Start main page content

Rockefeller writing residency for Rising from the Rubbish

- Wits University

Dr Melanie Samson has been awarded one of the most sought after writing fellowships to work on her book, "Rising from the Rubbish".

People are only permitted to apply three times in their lifetime for this prestigious Rockefeller Foundation Bellagio Center Academic Writing Residency, and they are only allowed to attend twice.

Samson, a Senior Lecturer in Human Geography in the School of Geography, Archaeology and Environmental Studies in the Faculty of Science at Wits, will take up the residency in Italy from 25 August to 21 September 2017.

Before joining Wits in 2015, Samson worked in South African unions, NGOs and social movements, as well as the global research-policy-action network, Women in Informal Employment: Globalizing and Organizing (WIEGO).

Samson’s research on the politics and political economy of waste and recycling emerges from, and informs, her work supporting unions and movements of privatised and informal workers in these sectors in South Africa and globally.

“I’ve been awarded the fellowship to work on my book, Rising from the Rubbish: Reclaiming Waste, Creating More Inclusive Economies, Polities and Societies. I’ll spend the month with academics, policy makers, artists and practitioners from around the world, many of whom are also working on the theme of inclusive economies,” says Samson.

Inclusive economies

The mission of the Rockefeller Foundation is to promote the well-being of humanity. Its goals are to build resilience and to advance more inclusive economies. The Bellagio Center Academic Writing Residency awards residencies to writers whose work demonstrates relevance to the Foundation’s goals, as well as to its core areas: Advance health; revalue ecosystems; secure livelihoods; transform cities.

“The main theme my project relates to is ‘building inclusive economies’. Critically engaging the concept of ‘inclusive economies’, I argue that it is actually our theories and policies that must be made more inclusive of people who already form an integral part of the economy, and that you cannot attempt to create inclusive economies without creating more inclusive polities and societies. The book is about how people pushed outside the so-called formal economy secure their livelihoods by creating work for themselves in niches ignored by capital. It also speaks very directly to the focus areas of ‘revalue ecosystems’, and ‘transform cities’,” says Samson.

Rising from the Rubbish

Samson’s book is based on a long-term study of informal reclaimers (often referred to as waste pickers) salvaging valuable materials from a Soweto garbage dump. Like their counterparts across the global south, Johannesburg’s reclaimers created the city’s recycling system. Yet, fueled by theories imported from the north that cannot see reclaimers as social, political, economic and epistemic actors, they are dismissed as marginal to the economy, polity, and society, and dispossessed when formal recycling programmes are established. Rising from the Rubbish seeks to establish the difference it makes to theory, policy, and practice when reclaimers are placed at the centre of analysis.

Samson’s work has appeared in a range of academic journals including Historical Materialism, Current Sociology, Environment and Planning D, AntipodeInternational Feminist Journal of PoliticsStudies in Political Economy, and Review of African Political Economy. 

In order to make her work accessible and useful for worker movements, she has also published several popular books on reclaimers and privatised waste workers, including Refusing to be Cast Aside: Waste Pickers Organizing Around the World, and she co-authored the animated video Just Recycling: The Social, Economic and Environmental Benefits of Working with Waste Pickers.

Although the Bellagio Center Academic Residency specifically supports academic discourse, impact is paramount, as the Foundation prioritises research that will help to bring about change related to its goals and focus areas.

“They were particularly interested in the fact that – through my association with WIEGO – my research will be shared with movements of reclaimers globally to strengthen their strategising and mobilisation,” says Samson, who is also running the national stakeholder process to develop National Guidelines on Waste Picker Integration for the Department of Environmental Affairs.

“The conceptual work I’m doing in the book directly shapes and influences my approach to developing and strengthening these guidelines, so the book has an immediate impact on South African government policy processes,” she says.

About the Bellagio Center Academic Writing Residency

The Academic Writing residency is for university and think tank-based academics, researchers, professors, and scientists working in any discipline. Successful applicants demonstrate decades of significant professional contributions to their field or show evidence of being on a strong upward trajectory for those earlier in their careers. Previous recipients include Nobel Prize winners Joseph Stiglitz and Mohamed Yunus, as well as Maya Angelou, Michael Ondaatji and Mary Robinson.