Written by Madeline Hughey
While halfway around the world, working with the Masai in Kenya on an EcoLeague exchange with Prescott College, Melissa Markstrom found herself learning lessons that would shape her future work in unexpected ways.
“I learned that righteous, next-level, community-led transformation starts by going directly to the source and asking people for their stories,” she said, “letting people tell you what they need, trusting people to know how to obtain it, and standing in solidarity with them. I learned the value of sharing my own resources, privilege, caring, listening, and desired support.”
A 2009 graduate of Green Mountain College, Melissa is a first-generation college graduate from Phoenix, Arizona. She spent 2008 at Prescott College, where she studied Community- Based Activism in Kenya, as well as a course in U.S.-Mexico Border Studies. She currently works as a union organizer helping health-care workers achieve “fairness, equity and justice on the job, in their communities, and at a state and national level.” She also volunteers providing women and gender-queer labor leaders and activists with skill-building opportunities.
Melissa considers her two international courses essential to teaching her to approach activism from a community perspective. Her U.S.-Mexico Border Studies class showed her how communities intertwine with their natural environments. She also learned that solutions to complex societal and environmental problems have to be led by individuals in that community.
Her education at both GMC and Prescott encouraged her “to think about sustainability by rooting our learning in systems and community-based thinking,” Melissa said, and “to analyze my own values and philosophies, and to take action towards social, economic, political and environmental justice.” Melissa believes education should prepare us to be engaged citizens of our communities, whether in our jobs, “our political systems, our lifestyles, or the values and skills we pass on to future generations.”
For Melissa, justice goes hand in hand with sustainability. They both influence her current work training and supporting community leaders to break out of the more individualistic mindsets and competitive interactions encouraged in our society. She trains people to pay attention to each other and collaborate more fully, ensuring processes that are fair and equitable as the members collectively reach decisions and communicate their intentions.
Melissa has found that working towards sustainability requires hope, curiosity, and a willingness to take action.
“We have to be willing to meet people where they're at. We have to be willing to use humor, and joy and ideas to inspire future activists to take our place, in order to make the activism itself sustainable,” Melissa said. “We have to be willing to invite the whole community, especially those who think differently than we do, to sit with us and participate in dialogue about how to re-orient towards sustainable communities and environments.”