Anarchist Youth in Rural Canada: Technology, Resistance, and the Navigation of Space.
While anarchism is (intentionally) difficult to define, it, can be broadly understood as:
a body of political thought that seeks to abolish and challenge rigid hierarchies,... rethink and dismantle capitalist ideological structures, disrupt modes of forced coercion, build a society based on communist aspirations, free people's desires from historically oppressive social norms, and create organic and communal societies based on mutual aid and social justice. (DeLeon 123)
Such anarchist forms of youth activism depend on a transnational and embodied sense of belonging and political resistance (Dunn), which is in this case organized around "rural punk" ideals, a "Do-It-Yourself" (DIY) ethos, and anarchist imaginings of a shared communal goal to enact social change. This belonging is transnational and extranational--in fact, a key part of resisting for anarchist youth is undermining and critiquing national boundaries and borders themselves, as they are deemed intrinsically hierarchical and violent (Cohn). This article borrows a "rural punk" lens to examine how these young people conceptualize their lived activism, described here by a zine writer:
[T]hose folks who have run away from the cities in search of a simpler, saner, and more fulfilling life. All content is written by fellow rural punks and is intended for a rural punk audience. Whether you live in a small town, deep in the bush, on a farm in the prairies, or tucked away in the mountains. Whether you're on grid or off. A vegan gardener or a hunter/trapper. You're a lone wolf or you've got a spouse and kids. As long as you're a punk and you don't live in a city, this magazine is for you. Our definition of punk isn't very strict. As far as this magazine is concerned, if you are living your life in a D.I.Y. way, are battling the status quo, and have some level of disdain for authority you're a fucking punk. (Of course, wearing mostly black and listening to loud aggressive music doesn't hurt.) (Bonegardener)
Along these lines, I argue that the desire for a shared global network of rural punks is a direct (re)action to the current climate within Canada, and broader neo-liberal shifts--a reaction that aims to fight back against the status quo.
I explore how tensions, conflicts, and overlaps between global online spaces (in particular, social media pages, blogs, and online zines) and hyper-local, physical, and rural (or remote) places in Canada were acted on by young people seeking to occupy politically potent liminal or "third space" positions (Bhabha; Milbourne) within these tensions. In opening, constructing, and tinkering with politically charged third spaces, young people regularly referenced the DIY ethos, which has been linked to global uprisings and can be conceptualized as a networked or communal "critical making" (Ratto and Boler), in explaining how they constructed their identities, their media (DIY magazines or zines, etc.), their homes, and their lifestyles. "Tinkering" has also been associated with new, autonomous, subcultural practices (Haring), and is how I came to refer to this critical making, as rural punks referenced it: tinkering is a way of taking pieces (of machinery, of political theory, of art, of the State) that worked for them in one context, leaving the rest, and creating something new (keeping with the anarchist tradition of building new potentials within the "shell of the old" [Graeber]). Tinkering within these third spaces can push political action beyond traditional, fixed nations, creating transnational flows and instances where "hybrid acts... are constantly occurring and new possibilities are constantly revealed, but... the significance of this newness is often overlooked because people usually rely on outdated conservative and traditional principles to understand them" (Donald 539-40). In order to understand the reactive autonomy they wield in today's socially and economically precarious time and place, we must push back against traditional principles that dictate what youth politics should look like and any dominant narratives that frame youth as politically apathetic. The young people in this study saw themselves as having an embodied, "lived," everyday politics, though that looked very different from how many may think of traditional political engagement.
This DIY/tinkering was integral to young people's "anarchist" lives outside urban centres throughout Canada and their communications with one another through self-made print zines and online forums. For young people living rurally, social media and online spaces can allow for social interactions (and experimentation) both locally and across the globe (Burkell and Saginur). These young people were engaged in rethinking, reformatting, and tinkering with dichotomies such as urban and rural, online and offline, local and global; they spoke of a desire to create a politically potent continuum of spaces for themselves which was at once autonomous, intentionally communal, and Do-It-Yourself (DIY). Through tapping into online connections, they not only created an "imagined community" (Anderson) of other rural punks throughout the country and internationally--carving out space for this particular form of resistance--but placed themselves into flows of "imagined transnationalism" (Concannon et al.). This positioning holds complex ties to physical space and is "centrally about people being 'in touch,' about negotiation and dialogue" (Concannon et al. 5) within a network of young people carrying out similar forms of activism--whether demonstrations/protests, political blogs, or more "lived activism," where youth rejected particular forms of consumption/participation in social norms, across time and space. These youth built online ties and relationships with other punks in the US, South America, and Europe, but also identified with anarchists throughout history, from the Spanish Civil War to those (often, peers) who took part in the #Occupy movement.
Anarchism has deep roots in these transnational imaginaries. As a "massively transnational, migratory phenomenon, the anarchist movement fails to comply with the compartmentalization of knowledge..." (Cohn 22), but rather lends itself to emergent, fluid, and adaptable actions and ideologies that can be useful in different and shifting global contexts. This can be seen in analyses of Italian anarchist exiles in the early 1900s (Di Paola; Turcato), as well as historical (and current) tropes of the anarchist "nomad (fugitive, exile, immigrant)" (Cohn 189) that destabilizes fixed notions of identity and space. These historical and imaginary figures--who exist fluidly within transnational histories--help to bring attention to the porousness and (often violent) construction of national boundaries that anarchists aim to dismantle. As Pietro Di Paola argues, this transnationalism must also remember the nation and the land, that it is "necessary to shift between a transnational perspective and the national, and trans-local, dimensions" (Di Paola 178; emphasis added) of the anarchist movement. For the young people in this study, the spaces of interaction between rural homesteads and transnational anarchist actions are highly impactful and provide important opportunities for political change.
This ethnographic research consisted of a series of semi-structured interviews and participant observation with seven individuals, who were preparing to leave or had eschewed urban living to live in different locations across rural and remote parts of Canada. Of the seven, five were youth (between the ages of sixteen and twenty-nine), while two were over the age of thirty-five. Here, I hope to focus on these five young people, who had made the move to rural and remote parts of Canada, and the political and personal reasons they attribute to this shift. Within this study, participants were primarily white (four of five young participants), and one of Indigenous (Cree) and white ancestry. This overrepresentation of white participants may be attributed to both recruitment techniques (discussed below) and the overall demographics of this group. (1)
Two respondents identified as male, one respondent identified as female, and two as gender non-binary. Four of the respondents disclosed that they had experienced housing precarity or homelessness before or after relocating rurally, though this was not asked of participants. Three of the respondents had grown up in rural or remote locations of Canada (see table 1).
Interviews with the five youth (names used here are pseudonyms) lasted between 30 and 90 minutes and were conducted in accordance with and approval from York University's Ethics Review Board. With participants' informed consent, each interview was recorded and transcribed. Participant observation occurred over the course of six months, whether physically at two rural sites or by "hanging out" (Geertz) at the homes of individuals, or online while taking part in conversations on message boards, blogs, and social media pages. (2) Based on broad key themes, I organized text and transcript data from interviews, my field notes from hanging out, and content from online forums that was posted publicly (i.e., in a zine, blog, or website without a member login [Kurtz et al.; Postill]). I also subscribed to "rural punk" zines targeting and written by rural punks, reading through issues and articles to compare and contrast what participants were saying.
In terms of recruitment, I initially reached out within my personal network and social media, and four of the five respondents agreed to meet me through snowball sampling in this fashion, while one respondent agreed to meet for an interview after chatting online about an article he had written for a zine. All five respondents interacted with me online at some point before the interviews, which meant participants not only had access to the internet and technology, but had the know-how to use them (Hargittai). Some of them met me in cities, some were living in urban environments at the time of the interviews, and others welcomed me into their rural homes. While rural locations were emphasized as the ideal place to live within this "scene," urban centres were often sites of importance for people--many of the interviews I carried out took place in urban centres close to my own home, where I was lucky to catch individuals "travelling through." I believe that these spaces of "travelling" were often optimal for understanding the aforementioned fluidity that transnational and "nomadic" (Cohn 189) anarchism takes on--our discussions often occurred at liminal points, linking into these politically potent third spaces (Milbourne), for example when people were returning to the city to look for work during the winter.
Finally, while I did not ask initially about housing precarity or homelessness, as I noticed this emergent theme in interviews, I encouraged participants to talk about it as it came up. Homelessness became a focus of my analysis because a significant number of participants had experienced homelessness at some point and because it informed their politics, desire for autonomy, engagement in DIY modes of living, and moves outside urban centres (which were seen as competitive in terms of work, housing, etc.). The general perception was that in the midst of capitalist, competitive, and neo-liberal pressures (Harvey; Jenson) which led to housing precarity, the State failed to provide any useful support. Indeed, the State was often seen as contributing to the precarity of their existence. Thus, much of the anarchist and political sentiment was intimately tied to strong feelings of frustration with a State-run system that failed (and continues to fail) these young people at their most marginalized.
The DIY Ethos: Tinkering with the Shell of the Old
The DIY ethos is inherent in how these individuals actively create new spaces through zines, self-made websites, and the sharing of resources, in opposition to dominant capitalist spaces. DIY can be understood as practices "wherein participants avoid the ethico-political compromise of participation in institutions and practices they consider as exploitative, doing as much as possible themselves, according to an autonomous anarchist ethos" (Nicholas 1). Through DIY re-imaginings of the meaning of place, rurality, and community, particularly within a "punk" or activist ethos, these individuals make room for themselves (Thompson) outside systems and spaces they see as marginalizing themselves and others. Each individual discussed the move to rural living as an intensely political choice. They often had ambivalent feelings about the role of technology in maintaining that choice (for example, through combatting isolation, creating support systems/community, and enabling skill-sharing). The research participants wanted to create--through digital technology and based on utopian ideas about nature, inclusion, mutual aid, "freedom," and DIY ethics--a space which is simultaneously intensely localized (in physical dwellings, farming/gardening, etc.) and tapped into a global network (of connected social media accounts, crowdsourcing funds, sharing art, and maintenance of online zines). While the young people sought a fiercely local positioning of these networks and efforts, an imagined community of other rural punks also exists on a global, transnational scale, with ties that are made possible (and continuously maintained and remade) through online texts and communication.
Our conversations with the research participants were littered with dichotomized discussions of space and other concepts. However, an analysis of these divisions revealed that no real dichotomy exists (in the "out there") between many of these seemingly opposing spaces--rural/urban, online/offline, political/apolitical, community/isolation, global/local. Rather, these designations, however they may have been conceptualized, were fluid, and often simultaneously present in the lives of these youth. While every young person I spoke with discussed these binaries, it became clear that even for those who imagine these spaces as separate, the dividing lines become blurred and shift, often purposefully and politically. When initially undertaking this research, I quickly noticed that many of the urban activists, anarchists, and travellers I wished to speak with (about anarchism more broadly), had relocated to rural environments in the past several years and were using online resources to keep in touch with scattered individuals who had undertaken the same movement outside cities. As a result, two circumstances became the major focuses of my research: the movement of urban "punks" or anarchists (many of whom lived in precarious spaces in urban environments) to isolated rural locations and their use of new media and technology to connect. While the two elements--relocating to rural spaces and using digital technology--seem to coincide in incidental ways, young people emphasized that they consciously use new technologies to create new, politically charged and highly liminal spaces in which (often) socially marginalized youth can exist in a type of fetishized rural past (of simple farmers, labourers, etc. [Cohn]) within an increasingly transnational and global social and economic climate.
In my attempts to theorize the social organization of these young people, I wished, as any anthropologist might, to find unifying factors which led them to be a "community" that could be identified. Because of the fluidity and "tinkering" that characterized so many of their activities and ideologies, this was difficult to achieve. Drawing on the concept of "local, translocal, and virtual" scenes (Peterson and Bennett), and particularly punk scenes as theorized by Ondrej Cisar and Martin Koubek, I traced the makeup of this group as directly linked to early DIY, punk organizing. These particular imaginings of a "scene" or "informal assemblage" (Peterson and Bennett) of modes of belonging allowed for the fluidity of membership required to take part in this "imagined community" (Anderson). Most important, Cisar and Koubek's "scene" is a dynamic term, and "cannot be viewed as a compact unit with clear connections to the political activities of other social formations, such as social movements" (1) but wherein "both the political and cultural elements complement one another in various configurations, thus creating a discursive space in which the characteristics and focus vary depending on the outside environment and circumstances in which the scene developed" (2). This is not a social movement; it is not activism (though it is not not activism), but rather something else: an embodied and intentional reaction. A reaction to precarity--housing precarity, economic precarity, social precarity--a political reaction to a precarious future, imagined within the global arena, a response that is adaptable, malleable, and discursive because it must be. Ultimately, the ways of life described by these young people spoke to both survival (in an uncertain, unstable present) and reimagining (something new and different in an anarchist future). This reaction is lived every day (in the food they grow, in the texts they create, in the connections they maintain on a global scale), and is a primary driver of how rural space becomes intentionally involved in this creation of embodied political possibility and resistance.
So, in imagining this scene of young people as a reaction, we can position their politics within the broader pressures and forces that youth are facing today. According to the last national census, 34.7% of youth were living with at least one parent, with that number reaching as high as 47.4% in urban centres such as Toronto (Statistics Canada). This statistic can be linked to the global drawback of secure, full-time employment, as well as increasingly neo-liberal policy measures (Downing). An increase in credentialism and situations in which a university education is often a requirement to secure stable, full-time employment (Green and Townsend) contribute to the precarious economic realities these young people described as creating a ripple effect throughout their lives. These realities affect young people throughout Canada, but particularly intersect with issues of race, gender, ability, class, and sexuality, which increase the effects of marginalization (Nichols; Nichols and Malenfant). For many of the youth in this paper these national economic shifts are relevant, as experiences with irregular and unreliable employment were compounded with housing precarity, struggles with mental health issues, addiction, and poverty. These barriers, as well as the frustrations the young people described with the "rat race"--high rents, unreliable wage labour, and unsatisfying work (when they were able to find it)--led to the desire to carve out spaces where they could feel autonomous, self-reliant, and tapped into a community of support and activism. While leaving urban centres contributed to feelings of escape and empowerment, it also led to isolation and a lack of support systems. To combat this, zines and other texts were mobilized (online and offline) to support connections with other young people in a variety of transnational contexts who were experiencing similar feelings of frustration. These texts linked individuals to continue to collectively fight against the systems they were trying to escape.
Another factor that ties these youth to both the temporal and physical transnational communities is the anarchist nature of their strategies, aesthetics, tactics, and ideologies. Jesse Cohn compiled the history of "anarchist resistance culture," a resource that helps to contextualize how they positioned themselves within a global history of anarchist action. Cohn uses a variety of texts dating from 1848 to 2011 to piece together a rough timeline tying some of the anarchist movements globally, particularly in regard to their links to print culture. His definitions of anarchism, while (intentionally) loose, explore anarchism as "'a way of life' rather than specific 'works and practices"" (Cohn 6), and suggest how this group fits into a historical linking of anarchism with rural, self-sufficient individuals and groups. Cohn's ideas further reinforce the ways young people in this study juxtapose themselves against an "urban," often colonial opposition (Cohn 72). Cohn traces this historical line of anarchist thought through the imagery, narratives, and manifestos of these youth, including the aesthetics of pastoral scenes, scythes, tractors, simple clothing, and DIY modifications and restorations. However, what is interesting in thinking of this group of young people on a transnational level is how this bucolic ideal is sewn together with pieces of twenty-first century social media and online spaces, making a global network that is tied to rural places--which would otherwise be impossible, given the vast amount of physical space between individuals.
Each individual I met had lived in both rural areas and cities around Canada, often travelling between the two throughout their lives with mixed experiences. While circumstances had led some individuals to return to urban environments (often to make cash to support their rural living), the idea of rural living remained key to their ideas about transforming the political climate within the transnational imaginaries of the nomad or rural anarchist (Cohn). Their trajectories often included an initial move from rural childhood homes to urban environments in order to seek out like-minded individuals (whether musically, socially, or politically) but eventually resulted in a rejection of these communities, for a variety of reasons. Often, these individuals lived in squats, on streets, or in parks while they were in urban centres. Jazz, Conan, and Harlow had all experienced living rough on the streets of either Toronto or Vancouver. Again, these experiences speak to this "scene" and its imaginings of alternative futures as a reaction to the economic, political, and social precarity youth are experiencing more broadly, but also in the very real, and lived, day-to-day precarity that these youth have attempted to navigate by moving to rural spaces.
Getting Out of the City: Survival, Everyday Activism and Decisions to Move "to the Boonies"
While viewing these online/offline (rural/urban) third spaces as stemming from reactions to precarity, as well as survival within these political and economic climates, I hope also to emphasize the autonomy and political resistance present in the decision to move to a rural area. Looking at the urban/rural continuum on which these individuals place their experiences is key to understanding how these youth are constantly navigating and tinkering with the places within which they exist. It is also important to understand how texts and online spaces support the global scale and movement of ideas, art, and political action for those who are relocating to a rural environment, allowing for anarchist youth who are "rooted in specific... contexts, but who engage in contentious political activities that involve them in transnational networks of contacts and conflicts" (Tarrow 29). In this section, I look at how different individuals came to rural spaces and at their relationships with cities--connections that are often seen as linked to their own survival, whether in securing shelter and stability, managing issues relating to mental health, or mitigating the burnout from activist work. Finally, many young people found pride in doing work that they saw as closer to their own politics, including growing their own food, building shelter, and other aspects of rural living.
Conan told me he had lived in many places around Canada. He spent his childhood and early teens living outside a small town in central Ontario with his parents and sister. Conan remembers "romanticizing the city," eventually moving there on his own as a young teenager. During that time, he remembered having to hitchhike to the small town nearby in order to try to find friends with similar interests. He says:
There was the farm across the road, and a forty-minute walk to the closest store, I had to hitchhike to get to the nearest town, which could take hours depending on how lucky I got. After a while I wanted to find other people like me, I was sick of the same jocks I saw at my high school every day, and if I went into the city I could find other punks, and we would just hang around. You read books you know [about the city], for sure I romanticized the city, and that definitely added to the choice of heading there. It made me realize that there was more out there to talk about, to do.
Soon after, Conan moved south to Toronto, because of frustration with a violent family life and the isolated location of the home. While he was anxious and excited to try "city living"--creating his own space in a new urban environment--he did not have a home to stay in and quickly found himself living in the "streets, parks, cubbyholes and squats" of the city.
Addiction became a problem for Conan while he was living on the streets of Toronto, and it contributed to his eventual decision to return to rural living (he joined a commune in northern Quebec). Like other study participants, he contrasted urban relationships with rural ones, stating that it was more difficult to connect to a social or political scene in the city: "It was very... is that the word? Cold? You know, it's actually hard for human contact, or to meet like-minded people, everyone's closed. They're stuck in their own circles, and maybe not accepting to invite you in, or it's harder to meet them, to be invited in." Like others, Conan framed many of the differences between urban and rural living in terms of survival and saw both similarities and differences between survival on the streets and in the "bush":
The amount of work--hard work--living out there, in the woods, it's every day. But I guess it was like that on the streets as well, you kind of do worry about where you're getting your food, and your shelter, and depending on what the weather's like what kind of shelter that would need to be--do you need to warm up, or cool off, it's all very relevant to everyday living in both places.
This juxtaposition was very clear in Conan's story: when he referred to hardships he experienced in northern Quebec, he almost always compared them to similar circumstances on the streets of Toronto. Conan saw living in the city as incorporating different kinds of work. In the city, "everything's there for you--you just have to find it rather than work for it, you don't have to produce as much." In this conversation, he referred to dumpster diving, panhandling, squeegeeing, and other survival techniques. He also saw his own politics as being different in the city and the "boonies": in rural locations, he felt, his politics in general seemed more "passive, more like civil disobedience." "You're not in the face of it, but it's probably closer to the belief, like it's more personal activism, rather than being on the front lines in the city in a protest."
Terrence, a gender non-binary youth, also perceived their own activist work outside the city differently. They described themselves as being "way more immersed in the radical community in Toronto" and spending more time "doing physical activism," including student protests and involvement in action surrounding the 2013 homeless shelter crisis. For Terrence, involvement in the "radical" community as well, as "physical activism," involved actions taking place offline, in protests, demonstrations and the occupation of physical space; Terrence associated these acts with urban environments. In their rural home, they used social media to maintain links to activists in Toronto. Terrence's new, rural community did not necessarily fit with the types of "physical activism" they were used to, and was not only smaller but had a more "laid-back" political scene. While they saw this shift as perhaps changing their activism and the way they expressed themselves, they still saw themselves as having "good politics." Of the young people I interviewed, Terrence was the one whose decision to move to a rural space was most closely linked to their own physical and mental well-being, and they saw their anarchist political positioning as fairly consistent throughout the spaces they occupied. This was one reason Terrence described intentionally using online spaces to connect with other activists, who may not have been able to carry out what they called "physical activism" due to location, access, or disability.
Work, Money, and the Rat Race
All the young people discussed work extensively--whether survival work, waged work, or activist work. They saw waged work as filling a particular role within conceptions of global capitalist systems of exploitation, and money as an unfortunate necessity that allowed the possibility (or creation) of other, ideal activities. Each youth said that primary goals were to avoid having to use money as much as possible and to try to escape the urban/capitalist environment. "Placing dollar signs" on everything from goods to people was perhaps the most-discussed reason for leaving the city, where commodification lead to feelings of alienation, depression, and anger. In particular, many saw waged work as commodifying themselves, whereas the work they did on their properties in rural areas was seen as linked to their own survival, pride, and well-being. As individuals like Adam, Jazz, and Conan (along with many contributors to the zines and social media pages I frequented) acknowledged, money was rarely totally eliminated from their way of living. However, a greater reliance on their own skills to find food, build shelter, rely on nearby neighbours and community members (whether in their physical area or in online networks), and access online resources all contributed not only to a lifestyle which they saw as more in line with their politics, but also to their overall satisfaction and happiness.
Thus, these different types of work were related not only to money and activism, but also to personal well-being and affective motivations that drove young people outside cities in the first place. In addition to being able to rely less on cash (since acquiring more and more skills to sustain his lifestyle in the "bush"), Conan also opened up about how satisfaction and pleasure were huge motivators for him to get away from urban living and to make things for himself and others near him. Conan often used YouTube videos, zines, blogs, or other online tools that helped him build a base of survival skills for rural living. While social movements that are taken up online do not necessarily become transnational or global through their digitizing, Conan's interactions with these online tools and texts helped him to "embrace transnational commitments without abandoning... domestic claims" (Tarrow 139) and connect his personal and everyday activism with broader global issues. While Conan often stressed survival as the reality of his day-to-day life--both on the streets in Toronto and otherwise--this idea of personal satisfaction and accomplishment, as well as being part of a global political effort to affect social change, pointed to a more complex understanding of "survival" in his choice to live in his rural home.
Motivations for moving to rural spaces were not always tied to an individual's history of precarious living or living in poverty. For two of the participants, dissatisfaction with middle-class families in suburbia and social expectations that did not correspond to their own politics or values led to their move into these new spaces (which at times, led to precarious living elsewhere). While these participants still linked their decisions to broader societal systems of exploitation and inequality within global capitalism, they saw their own suburban lives as directly contributing to the suffering of others and the maintenance of these systems. Harlow, a twenty-three-year-old woman from a suburb in the Greater Toronto Area, saw this as her prime driver in travelling to live rurally. She described a feeling of "claustrophobia," particularly when returning to visit her parents after time spent living in an orchard in British Columbia: "I look across the street and I can see another house that looks exactly like mine. I can walk forty-five minutes and still see another house that looks exactly the fuck like mine. And I hated it, I wanted to be able to see the ocean, and the mountains, that fresh air." This brings up the divides which these young people made in their own experiences of space, and the markers associated with them--rather than identical houses on suburban streets, Harlow wished to place herself among mountains and fresh air, a place she divided from her childhood suburban home entirely. While she recognized that many of the same systems could be found in rural environments (e.g., in work she had done tree-planting to make some cash), she saw them as easier to work around.
Another young person, Jazz, came from a middle-class, sub/urban environment, eventually attending university in a smaller city for four years. They had been splitting their time between living in a handful of communal rural areas in British Columbia, doing piecework along the way, and occasional spurts living in hostels and sleeping in parks in urban centres. At the time we spoke, they had returned to spend the winter in a small city in Ontario. Like Conan, they saw survival as being different in urban environments and rural spaces:
I think in the street it's more of a dehumanizing experience, or it can be for me, and survival in the bush is a more empowering, "fuck yeah!" experience--eating wild game, fishing for yourself, and it tastes so much better, you're not bored sitting around, if you're on the street I feel like there's a lot of sitting around, and you just look at the people looking at you, judging you.
Jazz also thought of "the bush" as allowing them to feel more safe when they were alone, remembering sleeping in parks in the city and feeling afraid that someone would come--either a police officer to arrest them, or someone who would assault or rob them: "In the bush the biggest thing you have to be scared of is a bear, or a coyote, but I feel like that's almost more predictable than it is on the streets of a city." They saw being "placeless in nature" as allowing for less judgment, for not adhering to what was expected of them by their middle-class family. Jazz communicated clearly that they saw their way of life as attempting to contribute "as little as possible" to capitalism and systems of oppression that they associated with it. Finally, as anarchists and activists, many young people described moving to rural environments as linked to feelings of burnout from carrying out activist work in the city: demonstrations, protests, and organizing. Many described frustration with seeing large political actions yield few or no results outside their own social groups. This was often an initial driver for them to participate in online zines or more widespread global activist efforts--wherein "daily claims of ordinary people" can contribute to "transnational coalitions... for change" (Tarrow 140). Terrence in particular pointed to the need to rethink what activism can look like, and explained their own shift from a "physical activism" to a more personal and individual politics, something they saw as linked to ability and mental health:
I've definitely noticed it takes a toll, [compared to what I was doing a year ago], it may be less political--though still very political because that never leaves you--but more focused on my own mental health as opposed to in Toronto, activism and politics were very much the forefront of my everyday life. Here I have the privilege to step back and focus on myself, which I think is really important, but maybe affects how I relate to the radical community in social settings a bit more.
This ties in with overall discussions of mental wellness in experiences of urban and rural spaces, as well as the utility of online spaces in maintaining some of these connections, which may otherwise have been lost upon leaving the city.
Jazz also pointed to their mental health as a reason they wanted to live rurally, and explained that rejecting societal expectations was an important factor in their decision to leave the city:
I'm surrounded by concrete structures, and it's like I can tell, the moment I get to B.C. and I see the Rockies and nature and the beautiful world around us I'm so much happier, it's uncontrollable. My mood goes up, I'm happier, I'm healthier, I'm cleaner--even if I'm not showering at all--it's just so much better. There's something about knowing at any point that you can escape, because in an urban society you're not expected to ever escape. We're expected to consistently be living like this, working in an office, taking the subway downtown, going home, that's it... it's overwhelming, especially for someone with depression.
Like Terrence, Jazz saw a huge divide in terms of politics and their own mental health between the experiences of living in a rural environment and a city. Technology allowed these two individuals to live outside cities but still feel connected to an urban "radical" activist scene, whether in nearby cities or cities worldwide. Within these feelings of connectedness and a more "lived" activism, youth reinforced the ideas of the porousness and constructed nature of national boundaries in dividing those who hope to make real social change, and mobilized zines and texts to bolster transnational relationships.
Rural Navigations of Technology: DIY Texts and Sharing across Space and Time
For some research participants, technology allowed for the move to rural locations, which would otherwise be unrealistic, by allowing relationships (social, professional, activist) to be maintained over vast distances. Like others, Adam described his move (from Vancouver to a piece of land in Prince Edward Island) as stemming from his and his partner's wish to find work that was less based in a cash economy and more directly related to their own everyday survival, something he saw as less to do with self-sufficiency and more to do with "community-dependent" living. They wished to cut themselves off from the humdrum of working in the city and aimed to integrate into a group which could rely on symbiotic relationships and sharing information, ideas, and goods for everyone's benefit. Adam relied heavily on reading articles within online communities (with print equivalents) and using online spaces to ask for and find advice and tutorials. This desire to DIT (Do-it-Together, rather than Do-it-Yourself) is echoed in other participants' stories of establishing or joining communes outside the city, mailing groups, and zines (with mixed results); it brings us to the intentional use of technology in forms of activism that have historically been associated with a rejection of new technology (e.g., back-to-the-landers [Jacob]). While activists and anarchists have attempted to move (or stay) out of the cities at many points in history (Cohn) (and those online have certainly been involved in activism [Juris; Kelty]) the integration of digital technology into these anarchist, rural spaces provides interesting possibilities for the construction of unique "tinkered" political spaces in a way which would not have been possible in very recent history, and may continue to flourish as online spaces increasingly (3) reach outside urban centres.
In general, the internet was thought of as a tool for getting around, sharing, connecting with others, or engaging in like-minded online groups. Jazz described how the internet could be used for different things depending on their situation at the time. "The internet--I guess it's such a quick thing to assume the internet is Facebook and social media, but using the internet in other ways, we were using it a lot for couch-surfing, which is to find places to sleep." In this case, "couch-surfing" sites (e.g., couchsurfing.com) may be seen as a point in which the online and offline are highly integrated--online access translates into housing (often temporary) and networking "in real life." The prevalence and (relative) affordability of smart phones allowed many to use these types of resources while travelling and in a variety of contexts. Jazz described online sources of "couch-surfing," along with social media sites such as Facebook, that allowed them to access a community of both known and unknown peers in order to secure shelter at various points, particularly if they had to return to the city. They also emphasized the communal and social aspect of this practice, seeing it as a creation of a network of known global peers. In this sense, by using these ways to secure shelter (when returning to the city, when travelling) Jazz saw themselves as creating a new addition to their personal network and creating contacts in an urban centre near them to increase their support system, politically and socially.
One use for the internet that Jazz described as being more relevant for them in "the bush" was reading political literature. Literature, particularly blogs, articles, and anarchist works provided free of charge and through open-access channels, was seen as a huge benefit of being able to access online spaces. Like Adam and Conan, who used online tutorials and resources to learn new skills, Jazz found themselves seeking solitude in order to read articles and books online, as well as blogs written about anarchist thinking and actions. Without having to carry around physical volumes, Jazz could access a huge body of work on their smart phone:
I read a lot of anarchist literature, I read this Anarchy Works (Gelderloos)--I spent hours in a tent reading that--it was awesome because it was cool to be living in a place where I felt like I was actually somewhat resisting in a way, whereas when I'm reading anarchist literature in my rented home, with my landlord, it's kind of absurd.
Jazz saw a lack of alignment in reading and investing in anarchist ideology while renting apartments from landlords in the city, while believing that moving rurally brought them closer to a "real" form of lived anarchy (though, as mentioned, this was not without compromises).
Like Jazz, Terrence saw a place for the internet in their activism, in particular with issues of accessibility--both due to physical barriers and geographical distance:
The internet is such a useful tool for people in radical communities who want to do activism and things like that. It's a whole other form, it connects you with other radicals across the world where there wasn't previously a connection that could be made. I think that's really important for sharing ideas and constructive criticism within the movement, or various movements that come out of radical politics.
In addition to those who are not able to (or choose not to) live in or travel to urban centres for events, Terrence found the internet to be an excellent resource for those who were physically, or otherwise, unable to attend these events. They described the internet as
a resource for people who were previously unable to make it to anarchist book fairs or bookstores, who are now able to sit at home and read the anarchist library, read articles about different activism and things that are happening all over the world. Information available to everyone, or at least more people than just those who can travel and tour.
Terrence also described the freedom of movement that this facilitated. "If I ever go to California, B.C., Portland... I have connections there that I wouldn't have if it wasn't for the radical community that congregates online." Terrence saw the internet as being a way to connect with "the radical community" in a way that "caters to me and my disabilities and those of other radicals in the community so we are constantly sharing ideas and discussing even if I'm not physically or mentally able to [be present]." This allowed Terrence to occupy their home in rural Canada, which they saw as integral to their own wellness, while still being part of this scene.
Like Jazz, Terrence used social media sites (Tumblr, etc.) to keep in touch with the "scene" in the city as well as other "transient and travelling people."
It keeps me in touch with bands and other radicals in Toronto, but also, when I was in B.C. last summer--I can keep in touch with people I've met everywhere, even people from the States or overseas, that I've met via discussions online, and I can keep an open dialogue with them. It works with everything, bouncing political ideas off each other, organizing--if I were to go on tour I would have infinite access to all of these people who I know are solid, political people--it makes travelling and getting together in the radical community way easier. Most of these people I wouldn't even know, I wouldn't be able to meet or get in touch with without the internet.
Terrence used these online connections not only to navigate radical communities "across the world" but also to share their art and music, something they held very close to their own personal politics. In addition to sharing ideas, they also expressed satisfaction in being able to share their own music and merchandise--DIY recordings of songs, cloth patches, art pieces, and clothing--throughout Canada, in the US, and as far as the UK. They said that many of the buyers who purchased these items did so as an act of solidarity and mutual aid for a fellow activist who was trying to make cash.
Ultimately Terrence described the internet as a tool which was changing the way radical communities could exist "in the world," following recent research that suggests the possibility digital spaces hold for "new transnational activism" (Tarrow). For Terrence, this especially allowed individuals to find people who were more closely aligned with their personal politics than those in their limited physical area: "I think that the internet is one of the greatest things to happen to the radical community because of the connections we can now make. Of course all of these things can be used for bad but can also be used for a lot of good." Terrence saw technology as a way of using the tools of dominant society to support a counter-movement, explaining: "all you need is a free Wi-Fi connection at a Tim Horton's and you can sell your art online. I have friends who sell art and live out of their cars, friends who tour cross country and play, sell art, trade and share information and they support themselves." While Jazz described the community-building capacity of the internet through practices such as couch-surfing or social media, Terrence spoke of modes of maintaining what they saw as a "safe space" among fellow radicals across Canada in the form of "public-service announcements" about "abusers or those who have sexually assaulted within the community." Terrence saw these announcements--often posted on social media sites Tumblr or Facebook--as vital to the most marginalized members of the "scene":
They're super-important in terms of queer people and radicals in the community, and knowing who these people are when previously they could just hide under the guise of going to another city, a small town... now we can know, try to keep the scene safe worldwide, with just the touch of a button.
One editor in a zine discusses the age group associated with a more widespread use of technology, something I believe is key to understanding the tensions between technology (and these young people use it) and more traditional activism in moves to rural areas (back-to-the land movements, etc.). She argues that it is "important to realize that folks my age (I'm 28) were the first generation to really grow up with the internet" (Bonegardener). She also explains that the only way many people her age know how to do particular tasks is through incorporating newer forms of technology. In creating the zine, she explains that she wouldn't know how to carry out the organization and layout without using some digital technology:
While part of me hates myself for admitting that, I also know that in order to successfully communicate in the world I need to play their game. I need to not be so hard on myself for having a cellphone in this day and age, as long as I'm not an obnoxious douchebag with it. (Bonegardener)
This echoes other concerns about technology use, both with cellphones and the internet: technology is often seen as something to be used with moderation and integrated in a more widespread anarchist ideology. Really, these young people present technology as an almost inevitable aspect of today's social reality, particularly in creating and maintaining a political/sense of community.
Although some people described technologies such as the internet as an "evil cast upon our world" that we have to learn to use in particular ways, Terrence saw it as a "pertinent tool to the movement... anything can be used for evil, but I think it's doing a lot of good in connecting and sharing ideas to so many people." While Terrence recognized that this conception of access was particular to certain individuals in Canadian (or Western) culture and those privileged with the ability to access the internet, they did see it as something which could be beneficial to those who were otherwise unable to participate in a community of anarchists or be part of a "movement."
Even within the experiences of those interviewed here, over their time moving to more rural locations, their access to technology changed and was often something unpredictable and sporadic, though still necessary for their involvement in "the scene."
Over fifteen years ago, Walter P. Zenner predicted that the internet would present a third point of commerce and would make distinctions between "urban" and "rural" irrelevant (53). Arguably, the internet provides a way to bridge these divides in new and unique ways, and to transfer typically offline modes of survival and sharing of resources to online spaces. It is important in analyzing these distinctions to recall who has (and who is excluded from) access to these online spaces (Hargittai). While many youth may have opted to use free Wi-Fi and other affordable options when possible, they often had semi-reliable access to internet where they lived or nearby. This spotty access led to online relationships threaded throughout different platforms, to which people with different levels of access and digital literacies could engage. For example, an offline zine mailed twice a year to members also has an email list, a website, a Facebook page, and an Instagram account, and members can choose to participate in any or all of these formats. On a social media page are links to other associated music distributors; artists; advice sites on gardening, cooking, poetry, etc.; and offline prints. Blogs also reference one another globally, and almost always include indicators of offline activities in particular physical spaces, as well as the ties between these spaces. Sites are generally ways to share information, techniques, experiences, and art created offline and shared through online forums. Referencing offline activities in these online forums seems to be a useful tool for individuals, collectives, and publications to ground this movement not only in physical space, but in concrete activist or anarchist-oriented direct actions.
Terrence's idea that the internet allows "information to be available to everyone," though problematized, presupposes that everyone is able to afford and access online spaces in similar ways. While increasing research is available on the idea of the digital divide (Hargittai; Middleton and Sorensen), it is still important to acknowledge that this is part of a larger system of inequality globally. Many barriers to access to digital technologies exist in remote locations and for reasons linked to income and knowledge. In Canada, despite some barriers, access has been steadily increasing in many populations over the past two decades, with internet and cellphones becoming more widely available and more affordable (Sciadas). Young people in this study often described receiving second-hand phones from friends and, when possible, used physical spaces with free Wi-Fi. With increasingly affordable access to the internet and technologies, these types of hybrid spaces for young people, which hold new possibilities for political discussion, sharing, and the anarchist everyday, are likely to start changing the ways we have historically created these boundaries. However, it is not a given that new forms of technology will lead to these kinds of transnational forms of activism (Tarrow; Dahlburg-Grundburg et al.), and we must pay attention to how young people are intentionally using these spaces to create sites of politically potent points of connection.
Since carrying out this research, I have seen a shift to a greater integration of digital technology into the lives of young people. Schools and other institutions serving youth are increasingly having to navigate the integration of digital technologies and social media (boyd; Ito et al.). While there are certainly still barriers to digital access--particularly across socio-economic lines--it is impossible to deny the greater role online spaces play in the day-to-day lives of youth. This changes how young people engage in politics--perhaps in ways that do not necessarily look like traditional politics. Indeed, many of the young people described above saw little or no distinction between their political and private lives. Whether they understood the activity as political or not, they were intentionally shaping, tinkering, and shifting the spaces and networks they participated in, created, and maintained based on political beliefs and critiques of the status quo.
For the young people I worked with in this research, the conceptualization of "everyday" politics was connected to their identifying as anarchist--since anarchist politics call for a lived political movement which is embodied daily. This may be increasingly how young people are to engage politically. In highly performative spaces, such as those created (zines, DIY blogs) or contributed to (social media sites) by youth in this study, shared texts are often highly curated and intentionally political. Through regular references to offline life, these individuals increasingly tinkered with boundaries: offline space was delineated from, then immediately brought into online forums. Whether or not these young individuals always thought of themselves as political (often they did, and articulated their politics very intentionally), they took on anarchist political stances and presented imperatives to name and resist systems of global, societal exclusion.
While this rural anarchist "scene" is clearly linked to global movements and activism that occurred well before the advent of digital technology as we know it today (including early transnational anarchist exiles [Di Paola], punks [Cisar and Koubek] and back-to-the-landers [Jacob]), there is something unique in how youth described social media and technology as facilitating a sense of community, pushing forward political actions, and providing access to information that supported their moves outside cities. Social media, while not the cause of new transnational flows of activism, can certainly "make the diffusion of information easier" and support the connection of actors who were "never before interconnected" (Dahlberg-Grundberg et al.), to support new dialogues between the rooted local and the global "scene." It is worth stressing a final time that these young people are anything but victims of transnational forces--they use, manipulate, and tinker with spaces both online and offline to survive, communicate, and act for embodied, socially just change.
Some aspects of this research could have been explored in more detail. This study would significantly benefit from a broadened demographic of young people. It would also have been beneficial to explore further the socio-economic and cultural history of these youth. While references to indigeneity, colonialism, and discussions of land (especially in rural and remote parts of the country) were present in the data, these came primarily from a settler perspective. In my current research, I am focusing more closely on issues of identity within Canadian youth--particularly issues of race, class, gender and sexuality. I think exploring how youth are experiencing our current climate, and in particular how the neo-liberal shifts mentioned above impact some youth much more severely than others, is integral to understanding young people's political autonomy today. Ultimately, young people themselves are experts in how they are experiencing this political climate, as well as how they are mobilizing, resisting, and being activists.
This research was supported by a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council Canadian Graduate Scholarship.
(1) For discussions of whiteness and punk, see Schilt; Duncombe and Tremblay; and especially Nomous.
(2) For an in-depth discussion of the ethics and methodological implications of ethnography in these spaces, see Kurtz et al.
(3) It is important to note that the way content and use is moderated also depends on the ways internet companies, search engines, and other access points curate, omit, and highlight particular online content (Hargittai;), something which has traditionally been a hot issue for online activists (Coleman; Kelty).
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Jayne Malenfant is from Kapuskasing, Ontario and is a Ph.D. candidate at McGill University in the Department of Integrated Studies in Education. She is a 2018 Pierre Elliott Trudeau Scholar and a Vanier Scholar. Her work focuses on educational access for youth experiencing homelessness, as well as youth autonomy and activism.
Table 1: Demographics of participants ages 16-29 (Youth) Harlow Conan Terrence Jazz Gender Female Male Non-Binary Non-Binary (She/Her) (He/Him) (They/Them) (They/Them) Ethnicity White White White White Grew Up Rurally No Yes Yes No Living Rurally during No Yes Yes No Data Collection Experienced Housing Yes Yes Yes Yes Precarity/Homelessness Adam Gender Male (He/Him) Ethnicity White/Indigenous (Cree) Grew Up Rurally Yes Living Rurally during No Data Collection Experienced Housing Not Discussed Precarity/Homelessness
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|Publication:||Jeunesse: Young People, Texts, Cultures|
|Date:||Dec 22, 2018|
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