Thirty years ago this spring, we faced a global pandemic. Over the course of just a few weeks, all of our schools shut down, restaurants and bars closed, movie theaters went dark, and tens of thousands of businesses were shuttered because of a contagious virus. We watched real-life horror stories: people dying in hospital hallways, morgues beyond capacity, and a health care system completely unequipped to meet the needs of working doctors and nurses. The formal economy tanked.
Remember to imagine and craft the worlds you cannot live without, just as you dismantle the ones you cannot live within.”
– Ruha Benjamin
In a matter of weeks, it seemed like everyone knew someone who had the coronavirus. Then, everyone knew someone who had died from it. Our grandparents died, our friends, our favorite musicians. We lost many elders.
No one knew when it would end. The best thing we could do was stay home, basically cutting the virus off so it couldn’t infect new people. We wondered if we could ever go back to the way we were.
Poet Sonya Renee Taylor answered with this: “We will not go back to normal. Normal never was. 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.”
And you know what? We did stitch that new garment. It took a global emergency – the collapse of our economy, impending irreversible climate chaos, and real attempts to overthrow democracies throughout the world – but we did succeed in creating a new society, one based in solidarity, cooperation, and interdependence. The Great Transition has definitely been an intense few decades, and we’re not done yet, but we’ve come so far. Now we have governing systems that guarantee food, housing, education, employment, healthcare, and a livable planet for everyone, for generations to come.
It’s hard to remember that, before the pandemic, most people didn’t believe that our world today would be possible. Most people felt so disconnected from each other and from the earth that they could not imagine any way to work for positive change. But we did it, and this is how:
First, we got intimate with grief and loss. The enormity and brutality of the pandemic made it virtually impossible for anyone to maintain their “normal” methods of dulling anxiety, which they used in the world we knew before. We all had to learn how to confront the hard feelings.
Numbing myself during stressful times was a tried-and-true practice for me before the pandemic. And I tried to keep it up when the pandemic hit. I felt so anxious those first few weeks, and I grasped onto what I knew. I filled my calendars with virtual social activities, consumed countless hours of online content, obsessively watched the news, and anxiously scrolled through Facebook and Instagram (remember them?). I tried to plan. I tried to work. I tried to maintain the manic pace set by society back then, in our unrelenting push to produce and extract, and avoid messy feelings.
Then I was reminded to slow down. I read this by artist, healer, and theologian Tricia Hersey: “Our normal and regular pace was never meant for humans, but instead, a machine-level pace fueled by capitalism’s call to create wealth by any means necessary.”
I realized that the grief of losing so many people I loved was too much for my old ways. We all did. Together, we made space for death. We became more intimate with it. We learned how to let our tears flow, to move energy in our bodies, to learn from the grief.
In Coming Back to Life, one of the books that served as a roadmap for The Great Transition, Joanna Macy and Molly Brown wrote, “Pain is the price of consciousness in a threatened and suffering world. It is not only natural; it is an absolutely necessary component of our collective healing.”
We couldn’t go back to the way we were, where our personal and collective trauma slowly simmered beneath the surface, causing more despair for each generation we birthed. Instead, we paused, we mourned and felt in our bodies how the grief transformed into resilience. Then we had what we needed to say goodbye to our old ways and open up to something new together.
Second, we learned the true meaning of wealth. In the aftermath of the pandemic, the U.S. could no longer ignore the depth of poverty here. Millions of renters were suddenly unemployed. All of them would have been without homes, unable to pay their rent, except that millions took part in a general rent strike throughout the country.
America’s lowest paid workers kept us alive during that time: farmworkers, grocery store clerks, home health care aids, truckers, sanitation personnel, and factory workers. We grew to understand where true wealth lies: in each other, in collective care, in the land, in the seeds, in our local healers and caretakers, and in indigenous knowledge.
Before the pandemic, wealth was built on patriarchy and colonialism. The world’s richest twenty-two men held more wealth than all the women on the entire African continent. And the rich were continuously getting richer, and the poor were continuously getting poorer.
During the crisis, millions more people finally took notice of the cruelty and moral bankruptcy of corporate America. They started to get angry and looked for another path. Thankfully, community groups, family farms, small nonprofits, and advocacy organizations had been building alternative, decentralized networks for years, based on shared knowledge, trust, and justice. We had a foundation to build upon and we used it.
Third, we harnessed our collective power. The virus was so contagious that one infected person, if they had no symptoms, could move about normally and infect dozens of other people. Because of this, we realized both our own individual power and our intimate connection with one another. If one person could make a big difference in keeping each other healthy and safe, millions could make an even bigger difference.
Mutual aid networks sprang up quickly to help the most vulnerable. In addition to providing basic food and cleaning supplies, the networks supported marginalized communities to build new unions, create cooperatively owned housing, expand disability rights, close prisons, and demand environmental justice, to name just a few victories won in those days.
Where I lived, it was the teenagers already working on climate change advocacy who quickly pivoted to building these mutual aid networks. I remember participating in the Sunrise Movement’s Sunrise School, where thousands of us met online to learn how to make positive social change happen.
Small groups of strategic and visionary young people across the country raised their voices for the Green New Deal, a ten-year plan to mobilize every aspect of American society to 100% clean and renewable energy by 2030, a guaranteed living-wage job for anyone, and a just transition for both workers and frontline communities away from fossil fuels.
We won these changes through real creativity and big risks. We knew we had to become ungovernable in creative, nonviolent ways. And that we did. It wasn’t easy. The global elites did everything they could to stay in power. But progressive, newly elected congresspeople responded to our demands with bold action that transformed society. Together, we won paid family sick leave. Healthcare for all. No more student debt and free college. Jobs for anyone who needed one. Reparations for African Americans. Guarantees for fair wages and housing. An end to the fossil fuel industry. A country powered by renewables.
Our post-pandemic world was too upside down to work slowly within the system for incremental change. With fierce hopefulness, an intimate relationship with grief, and a new understanding of our power, we used our collective imagination to envision a societal transformation. Another world was possible. And we brought it to life. ~~~
Hayley Hathaway is Communications Coordinator for Quaker Earthcare Witness, a North American network of Friends taking spirit-led action to address the ecological crises of our times. She is the former director of Casa de los Amigos in Mexico City. She attends Santa Fe Friends Meeting (IMYM).