I recently listened to an episode of a podcast called Activist Class, where they interviewed one of my heroes, Nikkita Oliver. Nikkita talks about the new youth jail in Seattle. She points out that it was designed to be the nicest public building that kids of color might access. What if we invested in communities, rather than paying any price to “solve” their problems?
While I’m buried under COVID-19 response, I thought I would share. Here’s my favorite quote from her:
“Why not write our policies based on the world that we would want to see, as opposed to the world that we’re afraid of?”
I started my career in public health. In school I wanted to be a doctor, but I hated memorization and preferred working to studying. My first public health job was in disease intervention. I spent my days tracking down people exposed to HIV and syphilis. At the health department, I latched immediately to the all ways we try to help people. We operate behind the scenes and appear when people are at their most bewildered. We emerge from the fabric of a collective society to offer people our ears and a hand. Even the mere threat of infection can make people feel helpless. It can feel like they’ve landed in the bleakest possible future. We try to lead them out of that bleakness into a more realistic and thus brighter world.
When my friends went overseas to support the Ebola outbreak, I was desperate to join them. I tried explaining this desire to my then-boyfriend, now husband. The public health archetype is a scientist rushing towards the danger without fear. Being on the front lines feels thrilling. You are changing the world on the most granular level: one person at a time. I joined the response but I was thousands of miles from the action. But even from my vantage in the emergency operations center I felt the thrill of the chase.
I work at a food bank now. Those public health ideals have stayed with me, though we only fill short-term needs here. When Coronavirus hit, the familiar adrenaline of the response returned. Our threadbare safety net looks even more tattered in the face of mass layoffs and social distancing. This weekend I’m coming down from about three weeks of non-stop planning. We don’t know how long this disease will spread. A week ago we didn’t know for sure how it spread. We are creating infrastructure at a rapid pace. We are unsure of what is coming. I pivot every time the response changes.
This week I had to take a step back from the front lines. I’ve had asthma for most of my life, but I forgot about all that when the number of COVID-19 cases increased. Another food bank director told me he sent home sick all his staff in the “high risk” category of the infection. It knocks out people over 60 and those with chronic disease, including asthma. In an instant I realized I was at risk (my husband said, “uh.. yeah, hello?”). Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome isn’t an abstract disease. I don’t need anything severe or acute attacking my respiratory system!
As a person who wants to help, I’m conflicted being the person who needs help. Even though my risk of catching the infection is low, it’s higher than I think. So now I’m working from home full time. Still busy (so busy), but not in the office. I’m helping to lead a response even though I’m off the front lines. I can make a difference without taking up a hospital bed.
I’ve seen the camaraderie created during a response, and I’ll miss the bonding that will happen. But even at home, I am living through this pandemic. I’m still trying to make a difference. I’m in the bleakness with others who are at higher risk of COVID-19. I can still help people survive while we find a way out.
In a few short weeks, the scope of our response has changed. People most at risk were already navigating a rigged system. We already know that we moved too slow when the crisis began. For most people, we’re only a month in. There’s no telling how long it will last.
I missed a week! I’ve been trying to stay consistent on the blog but the COVID-19 response has sucked up all my free time. In the meantime, here is a quick post I wrote recently.
ableism is invisible if you are able oppression is invisible if you are the oppressor transphobia is invisible if you are not transgender homophobia is invisible if you are not homosexual white supremacy is invisible if you are white
I used to think it was okay to ban straws because they play such an invisible role in society. I could replace single-use plastic straws with any of the alternatives (paper, bamboo, glass, metal) that work for me. Straws damage wildlife and the environment, meaning their drawbacks outweigh their benefits. In fact, I can even choose to enforce consumerism by proudly purchasing a reusable straw. When I do that, I’m filling a need I didn’t have. My need for them was invisible.
People who can’t drink without straws have tried or know about the alternatives. Many still stick with single-use plastic straws. Why did I instinctively doubt this? When I look for something to meet a need of mine, I research it for hours before settling on my solution. For example, I spent hours researching electric toothbrushes. I tried a few different kinds, I read reviews, and I chose my favorite. Why wouldn’t I imagine others doing the same for their own needs? I could declare that my alternative solution, such as metal straws, is the best for everyone. If someone still prefers plastic single-use straws over metal, they aren’t enlightened enough. One might consider expense to be the biggest factor. Metal straws are more costly than plastic single-use straws. Blake Mycoskie, founder of TOMS, created TOMS Shoes for this reason. By giving shoes for people who are shoeless, he is filling a need that they did not have. He assumes that people without shoes lack them only because of their cost.
Because I am able, using a straw is not something I spend more than a few minutes each month thinking about. Because I am able, I should trust what differently abled people tell me is true for them. Many of us are part of at least one socially-dominant group. It’s our responsibility to listen to the needs and concerns of people who are different from us. Once we have listened, we should work together to act.