What will it take to stand in this opportunity for systemic change?
Disclosure & disclaimer: Some projects mentioned here are partly funded through Seattle’s Equitable Development Initiative, where I work. Views expressed here are my own, not my employer’s.
The data trail of racial wealth and health disparities in the path of COVID-19 is a story of deep injustice. But not the complete story.
Just as high blood pressure lets us know something needs to change, but can’t show us how to be well, we need to look through our data with deep intuition in order to re-imagine the future we want.
Let me paint a story of a healed future. This story asks those with resources and institutional power to drop what we think we know. It asks those waiting for change to stop waiting. The change we yearn for won’t begin from above. This future is already being born, and it invites you to choose which story you’ll be a part of.
We must be clear: justice does not mean catching Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) up to a broken system. Injustice is only a symptom of deeper toxins that hurt us all. Long before COVID-19, communities deeply experienced with displacement, untimely death, social stigma, financial instability, and health disparities have also held wisdom in healing this toxic soil. Justice means supporting their leadership, and doing the work to catch up to them.
1. Healing through restorative justice
All life on Earth today, from bacteria to bananas to baboons, share a common ancestor in LUCA, a microbe that lived four billion years ago. Try strolling around town with that perspective, and you’ll see right away that we humans are close kin.
Maybe we manage to fuck each other up not because we’re so different, but rather because we’re family.
The disease of us-and-them
In My Grandmother’s Hands, Resmaa Menakem traces the brutalities that Europeans had inflicted upon each others’ bodies long before they landed, still unhealed, on this continent. (If the notion of trauma stored in bodies, and not in brains alone, is new to you, look here or here for more. White men putting down their own dancing is just a small example of how dominant-culture bodies can hold trauma through deep body armoring.)
Unhealed trauma spreads. My mom’s body, for example, carries the memory of Cultural Revolution shamings. Her shoulders bore household responsibility at age twelve. Her eyes have witnessed public mutilation. My dad’s belly remembers starvation. His spine still carries a commitment to leave and make a better life for his family.
My body learned their stories. My gut knows the pinch of not fitting in. My throat carries words gone unheard. My muscles hold a fear of lashing out. Somatic therapy has shown me that behaviors I’m often rewarded for—intellectualizing, refusing to surrender, disguising my needs—have been compensations for unprocessed trauma.
As Menakem writes:
“Unhealed trauma acts like a rock thrown into a pond; it causes ripples that move outward, affecting many other bodies over time. After months or years, unhealed trauma can appear to become part of someone’s personality…. And if it gets transmitted and compounded through multiple families and generations, it can start to look like culture. But it isn’t culture. It’s a traumatic retention that has lost its context over time.”
There is trauma in what we call oppressive power. Hoarding ownership and resources is not the behavior of healed, well-connected bodies. Escaping into intellectual strategy, and attempting to predict and control the unknown, is also a systemic trauma.
We can only heal by choosing what Menakem calls “clean pain” over the continuation of centuries of “dirty pain”:
“Clean pain is pain that mends and can build your capacity for growth. It’s the pain you experience when you know, exactly, what you need to say or do; when you really, really don’t want to say or do it; and when you do it anyway. It’s also the pain you experience when you have no idea what to do; when you’re scared or worried about what might happen; and when you step forward into the unknown anyway, with honesty and vulnerability….
“Dirty pain is the pain of avoidance, blame, and denial. When people respond from their most wounded parts, become cruel or violent, or physically or emotionally run away, they experience dirty pain. They also create more of it for themselves and others.”
From this description, it’s easy to see that dirty pain criminalizes Black and brown bodies, and maps property values to land stolen in genocide. But there’s more.
It’s our own dirty pain that rewards political candidates for crushing their opponents onstage. Our dirty pain mutinies when leaders fail, even when failing is the only way to learn what comes next. Many institutions that can survive in this ocean of dirty pain are so well-defended under duress that, even in a catastrophe, they won’t admit to what they can’t know.
Sadly, many powerful institutions have learned to deliver authority without vulnerability. They are too well-protected to lead us in healing.
Healing with vulnerability
If you’ve grieved a loss, you know that healing is messy. It can feel like going backwards for a long time. It takes time for wisdom and insight to emerge. This is why adrienne maree brown’s Emergent Strategy and Pleasure Activism are such important works. We don’t know exactly how to heal collectively, but we can take it one step at a time, guided by the wisdom of nature’s bodies.
Trauma isn’t the only stone that ripples outward. Here are just a few examples of how healing is also rippling all around us.
The newly opened Restore Oakland building centers the wisdom of restorative belonging and agency, held against generations of unjust criminalization and economic injustice.
Locally in Seattle, Queer the Land is learning from the frequent displacement of queer, trans, and Two-Spirit BIPOC to take an emergent and adaptive approach to cooperative land stewardship—not ownership, they stress, because this is Duwamish land.
The 40+ partners at Black & Tan Hall pay critical attention to maintaining relationships, with white partners caucusing regularly to become better allies. The venue will be based in art and food, two experiences that remind us that our gifts have more value when they’re shared.
Nile’s Edge, a black-owned afro-centric healing arts center in the Central District, opened last year after one of its co-owners took a real estate training program and realized that development finance isn’t rocket science, and in fact often doesn’t make sense (more on that in the next section).
The Chief Seattle Club continues to care for homeless urban Natives during the COVID-19 crisis. As Executive Director Colleen Echohawk writes:
“Native people know what to do in these stressful and extreme situations. We take care of each other. We intentionally look for the most vulnerable in our community. We comfort them and lift them up.”
For more on the perspective and lineage of restorative justice, check out this podcast episode with Kazu Haga and Carlos Saavedra.
2. Justice through restorative economics
Today, a few thatched roofs remain as tourist destinations in Iya Valley, Japan.
A newly thatched roof can last 25 years. Back in the day, the roughly 25 families in each hamlet gathered every November to harvest enough thatch for one roof, rotating to keep each roof thatched just in time.
In the 1970s, as more and more young people trickled out to Osaka, this economy of collective care began to fall apart. By the time I moved there in 2005, roofs had long been covered in metal. Nearly 40% of jobs were in public works construction. Truckloads of concrete entered the valley, and truckloads of timber left.
This is the paradox of what we call economic growth. Villagers harvesting thatch for each other doesn’t count towards GDP, but when fractured social bonds force the remaining families to cover their roofs with tin, that gets tallied as growth. Growing enough food to share with neighbors doesn’t show in our economic data, but working a construction job to buy food trucked in from a distribution center does. This numerical accounting is what Charles Eisenstein calls converting the gift into money, and what Just Transition movements such as the Green New Deal call an extractive economy.
The disease of not-enough, part 1: fracture
As a toddler in China, I remember grown-ups telling me how fortunate I was that my parents had left for the US. After having lived through poverty and violent revolution, leaving to pursue opportunity must have been an inevitable choice for them, one I might never know in my own experience.
What I have observed from experience, though, is that uprooting from community seems to make hoarding more appealing. When collective care is not reliable, we suddenly need more than we actually need.
Social fracture can encourage worse than a little hoarding. Research finds that the more anonymous we are, the likelier we are to “defect”, choosing to take advantage, betray, or hoard rather than cooperate. Repeated exposure to this can establish a culture of defection—academic lingo, perhaps, for an extractive economy.
It’s clear how extraction has disproportionately harmed BIPOC communities. Student loan debt, private prisons, displacement, and the health impacts of industrial pollution are only subtler when compared with outright slavery and land theft, yet devastating nonetheless. During this pandemic, predatory buyers are already scouring for land deals.
Nobody truly wins in extraction. For the 76% of Americans who rent our homes from landlords or from banks with a mortgage, it’s often economically impossible to slow down, to take a health break, to use a crisis as an opportunity to reconnect with our wisdom and intuition. Even those with stable jobs don’t necessarily find them fulfilling. Meanwhile, the loneliness epidemic has intensified, hitting 61% of Americans last year before social distancing.
The thing is, most of what we accumulate doesn’t help us in a catastrophe. Properties and financial assets are mostly social constructs, buttressed by legal contracts and insurance policies. Our brains and talents are pretty useless alone. What sustains humanity in a crisis are the relationships that we nurture. Rich relationships are the fertile soil in which shared wealth and ideas can flourish.
The disease of not-enough, part 2: groupthink
As a landlord, I’m learning how easily our extractive culture can override a more intuitive approach to relationships.
In 2012, I bought a small condo right before the market upswing. I eventually moved in with my partner, but the condo had a piece of my heart.
Not ready to sell it, I decided to rent to people who could no longer afford to live in the neighborhood. I’m transparent about finances with tenants, and they agree on what they can pay. When their situation changes, as with COVID-19, we work it out month by month.
What I’m doing isn’t difficult, financially. I’m more than covering my costs. But being a landlord has tested my values.
Since the 1300s, “value” has meant both price (like the value of a house), and worth (like the value of having a place to live). The equivalent “价值” took on this double meaning in China by the 1700s, and in Japan by the 1800s.
This linguistic invention can be a trap when monetary value and emotional value pull in opposite directions. In a society that built high monetary value on land and labor that was stolen through murder, abuse, and betrayal, conflating the two into a single number can feel like systemic gaslighting.
I think this conflation, at a more subtle level, tricks good people into choosing transaction over relationship when they become landlords. When I go against market wisdom, I can feel doubtful and insecure. But if we can escape the trap of conflating monetary value with emotional value, we can then use the gap between costs and “market value” to value relationships and collective care.
Let me be clear: I’m not living cutting-edge non-extraction yet. I’m still claiming a condo built on stolen land, and I’m still collecting rent. What’s more, systems modeling predicts a ceiling to economic growth despite innovation. Factor in the restoration of over-extracted resources and communities, and many thinkers are joining what major religions and philosophers have said: non-extraction doesn’t only mean below-market returns. It can likely mean 0% or negative returns. I’m only just now, researching for this essay, letting this understanding sink in as a landlord.
My point here is exactly this: it’s difficult for institutional power—in my example here, a property deed and relative fluency in real estate finance—to implement justice well. We can think we’re doing well, but power often puts us too close to the assumptions of a failing system.
This is also why change is unlikely to begin in institutions, and why relationships matter. Working across different experiences of power helps us discern wisdom from groupthink.
Healing with relationship
Fractured social bonds played a role in growing this extractive economy, and healed relationships must be on the path to restoring a just economy. Justice must be co-created from the ground up.
Thunder Valley CDC, a regenerative community in the Pine Ridge Reservation, is about reclaiming traditions. “Lakota Community Wealth Building,” writes Stephanie Gutierrez, “is about loyalty to place and to our people, with ownership held by the community, working with each other as one, considering each person and their ability to be part of the economy, and seeing our economy as circular where everything is connected— consciously recreating sustainable communities.”
To zoom in on how they work, consider the design of their chicken coop. Sometimes designs can look different on paper. After construction had already started, a community member noted that the building was looking a little bland, so they added colorful geometric patterns to it. Unremarkable, right? But in hot real estate markets, schedules and budgets have to be tightly accounted for. There’s rarely room for on-the-fly co-creation, so we sacrifice these simple opportunities for a sense of collective ownership.
Locally in Seattle, the Race & Social Equity Task Force began when community groups from Southeast Seattle, Chinatown-International District, and the Central District joined forces in response to displacement risk. One task force member says they’re standing on the shoulders of the Gang of Four, whose legacy of stewardship includes Daybreak Star Center, the Black Student Union of UW, El Centro de la Raza, and InterIm CDA. Larry Gossett, the surviving member of the Gang of Four, continues to uphold the power of cross-cultural solidarity.
As another example of solidarity, Real Rent Duwamish offers a small way for Seattleites to chip in on our impossible debt to the Duwamish Tribe and its ongoing stewardship of these lands, and to support whatever comes next for the tribe.
The Duwamish River Cleanup Coalition is implementing community-led Superfund cleanup that centers environmental stewardship and economic justice. Their work in building community resilience is based in a belief that collective ownership and decision-making is a critical component of resilient development.
Many organizations in Rainier Beach are working together, cross-generationally and systemically, to implement a neighborhood plan intended to fight displacement through a local food economy.
And a group is forming to adapt the Boston Ujima Project’s model locally, a way for communities to invest in collective planning through equitable investment tranches where high-wealth members contribute loan loss funds so that lower-wealth community members can earn higher (3%) returns at the lowest risk.
For more on restorative economics, see this talk by Nwamaka Agbo.
3. Healing in the time of coronavirus
I’ve only scratched the surface of all that’s happening in BIPOC communities to build a just future. There are experiments in the arts, housing, small business, health, immigration, environment, and more. If you’re inspired, please reach out. I love learning and connecting people with one another.
There’s a lot to hope for. But to be honest, I think we’ll mostly squander the pain that has brought us this close to systemic reckoning.
Here’s what it would take, instead, to capture this moment of opportunity to build our system back stronger.
With our heads: steer our imaginations toward a new normal, not the old normal.
“Our pre-corona existence was not normal other than we normalized greed, inequity, exhaustion, depletion, extraction, disconnection, confusion, rage, hoarding, hate and lack. We should not long to return my friends. We are being given the opportunity to stitch a new garment. One that fits all of humanity and nature.” —Sonya Renee Taylor
When we get a bad cold, we need to first recover, then carry on. When we get heart disease, we must not carry on, but rather reinvent our lives. Like the virus itself, this pandemic represents both: a crippling illness, made catastrophic when combined with our society’s underlying sickness.
If we speak only of the infection, and not of the heart disease, we will take wrong action. If we speak of racial justice only as righting the data, and not re-imagining the system, we will spend time and money resuscitating a dying system—energy better spent grieving, and imagining the new.
People with what we call privilege are often, in fact, a few generations behind in recognizing the gravity of our collective disease. This is why hierarchies of existing power are generally not the ones to know what to do right now. To capture this moment is to pour back resources to support BIPOC communities who best know the system’s failures and opportunities.
Will we seize this moment to admit to all that we don’t know?
With our hearts: share power out of gratitude and longing, not out of guilt or generosity.
“How do we then use this crisis as an opportunity to figure out how to deeply invest in those communities, those community leaders, that are really trying to figure out how we create an economic model that is actually rooted in justice, equity, and care?” —Nwamaka Agbo
When racial justice work is motivated by guilt or generosity, it can take a backseat during a crisis. To sustain this work, we must see how connected our hurt is.
I’m typing these words as sunlight streams through leaded glass windows to my desk. Soon I’ll tap a button and the words will stream down a digital river to you, a possible stranger. This home was built on Duwamish land, this computer on a stock-market economy. Many of our gifts are tinged with extraction.
In this complexity, we can hold both gratitude and longing. Let’s long to share a sense of plenty, without extracting from each other and from future generations. Let’s long for security of shelter, without claiming ownership of blood land. Let’s long for belonging, without othering.
It’s long been time to share without charity. To capture this moment is to see that our gifts become our property only if we choose to hoard, and hoarding leaves us longing for a more connected way to be.
Will we seize this moment to open to all that we’d forgotten to value?
With our hands: act out of insight, not instinct.
“Fast action without sufficient analysis and reflection will lead to reactions to the immediate rather than long term transformation. We need to move fast slowly.” —Marcia Lee, 2017
As we rapidly respond to the bleeding from COVID-19, let’s also remember that our system has been bleeding for centuries. What must be different this time, if we are to succeed?
When we as individuals listen deeply to the parts of ourselves that are most hurt and unheard, we can become more whole. When we as a system surrender to the communities that have carried the heaviest of our collective pain, and let it be our collective pain, we might also finally find the grief, and then the insight, to heal.
But here’s the twist: that path is neither quick nor straight. Our well-worn systemic traumas have preferred to avoid grief, to refuse letting go and instead to clamp down. Institutions would write strategy papers rather than hold space for trying out the unknown. We’d choose, once again, dirty pain over clean pain.
Will we seize this moment to grieve all that we can’t predict and control?
There’s gold in this experience. Profound hunger can make way for authentic nourishment. Profound loss can make way for authentic connection. Many of our ancestors brought trauma to this continent, trauma that we now carry, and we’re here together to heal this for a reason.
As with any trauma, we have a choice. We can try to force the outcome that fear demands. Or, we can let the trauma break our hearts open and change us in ways we can’t imagine.