One Year Later: Solidarity Is This (April 2021)

After more than a year of living in a global pandemic, we are in a time of reflection and transition. How do we make meaning out of what we have endured, individually and collectively? How do organizations and movements rebuild systems and institutions? What does solidarity mean during this time?

In the April 2021 episode of Solidarity Is This, host Deepa Iyer explores these questions and more with Fatima Goss Graves (National Women’s Law Center) and Kevin Kahakula’akea John Fong (Elemental Partners). Listen for the following themes:

  • Kevin explores the expression of grief in the midst of the pandemic. How are you navigating the ebbs and flows of personal grief and loss in this moment? Read Kevin’s essay, “Grief in the Time of Corona” via Medium. A book that has helped me understand grief better is The Wild Edge of Sorrow (Francis Weller).
  • Fatima discusses the many ways in which women of color executive directors have had to pivot during the multiple rolling crises of the past year. How can you support people of color who are leading movements and organizations? If you are leading in this moment, what do you need to sustain yourself? Check out BMP’s latest report On The Frontlines: Nonprofits Led by People of Color Confront COVID-19 and Systemic Racism to learn more about how 2020’s social upheavals are affecting people of color-led (POC) nonprofit organizations.
  • Kevin talks about rebuilding by learning lessons from the past and by centering the needs and solutions of people most affected by inequity. Read Deepa’s article, “Between Resistance and Rebuilding,” on the Building Movement Project (BMP) blog.

This episode of Solidarity Is This is dedicated to Allison Brown – a visionary and bridge builder, and now, an ancestor guiding the path towards justice and liberation. Allison’s writing can be found here.


Transcript

Deepa Iyer: Hello, everyone. Welcome to the Solidarity is This Podcast episode for April 2021. This is Deepa Iyer, your host. It’s been almost a year since I have released episodes of Solidarity is This. Like many of you the past year has brought many challenges. The pandemic and shut downs that began last March meant that I had a new ten-year-old coworker full of energy and curiosity in my daily life. Like many working parents, I’ve had a rough time managing the various demands of the past year. And as a result, some things had to give away. One of those was this podcast. But I’m excited, and I think I’m ready to pick it back up this spring. You might hear other hosts as well on the podcast as we strive to bring content around multiracial solidarity every month. Over this past year, I’ve developed a new relationship with gratitude.

And one of the many things I’m grateful for is the organization where I sit now, the Building Movement Project. BMP is a place that fosters creativity and collaboration and where there’s an understanding of how various events can deeply affect people who are part of social change work, whether that’s the pandemic, the uprisings, the election, the insurrection anti-Asian hate, and more. I hope you’ll check out our work at www.BuildingMovement.org. I’m so grateful to have this perch and the space from which to do work around social change, solidarity, and movement building. One more note about the past year, many of us have lost people and I have as well. This episode is dedicated to my friend, Allison Brown, a visionary and bridge builder. Allison was fully dedicated to education justice for black and brown communities and children. Allison inspired me, supported me, made me laugh, and created community just as she did for so many people fortunate to have known her.

I miss you, Allison, and I’m grateful that you’re among our ancestors now guiding our paths to liberation. So with that, let’s get onto this month’s episode simply titled, One Year Later. In this episode, I’m in conversation with Fatima Goss Graves and Kevin Kahakula’akea John Fong about what’s in front of us as we emerge a year after the pandemic. How do we make meaning of what we endured individually and collectively? What does this time mean for organizations dedicated to movements for justice and equity? And how do we not only recover, but rebuild different systems and institutions with an eye towards solidarity? My first guest is Fatima Goss Graves, the Executive Director of the National Women’s Law Center. In our conversation you’ll hear both about the personal and the organizational, and in particular, how non-profit groups and leaders of color are dealing with the overlapping crises of this time.

For more in-depth information on this topic, I recommend BMP’s report called On the Frontlines, which looks at how nonprofits led by people of color have been navigating the pandemic and the 2020 uprisings against anti-black racism. The short of it is that there are rolling crises that nonprofit leaders of color predict for their communities and that they’re concerned about the long-term financial implications for their organization’s survival while tending to the multi-layer toll that this time is taking on their own personal leadership. At the same time, they’re clear about the calls to action for multiracial solidarity and for systemic equity. Here’s my conversation with Fatima Goss Graves. Welcome, Fatima, to Solidarity is This.

Fatima Goss Graves: Thank you. Good to be with you.

Deepa Iyer: So, I want to know because it’s been a year since the shutdowns, how are you doing personally? And what’s really front of mind for you.

Fatima Goss Graves: I do feel really grateful that I’m healthy. The first week of the pandemic last year, my sister got really sick and so it was very scary for me and my family early, and she’s here and well. And front of mine is that my nine-year-old remains in virtual schools now, and it’s hard on him.

Deepa Iyer: And you and me both. I have a 10 year old in virtual school still, but it’s also super hard and you’re leading an organization.

Fatima Goss Graves: There’s that.

Deepa Iyer: So how have you been managing that?

Fatima Goss Graves: You know, I don’t know exactly how I’ve been managing it. I actually think I look back over the last year and I and other leaders have been called upon to do things that we had no idea how to do them. And we had to shut down our offices and make sure our employees were well. We have had to hold people through major loss in their families, through major economic fears, through a meaningful and hopeful, but really also painful uprising around racial injustice that people have been grappling with, not just this year, but it came home really personally. We had to deal with the uncertainty of the election, the capital uprising, the anti-Asian hate and violence. Like this year I don’t think anyone has been prepared to hold a year like this.

Deepa Iyer: Yeah. I think you’re so right to name all of these overlapping moments. I mean, by themselves, they were a lot, but they were on top of each other. And one of the things that I’ve been thinking about also is it not just have you made it to the other side, but I think you all have also made some changes. I’m curious if you could share any practices that you’ve either experimented with or that you’ve adopted that are enabling folks at the organization to really address all of these overlapping crises.

Fatima Goss Graves: At the beginning, we decided that we had to put first caregivers and those who were immunocompromised, like with any of our policies or approaches, we had to put them first. So we went with what we call emergency leave policy, which basically is you can use it when you need it and how you need it. And for folks who were dealing with school shut down, some had very young children, they just appreciated that understanding that they weren’t going to lose income in this period, this demand that you care and work at the same time. Because it’s not possible. It actually is not possible. And we’ve worked to bring in supports for people who can hold space. I mean, I got to tell you that is not a strength of mine. Like if people think that I’m the one who can like hold space for people who are in deep trauma, like that is not my background or my training. I am not the person who should do that. I recognize that, but there are lots of people and we have leveraged them to support our staff over this last year.

Deepa Iyer: I think that’s so important. And I think it’s… I appreciate you acknowledging that because as you know, like executive directors are asked to shoulder everything. They have to be running the organization, talking to the media, then raising money, holding space for staff, and there’s no real training school to do that. And then if you do it in the midst of a pandemic. Right? And the reason I ask about that is because, as you know, at the Building Movement Project, we released this report on the effects of the pandemic on the leadership of people of color who are leading organizations like yours. And we have this finding that, I guess it’s not shocking to see it, but it was surprising because of the overwhelming number of women leaders of color who said that this moment is taking a disproportionate toll on them. Is that surprising to you to hear that nonprofit women leaders of color are really facing the additional burden and toll of this moment?

Fatima Goss Graves: That stat doesn’t surprise me because it reflects one-on-one conversations I have with a lot of my sisters in the work who are burnt. You know? That this year was really hard and people are dreaming of what a not so hard experience looks like.

Deepa Iyer: Yeah. I feel the same way. I’m not too surprised by it. And I’m also worried at some level about our sector. And I think that point you made about how you reached out for additional external support. You didn’t take everything on, you realized there were some limitations I have. There is a bandwidth issue I have, or this is not my skillset. So I’m going to actually reach out and build out my squad of folks who can come in. I think that’s the best practice because sometimes I think folks take it upon themselves to be everything.

Fatima Goss Graves: And when I’ve talked to a number of other leaders in organizations, they’re saying the same thing that in any other year, it might be one or two moments where you have to rise, but this has been again and again, and I think we need support to get us there.

Deepa Iyer: And speaking of support, what are some things that you think philanthropy should be doing in particular? Because there’s been a lot of push in terms of philanthropy saying we’re going to change practices. We are not going to expect organizations to do these huge applications or reports or evaluation. We’re going to support like organizing and advocacy or even community care and sustainability. What is it that philanthropy needs to do to ensure that nonprofits get through this?

Fatima Goss Graves: I am a giant advocate for unrestricted dollars to support us as a first measure. And I think about some of the things that we were able to just decide to do as an organization. And it’s because we had more flexible dollars to work with. It’s not lost in me that I could do something to support caregivers over this last year because I understood that I had unrestricted dollars to work with, that I could bring in support for my staff and fill that sort of role. And then I guess the last thing that I will say is that I think we need to have some hard questions in philanthropy around not just unrestricted dollars, some of this can be targeted, but around supporting leaders as leaders, right, like helping them sustain themselves in this period.

Deepa Iyer: So I hear you. So like being able to pivot to the programming, the staff that you did, but the flexible and restricted dollars, the sustainability, I think that those are all things that we’re also hearing from nonprofit leaders. And we have to wait and see whether philanthropy will continue some of these practices. So clearly, and you mentioned this, we’ve been hearing about the effects of women, the unique challenges that women are facing, women in the workforce, immigrant women, mothers. Can you share a little bit about what are the challenges that you’re lifting up right now a year from the pandemic when it comes to women?

Fatima Goss Graves: If you have been following the news, you may have seen that the unemployment rate the last couple of months went down, but that was not true for women. And that was especially not true for black women where their unemployment rates went up. And so one of the things that we’re spending a lot of time on is both identifying what’s happening with job loss. What are the triggers? To make sure as we talk about recovery, that we’re actually matching recovery plans to the mostly women and disproportionately women of color who have been out of work for long stretches, two out of five have been out of work for six months or longer who are unemployed right now. So that’s not just a right now thing, that is stretching into a really long standing thing, and when you think about what that looks like for families as bills are mounting, we’re preparing for that cliff that comes on the other side as people’s bills, that they have been able to sort of stave off a bit, come due.

We’re super focused on the care crisis. And we’re going to fight for when people think about recovery for them to understand the conditions of jobs and what people are facing, so that it’s actually a meaningful recovery that people make more and actually work with safety and dignity and see those things as not just connected as actually wrapped up and bundled together so that the work is important, but we’ve also got some big wins this last year. And I’m hoping people hold on to those.

Deepa Iyer: Share those with us.

Fatima Goss Graves: People should understand that the American rescue plan was actually this big progressive idea. I don’t know that I would have thought a year ago that we would have had the political will to actually come up with an idea when we talk about relief for people during the pandemic that matches the moment. Right? That is a $50 billion investment in housing, the largest investment in childcare, since World War 2, a child tax credit that actually stands to take basically half of kids in poverty and move them up. You know, there were some things that we did that were big ideas that I’m not just a skeptic all the time, but I was skeptical about whether we would have the political will to do some of these really important things. It’s my hope that apparently, you know, if you win big once, that you might actually like winning big again. You know, I think so, so like let’s keep that practice.

Deepa Iyer: Yeah. No. I think that’s right, because people talk about the recovery and then also the rebuilding, but having that be a bold and just and equitable rebuilding. And I think some of what you’ve said, it shows that it’s possible. And I love that we ended with that, especially in the midst of like such a challenging year also. So thank you so much, Fatima. I appreciate your time, your mentorship, your friendship, and really am grateful for what the center does every single day.

Fatima Goss Graves: Well, Deepa, you knew that you are close, like center family. So we are so glad, glad, always to work with you. And thanks for having me.

Deepa Iyer: Thank you so much, Fatima, for joining us and for the work that you and everyone does at the National Women’s Law Center. Now we’re going to hear from Kevin Kahakula’akea John Fong, who’s a writer, a coach, a community healing practitioner with elemental partners and who has been someone that I’ve leaned on over the past year to learn, to change, and to transform. Kevin worked as a frontline responder during the HIV/AIDS crisis. And he’s been using the lessons learned from that time to help us understand what this moment means to each of us as individuals and as communities. Thank you, Kevin, for joining us.

Kevin Kahakula’akea John Fong: Aloha, Deepa, and to everybody. It’s good to be back.

Deepa Iyer: I was just thinking about how it has been literally a year since we last spoke. We spoke last March, right, when the shutdowns were happening and it has been quite a year. So I want to ask you, how is your heart? How have you been sustaining yourself over this past year?

Kevin Kahakula’akea John Fong: Thank you so much for that question. It has literally been one year and two days. I got off the plane on March 14th and came home and stayed home, which is very unusual for me. I’m usually on the road 50% of the time. I think what I’ve learned in the midst of this is the importance of kindness, especially towards oneself and then towards your neighbors and your family, and then to the greater world. It’s set our clocks to a much slower time pace. And so just to be able to breathe easily, where many of us are struggling to breathe, whether it’s emotionally, economically, or physically is a blessing. And so I take each breath with a degree of thankfulness and mindfulness.

Deepa Iyer: I hear that because I have heard people talking about how they want to really live into some of those lessons that this pandemic year has taught them and brought them. Other friends say they’ve outgrown their pre-pandemic lives. But at the same time I really want to recognize that we are living at a time when we’re holding so much collective grief over lives lost, over systems in our country breaking down, over polarization within our country, isolation, mental health challenges, children who are unable to connect with their loved ones or friends. And so as we think about holding collective grief over this year, I was wondering if you could share a little bit about lessons around collective grief and you wrote about this recently. So I was curious if you could share what you can tell us about how we honor it and how we hold it.

Kevin Kahakula’akea John Fong: Absolutely. And thank you for that. The revelation came actually on January 30th. It was a sunny Saturday afternoon, and I was called to attend a memorial service for a friend’s grandfather. It was virtual, of course. And unfortunately I had to leave that memorial service early to attend another memorial service of a childhood friend. And so I was sitting in that memorial service and had realized as I was watching the slide show as a tribute and feeling a little guilty that I had to leave the previous memorial service that I had had, it was a deja vu almost 30 years later. It was February 2nd, 1991, in the midst of the HIV epidemic in San Francisco. And it was a Saturday afternoon at two o’clock. And I had to decide whose memorial service to attend, Michael’s or George’s because they were happening at the exact same time.

And I thought, you know, I’ve had it. I’m done. That’s it. I was a frontline worker in HIV for many years in San Francisco. And it wasn’t unusual at those times for us to have two, three, even four services to attend each week. You know, I was in my twenties at the time and that’s not something that a normal 20 year old would have to experience. Your friends, or you are getting married and having kids and starting your lives, and I was tending to the dying and attending memorials. So it felt very familiar to me. And I knew that as I looked around, it was when we had surpassed, I think it was 525,000 people had died that week. And the New York Times said that one in every three people in the United States has somebody close to them that has died of COVID.

And on top of all the grief that you had just explained about not having our lives, our families, our friends, being able to go to school at work, just grieving. All of that was and all that we have lost to go to the movies, all of that compounded on the loss of life that we were experiencing. I felt like there’s something I can share. And the lesson one is that grief is inevitable because it’s inextricably tied with love. And so I don’t know if a lot of people watching this TV show called WandaVision, and it’s part of the Marvel series. And, you know, in one of the episodes, this character named Vision said, but what is grief, if not love persevering? And it hit me in that grieving is an act of love and it’s an act of love remembered. And so to understand that grief is part of the cycle and that it is everlasting and it’s always there.

It’s not like, okay, I’m going to grieve a person or this for this long. And then I’ll just put it away or let it go. For me in my experience, I have not let it go. It doesn’t have to be this point of pain, like sharp pain or depression or sadness. It can just be a running remembrance of love. And the second lesson is that notion of embracing grief. If you can embrace grief, you can find comfort and perhaps even joy. And that’s what I’m attempting to do in people’s lives is look for a blue sky moment. It’s going to be there or a happy memory. Don’t be afraid to laugh, to smile in the midst of this insanely amount of grief that we’re going through right now. It’s okay to actually relax, to take care of yourself, to watch a TV show and laugh, or to catch a virtual hug, something that will actually say it’s okay, and I can live with this. I can manage through this.

Deepa Iyer: I really appreciate that for so many reasons. I think it’s you’re so right that grief is a non-linear process. Right? There’s no sort of here it begins and here it will end. And it’s something that comes up sometimes when you least expect it. And I think oftentimes in our culture in this country, we’re taught to just get on with it. And there aren’t a lot of ways we can express grief publicly or in a shared communal way. And I think we both come from cultures where that’s not the case. So when we spoke last, we actually spoke about the HIV/AIDS epidemic and some of the parallels and some of the differences from that experience. And so I’m just wondering as you think about what’s next, right, and I don’t think that this is going to end anytime soon. We’re going to be going through a process of recovery and rebuilding. Are there any lessons there that you can share with us?

Kevin Kahakula’akea John Fong: Great question. Thank you. One is this notion of actually employing what one of my mentors calls the principle of creativity. How can I see something differently, experience something differently, feel something differently, receive something differently, and do something differently? We’re all learning that. And I think whether you’re three or 93, this past year can and will shape and form who you are going to be and how you’re going to continue moving through. So it may be something very, very simple, and it also may be something very profound. My older son, he’s 26 and he works at Harbor View Medical Center in Seattle, one of the first medical centers that was hit last year. He’s lived through this as a frontline worker and no matter what he does, as we were talking this past weekend, this experience of working on the front lines during this pandemic will fundamentally change how he’s going to live his life, the career choices he makes, the lifestyle choices he makes. All of those things will impact them as HIV did with me.

So, 30 years hence, I can still recall back to that time to say, Kevin, wait, you know, really understand that life is fleeting. That even when you’re young, you can lose friends, or things can turn on a dime or you have to be prepared. And I found ways to integrate that. So my hope and wish for folks is to really learn from this very unique time that we have and start practicing those integration pieces now because in a few months time, people will be vaccinated, will be returning back to whatever that normal is or will be. And the more distant we get, it’ll be harder for us to integrate those pieces. But even 30 years later, HIV comes and reminds me of, for instance, grief and how I can manage and move forward with grief. I’ve lived through this before. I’ve experienced it. I know what to do. You’ve lived through this, everything you’ve experienced it. You will know what to do. Trust yourself and trust your friends and family and practice and exercise kindness and get enough sleep. And I think you’ll be all right.

Deepa Iyer: That’s really good advice. And I totally hear what you’re saying about start to integrate the lessons now, because in this like extremely fast world, it’s going to be six months from now, things might look very different. And so what are some of the lessons we can learn from this time? And everyone’s lessons are different, I think, and unique to who they are, but how can we reflect? How can we integrate? And I would say that that’s the case for even policy and systems change. We have to be able to take the lessons of what didn’t work, and what we need to put into place. Like we may need to make sure people have a social service safety net. We need to make sure that our public health infrastructure is funded sufficiently for the places like where your son works. I’m hoping that we also take those lessons and put them in motion so that we can create a fundamentally different society.

Kevin Kahakula’akea John Fong: Yes, yes, yes, yes. It can, and must impact how we live individually and how we govern collectively in order to build compassion and a community of belonging and love, of kindness as you will where everybody can sleep well each night.

Deepa Iyer: Thank you so much, Kevin, for joining me on this podcast literally a year after we last talked.

Kevin Kahakula’akea John Fong: Yes, indeed. My pleasure. I wish you all joy and be safe. Stay connected. And keep smiling even if it’s behind the mask. We’ll know and see that you are so wish you all well.

Deepa Iyer: I’m so grateful to Fatima Goss Graves and Kevin Kahakula’akea John Fong for joining us on this episode of Solidarity is This. And I’m so glad that you’ve been listening in, that you’re downloading these episodes, and sharing them, and offering your own feedback for more on solidarity practice, please visit www.BuildingMovement.org where you can find tools and resources like the social change ecosystem map. And you can sign up for solidarity schools and workshops. I look forward to talking to you on the next episode of Solidarity is This where we’ll be in conversation about solidarity and Asian-American communities for Asian Pacific American Heritage Month. Until then, please take care and I’ll talk to you next time.

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