Hari Kondabolu, Ausma Malik, and Max FineDay (from left). PHOTO COURTESY OF THE ATKINSON FOUNDATION

Victoria College’s Isabel Bader Theatre hosted “2062: Beyond a Cartoon Future for Millennial Workers” on January 23. Ausma Malik, U of T alum and the Director of Social Engagement at the Atkinson Foundation, moderated a “seriously funny” conversation between US-based comedian Hari Kondabolu and Canadian Roots Exchange Executive Director and nêhiyaw activist Max FineDay. 

The two discussed the future of work in the context of millennial anxiety about access to decent and fair employment. The event attempted to be innovative, being recorded in a live podcast format with audience participation.

The Jetsons — a cartoon series that aired in 1962 and is set 100 years after — framed the conversation for the kind of dystopian future that we might want to avoid: technology and robots as a stand-in for disposable labour that used to be performed by poorly paid racialized workers; departure from an Earth beyond saving from environmental disaster; and isolated, non-communal living in space. 

On success

Kondabolu and FineDay demonstrated remarkable comedic chemistry as they brought their individual racial identities and professions — one a South Asian-American in the entertainment industry and former human rights organizer, the other an Indigenous youth leader at the helm of a national non-profit charity — to the discussion. 

No matter how successful they have become in their careers, though, Kondabolu and FineDay are kept grounded by their families. It can be difficult to convey  to them how big they’ve made it. “I’m a stand-up comedian, which is hard to explain to relatives in India, first of all, and then I’m a podcaster, which you don’t really mention to relatives in India at all,” explained Kondabolu. “I’m like a shitty Renaissance man.” 

On complexity

Kondabolu described improvements in the stand-up comedy industry over the last decade, namely the acknowledgement that his community — which he specifies as “straight, cis, Indian dudes” — are multi-layered, complex human beings. Poking fun at how Indigenous peoples and South Asians are ‘identified’ in the same way, FineDay went on to joke about how he and Kondabolu had “really bonded over being cis, straight Indians” backstage.

At the same time, other subcommunities, whether women or trans folks, continue to struggle with barriers. The “complexity of identity” for Kondabolu is to recognize that people of colour are “not all victims.” 

“Some of us are assholes,” he said. “The oppressed can also oppress others…You can be a victim of racism and then still be homophobic and transphobic.”

On commodification 

For FineDay, the increasing recognition of his community can be problematic. It is often non-Indigenous people who have access to funding, resources, and networks, and who ultimately decide what reconciliation should look like. 

For Kondabolu, the trendiness of being Indian or Asian American is a product, not just because people of colour have been pushing for more diversity, but because those at the top — producers and directors — are realizing that there is money to be made through these heretofore neglected communities. Hence, both negotiate between the opportunities that come with diversity and the commodification of their identity that often comes as a price.

But diversity is, nonetheless, an inevitability. In anticipation of the fact that white people will become a minority in Canada and the US in 2036 and 2042 respectively, Malik and FineDay acknowledged that Indigenous communities are the fastest growing ones in Canada. Kondabolu gleamed at the prospect to “fuck colonialists out of the country.” 

On disposability 

Kondabolu described the impact of the recent US government shutdown on labour as “embarrassing,” while acknowledging that “it’s a part of a proud, American tradition of not paying its workers — which I believe began with slavery. So it’s a little retro.”

Malik focused on problematizing a capitalist version of automation, in which technology is used to dispose of labour rather than make our lives easier. As FineDay points out, unlike in our parents’ generations, finding decent, well-paying employment or owning property may be out of reach. On the future of the sharing economy, Kondabolu is more supportive of socialism than the current version concerning “Uber and shit.” 

While many skills may become obsolete, FineDay expects that telling stories is something “no machine will ever be able to do.” Kondabolu is less optimistic, fearing that the human ability to create art might become something that is easily duplicated by artificial intelligence and therefore no longer be as valued. He stressed the need for re-training workers and investing in new industries. “It’s not about investing in coal,” he noted, criticizing the current political reluctance to divest from fossil fuels for climate change.

On empowerment 

To change the power dynamics of the future, Kondabolu hopes to see people of colour become leaders who call the shots — in the case of stand-up comedy, producers and directors. People who belong to a certain community should tell the stories of that community — not just anyone who claims to be ‘woke.’ 

He cautioned, “People do lots of shitty things when they’re awake. Just because you know what’s going on doesn’t mean you’re going to do the right thing.” 

For FineDay, the “Mr. Spacely” of Indigenous peoples has always been Canada. The country continues to break treaties, while portraying itself as an international defender of human rights.

Yet, while many systemic challenges remain, FineDay is focused on changing hearts and minds on a one-on-one level. Informing and encouraging Canadians to learn about youth suicide rates, residential schools, or lower health outcomes in Indigenous communities is part of what he calls “little wins.” 

On organizing 

Reconciliation, for FineDay, means that space is made for Indigenous peoples in higher education and workplaces that don’t require them to sacrifice culture and pride. He takes inspiration from the generosity of youth and communities who, despite Canada’s ongoing wrongdoings, are still willing to reconcile.

If we are to take anything away from the discussion, it’s that an alternative, just, and diverse future, one that overcomes colonialism, racism, and capitalism, is possible — if we take organized action. 

And that starts with any number more than one. At some point, Kondabolu told FineDay, “We should be friends, man.” I don’t really listen to podcasts, but if the two of them were to organize one called “cis, straight Indian dudes,” I would definitely jump on that bandwagon. 

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