Digging for community in the Panhandle

A chat with Morgan Fitzgibbons, lead organizer of the NOW! Festival

Morgan Fitzgibbons moved from Ohio to San Francisco in 2006. He founded the Wigg Party in 2009, he teaches a class on Haight-Ashbury in the ‘60s at USF, he helped found [freespace], and he’s the driving force behind the NOW! Festival happening now in the Panhandle.

We sat down with Fitzgibbons to talk Haight-Ashbury in the ‘60s, integral studies, and the NOW! Festival, including his best recommendations for the last two days of the festival.

Q: You’re from Ohio. What originally brought you to San Francisco?
I did my undergrad at Miami University in Ohio and studied philosophy and comparative religion there. I moved out here right after graduation, to attend the California Institute of Integral Studies, where I got a master’s in philosophy, cosmology, and consciousness.

Q: What can you tell me about the California Institute of Integral Studies? That’s quite a name!
It’s an interesting place. It’s really about integrating the different disciplines. For example, philosophy, cosmology and consciousness. They also have East-West psychology. They have a somatics program, which is like psychology through body work. It’s sort of like a radical graduate school.

The particular program I was in: philosophy, cosmology and conciousness is very, very broad. Different people come for different reasons. It covers the history of western thought, altered states of consciousness, astrology, cosmology, environmental issues, mystery schools, all sorts of stuff.

I was there because I was really interested in the cosmology bit: the new story. My friend once described the program as “new paradigm studies.”

[It’s about] the realization that: ‘Oh gosh, we got here after 13.8 billion years of evolution, and that’s a new story and it demands a new understanding of the world, of ourselves, of what we’re here to do, what it’s all about, and what is good, what is bad. What’s the game we’re playing? We have a new story.

I was really looking at: how can you solve that philosophical problem of using a scientific story to build a new ethic.

Q: You teach a class on the Diggers, who were a hippie group in the Haight from 1966 to 1968. They really seem to inform what you do. How did you get into the Diggers in the first place?

I was not into community organizing or even, honestly, planetary issues before I came out here.

The way I got introduced to the Diggers was, my mom got me a book when I came out here. It was called Haight-Ashbury: a History, by Charles Perry and I read that. Actually, that’s a book that I use in my class today. It’s probably the best look at what happened in the Haight.

[The Diggers] were a decent part of that book. They were major characters and major players in that whole scene.

Q: What intrigued you most about the Diggers?
That’s a really good question. [laughs] I thought they were interesting and cool. I was always into the whole hippie thing that has sort of echoed on. I always found myself sympathetic to that worldview.

It wasn’t until I started into organizing locally around planetary issues with the Wigg Party in 2009 that it really struck me: I remembered some people who did some really cool things around organizing in their community.

I went back and dug a little deeper and really started to zero in. It was like ‘OK, these guys are cool, let’s draw some inspiration from them, maybe some of their tricks, some of their philosophy.’

[At USF], they have a particular program called the first-year seminar program, for freshman. Almost all those classes orient towards the city somehow to really get the students connected. I thought, ‘I know a pretty good amount about Haight-Ashbury and the Diggers. I can go and learn more, read more things about them, and teach this class.’

That was really when I became an expert on them, and that infused subconsciously into ideas I had about tactics and so on. That’s the journey.

Q: What are your goals for the NOW! festival?
‘The challenge of NOW is to co-create the best possible version of our community for one extraordinary week.’ I really do like that sentence that we all worked on together because it does encapsulate what we’re trying to do.

It’s really about inspiring people to know what’s possible, what’s more possible, than what we’re doing right now. That’s kind of the essence. We can’t do this all the time. People have work, they get tired, all that kind of stuff. We can do a week. We can do an amazing week.

Individuals or groups of friends come together to produce an event or a project. People have great ideas about what they can do in their neighborhood. We just don’t act on the majority of them.

Q: So it’s not just you and your friends organizing 70 events — you’re helping to organize and publicize events put on by neighborhood people?

Yeah, it’s a co-creative event. I have an important role, but it’s a group of about 10 of us that have come together to organize this.

We’re all just ordinary people. We like this kind of stuff. We want to be involved in our community, or we are already involved in our community. We just want to highlight all the awesome things that are going on. Some of the stuff is already happening, like the roller disco.

Our work is really about inspiring other people to jump on the bandwagon and contribute for a day or a week. The hope is, we help people learn that it’s not that hard, that’s it’s fun and rewarding to be involved in their community in some way.

We’re building up our muscle, our community engagement muscle, to hopefully cultivate more of these things year round, not just during the week of NOW!

Q: This type of co-creative festival, did you model it on anything in particular?

This model came out of the work that we did at [freespace], which was an amazing project that we did that was very successful. and very rewarding for all of us.

Actually, I wanted to create my own [freespace], but I really struggled to find a space. I looked and looked and looked. It was really like, ‘OK, we can’t find a space.’

Then I was like, ‘Wait, we could do a week. We don’t need to do a whole month. We could do a week.’

The next day I went to South by Southwest and really got to experience how they created a festival across multiple venues. You know, took over the whole community. That sort of little alchemy happened, and so it’s very much in the vein of trying to re-create that spirit of [freespace] that we had.

Also the Diggers, some of the stuff they did, like their finale around the summer solstice in 1968.

Q: Are any events in the NOW! Festival based directly on things the Diggers did?
There’s an event happening tomorrow and Saturday. Some of my students are putting it on. It’s called the intersection tie-dye game. The Diggers did this event on October 31, Halloween, 1966, full moon, quite an amazing day — also the day of the acid graduation and some other things.

They did this thing called the intersection game at Haight and Masonic. The game was to see how many shapes you can make within the intersection, not just the square of the crosswalks. You couldn’t walk. You had to silly-walk and do different struts and things.

They basically pedestrianized that intersection for an hour or more until the cops arrived. They had these giant puppet heads, and the cops arrested the puppet heads… it was quite a scene.

They’re not gonna be quite as radical, but they’re gonna do some of that. I don’t know that they’ll have the critical mass. That was the beautiful thing about what happened in the Haight in the ‘60s. There were 30,000 people that were just ready for whatever. So they are inspired directly by that.

Even [freespace], that was very much in the same general tactical playbook of: Let’s find an underutilized resource that’s going to waste, get it, and give it away as a sort of social mind-fuck for people.

Q: The festival is called NOW! Is being present in the moment part of the goal?

Yeah, absolutely. We don’t get too hippie-dippie on it, (although I can go there if you want, I teach a class on the hippies and I have a masters in philosophy, cosmology and consciousness), but absolutely, it is about the reality that there’s only the moment. More importantly, that’s the only place where change happens. And the ethereal nature of the event — it’s one week. If you’re not doing it during that week, you missed it.

It’s to highlight those moments, whether it’s actually a moment, or a day or a week, where you can really be more lit up, more alive.

There are a lot of different ways to look at it. One, that is totally apt, is that it’s Burning Man in the city. It really feels like: ‘Let’s create a community for a week because we want to, because we want to make this place better, because it’s fun.

The whimsical events are the ones I love the most: the cereal party in the morning, the Good Job Parade my friend is going to throw on Saturday where you just run around town giving people high-fives, and especially people who toil in obscurity, you give ‘em gold stars.

Q: What are your top recommendations for the last two days of the festival?

Tomorrow is the Free-Flower Friday. This is something that we did every Friday at [freespace]. We go to the wholesale flower market and say ‘Hey, we’ll come tomorrow and anything you guys are going to throw out, give it to us, and we’ll go stoke a ton of people out.’

We get an unbelievable amount of flowers and it’s always my favorite activity no matter in what context. Half the people think they’re gonna come and make a bouquet themselves, and I try to be like, ‘Actually, it’s more fun to give to other people.’ It’s about coming and giving random people on the street flowers, spreading joy.

We definitely want people to come to St Cyprian’s [Saturday] night. It’s just up the street at Turk and Lyon. It’s a wonderful venue. There’s gonna be a craft event, a clothing swap, but it’s gonna be mostly about the music. We have some really good bands. I really hope people come out.

Saturday’s going to be great. There’s a kids’ bike park in the panhandle. That should be really good — kids learning to ride their bike is always awesome.

Interview conducted by Sam-Omar Hall. It has been edited for length and readability.

Sam-Omar Hall is a freelance journalist based in San Francisco. He does, in fact, have flowers in his hair as of press time. He can be reached at samomarhall@gmail.com

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