Disclaimer: Posts are solely the views of the author and do not represent the views of Brandeis University or The Institute on Assets and Social Policy.
It has been nearly 5 months since a national emergency was declared in the United States. For many, here and elsewhere, the pandemic began long before then. To date, being in this pandemic has produced rapid shifts in what we believe,[i] know,[ii] and do,[iii] not just about covid-19, but about our society. In her essay, The Pandemic is a Portal,[iv]Arundhati Roy wrote, “Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next.” In many ways, we are already going through that portal. Our journey thus far has revealed so much—cracks in our social foundation,[v] but also our deep care for one another. Whereas national policy responses have failed[vi] to acknowledge, let alone act on this crisis, charitable and community support have proven to be a vital lifeline for millions of people. But still, if where you live mattered before, it now determines your chances of survival.[vii] The flaws of our social infrastructure are multiple, interconnected, and deeply rooted in history as well as contemporary institutions and ideologies. Cumulatively, they provide little to no safety or guarantee for wellbeing, opportunity, or life. While we are amid a proper depression[viii] our infrastructure for caring for human lives is demonstrably crumbling, if it exists at all.
What we are confronting right now is a dissonance between the politics of care and solidarity that many have as individuals, and the politics of policymaking and policy systems in which our wellbeing is entangled.
In these conditions, philanthropic giving[ix] has tried to fill in for a tattered social safety net, along with crowdfunding campaigns, which in May were estimated to have already generated $634 million.[x] Mutual aid funds, typically made of small contributions from individuals, have become a primary mechanism of survival for so many communities of color. Yet, essential social services continue to struggle[xi] as many community-based organizations face the brink of survival, foundations move resources sluggishly, and individual donations slow. What we are confronting right now is a dissonance between the politics of care and solidarity that many have as individuals, and the politics of policymaking and policy systems in which our wellbeing is entangled. This dissonance is a matter of fact for many Black, indigenous, immigrant, low-income, trans and other communities marginalized by systems of exclusion and oppression. In this sense, when I say “we” I speak to and about the generic—well-intentioned—crowd that has only recently taken notice of how deeply our social problems are entrenched.
Amidst this struggle to keep up, any vision of a post-pandemic future continues to elude us. It may be my pessimism or policy brain, but as I witness—and participate in—communal and collective forms of care, I find myself simultaneously unsettled. I am unsettled because I wonder if, and importantly, how, we will keep this up for what is to follow.[xii] Though our moment in the pandemic may pass, we know its effects will continue far into the future. But as we are going through this portal now, are we building for that future? Just as importantly, are we building for future generations’ moments in their pandemics? Before our pandemic portal closes, whenever that may be, what infrastructure will we have created in its wake?
We must contend with the reality that inequalities are experienced, caused, and sustained through individual, interpersonal, institutional, and ideological relations.
Philanthropic giving and individual generosity cannot, on their own, make up a reliable infrastructure for collective social wellbeing. More importantly, they cannot singlehandedly confront and reconcile with interconnected systems of oppression of race, class, gender, sexuality, nativity, etc. To understand how true this is, we need only look so far as headlines about profits during covid-19,[xiii] corporate washing of Black Lives Matter,[xiv] and uncertainty about philanthropy’s commitments. [xv] To resolve the dissonance between a politics of care and policy, we must begin by understanding that inequalities are entangled in a multilevel and multidomain web that cuts across time. Furthermore, we must contend with the reality that inequalities are experienced, caused, and sustained through individual, interpersonal, institutional, and ideological relations. These relational dimensions of inequality require us to see how material inequalities (e.g., illness, job loss, economic aid, etc.) are manifested in, and sustained by nonmaterial inequalities in power (e.g., democratic participation, rights, recognition by the state, etc.).
In my position as a social science researcher and Ph.D. student, I have spent the last 18 months learning from locally grounded, community-led program initiatives that I think provide some guidance on these questions. These reflections here are neither a prescription nor a final answer. They are a starting point for all of us to deeply investigate what is possible and how we can rebuild, not just as individuals, but as members of collectives with a communal vision. In this spirit, I want to share Empowerment Economics, a framework that emerged from financial capability and advocacy work by a native Hawaiian community-based organization[xvi], Hawaiian Community Assets (HCA), and other Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) community leaders.[xvii]
Empowerment Economics is but one example of a community-led approach to challenge existing systems while strengthening the local infrastructure of care and power building.
Empowerment Economics is a multigenerational, culturally responsive approach to building wealth and power in low-income communities of color. It begins by situating each community’s past and current wellbeing within racial, economic, and political systems. For community-based organizations and social practitioners, Empowerment Economics is a frame for challenging existing material inequalities and inequality of power. Its program practices emphasize local and community leadership, narrative change, cultural connectedness, multigenerational relationships, holistic approaches, and power to define and control wealth. This fundamental shift in perspective, practice, and priorities extends to what outcomes are measured.[xviii] Beyond literacy and skills in financial systems, Empowerment Economics prioritizes changes in these things as well as community participation, local relationships to power and hierarchy, and ownership in shaping community life.
In partnership with funders, community-based organizations, local leaders and research practitioners, Empowerment Economics wants to address social service needs while tending to past and current relations of power through institutional engagement. This is what makes Empowerment Economics unique, and particularly important for the moment we are in. To reconcile the past, current, and future of inequality in our world, it is not enough to simply incorporate people into existing systems. We have to uplift, support, and participate in sustaining practices that combine critical consciousness with critical practice, to achieve deeper justice. Empowerment Economics, at times, is less a programmatic model and more of a multi-coalition movement—one that requires partners from across fields, deep shifts in philosophical and practical commitments, redistribution of resources and power, and most importantly, respect for and trust in locally grounded, community-led change. The goal is not simply to survive crises, but to build an equitable, just infrastructure that can stand up to our current entrenched systems.
The most important lesson I am learning as a social policy scholar is that the change we wish to see in the world is often already in practice somewhere. The solidarity, care, mutual support, and collectivism we are seeing today is not new or unheard of. Such values are at the core of our species’ survival, but more importantly, they constitute the social infrastructure on which many communities practice resistance and resilience to oppression, inequality, and illness. Empowerment Economics is but one example of a community-led approach to challenge existing systems while strengthening the local infrastructure of care and power building.[xix] But we are not limited to the Empowerment Economics approach. Resistance and resilience are global phenomena, and across settings and geographies, we are sure to find other innovative approaches that speak to the local history and relationships of power and wealth.
In today’s time, April feels like decades ago—especially when so many essays, lessons, and research have been put forth since then. But the title of Roy’s essay still rings in my head on most days, alternating with my own (re)interpretations. The pandemic is a portal. The pandemic is a confrontation with our past. The pandemic is a portal. The pandemic is an opportunity for our future. The pandemic is a portal. The pandemic is our collective journey.
Where it leads, though undetermined, remains open to so much influence. And we know that, like the 1918 flu,[xx] covid-19 is here to stay, evolve, and become embedded across all dimensions of our life. The challenge we must meet is not just how we survive this pandemic, but how generations to come may survive theirs. It is not enough that we are rising to support one another right now. What we need is an active movement to institutionalize ways to support each other, create an infrastructure of care, and grow a culture of collective wellbeing. In all consideration, we need an action-based commitment that can outlast our moment in the pandemic—because there are so many more that will follow. When another pandemic opens another portal, future generations will confront their past. It is in our hands now to shape what they will see.
[i] Parker, K., Horowitz, J. M., & Anderson, M. (2020, June 12). Amid Protests, Majorities Across Racial, Ethnic Groups Express Support for the Black Lives Matter Movement. Pew Research Center’s Social & Demographic Trends Project. https://www.pewsocialtrends.org/2020/06/12/amid-protests-majorities-across-racial-and-ethnic-groups-express-support-for-the-black-lives-matter-movement/
[ii] Katella, K. (2020, August 7). 5 Things Everyone Should Know About the Coronavirus Outbreak. Yale Medicine. https://www.yalemedicine.org/stories/2019-novel-coronavirus/
[iii] Fields, S. (2020, June 4). Mutual aid grows in popularity during protests and pandemic. Marketplace. https://www.marketplace.org/2020/06/04/mutual-aid-grows-in-popularity-during-protests-and-pandemic/
[iv] Roy, A. (2020, April 3). The pandemic is a portal. Financial Times. https://www.ft.com/content/10d8f5e8-74eb-11ea-95fe-fcd274e920ca
[v] A Summary of Part Three of “Under the Blacklight.” (2020, April 10). The African American Policy Forum. Retrieved August 10, 2020, from https://aapf.org/2020/2020/4/a-summary-of-part-three-of-under-the-blacklight-1
[vi] Yong, E. (2020, August 4). How the Pandemic Defeated America. The Atlantic. https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2020/09/coronavirus-american-failure/614191/
[vii] Lopez, G. (2020, July 31). Here’s how bad your state’s Covid-19 outbreak is. Vox. https://www.vox.com/future-perfect/2020/7/31/21340268/coronavirus-pandemic-covid-state-maps-charts-data
[viii] Watts, W. (2020, August 6). This ‘dire’ economic situation ‘deserves to be called a depression—A pandemic depression.’ MarketWatch. https://www.marketwatch.com/story/coronavirus-collapse-is-nothing-less-than-a-depression-a-pandemic-depression-warn-top-economists-11596728170
[ix] Travers, J. (2020, April 3). The Hardest Hit: Who is Supporting Communities of Color During COVID-19? Inside Philanthropy. https://www.insidephilanthropy.com/home/2020/4/2/the-hardest-hit-who-is-supporting-communities-of-color-during-covid-19
[x] Osili, U. (2020, June). Charitable Giving During the Covid-19 Pandemic (Written Testimony). Joint Economic Committee, US Congress. https://www.jec.senate.gov/public/_cache/files/20d02900-be2b-4316-aed6-07b02f60775f/written-testimony-osili-jec.pdf
[xi] Tsega, M., Giantris, K., & Shah, T. (2020, June 1). Essential Social Services Are Struggling to Survive the COVID-19 Crisis. The Commonwealth Fund: To the Point. https://doi.org/10.26099/d7q2-s993
[xii] Mann, C. C. (2020, June). Pandemics Leave Us Forever Altered. The Atlantic. https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2020/06/pandemics-plagues-history/610558/
[xiii] Who profits from COVID-19, and how can we use that money to help us get a vaccine? (2020, July 22). Oxfam Retrieved August 8, 2020, from https://www.oxfamamerica.org/explore/stories/who-profits-covid-19-and-how-can-we-use-money-help-us-get-vaccine/
[xiv] Mull, A. (2020, June 3). Brands Have Nothing Real to Say About Racism. The Atlantic. https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2020/06/brands-racism-protests-amazon-nfl-nike/612613/
[xv] Crisman, E. (2020, August 1). Philanthropy in times of crisis: How will the coronavirus affect giving? Chattanooga Times Free Press. https://www.timesfreepress.com/news/chatter/story/2020/aug/01/philanthropy-times-crisis-coronavirus/528653/
[xvi] National CAPACD. (2017, October 9). Foundations for the Future: Empowerment Economics in the Native Hawaiian Context. National CAPACD. https://www.nationalcapacd.org/data-research/foundations-future-empowerment-economics-native-hawaiian-context/
[xvii] National CAPACD. (2018, April 10). Innovations in Financial Capability: Culturally Responsive & Multigenerational Wealth Building Practices in Asian Pacific Islander (API) Communities. National CAPACD. https://www.nationalcapacd.org/data-research/innovations-in-financial-capability/
[xviii] National CAPACD. (2019, February 27). Evaluating Empowerment Economics: A preliminary framework for assessing innovations in financial capability. National CAPACD. https://www.nationalcapacd.org/data-research/evaluating-empowerment-economics/
[xix] Kavada, A. (2020, June 12). Creating a hyperlocal infrastructure of care: COVID-19 Mutual Aid Groups. OpenDemocracy. https://www.opendemocracy.net/en/openmovements/creating-hyperlocal-infrastructure-care-covid-19-mutual-aid-groups/
[xx] Dispatches from 1918. (2020, July 17). Radiolab. Retrieved August 4, 2020, from https://www.wnycstudios.org/podcasts/radiolab/articles/dispatches-1918