Mia Birdsong at ComNetworkV+
Mia Birdsong, author of How We Show Up: Reclaiming Family, Friendship and Community, is a community curator and storyteller who engages the leadership and wisdom of people experiencing injustice to chart new visions of American life. She has a gift for making visible and leveraging the brilliance of everyday people so that our collective gifts reach larger spheres of influence, cultural and political change, and create wellbeing for everyone.
How to talk about being in community and how it applies to power dynamics
New models for envisioning what relationships and community can look like in the post-COVID world
How community can help us chart a path in the midst of grief or any hardship to heal
The importance of community, collective good, being in good relation to each other and the earth
How pointing to people’s lived experiences can inform institutional learning and transformation
Hey everybody. Welcome. Good afternoon, wherever you might be. Sean Gibbons from The Communications Network. I am grateful to have you all with us for the first keynote address of V+, since we all got it just a little over a week ago for V. That stuff, by the way, all the content that we created together, including with our friend Marvin, who’s right next to me, is available online at comnetworkv.com, will be for the next couple of weeks, so if you missed a session, because life’s been coming at us pretty fast or the last few … well, since March, certainly even before that. All of that is available on-demand for you if you’d like it. Grateful to have all of you with us. Folks are still coming in the moon. As that’s happening, if we could go ahead and grab the chatbox, if you would, use your finger or your cursor, whatever you might have, and Matt [Billings 00:00:49], so you have a question.
If you put it into the chatbox, I’ll try to answer it, my friend. But if you would, let’s do what we’ve always been doing over these last many months. Let’s borrow that practice from professor Brene Brown, the two word check-in. If you would go ahead and make sure you’re talking to all panelists attendees, or maybe I’d say everyone in your chatbox, and just let everybody know who you are, where you’re coming in from, and then if you would, how you’re doing. Real briefly, I’ll try to lead off here. Hi, it’s Sean, overtired, because I still got to watch the debate last night. Other folks, if you would, go ahead and toss that into the chat. Amanda, good to see you, my friend. I know you’re out in Oakland, and actually Mia, who’s going to be joining us in just a quick second, is coming in there for … well, feeling fly. That’s a great way to be.
All right. Hey, Joy. Jade, how are you? Lisa, coming in from Alaska, oh my goodness. Julianne, how are you? [Ellen 00:01:42], Eric, Okay, everybody is flying in here to the chat. I’m going to keep going while y’all are chit chatting and saying hello to one another. If we could, my colleague, Tristan Mohabir is running the slide deck as he often does for us. Tristan, if you’ll go ahead to the next slide. My guess is these faces are popping up really fast [inaudible 00:02:00], but hopefully, some of these faces are really familiar to you. These are the community ambassadors who are bringing us all together at V+. We’re really building community. These folks have been, chances are, reaching out to you, maybe you’ve even had a chance to get together with them, but each of them is going to be helping to guide your journey on V+ between now and December.
We’re all going to be together for the next couple of months, including two and through the election, so we can all plan together for 2021 and get a little bit smarter and better at our work. But those are some of the faces of the really kind good generous folks, who like you, have a lot going on, but have volunteered their time to help us all build community in those small groups. If you’ve not heard from your community ambassador, we sent you an email advertising this session today, and we sent the links so that you can find out who that person is. If there’s a challenge, just reach out to me or to Tristan, or Carrie. We’re happy to put you in touch with your community ambassador. I know they’re keen to talk to you along with all the other folks, the 350 or 360 of us that are participating in V+.
All right. With that, I’m going to stop yakking at you and y’all can continue to chat. I hope you do, but is my deep honor and pleasure to let you know that Mia Birdsong is going to be with us, and we’ve been looking forward to this conversation since the summer. We’re just absolutely thrilled she is one of the people that we are looking to as a real guide and model for all the work that we’ve been doing at the network. I won’t belabor this. I will just pass to her. She, like at least a few of you, is in the Bay Area, and so has been dealing with some of the challenges. We’re all thinking of y’all. Some of the challenges that have been based through the fires and obviously the pandemic that’s been impacting all of us and everything else that’s unfolded. It’s been a really complicated year, to say the least. With that, why don’t I get out of the way. Mia is going to talk for a little bit.
We’re joined by our colleague, [Marla 00:03:36] who’s going to be doing ASL interpretations. Just a quick note, I’m going to go dark, but you’ll see the three of them, including our colleague, Darion Jones from the Meyer Memorial Trust who was kind enough to help guide the conversation, and I will see you on the other side. Lovely to see you all in the chat. I’ll participate in there and I’ll see you on the other side of this conversation. With that Mia and Marla and Darion, if you would, please take it away.
Thank you. I’m so pleased to be here with you all today. I too am feeling fly. I’m talking to you from occupied Chochenyo Ohlone lands, also known as Oakland, California. Last weekend, my kids asked me about moving across the country from New York. I moved here to Oakland nearly 20 years ago in the wake of September 11th. I drove across the country in the days after that national trauma, when everyone is still stuck in shock and grief, when people’s hearts and minds were turned toward care and concern. As a coastal dweller, it was a really interesting time to drive across the country. I remember buying beer in a grocery store in Nebraska, and the clerk seeing the Brooklyn address on my driver’s license, stopped bagging the groceries to ask me if my people were okay. I remember we drove across Wyoming and we passed this Burger King, and the kiosk outside that would usually say, I don’t know, what do they sell at Burger King? [inaudible 00:05:15]. No, that’s McDonald’s. Anyway, whatever they sell at Burger King.
What it said was, New York and DC, our hearts are with you. Everywhere we stopped on that trip, we were met with compassion and concern. It brings to mind the early days of our current catastrophe, the crowds of people leaning out of their windows to applaud for medical staff during shift changes, the recognition of grocery store workers as essential, the stimulus package that the government managed to put in place, the mutual aid groups, which is one of my favorite things in the world that sprung into action all over the country to care for elders and people with disabilities and people with compromised immune systems. The groundswell of uprisings in response to the murders of George Floyd, and Breonna, and all of the other people who have been murdered by police violence. Not unlike post 9/11, the longer the pandemic lasts, the more anxious, fear and hostile distrust and corrosive malice emerge.
The pandemic has shown us who we are. We are both the best and the worst, hoarding and generous individualistic and interdependent, fearful and faithful, violent and nurturing. These revealing pendulum points we’ve swung between over the last seven months, we’ve been confronted with what’s possible and a choice that we have to make. Do we give in to the feeling of scarcity that keeps us thinking of our own needs above others? Or do we listen to the longing in us that wants to be better and do better to live in service of love and connection and joy. Do we continue with the tiny futile facsimiles of progress and justice that make us feel like we’re doing good in the world? Or do we really do what needs to be done? The bold and necessary right things. We get to decide, who do we want to be? This is not abstract, theoretical musings.
This is about how we show up in our daily lives. I’m trying really hard to be self-aware enough to notice when I’m edging toward the harmful side of the pendulum. Those moments I ask myself, what kind of partner do I want to be? Am I going to respond to the impossible demands of parenting and working during a pandemic by being greedy with my time because I’m anxious about getting it all done, or am I going to be giving and trust that my generous husband will be giving in return? What kind of parent do I want to be? Am I going to yell at my kids for not washing their dishes or hound them about how they’re participating in virtual classes, or am I going to be gentle with them as they do the best they can to adapt to new schedules and structures during a traumatic pandemic? What kind of friend do I want to be?
Do I assume that my friends will ask if they need something and secretly hope they don’t because I can barely handle what’s going on in my own house, or do I extend myself into their lives with offers of support that I know will be helpful? What kind of neighbor do I want to be? Do I stay in my house and let out of sight be out of mind, or do I bring a meal to the couple across the street with a new baby and enthusiastically introduce myself to the family that just moved next door? How do I want to be in relationship with myself? Do I overextend myself and try to handle everything on my own because I believe that my independence is an ideal to struggle or do I embrace my vulnerability and ask for the support I need?
I’ve found that in all of these relationships, with my family, my friends, my community, and myself, when I choose generosity and embrace abundance, I experience more wellness, more ease and more wholeness. There is this beautiful alchemy that happens when we are collectively generous. We discover that together we actually have enough, enough time, enough energy, enough love, enough resources and enough attention. It’s like that trust exercise, where everybody stands in a circle with one of their shoulders facing in the same shoulder, obviously pre-COVID times, then everyone sits down at once. Everyone is held and everyone is holding. But this, this way of being, this generosity, this vulnerability goes against the socialization we receive in this country. The socialization that has us believing that we are independent, and in order for us to do well, we have to win and others must lose.
If I want change to happen, I must step into my responsibility and do what I know is right, what I know is mine to do. Let me talk about responsibility for a minute as I’ve come to understand it, and this is based on the teachings of Zen master, Norma Wong. Norma explained that responsibility is literally your ability to respond. When I say I step into my responsibility and do what I know is right, I’m saying that I recognize that it is within my capacity to be generous about time with my husband or to reach out to a neighbor. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t days when I’m too tired or too depleted, but if my community, if my relationships have been built and fed with collective love and care, if we are holding each other and being held, then that safety net and support holds me through the times when I can’t hold myself.
This is essential, powerful work that each of us needs to do in our own lives. It’s transformative to reclaim interdependence and all that comes with it. We also need to work to make sure that our systems and institutions operate this way. You get sick with COVID. If you have a mild enough case, you can stay home and loved ones can care for you, bring you soup and books to your doorstep, walk your dog, Zoom with your kids to keep them occupied for a little while. They can check in on you to see if you’re getting better or worse. But what if you miss four weeks of work and you can’t pay your rent? What if your insurance doesn’t cover what becomes an expensive hospital stay? What if you have a toddler at home and no childcare? What if your illness leaves you with disability and you can’t work anymore?
No amount of soup and love from friends is going to address the ways in which our systems are failing. The last seven months have revealed a lot about us as people, and they have also illuminated the deep inequities in our systems, whether it’s the workplace or healthcare, education or housing, food, caretaking, the systems that we should all be able to depend on are failing, and they are failing for the same reasons that some of us have shown up to this moment as our worst selves. Our systems are rooted in the hoarding, individualism, fear and violence bred by white supremacy, patriarchy and capitalism. These systems are failing, but they are not broken. They were designed this way. The racism and sexism and extraction are built in. That means we can design generous new systems and build in resilience, and equity, and inclusion.
What does that mean? Resilience, equity, and inclusion. These are words that we say, but what do we mean when we say them? Resilience is about care. Resilience is sustained through collective care. We often talk about like, an individual’s resilience, but I’m talking about those moments that I’m tired and depleted. It’s the support of community that helps keep me going. It is when I’m at my peak here and I’m falling into a trough where I don’t have capacity, energy, where I’m depressed, I’m feeling traumatized. It’s my people who carry me through to the next place and help restore my energy. That is resilience. Equity is a form of love. It’s love that recognizes and protects everyone’s inherent humanity. Inclusion is about belonging. Belonging is not tolerance, or even just getting a seat at the table.
It’s having the power to contribute to the design and the building of the table and the space to be heard when you say, “Maybe we don’t need a table, maybe we should have a bridge, or a bucket of apples.” When we belong, we have room to co-create and change the thing we belong to, care, love and belonging. It all sounds a little mushy and idealistic, doesn’t it? Our culture promotes independence and stoicism and logic. When we say that someone’s being emotional, we mean it as an insult, but look at how that’s worked out for us. We adults often dismiss idealism as childish, but I think we have a lot to learn from the idealism and hope and optimism that children wield, and the simplicity with which they understand what is right and wrong and how to fix a problem.
For example, when my son was six or seven and we were in the car and we were driving past a homeless encampment near our house, and he asked me why there were people without homes. I, in an age-appropriate way, explained housing costs and discrimination against poor people and the problems with our shelter system. He took all this in and he said, “We should just give everyone a home.” He’s right. Housing, shelter is a human right. We should just give everyone a home. In the Bay Area, we have five vacancies for every unhoused person. There is no good reason, no moral reason that we have not provided everyone with a home. But adults, we shrug off ideas like that. We talk about private property and our biases about poor people start leaking out. We talk about disincentivizing work, or drug and mental health issues, or cultures of poverty.
I hear the same arguments from liberal and conservative people when I talk about things like guaranteed income. Guaranteed income is an elegantly simple approach to economic inequality. But when I start talking about giving poor people, no strings attached to money, well-meaning people start saying, “It’s complicated.” I hear the same resistance when it comes to addressing pay inequality, workplace discrimination, universal health care, the overwhelming white and maleness of our government, organizations and institutions, police violence against black and indigenous people, inadequate funding in schools that serve black and brown children, the wealth hoarding of the rich. I could go on and on and on. What I hear in our conversations about these things, when the simple elegant solution is presented is, it’s complicated, but it’s not.
The solutions exist, but they require us to make bold choices, and we are all suffering from our refusal to do so. The people most negatively impacted by all of these injustices are people of color, women, gender nonconforming people, poor people, middle-class people, queer people for sure, but all of us are suffering. I want to read you a little piece from my book. It’s called How We Show Up: Reclaiming Family, Friendship, and Community. “Being on the receiving end of harmful oppressions is decidedly and specifically horrible. Wielding them has its own corrupting and denigrating impact on the imposer. This is important to understand, not because it makes those hold privilege and power victims, or somehow as equally harmed as those who experience racism, sexism, and classism, it’s important to understand because the work of dismantling systems of oppression that you benefit from isn’t altruistic work that just helps others. It’s about your own liberation as well.”
“American capitalism extracts from poor and middle-class people and from our planet and builds detachment and greed in the hearts of the wealthy. Patriarchy hurts women and gender non-conforming people, and it also deeply limits men. White supremacy harms people of color and it also diminishes white people.” I’m going to repeat this because I want it to be irrefutably clear. “The harm experienced by the oppressors is not equivalent to the harm experienced by the oppressed. Capitalism, white supremacy and patriarchy are not good for anyone, but the work that needs to be done by those who exert oppression and those hard targets is markedly different. While the corrupting power of capitalism on rich people and the restrictive nature of patriarchy on men is fairly apparent, white supremacy’s negative impact on white people is under-explored and warrants some unpacking.”
I agree with what Lama Rod Owens calls the trauma of whiteness, and that it’s not going to be wholly healed without white people recognizing that they have work to do on themselves, that includes understanding how their own liberation is impeded by white supremacy. When we hear white supremacy, we tend to think of the blatant, visible racism of the Klansmen, the N word or modern day Nazis. But I’m talking about the more mundane and insidious white supremacy that is embedded in American cultures, systems, institutions, the dynamics of our relationships and our own psyches. As Tema Okun points out in her piece, White Supremacy Culture, culture is powerful precisely, because it is so present, and at the same time, so very difficult to name or identify. It’s the pervasiveness and the sometimes near and visibility of white supremacy that makes it both hard to pull apart and toxic.
There are a variety of downsides to white supremacy for white people. There’s the proximate harm of having people of color you may love be harmed by white supremacy. There are also contributions from people of color that we are collectively missing out on because of white supremacy creates barriers for people of color’s brilliance. And there’s the soul deadening impact of having an identity that is predicated on the impression of other people. The American dream is white supremacy culture bound up with capitalism and patriarchy. In addition to espousing a belief that white people are superior to people of color, white supremacy is also about a culture of rigidity, efficiency, more is better, ignorance is bliss, scarcity hoarding, binaries, and toxic individualism. My friend, Matt, who’s white, spoke to how it limits his ability to connect with others.
He said, “White supremacy makes it harder for white folks to connect authentically, understand others and accurately empathize.” Since oppression is definitionally a form of dehumanization, since it denies the full subject hood of those being oppressed, I think there’s a deep level in which it limits human connection. White supremacy keeps white people from being deeply known to others and themselves. It casts what’s human about white people as a weakness. My friend, Taj James wrote of this moment. “You are being drafted, not to fight a war, but to end one. Ending war takes more love, courage, bravery, and grit than fighting one.” We really need love and courage right now. We are facing unprecedented disaster. I’m talking to you from a place where the air causes harm when you breathe it because fires are raging along the entire West Coast.
We are in the middle of a global pandemic, our upcoming election will determine whether or not we remain a democracy. As Adrienne Maree Brown recently wrote, “This is not an election year. It’s a genocide intervention year.” I believe in us, I believe in what’s possible when we think beyond ourselves and when we put ourselves on the long road and think about our descendants. I believe in us, because anytime I start thinking small, I remind myself how big my ancestors had to dream for me to be here. Imagine it’s, I don’t know, 1760s. My enslaved ancestors back then came from generations of enslaved people before them. It was more than a hundred years after they lived that slavery ended. Many people in the 1760s thought that slavery was morally wrong, but too big and pervasive to end. You know there were some people that were like, slavery is too big to fail. The South will never go for ending slavery. How will we pay for it? What would all those free black people do? What about the economy?
Let’s just make slavery more tolerable, kinder, gentler slavery. But abolitionists were like, no, our freedom is non-negotiable. Slavery is wrong. It is morally indefensible and it needs to be ended. Period, full stop. They built the abolition movement because they had the moral courage that’s necessary for seismic change. We have to have moral courage. We have to have the moral courage to stop allowing racism and sexism and classism and ignorance dictate anyone’s access to basic human rights. This moment is calling for a different kind of leadership. Sometimes that’s going to be about using the power you have to speak up for justice and make decisions that prioritize humanity over the false comfort of the status quo. We always need the leadership of the people who are most impacted by the failures in our systems. We need the leadership of farm workers who are working 12 hours a day in air that is designated as unhealthy.
We need the leadership of grocery store workers who are daily confronted with customers who refuse to wear their masks because they have a twisted idea of what freedom is. We need the leadership of imprisoned people who can not stay six feet away from each other and who don’t have adequate access to soap, hand sanitizer, or masks. We need the leadership of the folks that I’ve met at places like Homefulness in East Oakland. Homefulness is an extraordinary community of currently and formerly unhoused people. Not only have they solved not having homes for themselves, they’ve built homes for themselves. They also have a school for their children. They have a radio station that broadcasts one of the only places that you can actually hear from currently unhoused people living under underpasses in Oakland. They have therapy goats, they have a garden, they have a no-cost cafe.
They have wraparound services for members of their community who need mental health support. They’ve created all of these things themselves, because our systems and institutions have rejected them. So they were like, “Okay, look, we’re going to go do it ourselves.” It’s from these communities that we find the wisdom and leadership that points toward, not just what is possible, but what’s necessary. It’s where we find modalities for inclusive systems and structures of love and care and interdependence. One of the things I do when I have a decision to make is I imagine how my 97-year-old self will look back on my present moment. I want each of you to imagine yourselves 50 years in the future, that’s assume that you’ll all be alive, what world do you want that person to live in? What choices do you need to make now so that, that world is possible?
I’m a constitutionally optimistic person, and I am buoyed by knowing that humans are wired for interdependence and connection, and that love and care are fundamental needs that we all have. The good is in our nature. I’m counting on the belief I have, that despite all of the damage and harm we do to ourselves and others, we will find a way to the future that our descendants deserve. The future is what we do together. Thank you.
Mia, thank you so much for that amazing keynote. I feel like, each time I hear you speak, I get closer and closer to feeling more connected with you. I really appreciate some of the ideas that you brought up around kind of community, resilience and moral courage. It makes me think a little bit about one of the lines in your book around freedom and understanding that it’s both in individual and collective endeavor achieved through being connected. It makes me wonder why it is this book about community so important right now, in this moment where we’re having racial reckoning and this ongoing pandemic that you just referred to when it’s so hard to have community.
Yeah. So many reasons. I spent two and a half years writing this book on community, and long before any of us had ever heard of COVID. It came out in June kind of in the middle of this pandemic and this moment of racial reckoning, and so many other things that were kind of colliding, the economy’s blowing up for people. I think that it’s something that … Frankly, I wrote it to answer questions that I had and things that I felt like I was trying to figure out for myself. Part of what I feel like I came to is that, again, we as human beings, we’re not independent. We, as animals are … we’re pack animals. We actually like truly need to have other people around in order to be well, and we live in a culture, the American dream culture is very much predicated on ideas of like deep individualism.
Our notion of freedom very much is about like, I’m gonna do whatever the hell I want to do and I just don’t want anybody telling me what to do. One of the kind of big revelations I had was some research I did around freedom and discovering that our understanding of it is, of course warped, and the word freedom and friendship have the same root. Freedom used to mean the well-being that we could only find in community with other people. It was about us working together in our tribes to make sure that everyone has the things that they need. That is what freedom means. Once I realized that, I felt like I was like, oh, this is a truth that I knew in my bones, that I’d been looking for and just didn’t know how to talk about. That in and of itself, I feel like just pushed me into this place of being like, oh, this is who we are fundamentally.
We are deeply connected. We are interdependent. John A. Powell, who’s a thinker that I deeply respect, one of the things he says is that connection is not something that we have to build, it’s already there. It’s just been like covered up with crap and we really just need to pull all the layers back and reveal the inherent connection that’s already there. That to me is such a beautiful idea. As I was doing the research for the book, which was just talking to all the people who I could find, who I felt like had some model of doing family or friendship or community in a way that I thought would teach me something, as I was talking to them, it changed how I was being in my own life. I’m so grateful that all of that happened before the pandemic. I feel like I really shored up my relationships in a way that has made surviving right now so much easier.
Part of what I see us doing, in this moment when the thing that we know how to do in terms of comforting each other and being there for each other, doesn’t work because being together in physical proximity is dangerous. I see so many of us adapting and figuring out how we can show up anyway. For example, very early in the pandemic, when we were trying to stay out of grocery stores, we were like, you have to have like two or three weeks worth of food to limit your trips to the grocery store. My friend Sarah started texting a small … like three or four of us, and every time she’d go to the grocery store, to ask if there was anything she needed. My initial response to myself was like, no, no, no. I’m just going to say, no. Thank you, no. Because that sounds like a pain. It just felt like an imposition of some sort. Then I was like, oh, I’m doing that thing where somebody is offering support, and it truly could be helpful, but I’m like leaning back into my independent self and saying, “No, I don’t need your help.”
I was like, let me not do that. Let me practice what Amoretta Morris at the Annie Casey Foundation calls the divine circle of giving and receiving. She talks about how we all understand the benefit of like receiving, but we often forget the benefit of giving. Sometimes we will say, no. We won’t ask for help, or we’ll say no to support because we feel we don’t want to burden somebody, and we forget that the people who want to … when we give to other people, it feels good to us. I said yes to my friend, Sarah, and I think asked her to bring me like salt, because I told her I was about to run out of salt and I can’t cook without salt. She brought me salt. It meant I didn’t have to go to the grocery store for another week. It was like the one thing I needed.
One, I got this useful thing. But then, the best part was I waved to her, she dropped it off and I waved to her through my front window, and her face just lit up. I was like, oh, yes, that’s that thing. She is restored by being able to provide me with this thing that is helpful to me. It wasn’t like a big deal. It’s salt. I could have figured it out, but I was just so struck by the obvious joy that she got from it. I think it’s also this thing we feel about … when we do something for other people, we feel like we’re part of something. It allows us to be in each other’s lives in a slightly more intimate way. That is the thing that like strengthens the web of connection between us, so that when the shit hits the fan, when we are really and truly in need, those webs of connection are really strong and we actually can lean on each other.
That part, the giving and receiving, contributing to that circle feels like a kind of weaving. I think that so many of us need to do that right now. That was a long answer to your question. I don’t remember what the question was.
No, that’s perfect. No, I think you got to it exactly, just around the need for something like this in a time when it’s so challenging to just do those kinds of basic community building things. Your book really does speak to, I think, this idea of the craft of creating community. It makes me wonder a little bit more about why or how does storytelling play into those ideas of community and what is one way that you think readers can hone that craft right now, or as storytellers as well?
There’s this beautiful adage that’s attributed to lots and lots of different places, but it is that, the shortest distance between two people is a story. We understand, like we are moved by stories, not by … It’s again, we’d like to believe that we are logical, and that our minds are changed by data and pie charts, but that’s not true. We are deeply feeling creatures. Another thing our culture does is try to get us to suppress that part of ourselves as opposed to acknowledging it and actually honing it in a way that allows us to be led by things like love and care. When I think about how I learn, I was like, oh, I learned through stories, examples of how to be in the world are deeply educational to me. I wanted to …
I knew for me that the best way for me to learn about something as intricate and diverse and beautiful and nuanced as relationship between people was going to be best revealed to me through just hearing dozens and dozens of stories. I personally like love stories. It’s one of the main ways that I try to communicate. So, I was like, well, I want to fill this book with stories, because I was like, I can’t give anybody a blueprint. I can’t give you like, here are the 10 steps to creating community, but I can show people lots and lots of examples of what it looks like outside of the context that we’ve been given kind of from our dominant culture. So, outside of the context of the insular nuclear family, outside of the context of biological family, outside of the context of … like we’re going to be a family and then we’re kind of isolated, and we might go out to dinner with people, but we’re not really caretaking with them.
One of the stories that has most resonated with people that I include in the book is a story about me and a friend of mine who’s diabetic. She’s has no partner. She lives by herself. I realized at some point that … My neighbors and I will take care of each other’s pets. I was like, I know more about the medical needs of my neighbor’s pets than I do the medical needs of people who I consider family. We have this kind of, it’s not even like an overt assumption, it’s just like a built in assumption that your parents or your family of origin is who takes care of your medical needs when you’re young. Then the assumption is you’re going to get married, you’re going to have a partner, who then will be your person so that, if you need anything medically, that’s the person who’s going to do stuff.
I was like, I know so many unpartnered people, who’s helping them with that stuff? I felt super awkward asking Mariah, my friend, about like … I was like, “What happens if something goes down and you need help? How do we do that?” She was like, “No one’s ever asked me that.” I know it’s not because like the rest of her friends are jerks, it’s because we have no model for that. But because I’d been thinking about it so much, I asked her, so I now am like, there’s a handful of us. We are her people when it comes to her medical stuff. I have an app on my phone that gives … an alarm goes off if her blood sugar gets too low. We have a shared Google doc where we have the names of her doctors and some of her instructions on things.
She will call a group of us if she feels like her blood sugar is getting too low and she just wants us to check on her in 10 minutes. I’ve driven over to her house in the middle of the night pre-COVID and sat with her until her insulin levels evened out. We don’t do that with our friends very often, and I was like, oh, this is how we need to like insert ourselves into each other’s lives, and it requires a tremendous amount of vulnerability. It was extremely brave of her to create that space for us. Then it also requires commitment. I don’t turn my phone off at night anymore, because the alarm won’t go off. I won’t hear the alarm if my phone is off, so I don’t turn my phone off anymore. That means that sometimes I get texts at 3:00 AM from somebody on the East Coast who forgets that I’m in a different time zone.
That’s a really little change, but I’m like, there are these ways in which we mind each other, we tend to each other in a different way when we allow ourselves to have our friends insert themselves in our lives, and when we insert ourselves in each other’s lives.
Thank you. I think that is such a beautiful segue into a question that just came in through one of our attendees, Tally Smith at Smith and Connors. I think it’s really around, how do we tend and connect with people across a division? This question is specifically around the current moment between the left and the right conservative progressive divisions in our country that have created a space where we aren’t moving toward togetherness as Americans, or as a nation. Do you have thoughts on how we can story tell, or I guess, build that community and tend to each other?
Yes. I’ve lots of thoughts. I get this question a lot. People on the left are, as far as I can tell, way more interested in bridging divides than people on the right. I think it’s important that we acknowledge that because people on the right are not thinking about how the left will think about anything they’re trying to do. That orientation is horrific, but it’s also real. There’s such a distinction that we need to make between staying open and not letting ourselves dismiss or be cut off from the humanity of every person on the planet. There’s a difference between that and setting good boundaries. I personally am not interested in bridging divides with people who don’t actually acknowledge my full humanity. That’s not where I’m going to spend my energy. What I wish we would do a lot more of is think about the people who are kind of already like in our camp and on our side, but we don’t pay attention to.
I’m thinking about unhoused people. I’m thinking about people in prison, I’m thinking about sex workers, I’m thinking about anybody who is deeply marginalized because of their identity or their profession, and who progressive politics ought to be focused on. I’m trying to build the bridges that I need to build with people who I feel I’m like not doing a good of good job with. It’s not people on the right, it is people on the far left, or who would be … I don’t even know how to say it in terms of left and right, because it’s not really that, but it’s the people who I feel like progressive politics ought to be taking care of. Those are the people who I’m trying to build bridges with. At the same time, so yesterday … Let me be clear, I’m an abolitionist. I’ve been an abolitionist since 1998. I think that we should abolish prisons, policing, surveillance, and any carceral approach to social problems.
Yesterday, I had a beautiful conversation with someone who was a cop for 30 years, and who is definitely not an abolitionist. The conversation that we had was not about how we felt about policing, because it’s not really going to go anywhere. Our conversation was about being black women in predominantly white environments. Our conversation was about how we both have really beautiful, chosen family that we have spent a long time kind of cultivating for ourselves. Our conversation was about her sharing really traumatic medical issues that she’s had and how that’s impacted her. It was a conversation that was our story. It was like who we are. It wasn’t about our politics. There were definitely points in the conversation where I felt my discomfort.
Yeah, just my discomfort with her politics. I was like, “Oh, this place, this place inside of the tension, this place in the discomfort is where we need to sit. We need to sit so that we can actually continue to hold each other’s humanity.” Not necessarily because we’re going to find agreement on our politics. Obviously, she’s not somebody who is dismissing my humanity because she’s also a black woman. But it was a really … I’m still wrestling with my icky feelings about some of that conversation because of my politics and her politics and I’m just trying to lean into that. But then there’s people … Donald Trump, I feel like is just such a extreme, but folks who don’t think Donald Trump is racist. I’m like, I don’t have anything to say about that.
At the same time, I’m like, whoever that is, is a full human being and I can hold their humanity, but I’m not going to ever seed ground that is asking for me to accept the idea that I’m not totally a human being. That’s where I feel like we need to do a much better job around boundaries. Again, this is the place where, in our personal relationships and in our systems writ large, there’s all of this relational overlap. We really need to think about, what are the boundaries I’m not willing to cross? I’m not willing to accept an ideology that says that a trans man is not a man. That is fundamentally not cool with me, and I’m not going to accept that. I can decide that somebody who says that is a human being and I can recognize that they probably love their children. There are people who care about them and love them. It’s important for me to maintain that, that they are human being, but I’m not going to seed that boundary like a boundary that’s about dignity and humanity.
Thank you. I think that was a really, really deep and articulate way of kind of helping us get clearer about what that bridge looks like and understanding that you have to create boundaries in order to get to somewhere else. It also makes me think about your kind of an overarching thing in the book being on belonging, and this sense of feeling in community. Just personally, as a black cis gay man, your definition of chosen family really resonated with me. While I was reading it, I often felt deeply connected, and as you heard and felt heard as a queer person. I’m curious if there’s some advice that you can offer me and other communicators around listening and what it means to be a better, a more effective listener to get to those true stories so that we can get to that sense of belonging and other people can see themselves reflected.
This is a great question. I think the kind of surface answer around listening has to do with how much are you talking and not taking up space and things like that. But if we’re talking about listening to create belonging, we have to recognize that trust is required for that, and trust is something that’s built over time. So much of what we want in the world, we can’t be like, oh, I’m going to do this thing right now, and then it’s going to be there. It really is like, oh, it’s over a period of time that these things happen. When I think about how so much of my work is about talking to people and them telling me their story, so part of that is articulating something really clearly about that, when I’m talking to people, I’m like, your story is your story. I throw out all of the rules that journalists and academics have about objectivity or …
Often, when I write, for the book, I wrote the stories. If people wanted to, they got to read them before I included them in the book to tell me if they were okay, which is not something a journalist or an academic who’s doing research would ever do. But I’m like, those are not my stories. I’m just shepherding these stories forward and I want people to feel like the story that’s being told about who they are is the one that they want told. I don’t need them to be true. I often say like, don’t let facts get in the way of the truth. As a communicator, I’m like, I have an agenda. There’s a thing that I’m trying to get across. Sometimes I forget statistics, for example. If I say 80%, and really at 75%, somebody who’s going to be super pissed off about that, but generally, people will understand what it is I’m trying to convey.
I feel like the message that I’m trying to get across is more important. Part of it is really letting people own their stories so that whatever they’re sharing with me, I’m thinking of myself as a midwife. I’m creating some space for the story to come out, and then I’m shepherding that story, but it is always theirs. I think when people at least hear that from you, they’re more likely to share. Then part of it is, it’s really allowing yourself to be with people, to be present with them. I feel like we have so few moments in our lives where we get to sit with either virtually or in person, another person, and we feel their attention on us. We feel like they’re not being distracted. Nevermind like phones, but by their own brain and whatever it is that they have to do. It’s really about, I try to be present with people in a way that, even if we only have half an hour, I’m like half an hour is all the time in the world and I’m gonna give all of that time to this person.
Part of it is about being truly present with people. When we’re truly present with people, like I may have a list of questions that I think I want to ask, but when I’m truly present with people, the questions I ask demonstrate that. They’re the questions that follow what it is they’re sharing with me. I pay attention to the part of me that’s like, they’ll say something, and I’m like, oh, I want to know more about that. Or I don’t understand that. Or I’ve never heard that before, and then I’ll ask more deeply. What I find is that storytelling is often, in that context, is a way of people processing their stuff. That’s so powerful for folks to be able to tell a story that’s not just them recounting something, but them actually being able to move through a piece of their life and understand it differently on the other end.
It’s not just about sitting silently and repeating what people say so that they know that you heard them, but it really is like, how do you actually pay attention?
Thank you. That was so helpful. I think it helps me understand how you got to those narratives and all the different ways that you spoke about people’s lives and spending that time being intentional and just being present is something that we don’t often have opportunity to do. I want to shift a little bit maybe to something, still on topic, but a little bit more personal to you. A question that was posed from Lisa [Demer 00:56:49] that talks about, what is the community that has meant the most to you and how did you come to it?
Oh, wow. That’s a great question. When I was like in middle school and high school, I sort of lamented not having a group of friends. I had many circles of friends. In high school, I was the captain of the cheerleading team, so I had all the girls, at that point, that I was … on my squad. I also did theater, so then I had like all the theater people, and then I also was in a couple of choirs, so I had like the music people. I also was in advanced and AP classes, and I had this crew of like nerdy white boys, who we would … we played Euchre during lunch and would watch Alfred Hitchcock movies on the weekend. That was if I wasn’t like going out with my friends who went to clubs and drank a lot and did drugs. I had all of these like different circles of people. I did not, I was totally straight edge until I got to college, just FYI.
All these like very like disparate groups of people and moved through those places. In high school, there was no one place that I felt was my community. I felt like I had to have all of these places in order to be my full-self. Now that I’m older and I’m 47 and a half, no fucks to give, I’d be my full-self wherever I am, but I still have like these very different communities. It really is about, like I’m learning something different from each of them. Each of them holds me in a different way. Each of them shows up for me in a different way. But if I had to, if I had to answer that question, I would say that my community of black women is queer black women. They’re mostly queer black women who dislike, teach me everything who are the wisest people that I know, who hold me up, who are my cheerleaders, who totally don’t let me get away with shit that’s not aligned with my integrity.
Will call me on my BS, who I can just like be my whole full-self, who don’t judge me. Queer black women just … Most of the stories in my book are from queer black women, because that’s who I see doing family and friendship and community in the most powerful, inclusive, transformative beautiful ways. Everybody should be listening to and following queer black women in their lives. You put a queer black woman in charge of things, then it’s just going to be better.
I agree with that [crosstalk 01:00:14].
All you foundation people. I can say this because I’m not a foundation person. All of you should put queer black women in charge of your foundations.
I appreciate you so much and the stories in your book really do reflect the powerful leadership of community building and the black girl magic that so many queer black women do. I think you spoke about people having to do resilience everyday just to live. I could talk to you forever, I feel like. I want to get our last question out as we kind of approach our time, which is a question that round us back to the current things that are going on, essentially the questions about young adults and many people who feel removed and disenfranchised, like they cannot engage at all in the current world, whether it be COVID, whether it be the elections, and they don’t connect the efforts to change and improve our world with being at the ballot box. How do you think we can reach them and actually get the turnout to get to that future we want.
I find that so often those of us, and I include myself here, who hold some kind of power and privilege and want to impact a community of people, we’re like, oh, how do we change those people to make them different? The anti poverty world is rife with this awful thing that, if we do fix poor people, then they won’t be poor anymore. I’m like, no, y’all, our economy is the problem. Capitalism is the problem. Poor people are fine. In listening to your question, I realize, I’m like, oh, I do the same thing. We do the same thing when it comes to young people. We’re like, how do we get them to do something different? What do we change about them? I’m like, yo, they would engage. They would totally engage if we did not give them such shitty choices. There’s no trust.
When I think about the ways in which the young, I include myself in this, but particularly the young progressive people that I know, the ways in which we’re asking them in the federal presidential election. These are their choices. Those are terrible choices. I get why they’re like, I don’t want to do that. We need to give people better choices. We need to be, and this is one of the bold things we need to do, is we need to stop drifting to be like, let’s have a slightly different choice from the horrible one we’re offered. Let’s just have one that’s a little bit different. I’m like, no, I want to choose between Donald Trump and a radical queer black woman. That’s what I want to choose between. Not two old white men, who are like … I’m like, yes, believe me. There are a million reasons to vote for Joe Biden, he is not one of them in my book, but I’m totally going to do that.
But I feel young people are like, why would we do that? Part of it is I’m like, what do we need to change? What do we need to change about how the choices we’re offering people, what do we need to change about the circumstances that we’re creating for young people so that they feel like their voices matter? We continually dismiss young people as being idealistic or unrealistic or not thinking things through enough. I’m like, no, they actually have great ideas. We should be listening to them. If young queer black women were running the world, we would all be fine.
Hallelujah. Well, Mia, I want to thank you again for your time with us today and appreciate all the wisdom [crosstalk 01:04:19].
I’m sorry. Let me say one thing too about that, because I don’t think that young people are not engaged, I think that they’re just not engaged with the systems of change that exists. I think that they are creating their own ways of being engaged. Most of my friends are probably five to 10 years younger than me, because they have so much to teach me about how to be in the world, so I also think we need to expand what we’re thinking about as engagement, and if we want young people to engage in the established systems, then those things need to change, but they’re definitely … They care about … So many of our movement, I think about like the gun violence movement, I think about racial justice movements are being led by young people. Those movements are all being led by young people, but we need to … If we want to change our systems and institutions, then we need to create space for those people to engage in those, and that’s not going to happen unless we create that change in those institutions and systems.
I agree. The new systems have to be created, because you can’t use this old system that’s broken. Perhaps reaching out to those people out there that we’re trying to reach and asking them what systems work for them might be the way to do it.
And putting them in charge of those systems.
Absolutely. Well, Mia, thank you so much for this conversation.
Your wisdom and all that you do to kind of move us forward as a society. I am excited to read your next book.
All right, gang. I guess this is where I get to say goodbye, and thank you. Huge gratitude to our friend Marla, who has been with us now for the last couple of weeks, and I’m hoping, I’ll ask you now, Marla, will you come back? I saw a nod. Yeah, that’s wonderful. Everybody, I know we spent an hour talking about community, and you have a community. I hope that you have, if you’ve not already, made an effort to reach out to your community group, and we’ll bring you all together on the app. I’d pull it up if I could actually get the thing to work, but it kind of looks like this. You can see my screen. Click on that, and we’re all in here, so please do join us. Tristan, if you would, if you could throw up the slides, a couple of things I just want to show you just to make sure that I’m taking advantage of the fact you’re here. I can tell you a few things we have coming up.
One is that’s the next week we are going to have a conversation with our friends from the [Mach 01:06:51] Foundation and folks in the Flint community about the story that, unfortunately, we all know too well, which is the challenges that we saw unfolding in Flint. Unfortunately, that story is probably not alone to Flint, but that is coming up just next week. We’re going to talk about how listening and learning can drive community change, really centering the voices of folks who are most effected, so we’ll have that next weekend. Then Tristan, if you’ll jump ahead, couple more things coming up, Evan Wolfson, I hope, I expect you know the story, but maybe you haven’t heard it directly from him. You will on Thursday the 22nd, so please block out that time. Our former board chair, and one of my great friends, Jesse Salazar, is going to lead a conversation with Evan Wolfson.
That was all about listening. In the wake of California’s prop eight, figuring out that the messages that they were trying to use to move forward marriage equality, after going over 32 at the ballot box, simply wasn’t working. What did they do? They did different, and they went out and they listened a lot to figure out how to move it forward. Evan’s going to tell us that story and all that went into it, all the data and science and rigor that went into the communications work. It’s just transformative. Then Tristan, if you’ll take us forward, just before election day, and obviously we’re not putting our finger on the scales. We want you to vote. That’s all I’ll say about that. But Dr. Jones is going to make sure you know why your vote matters. We’re going to have a conversation and some reflections from him in conversation with our good friend, Jenny Oldham, from The Healing Trust down in Nashville.
Jenny and Dr. Jones will be with us. You can see it right there just before Halloween, Thursday, October the 29th. A lot more to come. Nat Kendall-Taylor is actually gonna talk to us about how we talk about systems change, something we discussed quite a bit today. That’ll be coming up in November. We’ll be continuing to gather like this, and your community groups will be gathering independently between now and early December. Grateful to all of you. Thank you for making time. I know we went a little bit over. We will have, by the way, last thing is replays of this conversation with Darion and Mia will be up. I will share that through the app and we’ll send you emails to get access to that and transcripts and all the rest of it available to you very, very soon.
For now, please do stay safe, be well, and our deep gratitude to both Darion and Mia for the kindness of their time, the generosity of their big brains and their lovely spirits. Thank you all very much. We’ll be back, and see you soon. Cheers.