a lot – and I mean a lot – of time on the road this summer. This time has been spent working remotely, reaching out to publicists, designing updated itineraries in compliance with COVID-19 restrictions, and, of course, belting classic Disney songs while the highway flashes past. Jake Harris, the team's manager and resident "skoolie" driver, happily identifies as the team's DJ while on the road.
Here are just a couple of the jams that the team has been screaming along to.
1) Hakuna Matata -Lion King
2) Coming in Hot -Andy Mineo
3) Fitzpleasure -Alt Jay
4) Under Pressure -Queen
5) Feeling Good -Nina Simone
6) Anything Hardcore EDM/Techno
In Big Bear, California, the team held a going away dance party for Creative Director, Jonah Baker. But this was not a hook-your-phone-up-to-the-speaker kind of dance party. Harris pulled out all the stops. He grabbed his headphones and mixer and set up his DJ booth in the corner of the room. Not only is Jake the life of the party, but his DJ skills got mad respect from all of the interns (despite their inevitable complaints when hardcore EDM blasted on the speaker for hours on end). Feeling both a glowing admiration for someone and a mild irritation with them at times -- now, that's how you know you're really close.
As the trip continues, the team grows closer every day. A team of once very different people with very different interests has evolved into a family of individuals who share and explore their interests with each other. For example, many started out with different music tastes, but they have slowly started to adopt each other's favorite songs. Shannon Nonora, a Media and Marketing Specialist for the Zoon Garden team, says, "I went home with a playlist filled with song suggestions from everyone on the team. Songs fit for driving through the Grand Canyon, jamming out in downtown Nashville, or watching the sun go down after a sunset hike. The only thing better than meeting 17 new friends was getting a bunch of new music to fit with the memories."
From the long car rides blasting throwbacks and Disney music to the EDM dance parties, you can be sure that the team is enjoying their time on the road and picking up more music with each place they go.
“My sources tell me animals stayed awake fearful for their lives well into morning.”
These words appear on page 106 of Jordan O’Donnell’s breakout political satire, Zoon Garden: The Decline of a Nation, in conversation between the zoo leader and his advisor. But the United States today is not so different – our country and culture is, in a sense, wide awake with fear, trying to wait out the night, tossing and turning. This week, the Zoon Garden team examined the idea of fear in their own lives. The team members were asked to consider what they are afraid of, what fear means to them, and how fear operates in their daily lives on tour.
Leanne Weaver, the team’s Website and SEO Manager, shares her fear of not belonging or mattering to the people she loves.
“It's a downward spiral; when you try to connect to people motivated by that fear, it inhibits your ability to truly connect with them,” she says. “You become so self-absorbed in this need and try hard to mask it, but in the end you feel like you're just bothering people. They can't hear your silent thoughts of questioning your self-worth, so how can you possibly expect them to challenge those lies you keep feeding to yourself? How can you expect them to prove you wrong?”
When Weaver felt suffocated by this fear, she ran two and a half miles from camp to Big Bear Lake, hoping to collect her thoughts alone.
“I was bewildered by the peace I felt. I felt so lonely moments ago when I was surrounded by people, and here I was by myself completely at peace,” she says. “In that moment, I pondered about how my self-worth isn't as malleable as I thought. I decided to take back my power by choosing the definition of my self-worth instead of sacrificing that to others to decide for me.”
Upon returning to camp, Weaver felt empowered, connected, and ready to work. Her friend and fellow team member, Shanon Nonora, Zoon Garden’s Media and Marketing Specialist, has since weighed in on her own perspective on fear.
“You can live your whole life being afraid and not realize it,” she says. “That's something I definitely found when I came onto this trip. I had been afraid to go out of my comfort zone, afraid to be so spontaneous, afraid for things to go wrong, afraid to open up to the people in my life... If I had continued living my ‘ordinary’ or routine life, I'd never overcome fears I never know I had.”
Nonora maintains that the solution to fear is pushing yourself out of ordinary comforts. “Take opportunities you’re saying no to because of small worries, and say yes instead,” she says. “If you are in a place in your life where you can say yes, whether it be telling someone something about yourself you were afraid to share or going on a cross country road trip with twenty strangers, my only advice is to go for it! In my experience, it's always resulted in closer friendships and insanely crazy, awesome memories.”
Take a look around this website. Notice the titles of the blog posts. The podcasts we’ve been featured on. The color scheme of Jordan O’Donnell’s debut novel, Zoon Garden: Decline of a Nation. Notice any themes? If you’re paying attention, you should see that most of our content centers around travel, politics, connection, and creativity – all themes which directly relate to the product we want to sell you, which is O’Donnell’s breakout political satire Zoon Garden and the tour we’re taking across the country.
Now take a stroll over to Walmart’s website. Check out the sleek, modernized format. The constant use of the color blue. The top three headlines: “College prep for less,” “Supplies from 25 cents” and “A+ savings.” They, too, are following a brand narrative that attempts to convince you, the consumer, to buy their product.
The key to understanding media literacy is knowing that, to some extent, all media presents information with the goal of maintaining a brand narrative – and often that brand narrative aims to convince you, the viewer, to buy their company’s product. FOX and CNN want you to watch their channels and subscribe to their websites. Starbucks wants you to purchase a cup of coffee. Even individual social media accounts aren’t immune to brand narrative – your old friend from high school posted that picture of his vacation because that picture aligns with how he wants to be perceived by the public.
Once we understand that all media is created from a certain perspective, and that this perspective almost always has a financial motive, it becomes easier to analyze media and mine for “truth.” The Young Africans Leaders Initiative puts it nicely: “Each form of communication has its own creative language: scary music heightens fear, camera close-ups convey intimacy, big headlines signal significance. Understanding the grammar, syntax, and metaphor of media language helps us to be less susceptible to manipulation.”
So, next time you’re reading the news, scrolling through Instagram, or grocery shopping, pause to ask yourself: who’s talking? Where is this information coming from? How and why does the speaker distribute this information to you, the buyer? And what parts of the message ring true?
It’s a question that has haunted philosophers for centuries – one that’s been examined in classrooms and whispered in kitchens, buried in clear-cut forests and sunk into uneasy conversation: what does it mean to be human? Jordan O’Donnell’s political satire, Zoon Garden: The Decline of a Nation faces this question even as its characters inhabit symbolic animal roles, and the Zoon Garden Team has used this question to inspire connection on their socially distant book tour this summer.
“I think to truly be human means to experience all aspects of life,” says O’Donnell. “The sadness, the suffering, the joys, the laughs, the sorrows, the bliss, the infatuation – to live a life balanced between good and evil and work every day to allow the good to win.”
Mallory Nolte, the team’s Videographer and Content Creator, emphasizes the humanity of recognizing mistakes and overcoming challenges. “Working remotely this week has been a huge change in speed,” she says. “I have to find new ways to keep the vlogs interesting, which relates back to the question. I’m well aware that not much ‘vlog-worthy’ content is going on right now, but I still have to push myself to create interesting videos.”
Leanne Weaver, the team’s Website and SEO Manager, cites a quote from Kevyn Aucoin: “Today I choose life. Every morning when I wake up I can choose joy, happiness, negativity, pain…to feel the freedom that comes from being able to continue to make mistakes and choices – today, I choose to feel life, not deny my humanity but embrace it.”
The honest expression of humanity amidst material challenges has driven deep, long-lasting connection between team members.
“In 4 weeks we have experienced a lot together, more than some family members or lifelong friends,” says O’Donnell. “We have laughed long and deep, cried, yelled, stood in wonder of amazing sites, had deep conversation, been completely authentic. I think we have shared our raw humanity with one another and that has taught us a lot about humanity as a whole.”
On April 23, 1910, former United States president Theodore Roosevelt delivered a speech entitled “Citizenship in a Republic.” Now, a century later, many aspects of this speech remain relevant, especially for the Zoon Garden mission led by author Jordan O’Donnell.
“This speech is, in my opinion, one of the key texts we need to return to as a society to realign the principles that should govern our republic,” says O’Donnell. “There are certain aspects that are antiquated such as the continual emphasis on child-rearing, but many of the lessons in the speech are vital to the preservation of our nation.”
What follows are several such lessons – handpicked by O’Donnell himself.
1. “The main source of national power and national greatness is found in the average citizenship of the nation. Therefore, it behooves us to do our best to see that the standard of the average citizen is kept high; and the average can not be kept high unless the standard of the leaders is very much higher.”
2. “In the long run, success or failure will be conditioned upon the way in which the average man, the average woman, does his or her duty, first in the ordinary, every-day affairs of life, and next in those great occasional crises which call for the heroic virtues. The average citizen must be a good citizen if our republics are to succeed.”
3. “The power of the journalist is great, but he is entitled neither to respect nor admiration because of that power unless it is used aright. He can do, and he often does, great good. He can do, and he often does, infinite mischief. All journalists, all writers, for the very reason that they appreciate the vast possibilities of their profession, should bear testimony against those who deeply discredit it.”
Another issue Roosevelt delves into is the idea of self-mastery – which ties neatly into the concern of expanding the compassion of the average citizen. “I think one of our greatest problems is that we long ago moved from a people of self-mastery to a people who are mastered by practically everything,” says O’Donnell. In other words, rather than mastering our surroundings, we allow our surroundings – often in the form of technology, media, and hegemonic ideals – to master us.
In order to improve our nation as a whole, it is essential that we evaluate ourselves – that we point our fingers not only at one another, but at ourselves, and work to rebuild a nation of unity, trust, and self-mastery. Check out O'Donnell's book for more info on this, and check out our tour itinerary to catch the Team as they tour a city near you!
The Zoon Garden Team has completed the third week of their socially distant book tour across the United States – and, though the tour hasn’t always been easy, they are not shying away from the hard conversations that make the experience so unique. This week’s conversation is about “truth”: what it means to be honest, how perceptions of reality have become political, and how this theme has translated into the day-to-day work the team is doing on tour.
“For me, being honest is usually the most difficult when people ask a personal question or if I think my opinion might not be a popular opinion,” says Alan Kratz, the team’s General Manager. “I think being honest is akin to giving your own opinion of yourself more weight than others' opinion of you.”
In other words, honesty is deeply connected with self-respect. In order to speak your truth, you must respect yourself enough to take risks in conveying it. In a cultural landscape that is increasingly devoted to political rather than individual thinking, this self-respect becomes more important than ever.
“The key is not necessarily to find truth, but rather to shift the individual's mind to desire truth, not their tribe's dogma,” says author Jordan O’Donnell. “Media might be lying to us, but they are continuing to flourish because people take the lies as facts. A large portion of the society, on both sides, would rather hear the same myopic mimicries than hear the truth. To really begin to find truth, we must shift the populace's desires from lies which make them comfortable to the truth which hurts but sets them free.”
It’s not always easy to look truth in the eye. The Zoon Garden Team has taken their fair share of tough truths while on the road, as the pandemic continually forces them to re-calibrate their plans, adjust their itinerary, and adjust their safety measures according to shifting state regulations.
“As we continue to face more and more adversity we have had to be more and more honest,” says O’Donnell. “It is easy to be open and honest when things are going well. As the trip has become more difficult, we were faced with the choice to avoid annoying truths or to embrace them, talk about them, and become better because of them. Our adherence to honesty has led to tough conversations – but helped forge the team's bond.”
This week, the Zoon Garden blog is joined by Marc Linn, the Co-Founder of the Affordable Housing Tips platform. Linn hosts the Affordable Housing Tips talk show on radio station KZZH, 96.7 FM in Humboldt County California, and he has an extensive background in conflict resolution, a theme which is deeply relevant amidst Zoon Garden’s aim to decrease polarization through compassionate connection. A self-proclaimed radical, Linn considers himself “a fierce foe of the unnecessary conflict in our world.”
On Tuesday, Linn and I had a chat about the intersections between polarization and affordable housing. “Affordable housing” itself can be a slippery concept – so Linn began by explaining both the personal and institutional elements at play.
“When cities and states get involved and they build projects, they want it to be ‘affordable,’” says Linn. “They have all kinds of formulas. I think the standard one is no more than 30% of your after-tax income, and then they factor in things like how much you have left over for food and how many kids you have and so on. But that’s macro. That’s general. To me, the question is, is that housing affordable for me?”
Personal factors play a distinct role in home affordability – but alarmingly, they are also used to control who has access to housing in the United States.
“Single family zoning and redlining are both ways that the power structure of the predominant group has managed to define the preferred mode of housing,” says Linn. “The ‘ideal’ housing format was decided some time ago as a single family home: one family, one house on presumably a good size lot, two children, a white picket fence, and maybe a dog. The trouble is, rather than just decide that, okay, this is how some of us prefer to live and others can live how they want, the predominant groups have passed zoning laws which have prevented housing that doesn't fit the single family description.”
These zoning laws have prevented the construction of higher density, and therefore more affordable, housing. “The desirable parts of the area would be restricted from any kind of housing, other than single family,” says Linn. This, coupled with the financial discrimination faced by black Americans, institutionalized barriers for minority access to affordable housing.
These institutionalized barriers are not often considered in hegemonic discussions of impoverished Americans. Consider the blame culture surrounding the homeless – rather than recognize the deep-set economic and governmental factors that led to this poverty, upper-class Americans’ attention is instead directed to issues of drug use and alcoholism, factors which, as noted by various affordable housing experts, are often the result of homelessness rather than the cause.
The issue of homelessness shot into American consciousness largely following the shut-down of residential hotels during the Progressive Era. This shut-down of residential hotels removed the “bottom rung on the housing ladder,” and forced many low-income Americans onto the streets. This displacement was framed as a downtown “clean up” and driven by upper-class businessmen and religious activists who felt the residential hotels allowed for “immoral” lifestyles. According to Paul Groth, historian and author of Living Downtown, the perception of “immoral lifestyles” has its “historical roots in generations of middle and upper-class complaints about urban density, mixture, and diversity—key aspects of hotel living” (1994).
Linn feels that the social and economic factors surrounding affordable housing has a common denominator: greed. “At root, it seems like there have always been people that just aren't content with a reasonable lifestyle,” says Linn. “They want more, and then when they get more, they want more still.”
Linn attributes this particular type of greed to an imbalance between material and emotional needs.
“Yeah, we have material needs,” he says. “But I think we need peace of mind and some self respect as well. And when those are not in balance, people try to fill the gap by going overboard with the material needs. That leads to doing whatever it takes to get a bigger house – and the way you get a bigger house is by passing legislation that prevents others from having any house at all.”
It’s week two on the road for the Zoon Garden Team, and the group has already seen Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee, Arkansas, and Oklahoma – and today, they are on their way to Flagstaff, Arizona. As the team grapples with communication, storytelling, and connection amidst social distancing precautions, many have taken the time to consider what it means to change deeply, at a personal, interpersonal, and systemic level.
“To have a personal revolution is to simultaneously halt and contradict rigid patterns of thought and rule-governed behavior that previously infiltrated the mind,” says Grace Tierney, the team’s Media and Marketing specialist. “On an interpersonal level, a revolution might take place along the spectrum of boundaries, where friendships morph into romance, a son tolerates paternal abuse, or a marriage becomes non-monogamous. Systemically, revolutions hold the utmost significance as they possess a measurable net benefit or disadvantage. For this reason, systemic revolutions often heighten emotions, create tension, and invoke a sense of urgency.”
These emotionally charged cultural revolutions are constantly in flux, often rising in reaction to acts of violence and injustice. But how can we ensure these changes remain in place – that our activism is proactive rather than reactive? Tribe Supply’s Creative Director, Jonah Baker, highlights the need for constant vigilance, the ceaseless movement toward a better world.
“For me, revolution is a kind of constant state,” he says. “In the same way that the earth is naturally revolving around the sun, we have to be in a constant state of update and revision. This can sound tiring, especially on a personal level, but I've found that as I keep reconsidering myself, revolution comes easier and allows me to update myself easily and bring that same energy into my environment. If we push that through line out to interpersonal and systemic levels, there is a kind of osmotic effect that translates from our basic behaviors into the people and places around us. Constant vigilance (and when necessary, revolution) is the sort of thing we can act into existence.”
Internal revolution is an act which requires courage, honesty, and a good long look at yourself. It is impossible to improve society at a systemic level without improving the culture that inhabits it.
“I love the sacrificial nature of revolution,” says Tierney. “It requires a great deal of courage and trust to make oneself vulnerable for the sake of some greater good.”