Friday, June 26, 2020

Q&A with Mia Birdsong

Mia Birdsong is the author of the new book How We Show Up: Reclaiming Family, Friendship, and Community. She is an activist, facilitator, and storyteller, and a senior fellow of the Economic Security Project. She lives in Oakland, California.

Q: What inspired you to write How We Show Up?

A: Writing a book was something I’d thought about as a someday kind of thing, but I didn’t have a specific book in mind.

I was approached by an editor after an event where I spoke. We met up and she asked me great questions that helped me articulate something that had been trying to come forward from the back of my mind.

It was very much about things I needed answers to--questions about belonging, intimacy, interdependence, and accountability. As soon as I realized what the questions were, I knew where to look for answers.

The people I have seen with the most expansive, inclusive, loving, interdependent relationships of family and community are Black, queer, unhoused--folks who experience marginalization. How we show up is very much the book I needed to read.

Q: Your first chapter focuses on the American Dream, and you write that it is "both an illusion and an aspiration." Can you say more about that?

A: The idea of an America meritocracy where anyone can make it with a little hard work is a lie. Most people weren’t even included in the Founders vision of “we the people.”

They didn’t mean women, they didn’t mean Black or Indigenous people, they didn’t mean poor people. They were talking about land-owning white men, like themselves.

That foundational history is the foundation of our systems and institutions. Most wealth in this country is concentrated in the hands of white men.

In my mind, the aspirational part is not about leveling the playing field, but re-envisioning the dream itself. I want things to be more fair, it’s not like having more diversity among the wealth hoarders is better. That would still leave most of us struggling to get by without basic human rights like housing, food, health care, and education.

We’re seeing our greater aspirations articulated in movements that are calling for things like guaranteed income and the abolition of police and prisons. And the progress that’s being made makes clear to us that nothing we want to create a generous, caring, just world is too much, nothing we want to create the future we deserve is unrealistic.

Q: What are some approaches people can take toward community-building during this time of pandemic?

A: There are so many things! I’ve been focusing on how to give and receive support.

For example, I’ve been doing a lot more sharing with neighbors and friends to avoid going to the grocery store. My neighbors across the street just left a bunch of artichokes on my porch. The day before they texted asking if we had any mirin so we gave them an extra bottle we had.

I just gave my next-door neighbor a dozen eggs from our chickens. He has a steady supply of mustard greens for us. I have a neighbor who works at a drug store and she brought me a couple containers of disinfectant wipes when I mentioned that I was having a hard time finding any.

I have a friend who texts me and a couple of other folks when she goes grocery shopping to ask if she can get us anything from the store. At first, I hesitated to say yes because I know what a pain in the ass grocery shopping has become. But I push past my discomfort every time because it’s legitimately helpful. This last week I actually texted her ahead of time to let her know we needed coffee.

This cycle of mutuality strengthens the connections between us, it carves out the grooves of healthy interdependence. These are the kinds of community bonds that build our sense of belonging and actually make us safer.

Q: What do you see looking ahead when it comes to "showing up" for others?

A: I’m mostly focusing on what I know we can do. Covid and this latest cycle of white violence has made it even more clear that our “normal” was failing. Our systems and institutions are supposed to provide us with basic human rights, but they won’t do that unless we demand it.

We’re seeing people show up in opposition to white violence in ways that are creating powerful change. I am hopeful that that level of solidarity continues and becomes more deeply embedded and normalized in our culture.

And then there are some things that systems and institutions can’t and shouldn’t try to do for us.

For example, the government should provide us with excellent health care. But if I’m sick, a friend or a neighbor is going to bring me soup and help me get to and from medical appointments. There is a kind of love, care, consideration, and connectedness that we can only get from each other.

Covid has many of us leaning more deeply into our interdependence. It has us practicing solidarity in ways we haven’t before. I hope that no matter what comes next, we keep tending to our solidarity and interdependence. I hope we allow ourselves to be more vulnerable and intimate with others and reject the lie that we can make it on our own.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’m collaborating on a guided journal for the book. It will allow readers to think deeply and creatively about their own relationships and create plans for the kind of growth they’d like to see.

I also started a TV show called My Brilliant Friends. Several weeks ago I realized that the people I wanted to guide me through this uncertain time and into a better future are people I know. And I thought other people might want to hear from them too, so I started this live video series. It’s been fun and has expanded a lot of my thinking in meaningful ways.

Other than that, a lot of my work has disappeared because it involved in-person speaking or facilitating, so I’m also spending a lot more time working on my little city farm. I’ve been gardening for a long time and a few years ago, I added bees and chickens. It’s sanctuary for me and the people in my household. That’s helping to keep me grounded.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I’ve been doing a series of Instagram posts to share more about many of the people I interviewed for the book. So many of them do incredible work and I wanted to say more about them. If you follow me on Instagram @miabirdsong, you can see all that.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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