When the coronavirus pandemic hit, there was a lot of buzz about how we’re all in the same boat. But that was never true.

A more realistic idea quickly emerged: We’re in the same storm, but not in the same boat. If we’ve learned anything from 2020, it’s that our experience of this year’s many crises is fractured along deep lines of racial inequity and injustice that have been centuries in the making.

“If we’ve learned anything from 2020, it’s that our experience of this year’s many crises is fractured along deep lines of racial inequity and injustice that have been centuries in the making.”

American society is deeply fractured along lines of racial disparity.

It’s as if the pandemic x-rayed our society, revealed these fractures, then attacked them. One hard truth from that x-ray is how little we really value a hard day’s work, when millions of workers are treated as expendable even though their work is essential.

For example, our Foundation, and organizations like ours, closed our offices and began working remotely, but vulnerable workers across the economy didn’t have that option. You can’t work from home if you’re a fast-food worker in Seattle or a grocery store clerk in St. Paul. Or if you work in a meat processing plant in South Dakota. Or if you harvest crops for a living in Oregon. Or if you’re a health care worker—anywhere.

Racism emerged even before offices began to close. Asian Americans faced immediate, raw racism as irresponsible messengers took to calling COVID-19 “the China virus,” with predictable consequences for our Asian friends and neighbors. Communities of color experienced the worst ravages of the virus—immediately and in ongoing ways by suffering higher rates of transmission and harsher economic losses, just to name a few—for reasons rooted in entrenched disparities in our society.

Healing these fractures calls for us to expand “the circle of human concern.”

But as the year draws to a close, I find myself thinking less about boats in a storm, and more about a powerful circle. john a. powell, one of our country’s foremost thinkers on race and justice and someone I think of as a friend of the Foundation, writes often about “expanding the circle of human concern.”

This concept envisions a collective “us” that includes everyone in our society as someone worthy of our concern. It’s a powerful counterpoint to the strong winds of division and rancor that continue to challenge our society as we head into 2021.

Empathizing with the suffering of others can help expand the circle.

When I consider the multiple traumas of this past year, I realize that the circle of those harmed is incredibly vast.

And strange as it sounds, there’s hope in expanding our circle of concern through this suffering. When trauma is so widespread, it can help us acknowledge our shared humanity without denying our differences. It can light the way toward empathy, and toward a more inclusive and whole community.

Let’s consider the suffering we’re experiencing now. Americans families have lost more than 300,000 loved ones from COVID-19. This includes members of my own family.

Many millions have suffered the brutalities and losses caused by racism and anti-Blackness, as George Floyd’s family and so many other families know. Millions are experiencing hunger and food insecurity, here in the world’s wealthiest nation. Millions have lost their jobs due to the pandemic recession, and millions more must place themselves at mortal risk every day to earn a paycheck.

“When trauma is so widespread, it can help us acknowledge our shared humanity without denying our differences. It can light the way toward empathy, and toward a more inclusive and whole community.” 

Along with the suffering is a unique opportunity to reimagine and restructure.

Can our nation emerge from this bruising year with a new sense of purpose? With fresh reserves of empathy and a renewed spirit of connection? Can the multiple traumas of 2020 push us to expand the circle of human concern to include all people?

As short winter days grow colder, it’s natural to look at the struggles and dislocations all around us and think, We will never be the same. But the note I want to end 2020 on is this: No, we will never be the same. We will be better.

You and I have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to respond to 2020 by reimagining and restructuring our organizations, our economy, and our society.

“The note I want to end 2020 on is this: No, we will never be the same. We will be better.

We need to become “as big as the problems we face.”

But we can’t achieve together what we can’t imagine together. What if we take a leap of faith and embrace a few simple, radical claims in 2021? Claims like these:

• Economic justice is achievable.
• Racial justice is achievable.
• Health equity is achievable.
• A society that is stronger at the places that were fractured is achievable.

Is that vision a lot to take on?

Damn right it is, and no organization or individual can get us anywhere close to it without countless allies and partners. We are tiny, each of us. The task before us is as vast as the night sky over Great Plains.

But as our frequent partner Nick Tilsen of NDN Collective said when he addressed a Council on Foundations conference a few years ago, “Our vision has to be at least as big as the problems we face.”

We want to “coax” a better future to meet these challenges in 2021.

The Foundation’s team will enter 2021 determined to be a better organization than ever before, because the times demand that of us. We will serve our priority communities as effectively as we can. We will invest in our grantees’ efforts not just to survive, but to thrive. And we will enter the year open to new possibilities at a time when going “back to normal” just won’t cut it.

We’ve done some work this year with a talented consultant named Gary Hubbell. Gary ended a recent blog with the question, “What better future are you trying to coax into being?”

That’s an inspiring question. I’m grateful for the possibility that if you care enough to be reading this, then maybe you too are trying to coax a better future into being. I hope the coming year will bring you the light you need to see your pathway, sustenance to keep going, and support to thrive along the way.

Author

Kevin

Kevin Walker

President and CEO, Northwest Area Foundation

Crisis Response Updates web page

This year’s mounting crises call for us to rally together in commitment to our priority communities. As part of that commitment, we’ve developed a Crisis Response Updates web page for the latest information as we learn more from our grantee partners and collaborate on responses that meet their needs. The web page includes our expanded crisis response grantmaking and COVID-related informational and funding resources. We’ll continue to update the page as new information is available.

Learn more