What are we worth?

Here’s what 2020 told us about the things we deserve in America

6 minute read
The sun is setting on another year. What are we taking with us? (Photo by Alaina Johns.)
The sun is setting on another year. What are we taking with us? (Photo by Alaina Johns.)

There are two ways of looking at what we the people are worth in 2020. Let’s boil those down to two examples.

One example is our Congress, who let the question of whether or not we’re worth being fed and housed and kept alive in a deadly pandemic come down to a razor-thin deadline, wrangling over payments of a few hundred dollars to desperate American households.

Another example is the answer to a recent local call for help. Someone posted in a housing forum that she had recently escaped domestic abuse and secured her own lease. She was new to Philadelphia, arriving from a much warmer climate. She had no money left to buy winter clothes, and she had a disability that made her susceptible to the cold. She had few contacts in town, so she posted in a local Facebook group asking for help finding winter gear. She apologized in case the question was inappropriate.

The response was swift. Strangers from all over the city offered to personally drop off their own spare coats and boots (“DM me”), gave her info for local charities, and asked to personally send her funds to buy the things she needs.

Do we matter?

What are we worth? These two examples give us very different answers. Can one transform the other?

We’re fighting a deep socialization telling us that “most of us don’t matter—our health, our votes, our work, our safety, our families, our lives don’t matter—not as much as those of white men,” writes adrienne maree brown in her essay “Love as Political Resistance,” featured in her 2019 book Pleasure Activism. Those words ring even more true after the year we’ve had.

“We need to learn how to practice love such that care—for ourselves and others—is understood as political resistance and cultivating resilience,” brown continues.

That’s why the question of what we’re worth is bigger than deciding which paradigm is ours—the one that fatally denies and minimizes our needs, making us pawns in a narrative of political power, or the one that, when our neighbor needs it, asks, “How can I help?” It’s time to figure out how that second paradigm, operating in our own lives, can drive out the first.

More than protest

We should be proud of Philly this year. As fast as the pandemic took hold, ad hoc grassroots community networks like Philly Area Abolish COVID sprang up, taking concrete steps to support people in crisis, from sharing resources on testing to delivering groceries for vulnerable neighbors. Other groups that gained traction over the summer focused on spreading and supporting actions for social justice, including community members following writer and activist Rasheed Ajamu, aka Phreedom Jawn.

Resistance as protest got a lot of play this year. On the news, that has looked like marching, chanting, and waving signs. Sometimes even smashing and burning when a reverence for the value of human life outweighs that for property. Braving brutality and arrest. But we need to broaden our notion of what resistance is. In 2020, resistance is more than protest. Resistance is also care.

Mutual aid donations. Overflowing bail funds. Thriving community fridges. People ready and willing to buy and deliver food and supplies to those who need it. Wearing masks. Dancing, singing, and making art that includes everyone. This has been the year we not only shouted our worth, but also demanded others acknowledge it. Unfortunately, the response from our elected officials has been lackluster to say the least. What is their worth? Do they determine ours?

We the property?

In the years following the pandemic, what will become the narrative of our value, of what we value, of our capacity for care? Here’s a disconcerting thought for the future: We, the ordinary people of America, fought a pandemic on our own. Other nations helped float their citizens through stay-at-home orders. Ten months into a largely shuttered economy, Americans made do with one check for $1200 and our charity toward each other. If our leaders think their current level of inaction is acceptable, what else will they force us to weather alone?

Especially this summer, we learned more about our worth in the eyes of many leaders. Following the killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, angry Americans galvanized, putting their lives on the line. People were tired of Black lives not mattering. Right here in Philadelphia, police used tear gas against protestors. Tanks rolled out in the heart of West Philadelphia.

But many people placed their attention on the subsequent looting and the destruction of property (a complex situation, especially when millions are unable to buy necessary goods), spouting the rhetoric of property mattering more than human lives. It’s a shameful ideology we’ve been courting since the aftermath of the Civil War, when Congress wrestled with the purview of the Constitution itself: does its power stop at safeguarding our property, or does it assert and defend our wellbeing, our safety, our humanity? (Check out Heather Cox Richardson, a political historian who’s been lecturing for free online since the start of the pandemic.)

Our worth is too often tied to our possessions and our jobs. Having our lives disrupted by a pandemic and a lengthy quarantine forced us to not only consider our worth, but act upon it. We showed up for each other, and figured out ways to help each other.

Our investment, our demand

Each small yet vital action, simple as giving a stranger a coat, announces you are worthy to people who might not otherwise hear it. Compare that to the abject denials of our worth from many of our leaders, who, with their inaction, added the crises of hunger and homelessness to widespread sickness.

Imagine if our state government had had the care and the competence to get critical money to us, instead of burying aid in a hopeless bureaucracy that let more than $100 million expire, rather than getting it into the hands of Pennsylvanians facing homelessness. Picture an America where we implemented broad measures to subsidize rent and mortgages for those in crisis, and effectively support essential workers and small businesses.

But our elected officials failed at providing protection and relief. Many participated in denialist messaging about Covid-19 despite the facts. Theirs is not an individual failure. Systems were designed this way, and their failure in providing relief is a systemic issue.

But systemic doesn’t mean permanent. “Shift from individual transactions for self-care to collective transformation,” adrienne maree brown urges. “Let our lives be a practice ground where we’re learning to generate the abundance of love and care we, as a species, are longing for.”

Once we understand why and how to demonstrate care for others in our own lives, that gives us a powerful new paradigm for what we expect of our leaders and the systems that govern us. Let’s marvel over how we cared for each other, and affirmed our own worth, even in the face of systemic neglect. If we, the people, can invest in the care we deserve, why can’t our leaders? That’s the question we’re carrying with us into 2021.

Image description: a brilliant peach, blue, and purple sunset over a small city street, with trees, rowhouses, and telephone poles silhouetted black against the colorful sky.

What, When, Where

This year gave us a lot to look back on, but we prefer to ask what about this agonizing, illuminating, terrifying year we’re carrying into the future. Kyle V. Hiller and Alaina Johns consider.

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