The Maintainers Fellowships – a model to understand localized practices of maintenance, repair and care.
-By Lauren Dapena Fraiz
From 2016 to 2019, The Maintainers conferences featured professionals from across a wide range of disciplines who came together to share their experiences on how maintenance was neglected in their field. They discussed how recurring problems related to infrastructure damage, decay, and safety could be prevented if only maintenance practices—such as long-term planning, routine care, repairing what is broken, and overcoming “shiny object” syndrome—were prioritized. The conferences were highly successful and brought in a mix of maintenance enthusiasts from across different professional spheres including historians, librarians, software developers, policy experts, designers and more.
The vision of The Maintainers resonated with many, and members of the community felt inspired, encouraged, and most importantly, eager to step into action to achieve better maintained societies. However, it remained unclear what the transition from discourse to practice looked like. Furthermore, when the COVID-19 pandemic brought the conferences to a halt, new questions arose on the value versus risks of in-person conferences, including health/safety concerns, accessibility, costs, and the environmental impact of travel to conference locations. It also became clear that to advance The Maintainer’s mission, it was necessary to produce a shift into enabling a maintenance-mindset that would affect policy, governance, and decision-making related to maintenance practices.
The Maintainers fellowships were designed to build on the momentum of the conferences – but employing a more decentralized approach to action. Similar to the MI, MII, and MIII conferences, the fellowship program convenes people from different fields and physical locations to share knowledge and advance maintenance and care-centered practices. However, the fellows actively engage in their fellowship work within their specific locales. This model balances two key intervention points for shaping a more caring and well-maintained world: knowledge exchange across geographies and communities, and advocacy for maintenance where we are. In the spirit of not seeking novelty for novelty’s sake, we have made a point of honoring the work that is already taking place (repair cafes, community workers, technicians pushing maintenance-centered agendas, etc.). Our fellowship and public programs make a point of recognizing individuals with practices rooted in their communities and localities, and with skills as public communicators outside of academic spaces, including journalists, educators, teachers, artists, community and cultural workers. We believe that building a movement for maintenance thinking and action has to reflect many different lived experiences. Our fellowship model has been composed of a series of fellowship programs, launched for the first time in the summer of 2021, and of a second full year fellowship in 2022. This year, we are able to support a new half-year cohort, and we are excited to see what insights the new fellows will bring.
The Maintainers believe in the maintenance of healthy environments and ecologies, high-quality public infrastructures (from safe housing structures to health care as a human right), and developing a care economy that can help people lead fulfilling and meaningful lives. The fellowships serve as a continuation of this ethos, through conversations with individuals from varied backgrounds, but with a shared sense of transcendence when it comes to maintenance, repair and care practices. These conversations lead to an exchange of knowledge, best practices, and resources. To our cohorts, prioritizing maintenance is tightly tied to practices of repair and care, and environmental protection. Below is a recap of how our fellows supported us in building our research agenda.
Summer Fellowship 2021
The Summer fellowship was our first experience supporting non-academic practitioners in different parts of the world that centered maintenance in their work – all widely varied in their focus, cultures, backgrounds, and approaches- with maintenance-focused work in a more sustained way. Through this award, our fellows led independent research and came back to us with their expertise and recommendations in the form of a series of dedicated blog posts, and comprehensive landscape analysis reports. Purna Sarkar and Himadri Das shared their experience managing Repair Cafes, reuse practices, and tinkerers from their hometown in Bengaluru; Sarah Mao Sai Habib researched ancestral technologies, adobe and indigenous infrastructures in New Mexico; and Linda McIntyre studied three coastal communities in the US to research precarious waterfront infrastructures facing coastal erosion due to climate change. This variety of perspectives made us see the value of extended engagements and of supporting place-based experts to build an agenda on maintenance practices and policies.
The Maintainers Movement Fellowship 2022
The Maintainers Movement Fellowship 2022 was a year-long fellowship that centered on maintenance thinking and action and granted 4 fellow awards. Given the climate crisis, the global pandemic, and the need to advance circular economies, we picked fellows that centered their practices around the connection of maintenance and environment (including built, local, and natural environments). In their self-led projects, they took on projects related to their practices: Maximilian Alvarez centered movement solidarity, particularly centering “essential work” and maintenance labor after the pandemic; Leila Behjat and Sam Bennett took on themes related to repair, design, upkeep, and built environment; Rheanna Chen studied circles of care, tropical fungi and flowers, the importance of rest, as well as the sense of belonging through connection with the earth; and Tona Rodriguez-Nikl explored post-growth in the engineering field as well as the necessity of long-term planning. They took turns sharing their work with the cohort, and leading discussions on their background and ways of knowing.
They all came together for their collective project on “Degrowth”, a term they explored as an answer against wasteful consumerism, accelerating environmental damage, and wild capitalistic growth. Through the concept of degrowth, the fellows explored practices of reciprocity, long-term infrastructures, solidarity, and upkeep. From early on, they understood that degrowth is a contentious term which raised several questions: “Degrowth” for whom, and what systems of power? What about the growth of the self, of the natural world, of the collective power of those most oppressed? However, the group took on the challenge of wrangling the contradictions of the concept.” Ultimately, they developed a composite understanding of degrowth that reflects the group’s exploration of sub-themes such as webs of interbeing, upkeep, and localized environmental practices.
Their findings and reflections can be explored in their virtual Degrowth gallery, as well as explained in their own words at the end-of-year fellowship event, where they also presented the launch of the Degrowth podcast. The objective of their project is to inspire others to explore ways to take a step back and bring “degrowth” principles into their lives and communities.
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After two years of fellowships, we can present a series of learnings and insights from our model:
- The fellowship is meaningfully interdisciplinary. Interdisciplinary work is sometimes at risk of becoming fragmented and discordant, however, the concept of maintenance is so vast that it seems limiting to only look at it from a singular lens. In addition, separating people by fields of expertise can sometimes create detached intellectual bubbles. We believe there is value in putting people together in the same virtual room that would have not shared a space otherwise. While it is initially challenging to find a common language in these cases, once that is generated the work is uniquely creative, original and meaningful.
- Decentralize and distribute research from the Maintainers team/conferences to public programs. While prioritizing maintenance is a fruitful starting point to tackle local challenges, it is understood that each community faces unique challenges (cultural, social, political, environmental…) that are best addressed by local experts. Focusing on place-based work honors the expertise of localized knowledge, as well as the unique history of each community.
- Public communication and education are key to raising more awareness of maintenance practices. Maintenance and repair policies resonate with many because they are practices of common sense (e.g. fix what is broken), but in a world in which attention is constantly split, we need practitioners that truly embody a maintenance-mindset in their approach to work.
- The disposition and character of the fellows is key to the success of the cohort, and our fellowships have become spaces of mutual care, honesty, and support. In each meeting, the fellows acknowledged the stressful times in which we live, as well as the collective burnout due to harsh political, social, and environmental realities, while also cultivating a sense of hope and optimism. Fellows often supported each other and ensured that the spirit of their work was embodied in the way they showed up for their peers, and ensured that there was always space to motivate and support each other.
As fellows move on beyond the fellowship, it makes us so happy to hear how they take on the notions they have explored under The Maintainers, and the ways their ideas have flourished. The majority of them have sought to continue their research, and have expressed their plans to incorporate their work as educators and/or public communicators. There is much work to be done to build better and safer cities, towns, and natural environments, and we are thrilled to share our enthusiasm and optimism with others equally excited about maintenance thinking and action.