The Reader: I’d like to start off by asking about how the pandemic impacted your philosophy. In your Ted Talk, you say one of the biggest pitfalls in trying to solve poverty is not listening to those experiencing it. During the pandemic, we saw communities rise up to provide their own solutions in the absence of other leadership. But we also saw that the gap between the have’s and have not’s grew a lot wider. Just curious how this impacted your take in this solutions space?

Mia Birdsong: Imagine what could have happened if resourcing communities that created their own solutions was prioritized the way pharmaceutical companies were? I’m not saying instead of investing in vaccines, I just mean thinking of community solutions–which, to be clear, saved thousands of lives and prevented tremendous hardship and loss–as essential to our pandemic survival.

We also saw government and businesses finally enacting policies and practices that the people have been demanding in some form for decades. The ability to work at home is something the disability justice community has been asking for forever. For folks who have jobs that can be done from home, we now see how helpful and sustainable that can be for them and that it doesn’t negatively impact employers’ bottom line. 

Or what about eviction moratoriums? They’ve kept millions of people in their homes during the pandemic. We could be doing that for households that experience a crisis that is specific to them–like death of a wage earner or caretaker, or illness or just income loss. We could do it for a town or group of people when a factory shuts down and families lose their income, or, frankly, we could do it for anyone who is not making a living wage. Housing is a human right, not something that you should only be able to access if the market says you can. 

Another is unemployment compensation for freelancers and gig workers. Freelancers are ⅓ of our workforce. They’re projected to be more than half of the workforce by 2027. Being able to access unemployment benefits should be a given for gig workers. 

Free Covid testing and free vaccines are America’s small peek into what healthcare is like for people living in most countries. How amazing is it to walk into your local pharmacy or church parking lot to get tested for Covid before you visit your grandparents or because someone you work with has Covid? Universal health care would mean that America, the wealthiest nation on the planet, was finally providing its residents with another basic human right.

TR: How about the 2020 protests following the death of George Floyd. I think more than ever America at large understood these protests weren’t just about police brutality. But again, it feel likes the changes that came out of that (especially here) were minor, which would be validating for a cynic. What was your takeaway?

MB: To be sure, there is still a lot of work to do. A lot of policy to create, a lot of culture to change, a lot of mindsets to shift. But from my vantage point, I see a few things that were catalyzed by the murder of George Floyd. I see thousands of Black people who have become activists and organizers, committing themselves to our collective liberation. I see many more conversations, articles, podcast, and books about the real possibility of abolition. And I see low-wage workers, many of whom are people of color, refusing to sacrifice their health and wellbeing for employers who don’t value them enough to pay them what they need to live. These are just some examples of what I’ve noticed. 

I understand the tendency toward cynicism, but for me personally, cynicism is a kind of cowardice, it’s not just giving up, but giving in. It takes courage to be hopeful. I don’t mean surface-layer, head-in-the sand hope, I mean hopefulness in the face of the devastating realities of our lives–the reality that what America is is accurately represented by cops who murder Black people, by policies that fail to protect us, by elected officials who are beholden to whoever funds their campaigns and to their own egos, by people who refuse to get vaccinated or wear masks to protect the people around them, by the fact that we continue to allow fossil fuel companies to destroy our envirnoment–there is a lot to be cynical about. But then I look at all those people who have been activated to action by the pandemic and the murder of George Floyd, Breonne Taylor, and so many others. I look at the mutual aid networks that were activated to fill in where government (by design) failed. I look at my own communities and loved ones and I know that hope is a form of love. So I’m going to keep doing my part to build the world we all deserve.

You also mention how much we’ve spent (mostly time, but we’ve also spent a lot of money and other resources) starting and funding nonprofits rather than adapting community approaches. Have you noticed any change in that willingness to listen to the poor rather than big name non-profits or philanthropy leaders in the last few years? What do you think needs to be the tipping point to make that possible? Who’s getting this right?

We have spent a tremendous amount of resources–through nonprofits, government, and business–trying to address things like poverty by attempting to “fix” the people who are most impacted. But they are not a problem that needs fixing. The problem is wealth hoarding and greed. I’m delighted that so many institutions are shifting their thinking and understand that they need to be listening to the people most impacted, who have their own priorities, strategies, and clarity about what they need. 

TR: Most of these problems feel to a lot of people (usually those not experiencing it) like they’re static and immovable so their brains turn off when you mention poverty, systemic racism, ect. So how do you go about finding solutions that can really engage people? Or does it ever feel like we’re constantly trying to repackage the same solutions in a way that we can finally get people on board?

MB: There is a lot of competition for our attention. Some folks will tune out, but I think most of us want to be informed and most of us care about what happens to other people. During the pandemic I got a lot of questions from newly activated people who were feeling overwhelmed and burned out. It’s important to approach this process of making the world a better place as a long-term effort. After George Floyd was murdered, a lot of people started attending protests and reading books to deepen their understanding of racism in America. And it can be a lot, but it’s not enough. We’re not done. I think there are two things we need to be mindful of as we engage in this work. We really need to pace ourselves. We are not going to end racism in our lifetime. This is generational work. Figure out what of it is yours to do, and make a lifetime commitment to it. The other thing is that this is not solitary work. Find community to engage in learning, behavior change, and civic engagement. You will be more effective, grow more transformatively, and feel less alone. 

Read more about Birdsong’s speech at Legal Aid of Nebraska’s September event.

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Chris Bowling

Chris has worked for The Reader since January 2020. As an investigative reporter and news editor he’s taken deep dives into topics such as police transparency, affordable housing and COVID-19. Originally...

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