“One out of three of you has poop on your phone—ask me why,” Jess Davis provokes. Davis, along with Rachel Greenstein, is co-founder of Folk Rebellion, a low-tech, slow-life advocacy organization and lifestyle brand. In addition to being provocative, Davis’s statement is, let’s face it, gross. But its answer is testament to the reason they founded their venture: our boredom-fearing, tech-addicted brains require phones while we’re in the bathroom so we don’t lose connection to our online drips. To combat this depressing state, Folk Rebellion was born.
Davis and Greenstein came together in 2014 after their respective decade-long careers in which they gave other brands a platform and voice to help push their businesses forward. And they were good at what they did. They were so committed to their work that Davis and Greenstein slept with their phones on their chests, ran away to the restroom in the middle of meals to check email, and had panic attacks if they were ever out of touch. And then, one day, they woke up.
Three years later, the women are a fixture on Bergen Street, where their Tiny House headquarters is located, and they are making their way through the boroughs, leading workshops for businesses that are ready to admit that they have a tech problem, too. Folk Rebellion hosts retreats for the overly-digitized set, and act as Brooklyn Brand Ambassadors for Lululemon in order to drive their community-focused outdoor and engaged initiatives.
Most recently, the organization went international. Davis and Greenstein led a 20-person retreat 200 miles outside of the Arctic Circle in Canada’s Northwest Territory. The draw was the Northern Lights, but the intention was to experience life with complete strangers and zero technology. As with their local retreats and workshops, Davis and Greenstein packed up “analog” activities for attendees, like string and yarn for bracelet- and dreamcatcher- making, Lomography film cameras, and personality quizzes that got the group sharing both values and more shameful habits. I was one of the attendees, and, my most shameful admission? Counting just how many hours I look at a screen each day, which lead to promptly re-upping my Muji notebook stock when I returned home.
As with any bad habit, a detox is required to turn things around. In 2014, Davis was on vacation, on a beach in Hawaii, when her husband, Glenn, insisted she get off her phone. Having spent the better part of her career as a digital brand and communications strategist, tech was her life. But his request, she feared, sounded more like an ultimatum, so she spent the next ten days offline. In short, it was like coming off of a drug. Davis found herself anxious and wondering when she’d get her next fix. Then, on day 10, the worst of it had passed, and she started to feel like her old self. When Davis returned home from Hawaii, she immediately quit her job.
Around the same time, Greenstein—a petite powerhouse who cut her teeth as an intern for the inimitable Patricia Fields during her Sex and the City heyday, and went on to work with brands like Havaianas and Martha Stewart—was covered in a rash that no doctor could cure. It had developed a year prior while she was in the throws of an exciting project with Equinox, and simultaneously suffering from postpartum depression. Unable to figure out what was going on with her body, she begrudgingly agreed to “a hippy art camp that sounded like Burning Man” at Davis’s insistence. When she arrived to what she thought was glamping, she instead found an off-the-grid, tech-free camp in the middle of the woods—one where she spent the first two days crying and inventing reasons to use her phone. Finally, she found her voice; on the last day of camp she started making friends and opening up to people around her. When she looked at her skin, she saw her rash had faded. Not knowing—or caring—if it was the fresh air, tech-free weekend, or both, Greenstein quit her career when she returned home and joined Davis’s Rebellion.
The takeaway? It is not to throw away your phone and laptop all together. Davis readily acknowledges that technology is a necessary part of our lives, and she does not see that changing. But their mission is to help the addicts among us take stock of how technology runs lives, flipping our real lives—our friends, our ability to be present with people, connect, laugh—on their heads. To make an about face, for some, that might mean deleting social media apps that cause us, counter-intuitively, to be less social. Others may want to set aside specific windows for tech-related tasks, like email. Davis loves to point out that we become less productive when we toggle from task to task—rather than sustain our concentration on one thing—such as jumping from creating an advertising deck to answering an email: It costs you at least fifteen minutes of focus.
The biggest shift Folk Rebellion hopes to promote, however, is deepening our connection to actual humans, rather than to our internet personas. They’ve already made a dent in this endeavor among their Cobble Hill enclave. But Greenstein and Davis have set their sights far beyond Bergen Street. They want to create spaces around the city—and maybe, one day, the world—for people from every profession and vocation to walk inside, and turn it all off. Their dream is to open a tech-free club house that would feature many of their favorite retreat activities, plus live music, vinyl, and bookshelves lined with enough pages to keep the publishing industry in business—a barrier-free haven meant for making friends by making eye contact, rather than by swiping right.
After a recent afternoon winding through Red Hook with Greenstein and Davis, I made my way down the street, toward my car, and noticed a dog being dragged down the cobblestone street. I looked up to see its owner focused so intently on her Instagram stories that she could not feel the weight of her dog dragging behind her, as it stopped to sniff the first wafts of spring lingering in the air. Not so much surprised as I was upset for the animal, I stopped to let her know, gently, that there was most likely poop on her phone, and then I kept walking.