A COG in the Machine
Will Parker, Transportation Outreach Fellow, reflects on his past year serving with the Resilience Corps.
A few weeks ago, I logged on to a morning Zoom meeting late. I put my laptop down on my makeshift standing desk, and immediately knocked it down 5 feet onto the brick patio. Now, as far as I know, computers run on magic. Whatever processes make them work are both perfect and ironclad. I can’t change them, and thankfully they never need it. A brick floor, it turned out, can change them—my screen was completely black after the fall.
When I’m not busy breaking laptops, I talk to my friends about politics and our experiences entering the professional world. We go over, again and again, the ways in which the processes which underly our society are broken. The global climate is destabilizing, inequality in America worsens every day, and the Portland region is becoming unlivably expensive. And of course, they poke fun at the fact that I work for the Greater Portland Council of Governments (GPCOG) – a literal COG in the machine of local government.
Back on the brick patio, I despaired that one of the magical processes that make my laptop work was no longer perfect. But a fellow Resilience Corps member encouraged me—they loaned me some tools and sent me to YouTube for advice. In the end, all I had to do was open the bottom of the laptop and jostle the cable connecting the screen to the circuit board. The broken laptop consisted of parts and, as it turned out, their workings could be changed. It powered on and worked perfectly.
My initial reaction to dramatic problems is defeat. I am a spectator of the world’s inexorable journey towards catastrophe. But as the Resilience Corps has deepened my understanding of the brokenness of our systems, it’s also showed me their potential for change.
I recently wrote minutes for a meeting of the Executive Board of the Portland region’s Metropolitan Planning Organization (yes, I know, very COG-in-the-machine). I watched one person make a motion regarding millions of dollars-worth of funding, with what he called a “51 percent confidence level that I’m doing the right thing.” The motion passed, and I was mortified. But then I thought of a report I was working on, to be presented and voted on at the next meeting of that board. Surely, I could write a report to move the needle 2 percent.
Earlier in my term of service, I worked on public outreach for a project to reorient the bus system in Portland’s downtown. The plan seemed good—it would offer more service, higher frequencies, and more intuitive routes. After hearing less positive feedback than expected and substantial negative feedback, however, I became a part of the effort to table the project pending some work to address the public’s concerns. We didn’t discuss percentages, but it was clear that no one was sure of the right thing to do. In the end, my work was one of the factors that got the project tabled and, hopefully, improved then relaunched.
When you are a cog in the machine, and a spectator on inevitable outcomes, despair is easy. However, our social systems are not rigid machines—they’re groups of individuals making decisions with limited perspectives and, sometimes, 51 percent confidence in their actions. I am closing my service term with the Resilience Corps early for a deferred fellowship, so I’ve begun reflecting on my time here. It has been scary to see the lack of certainty in important decision-making processes. But buried underneath this scary lack of certainty is an empowering realization that as a member of the Resilience Corps, I have wielded some power to change things. My laptop does not work by magic—it works by lots of interconnected components which need to be jostled from time to time. Local government, which may seem at times like a broken and closed system, can also be jostled.
About Will Parker
Will is from Princeton, New Jersey, and has happily transplanted to Maine. You can generally find him on a bike somewhere, checking out mundane pieces of infrastructure. A recent graduate of Bowdoin College with a double major in Environmental Studies and Earth Science and a minor in History, Will is especially interested in transportation, justice and climate. He became interested in transportation planning after a cycling trip from New Haven, CT, to Bath, ME, which showed him some of the consequences of the way we live and move. During his junior year, he spent a semester in Freiburg, Germany, where he was inspired by the ubiquity of transit, bike and pedestrian infrastructure. While attending Bowdoin, he made occasional trips to Portland by bike, METRO or Amtrak and fell for the area. The Resilience Corps with GPCOG is the perfect way for Will to apply his transportation interests together with a place he loves!