Staff Opinion: Rising waters and the false choices we face
Organizers, advocates, and the philanthropies that aim to support them are faced with difficult choices when the needs and injustices around us are so many, so deep, and so crucial.
Do you provide temporary rent cancellation and rent relief for the many neighbors who can’t sleep at night worrying about impending evictions? Or do you use this moment as the springboard to seek bold structural change in our inadequate “social safety net” and propose stabilizing, longer-lasting economic security strategies like guaranteed basic income, guaranteed paid sick days, and housing as a human right?
Do you help families with limited resources scramble to secure tablets and Wi-Fi options so their kids have a chance at keeping up with better-resourced peers during distance learning? Or do you tackle the vast inequities baked into an education system that has been structured through racist policies and underfunded through cycles of austerity to benefit some students and leave others (especially low wealth and students of color) behind?
Do you support the limited policing reforms being offered by newly “awakened” majorities in the wake of increasingly publicized examples of the atrocities that continue to be committed against Black, Brown, Indigenous, and other People of Color in our communities in the hopes that those reforms might make some difference? Or do you demand a bolder re-imagining of what safety means in our community, disrupt how racist tropes are used to define “threat,” and re-envision how safety and justice might be assured in a society constructed on the dignity of every life, a commitment to restorative justice, and public institutions that are accountable to the community itself?
Do you advocate for temporary tax cuts and governmental loans to aid small, low-wealth businesses in surviving this unusual time? Or do you address the way our tax structures compound generations of racist and extractive policies, continually tilting the economic scales in favor of the wealthy over everyone else, and stripping wealth from communities of color in favor of white communities?
Do we resource and conduct safe, specialized outreach around census participation in order to compensate for the failure of the federal government to adequately resource outreach this cycle, the levels of fear among immigrant families bolstered by xenophobic messaging coming from our leaders, and the challenges of an accelerated deadline and physical distancing during the pandemic? Or do we resource longer-term organizing to build a more representative and responsive democracy through engaging communities to define the redistricting maps that the census will trigger, to resist insidious voter suppression strategies that disproportionately disenfranchise voters of color, and to instead build community power that holds elected representatives accountable for our shared prosperity and well-being?
These are false choices. We must do both at once and in tandem.
When you are in the middle of a great sea and discover rotting wood is disintegrating the floorboards of your boat, you cannot choose between bailing out the water rising within the boat or replacing the wood with stronger material. You must do both and at the same time.
If you only focus on fixing the boat, you risk the water rising so fast you drown before fixing it; but if you only focus on bailing water, you will deplete all your energy without ever being able to sail freely.
This is the situation in which we find ourselves today. We must direct resources and attention to the members of our community who are “drowning” as a result of the health and economic consequences of this pandemic — focusing particularly on the communities most affected by historic and systemic inequities because, once again, they are the ones most affected by the pandemic’s consequences. AND we must expose the systemic racism and ideologies that created extractive systems of economic hoarding, oppressed those at the margins pre-pandemic, and now exacerbate those vulnerabilities in the face of a crisis like COVID-19.
This moment demands BOTH solidarity in the face of crisis AND political education to expose the systemic racism and exploitative underpinnings that continue to benefit the few while entangling communities of color and other underinvested populations in this country.
As the late congressman and steadfast human rights agitator John Lewis stated in his final essay, “Democracy is not a state. It is an act, and each generation must do its part…”
What is your part in addressing the rising waters that are drowning the most underinvested segments of our community today? AND what is your part in cutting out the rotted wood in our community boat and replacing it with systems that are more equitable, sustainable, and just?