Professor Dumpster Wanted a Dialogue – He Got One

Nora Ankrum responds to the bowtie backlash

I was scrolling through my Facebook feed Friday night when I spotted Dan Solomon’s Texas Monthly blog post, “Why Professor Dumpster’s Gimmicks Are a Bunch of Trash.” Seeing the title, I winced.

Professor Dumpster (Photo by John Anderson)

Professor Dumpster is the nom de guerre of Jeffrey Wilson, a dean and associate professor of biological sciences at Huston-Tillotson University in East Austin. Wilson moved into a Dumpster on HT’s campus in February 2014 and lived there for a year as part of a sustainable design experiment that took the “less is more” premise of the tiny-house movement to an unprecedented and bizarre extreme. One goal for the project – which is still ongoing – is to outfit it with various amenities (solar panels! composting toilet! graywater shower!) to see how livable a tiny box can be.

Over the last year, the Dumpster Project attracted a lot of national and even international media attention (as well as local, from me and others), and Wilson committed the sin of enjoying the enterprise entirely too much. As the quirky Professor Dumpster, he played to the press, wearing his thick-rimmed glasses and signature bowties, eagerly sharing his Turkish coffee (made from filtered water lugged a mile from Lady Bird Lake), and laying it on thick with the puns. “We are (litter-ally) trying to turn trash into our dream home!” reads the Dumpster Project’s “About” page. “Want to pitch in? Toss in a bit of ‘disposable’ income and support the project today.” The opening volley of Solomon’s critique is that the whole act is a “bunch of trash.” (Touché.)

Solomon faults Wilson on several fronts, questioning not just the merits of Wilson’s projects – including his latest, 99 Nights ATX (more on that later) – but also Wilson’s motivation for undertaking them. He accuses Wilson of attention-seeking for his own personal gain (calling him a “university professor on the hunt for a book deal”); suggests that he is shamelessly capitalizing on popular trends rather than focusing on legitimate topics of academic inquiry (“Wilson’s stunt got lots of attention because the ideas behind Wilson’s Dumpster life are fashionable”); and charges that Wilson is undercutting solutions to the challenges he is claiming to address (“not creating an interesting dialogue” but “avoiding one,” writes Solomon).

"The Wrong Genre"

Contrary to what one might think given the media coverage – Solomon’s included – the Dumpster Project is not about Wilson. It is a Huston-Tillotson program involving a team of dedicated staff and community partners, and the goal is largely educational. “Because the dumpster is unconventional, it engages student interest in a way that traditional approaches may not,” explained Assistant Professor of Biology Amanda Masino in an email exchange over the weekend. “For example, we present the challenge of supplying fresh water to the dumpster to introduce the water cycle and water treatment. Students then build water filters, learn about watershed issues, and eventually, start connecting these lessons to their own daily water access and use.” 

The Dumpster team

The project has been a springboard for various educational initiatives. One is a residency program in which students can nominate a teacher to stay in the Dumpster overnight. (The first guest was Blackshear Elementary School Principal Betty Jenkins.) That project has gone hand-in-hand with the development of a STEM-focused “Dumpster 101” curriculum available for university-level and K-12 students. Another project is the “Build for the Box challenge,” a program for high school and college students to “tackle specific sustainability tech tasks” related to the Dumpster’s ongoing renovation. According to Masino, “The educational approach common to these programs is to leverage the central Dumpster-to-home challenge – how do you turn a 36 sq ft metal box into a home? – to introduce sustainability topics in the areas of food, water, air, energy, waste, and health in fresh and engaging ways.”

Fundamentally, Solomon seems not to fully appreciate – or even acknowledge – the Dumpster’s role as an educational tool, much less the spirit in which Professor Dumpster was conceived as a figurehead à la Bill Nye the Science Guy. Solomon is hung up instead on Wilson’s “8-9 bowties,” his garden gnomes, and his perceived “hipster” pandering. It was this particular point on Friday night that prompted my husband, Tim – a high school teacher – to spend the evening muttering angrily about the plight of the misunderstood educator. “As a teacher, you just start talking, start doing, start motivating without worrying about whether you’re looking cool or whether someone’s going to accuse you of being gimmicky,” he said. Solomon “is in the wrong genre,” he declared. “This isn’t street art. Wilson is a college professor, not Banksy.”

Bill Nye

A teacher’s attempt to engage the world creatively should probably be judged not by the aesthetic grace with which it appropriates touchstones from the cultural zeitgeist – it should be judged by its educational value. Masino writes that “it has been our great privilege to work directly with over 150 K-8 students via classroom visits, camps, and field trips and impact over 1,000 more via talks and fairs (TEDxYouth Austin 2015, Austin Energy Regional Science Fair 2015, Thinkery “Junk” exhibit 2014).” Although the team has taken great care to reach out to younger kids, the project appears to be popular among undergrads as well. One group of HT students involved with the project was inspired to form an organization, Green Is the New Black, which focuses on sustainability and environmental justice issues. I wrote about GITNB here last fall. At the time, co-founder Angelica “Jelly” Erazo told me that although students were skeptical of Wilson’s plan to live in a Dumpster, they quickly came around. “A lot of us look up to him,” she said. “If he tells you he's going to help you, he doesn't wait. He does it right then and there."

"Dumpster Professor Douchebag"

The intentionally cheeky attitude of the project – often embodied by Professor Dumpster and his arsenal of soundbite-ready puns and quips – may be both a blessing and a curse. As Solomon points out, he is not the only one put off by Professor Dumpster’s perceived posturing. “Most stories about Wilson feature commentary from readers who take issue with the fact that he’s becoming a minor celebrity through these gimmicks, and that’s understandable,” writes Solomon.

To demonstrate his point, Solomon links to the results of a Google search for “dumpster professor douchebag” that appears to be pulling up pages of hits on anything with the words “professor” or “dumpster” or “douchebag.” When I discovered this sleight of hand, I was so annoyed that I tested the search on Solomon (“dan solomon douchebag”) and then, to be fair, on myself (“nora ankrum douchebag"). The search for my name didn’t turn up anything interesting (although now I suppose it will), but the Solomon search returned a handful of actually relevant hits. In this case, they all link to stories Solomon has written – apparently, he likes to call people douchebags.

Early in his essay, Solomon tallies “more than 200” articles written about Wilson and the Dumpster Project, but of those 200, his douchebag query returns only a handful. The stories themselves aren’t critical of Wilson, but a lot of the reader commentary does show that Professor Dumpster touches a nerve. Granted, we’re talking about Internet forums here, so much of it is not particularly ruminative. (A lot of it is hipster-focused: “hipster douche,” “Professor Skinnyjeans.” A few comments are positive: “Horrible comments left for what I think is an amazing story! Good luck professor!” Several are of this variety: “I hope a drunk hobo rapes him.”)

To date, Solomon’s is clearly the most thoughtful critique. And to be fair, a visceral skepticism toward Wilson’s antics is not surprising. Antagonism toward both hippies and hipsters is, well, a thing – and the modern sustainability movement appears in many ways to draw inspiration from the most irksome aspects of both. But fundamentally, the argument against Wilson is an aesthetic one disguised as something more substantive, and that’s not particularly fair.

"Living in a F#%$ing Dumpster"

Although Solomon doesn’t have much to say about the Dumpster Project’s usefulness as a lesson in sustainable living, he expresses concern about the message it conveys (or seemingly ignores) about homelessness. This concern is also reflected in some of the reader comments in his Google search. As one person writes, “This is a thing already. It's called being homeless. It's also called being poor.” Solomon follows a similar line of reasoning. “Wilson’s experiments are fundamentally about homelessness—you don’t move into a dumpster unaware of the association,” he writes. “But when he talks about ‘What does home look like in a world of 10 billion people’ by celebrating the gimmicks behind what he’s doing, there’s an important thing he’s missing: For many people, it just looks a lot like living in a f#%$ing dumpster.”

Solomon is accusing Wilson not just of being tone deaf on this critical issue but of being a hypocrite – essentially floating his “less is more” experiment on vast sums of cash. “Wilson’s website talked about sustainability and furthering the availability of sustainable living to more communities, but his own project was buoyed by extensive corporate sponsorship from Ford, Freescale, other corporations, and a pair of local hipster home outfitting retailers interested in being associated with Wilson’s impressive media reach,” writes Solomon. “If any of these sponsors want to invest in things that benefit people in need of low-cost sustainable housing,” he adds, “we might suggest a few other worthy causes.” The passage links to homelessness advocacy organizations LifeWorks, Front Steps, and Mobile Loaves and Fishes.

The dubious Dumpster (Photo by John Anderson)

"An Idea on a Napkin"

Over the weekend, I got in touch with one of the Dumpster Project’s sponsors, Jason Ballard (who incidentally does give to other worthy causes, he says, including several that address low-income housing issues, such as Habitat for Humanity, Foundation Communities, and Make It Right). Ballard is president and founder of home-improvement store TreeHouse, presumably one of the “hipster home outfitting retailers” to which Solomon is referring. “I'm surprised to hear that someone thought it worthwhile to write something negative about the Dumpster Project,” Ballard told me via email. “Also, I am surprised to hear we are a ‘hipster’ company, as my wife will be too.”

Later we spoke on the phone, and Ballard told me, “I sort of agree with Dan – and I think Professor Dumpster would agree with Dan – that the Dumpster Project is not some grand scheme to solve sustainable housing, income inequality, and homelessness. I mean, Dan’s sort of making it bigger than it is. It’s funny, because that’s what he accuses Jeff of doing. It really is just meant to be introducing the conversation in a fresh and interesting and different way.”

Ballard met Wilson “back when the Dumpster Project was just sort of an idea on a napkin,” he told me. “He certainly didn’t have a quote-unquote media following, which I think the article alluded to.” Ballard said he just liked the idea and offered to support it should it ever become a reality. As to TreeHouse’s sponsorship of the project – which he said amounted to a bucket of paint, a $30 energy meter, an LED light bulb, “and maybe some cleaner” – Ballard admitted it’s “hardly enough to do anything meaningful about the very serious issue of low-cost sustainable housing.”

"It Becomes an Environmental Justice Lesson"

Nonetheless, Ballard said he thinks the project is a worthy cause, particularly given its home at an HBCU (historically black college and university). For a host of reasons, HBCUs are often underresourced, as are many of their students (nearly three-quarters of HT students are eligible for Pell grants, which are reserved for students most in need of financial help). Moreover, HBCUs traditionally serve a predominantly minority population that Ballard pointed out is “notably absent” from conversations about sustainable housing. This notable absence of communities disproportionately affected by environmental decline and most in need of low-cost sustainable housing is partly why students working with the Dumpster Project decided to form Green Is the New Black. As Erazo told me last summer, the group wanted to bring minorities into the environmental conversations from which they had so often been left out.

Green Is the New Black (Photo by John Anderson)

In their first year, the students competed for and won $85,000 in grant and scholarship money for their school thanks to their involvement with the Dumpster Project. Much of that money came from winning the top prize in the Ford Foundation HBCU Community Challenge, and the funds went to scholarships, a community development program with the nearby Blackshear Elementary School, and the Dumpster Project itself, which is why Ford is listed among the Dumpster Project’s sponsors – the sponsors whose money Solomon suggests should go elsewhere.

The nonprofits Solomon lists are certainly worthy causes, and they do address homelessness much more explicitly. But it’s a mistake to overlook the value of an environmental education program in addressing challenges low-income communities face, such as access to safe, healthy, low-cost housing – a salient issue in HT’s Eastside community. As Masino told me last fall, "When I'm teaching environmental biology to students who come from communities that are affected by these issues, it becomes an environmental justice lesson."

Solomon overlooks that connection. For example, when he finishes shaming the Dumpster Project sponsors, he adds that “living in a dumpster is also actually illegal, unless you happen to own the dumpster in question.” Yes, living in a Dumpster is illegal. So are tiny houses. So are composting toilets (save for this one). So is sleeping in public, as homeless people are so often forced to do. There are a lot of policies that, inadvertently or otherwise, make it illegal for people to make do with what limited resources they have – be it limited space, limited water, or limited money. That doesn’t mean people shouldn’t experiment in these areas. In fact it’s the reason why they should. Of course – as a lot of people will be talking about this week at SXSW Interactive (e.g., this, this, and this) – policy isn’t always so great at keeping up with innovation. That’s why people don’t just build prototypes, they build movements – movements that to some people might look like gimmicks.

"The Suitability of a Dumpster as a Home"

But to be clear (and to state, in my opinion, the obvious), in the case of the Dumpster Project, the point is not really that people should live in Dumpsters or that it should be legal to do so. The idea is much more conceptual and a lot less linear, as experimentation is wont to be – and as it should be, because innovation often doesn’t come from tackling a problem head on but by coming at it from an unexpected direction. (For more on this topic, see this.)

For her part, Masino disagrees with Solomon’s assertion that the Dumpster Project is “fundamentally about homelessness.” It is about “sustainability, education, and experimentation using the concept of home as a touchstone,” wrote Masino this weekend. “It is not our intention to mock, ignore, or demonstrate insensitivity towards homeless or any other population who lack fair access to resources – healthy food, clean water, good air, and a safe space are important for all.” Instead, she wrote, the idea is “to capitalize on the disconnect between a place where you deposit trash then forget about it, perhaps rarely considering the landfill or incinerator for which the waste is bound, and a place central to many of our conceptions of health and happiness.”

Masino and Karen Magid, project coordinator for the Dumpster Project, say they understand why Solomon and others might make the connection between the Dumpster Project and homelessness. “We've tried to balance not shying away from that conversation with trying to steer the conversation back to sustainability and environmental education, where our expertise lays,” wrote Magid in an email exchange this weekend. “I always try to make a point of discussing very clearly and early in a conversation of the suitability of a dumpster as a home a few points: (1) unmodified dumpsters are not suitable dwelling, and can be quite dangerous for a variety of reasons, (2) this dumpster was modified with safety features immediately after it was cleaned before anyone was staying in it, and (3) we are not trying to represent the Dumpster (our dumpster) or dumpsters as feasible dwellings. The Dumpster Project dumpster is a prototype and experimental in nature.”

The de-luxe Dumpster in the sky

"New Social Experiment or Whatever"

Having completed his year-in-Dumpster-residence in February, Wilson is now preparing for yet another unorthodox approach to low-rent living: the 99 Nights ATX project. “The new social experiment or whatever that Wilson will be undertaking,” writes Solomon, “involves sleeping on 99 different couches, over 99 days, in Austin – pretty self explanatory, really.” Solomon has the basic idea down – Wilson will be couch-surfing. When Wilson told me about the project last month, he said, “There’s such a real housing crisis in Austin. This doesn’t go directly to the heart of that, but it sort of dances around it a bit.” The idea, he explained, would be “to stay in all types of housing, from West Lake mansions to Dove Springs – where there’s two, three families living in a multiple-family household – to the Austonian to under a bridge.”

Unlike the Dumpster Project, this new venture is not academic but personal. "It would've been a pretty big culture shock to move back into a real house," he told me. "I've got to kind of transition." Still, he is taking an empirical approach, collecting a little bit of data along the way. “It’ll be, how many square feet is your home? What type is it? How long have you lived there? How long is your commute? How do you get to work?” He will also be bringing along his girlfriend, writer Clara Benson, and photographer Sarah Natsumi Moore, to document the process on the project’s website, “It’s very much a Humans of New York thread,” said Wilson. “It may take a day or two to write up the story and publish the pictures and stuff, but it’ll be published as we go, so it’ll be something to kind of follow.”

Solomon is skeptical that exploration of this topic will amount to much. “How revelatory can the project really be?” he asks. “99 Nights ATX will limit him to a self-selected group of homes by its nature – he can only go where he’s invited, obviously – and it’s unclear why he needs sponsors for something that will have him sleeping rent-free in other people’s living rooms.”

"Homes That May Not Normally Receive Attention"

In response, Wilson, Benson, and Natsumi Moore had this to say (via email): “The 99 Nights project is an idea that directly evolved out of the experience of Jeff living in the dumpster. So many people visiting the dumpster used it as a touchstone to discuss their own housing experiences in Austin. Through hundreds of these conversations it became obvious that, for most people, home isn’t just a set of four walls that exists within a vacuum. Without fail, to talk about home is to invoke conversations about traffic, community, gentrification, sustainability, energy, water, rising rent, homelessness, etc. So, the 99 Nights project is a way of sharing these conversations with the public in a very thoughtful, personal way.”

As Solomon noted, the 99 Nights team is indeed looking for sponsorships – largely to pay Benson and Natsumi Moore (both full-time freelancers) for the 99-plus days of work they will put into documenting the experience. The team also needs funds for the time spent coordinating the project and manning the social media. Additionally, they want to give each host “a gift of appreciation for participating in the project.”

So far, the team has received 65 nominations and invitations, but they hope to reach 200 before they decide where Wilson will stay. “We’ve received home nominations from people living in highly visible Austin dwelling types – downtown condos, ‘weird’ homes, and upscale apartments. Those are great. Those are part of the housing spectrum and we’re going to highlight them. But we’ve also received nominations from families living in low-income housing, a group of five AmeriCorps volunteers sharing a house, and a network of religious organizations that host homeless families a week at a time. We’re doing all we can to paint a broad picture of housing and to highlight homes that may not normally receive attention.” 

Solomon doesn’t much care for it. Unlike Wilson, writes Solomon, “there are a lot of people who sleep on couches whose ‘social experiment’ is based around having nowhere else to go.” As a journalist, I find this line of reasoning hard to swallow. Where would we be if writers, documentarians, sociologists, economists, and other curious people never stepped into anyone else’s shoes? Never chose to go where most people would not?

"As He Brings His Bowties"

Fundamentally, I don’t think Solomon’s beef with Wilson is about 99 Nights ATX or the Dumpster Project. His beef with Wilson is Wilson. “We certainly don’t wish Wilson ill as he brings his bowties into 99 different people’s homes, but it’s hard not to see these projects as very interesting ways for the guy to get on television and in magazines,” writes Solomon. And unlike Wilson, he writes, most people who live in Dumpsters “don’t get sponsorship opportunities at all, and they’re unlikely to be able to parlay their experience into a book deal.”

Frankly, book deals aren’t even the half of it when it comes to Wilson. One thing Solomon does not mention is that one of Wilson’s earlier “quirky” experiments – an OKCupid date that lasted three weeks – is likely to become a movie. Granted, it will be based not on Wilson’s version of events but on a book written by Wilson’s (now) girlfriend. I can’t begrudge Wilson his life of high adventure. Judging by some of the reader responses to Solomon’s story, I’m not alone: “On the 99 Nights website, this guys bio clearly states: ‘Jeff has lived inside a volcano in New Zealand, an attic in Cambridge, his office in Brownsville and a 36 sq ft trash dumpster in Austin. He has 'Couchsurfed' through over 50 countries.’ It's just his thing. Why be so cynical?”

As to Wilson’s aspirations for fame and/or authorship, considering that his last 30 or so published works have titles like “Spatial Cluster Detection of Air Pollution Exposure Inequities Across the United States,” it’s hard to fault him for trying to come up with ways to make his interests more accessible – and to have some fun while he’s at it. Of course, as Solomon points out, sleeping in Dumpsters and on other people’s couches is not traditionally considered fun at all. But Wilson doesn’t seem to be a traditional guy.

“I hope the world is big enough to accommodate both the traditional nonprofit sort of way of approaching problems,” says Ballard, and the “spunky, sort of tongue-in-cheek, just good-natured” approach of people like Professor Dumpster. “I think there’s a place for both at the table, and I think the world’s a happier place for it.”

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Professor Dumpster, Dan Solomon, Texas Monthly

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