About a month into COVID-19’s ever-tightening vise grip on the U.S., CTO Richard Gendal Brown took to Forbes Magazine to argue that: “Out of this global disaster will come a new era of progress. And woe betide those who stand in the way.”
Despite some drawbacks to the article, including style (the lad doth italicize too much, methinks) and a lack of attention to how the “always say yes” work ethos has lost popularity among younger, less capitalist-minded generations—I agree with the heart of his piece. Visions of the future have been some of the most uplifting and electrifying elements of the year 2020. As we wade through the muck of this last week of 2020, it’s worth taking the time to look back at those who have been looking forward, aiming to use the rupture of perceived normalcy to reimagine what our country, and our world, can look like. This list is by no means exhaustive, but rather runs the gamut from human interest to human rights, building towards some of the most pressing issues our country faces heading into 2021.
1. The “We” of Trees
Suzanne Simard is a professor of forest ecology at the University of British Columbia who has been studying the root networks of North America’s coastal forests for 30 years. Much to the surprise of older (read: male) foresters and ecologists in the field, Simard found an astonishing network of mycorrhizas—underground links between fungi and trees in a given forest—that reconceptualized the long-held understanding of trees as discrete, solitary beings.
The NYTimes reports: “Simard has discovered that fungal threads link nearly every tree in a forest — even trees of different species. Chemical alarm signals generated by one tree prepares nearby trees for danger. And if a tree is on the brink of death, it sometimes bequeaths a substantial share of its carbon to its neighbors.”
This growing emphasis on trees as connected, social environments subject to different behaviors bodes well for the environmental strides we must make in the coming years. These mycorrhizal networks cover “everywhere there is life on land” and operate with “unfathomable scale and complexity.” Perhaps it’s a cynical approach, but it’s my hope that considering trees to be closer in kind to ourselves might help with a true global acknowledgment of the gravity of our current climate crisis.
2. Sea Otters Return to Oregon’s Coast
Rest easy—this is not a “we are the virus” scam. In early December, The Royal Society B, despite sounding like a half-hearted Wes Anderson sequel, published stunning new research suggesting that otters are more similar to each other than we previously thought, which creates hope for their reintroduction along the Oregon coast.
The Alaskan otters who died off along the coast were previously thought to have perished because of their genetic variance from the original population hunted by fur traders. Transplanted in the ‘70s as part of a rescue effort, these northern, cold water otters were thought to have failed to adapt to the warmer southern environment (now go back and read that sentence in David Attenborough’s voice, just for funsies).
However, after comparing the tooth samples of otters found near their release point in Oregon and consulting the Smithsonian for further samples of the previous species, the Oregon team concluded that the spot had in fact always been a site where otters of both the northern and southern persuasion made their homes. While “the most comprehensive genetic data set yet of Oregon’s original sea otters” might not exhilarate you, its consequences will. Otters who were thought to be unsuitable to the Oregon waters may actually be the key to a stronger population, making it possible for otters to live there again. And play with sea urchin shells there. And hold hands there. They probably won’t stack cups there, but Nellie is worth watching.
3. Ayanna Pressley on Alopecia
Image courtesy of Elle Magazine.
Right at the start of the year, Rep. Pressley burst out of the gate with a conversation with The Root, an online publication foregrounding Black perspectives, in which she revealed her struggle with alopecia. Pressley, who has long worn Senegalese twists, says: “I had only been bald in the privacy of my home and in the company of close friends.” Pressley tells The Root that when she first got twists, she felt that she had “met [her]self fully for the first time.” The style also became an iconic component of her political brand—for many, she represented a future that pushes back on Eurocentric beauty ideals and the categorization of natural Black hairstyles as “angry” or “unprofessional.”
It was because of this melding of the personal and the political that Pressley struggled so deeply with the loss of her hair. She first became aware of some patches in the fall of 2019, describing her accelerating alopecia as being faced with, “someone who felt like a stranger to me.” The day that she appeared on the House floor to cast her vote to impeach Donald Trump in December was her first without any of her natural hair.
Pressley tells The Root that she felt she had suffered a personal loss, along with perpetuating a “cultural betrayal” of all the little girls who had looked up to her as a beacon of hope for Black women in American politics. However, her choice to go public with her experience of alopecia continued the precedent she established as the first woman of color elected to Congress in her state.
Pressley’s very presence, full of both grit and grace, opens the doors of politics for young women of color; though her image has changed, her status as an icon has not. Along with her vocal support of a new way to approach law enforcement, criminal justice reform, and the opportunity for Black communities to be protected and prosper, her choice to come forward with this condition makes the trail she’s blazing all the brighter. Hell yeah.
4. Unrivaled Naomi Tenka-ichi, the new manga featuring Naomi Osaka
On the heels of the Nissin noodle ad scandal of 2019, the popular manga magazine Nakayoshi looks to render the #1 Women’s Tennis Champion Naomi Osaka with much more intentionality this year. The manga comic, titled Unrivaled Naomi Tenka-ichi (Unrivaled Naomi No. 1 in the World) will debut in late December 2020, marking a dazzling, technicolor close to what has been a momentous year for Osaka.
Unrivaled is set in outer space, where Osaka, along with her family, battles her enemies in cosmic tennis matches. Her sister, Mari Osaka, who was consulted in the creation of the manga character, told the NYTimes: “We’re not trying to make a point with the manga. That should be saved for something else, really.” Nakayoshi has long targeted the teen girl demographic, and the light-hearted and celebratory nature of the comic is sort of a point in itself.
At each of her matches at the 2020 U.S. Open, Naomi Osaka wore face masks emblazoned with the names of Black Americans who have been victims of police brutality and racial injustice: Breonna Taylor, Elijah McClain, Ahmaud Arbery, Trayvon Martin, George Floyd, Philando Castile, and Tamir Rice. After defeating Victoria Azarenka to win her Second U.S. Open Title, Osaka was asked a well-meaning but unavoidably pathetic question by ESPN’s Tom Rinaldi (princess of Genovia): “You had seven matches, seven masks, seven names. What was the message you wanted to send?”
She leaned into the mic and firmly reframed it for him: “Well, what was the message that you got?” she asked. “That’s more the question.” Osaka has become a voice in professional sports who has spoken up about racial injustice even as some sponsors and fans seem to balk at the subject. In this new comic, young manga readers get to see Osaka celebrated as a strong and confident role model. Moreover, despite Mari Osaka’s insistence that activism remains a separate platform, the innocence of the comic’s plot and the style of manga carries an edge with it: we should be looking towards a future where Osaka shouldn’t have to use her platform to draw attention to human rights violations.
For Osaka to be defined and highlighted not only as biracial, but also as “a daughter, a sister, a friend, and a girlfriend,” is to assert a defiant complexity in the face of those forces trying to fit her into one box or another. She doesn’t have time to tell you the answer, Tom—she’s got some aliens to crush. Figure it out yourself.
Unrivaled Naomi Tenka-ichi will be released on December 28th, 2020.
5. The TranSanta Project
At the close of a record-breaking year of violence against trans and gender-non-conforming Americans, trans icon and star of FX’s Pose Indya Moore cofounded the TranSanta Project along with Kyle Lasky, Chase Strangio, and Pidgeon Pagonis.
Funneled through Instagram, @transanta ensures that trans youth across the country receive the gifts they deserve this holiday season. People can submit their registries/wish lists by emailing email@example.com. You can find out what to get and who to get it for here. Optional challenge: For every couple whose wedding registry/website/e-vite/robust photoshoot Facebook album you politely deferred on until next year, you can pick something from a TranSanta registry or wish list. Below are some letters the project received since its inception on December 5th:
6. Boston Pride 4 The People
At the start of Pride month this year, the board of Boston Pride made the decision to leave out the hashtag “#BlackLivesMatter” from their official statement for 2020. While Pride originated as a riot, and Boston Pride is no stranger to a critical audience, this year’s promotional materials “error” (??) felt particularly egregious as protests spurred by the murders of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd spread through the city and nation.
One Twitter user, Sonja Alves (@redsonika) tweeted a picture of Boston Pride’s original statement, in all of its surface-level wokeness, with the caption: “Hey, @bostonpride, there are three very important words that you left out of your rambling statement: BLACK. LIVES. MATTER.”
The exclusion of #BlackLivesMatter (and the subsequent, cringe-worthy mea culpa moment that drew further criticism) goes beyond Boston Pride’s failure to acknowledge one of the most powerful conduits of social discourse in the past decade. As Scott Kearnan wrote for Boston Magazine:
“How—in its 50th anniversary year, no less—could Boston Pride offer anything less than a full-throated, actions-backed endorsement of the kind of disruptive political activity that is at its very core? Why not acknowledge that two of the three cofounders of the Black Lives Matter movement, Patrisse Cullors and Alicia Garza, are queer? And what was the board thinking when its members decided to exclude its group’s very own Black and Latinx Pride committee in this process?”
In late June, after a large contingent of the Boston Pride workforce resigned and released a critical statement, Boston Pride announced that they had hired consulting firm Dorrington & Saunders, LLC “to work with the board on transformational changes regarding diversity and inclusion.” Though this update was published by Boston Pride on their website, they remain strangely removed from this supposed effort to counteract the controversy.
“Recently, Boston Pride acknowledged that they have more work to do to ensure acceptance, access and inclusion of the full spectrum of cultures that make up the LGBTQ+ community,” Boston Pride wrote … of themselves. “The leadership of Boston Pride has committed to dismantling the systemic oppression and individual, interpersonal, institutional and structural racism within its own organization.” Without dismantling any of the thrones that current board members have made for themselves? Mhmmm.
Jo Trigilio, a former member of the Boston Pride communications team and one of the founders of Boston Pride 4 The People, told WBUR: “‘There is no accountability process for board members […] They aren’t accountable to anyone.’” Instead, the board remains insulated by “unfair bylaws that enhance structural inequities and give board members endless term limits.”
Casey Dooley, former chair of Boston Black Pride and another founder of Boston Pride 4 The People, explained: “‘We wrote in that statement, ‘We stand with Black Lives Matter. We stand against police brutality. The communications team then gave that letter to the board. The board then proceeded to take out Black Lives Matter and police brutality.’”
As a contributing author for Workers World wrote in late June: “We demand a Pride board as diverse as our community, and not solely comprised of wealthy white capitalist gays and lesbians. Big-bank sponsors and participants are complicit with gentrification and predatory lending that have had devastating impacts on communities of color. There’s no pride in corporate destruction of Black and Brown communities!”
7. Reimagining Food Security: The Buffalo Food Equity Network
The term “food desert” has often been used by the dietetics/food security community to describe lower-income metropolitan areas with a lack of access to healthier foods. These neighborhoods often have higher risks of chronic disease and, as it is now unfolding, COVID-19. I had never given much thought to the term until reading Bianca Davis’ critique of the language around food insecurity and the inherent blame it places on those who are suffering. Davis, a research assistant at the University of Buffalo’s Food Systems Planning and Healthy Communities Lab, told NPR that the term “food desert” attributes the blame to the quality of the environment, not the intertwined systems complicit in denying it the ability to grow.
“If we think of a desert, we identify a desert based on its inability to propagate foliage,” said Davis. “So [the term] sort of indicates that a neighborhood is unable to provide healthy foods, and that is inaccurate.”
Her alternative? Find a term that says what is really creating these disparities in access: Food Apartheid.
Not unlike other zoning efforts that have left certain marginalized communities outside of certain higher-performing school districts, the placement of grocery stores is fueled by bureaucracy. While some communities are left without access to healthy foods, other neighborhoods have multiple grocery stores in close proximity. This gerrymandering of basic needs is not new, but a novel approach has emerged to combat it.
The Buffalo Food Equity Network is a coalition of communities of color that has been in operation since the spring of 2019. As COVID-19 worsened in the U.S., the group took aim at glaring systemic inequities that undergird a given community’s access to healthy food. Rather than looking at the result, the BFEN works to understand the specific needs of each community, largely on the East Side of Buffalo, and the varying roadblocks to access.
“Each area has its own unique populations with their unique food choices, and that makes it a challenge,” group member Gail Wells told NPR. “But we’re up to the challenge.”
8. Inroads for Unhoused Americans
Studies have projected that anywhere from 23 to 28 million renters in the U.S. are facing the prospect of eviction in the face of the pandemic. Back in June, The Aspen Institute published a series of findings culminating, in part, in this understatement of the year: “The pain of eviction is not evenly distributed.” Here is a projection from June of 2020 for Americans as a whole:
And here is a map that indicates racial breakdown within the cities with the highest eviction rates:
The HEROES Act, a bill that has yet to make headway in the Senate, contains the “Emergency Rental Assistance Act and Rental Market Stabilization Act” as part of its multipronged approach to federal aid during the pandemic. This would set aside $100 billion for economic assistance to renters and those at risk of being unhoused, with 0.3% allocated to Native Hawaiians, and 0.2% ($200 million) to “Tribal nations.”
The CDC reports that First Nations People have experienced confirmed cases of COVID-19 at 3.5x the rate of non-Hispanic white Americans: “Historical trauma and persisting racial inequity […] likely contribute to the observed elevated incidence of COVID-19 among the American Indian/Alaska Native population.” The CDC goes on to cite communal/shared transportation, lack of access to running water, and average household size as the clearest symptoms of these larger issues.
This is to say that housing, food, and water security are all crucial factors in determining who is disproportionately affected by the virus. Several cities have pushed for progress. In November, Denver voted to use a 0.25% sales tax increase to establish the Homelessness Resolution Fund, which is projected to yield about $40 million each year. The proposed breakdown for the first year of funding prioritizes permanent housing support, the development and acquisition of housing units, and other “creative solutions.”
The remaining $3.3 million will be reserved for administrative budgeting and what is not spent will roll over into the fund for 2022. The Metro Denver Homeless Initiative reported that the unhoused population in Denver had multiplied by five since January of 2020, so the fund is expected to address a pressing need.
Other cities, including St. Louis, D.C., (grudging acknowledgement of human forefinger Jeff Bezos required), and Philadelphia have turned to similarly innovative solutions, which sheds a glimmer of hope onto a longstanding systemic issue.
Relevant Book Rec: Race for Profit by Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor. First on my list for 2021.
9. The BREATHE Act
In July, Reps. Ayanna Pressley (MA) and Rashida Tlaib (MI) announced the BREATHE Act, a comprehensive bill drafted by M4BL (the Movement for Black Lives coalition).
The bill is ambitious, taking aim at The Department of Defense’s LESO/1033 program, the Justice Assistance Grant Program (JAG), Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS), the DEA, and ICE. BREATHE advocates for the total reallocation of all funds allotted to the punitive elements of the Criminal Justice System, instead proposing they be used to create “federal grant programs that incentivize decarceration and subsidize non-punitive, community-led approaches to public safety.”
The bill is constructed with communities of color and the minority groups within them (primarily LBGTQIA+ individuals) firmly in mind. As Rep. Pressley says in a video discussing the bill: “[we are] demanding that we put an end to police brutality that has robbed us of Black lives, in our communities, in our families, and in our nation.” Here is a breakdown of the bill:
10. Black Visions Collective
Image courtesy of Black Visions Collective.
I wanted to conclude with an organization that gained new prominence after George Floyd’s murder: the Minneapolis-based Black Visions Collective. Black Visions Collective has been active since 2017, “putting into practice the lessons learned from organizations before us in order to shape a political home for Black people across Minnesota. […] Black Visions Collective envisions a world in which ALL Black Lives Matter.” They describe their efforts as the “pursuit of dignity and equity for all.”
Since the murder of George Floyd on May 25th, 2020, and the ensuing forms of protest across the country, I have watched as white journalists (myself included) have attempted to dodge the achingly lame and actively detrimental pall of: sorry we’re late, we see it’s become trendy to care again! xoxo, White People. It’s an albatross we deserve. See: black squares that flooded social media in June for #blackouttuesday, obscuring important information and posts by black users organizing and demonstrating in the streets.
If we each chipped in a dollar every time a liberal news outlet referenced this unprecedented “reckoning” for White Americans (see: here, here, here, here, here, and here, to get you started), perhaps we’d be making an actual dent in reparations efforts.
It’s certainly apparent that the mortifying, national “Huh?” moment is forcing us to contend with our complicity in, and active construction of, systems of oppression against BIPOC on both a national and global scale. You can’t sneak into the back row unnoticed when you’re late by over six centuries—the shame in our delayed arrival to even the most preliminary of conversations is part and parcel of this larger period of confrontation, as it should be.
Instagram in particular has become a platform where the work of many Black activists, artists, and other creators has achieved a newfound visibility. (More likely new to those who have the privilege to merely contemplate these realities as opposed to living them, but elevated by everyone.) Black Visions Collective gained popularity and a deluge of funding this way, and put it to good use immediately.
One of their most notable recent initiatives was the joint project of the Transformative Black Led Movement Fund (TBLMF) with Nexus Community Partners. The TBLMF prioritizes black-led communities (both organizations and individual activists), with 95% of the funding going to Black-led inroads into the Defund Movement and other responses to the death of George Floyd that garnered much funding for Black Visions and Reclaim the Block. In the project’s FAQs, Black Visions specifies: “We prioritize funding organizations led by and for marginalized Black communities.”
In response to critics of the Defund the Police initiative, which has recently gained further traction in Minneapolis, TBLMF details the exact allocations and a breakdown of issues that their funding will address. Using $3.1 million dollars in funding received along with Reclaim the Block, Black Visions is targeting 4 major goals: 1. Organizing for a New Future ($1,000,000), 2. Transformative and Healing Justice ($500,000), 3. Mutual and Legal Aid ($1,100,000), and 4. Economic and Cultural Justice ($300,000). You can learn more about their work on their website, on Instagram, and read about their donation plan here.