Director’s Log | May 2020

Grieving Together

Over the past 10 weeks, the Institute for Emerging Issues has been talking with our statewide and local partners to try to understand this confusing crisis we are going through. Through phone conversations, zooms, webinars, and emails we’ve been asking some pretty basic questions: what’s happening from your perspective? What can we do about it now? What might we do differently in the future to make it better?

The answers have varied pretty widely as we have listened to people on the front lines of working on a wide range of challenges: struggling to keep small businesses afloat; starting new ones; figuring out how to teach and learn and work and get healthcare online; strategizing to mobilize young people to fill the gaps in community services; doing church in a time of social distancing; finding pathways out of unemployment; keeping our courts and law enforcement systems going; feeding an unprecedented number of people; locating and reaching out to those left behind in the crisis. Along the way we’ve talked to members of Congress and the legislature, a Supreme Court justice, farmers, pastors, counselors, and weavers; folks from the public, private, nonprofit and education sectors; people doing the work and people thinking about the theory of how the work might be done.

As we’ve assessed what we’re missing, what we want back and what we want to change, one through line in the conversations is really simple: there is something magical about face-to-face interaction in times of crisis. Really important things happen when we are together in the same place at the same time.

Sure, we can muddle through. We can hold virtual graduation ceremonies. We can program mock March Madness. We can Zoom in for a Bible study or drive in for a religious service. We can watch a concert over the Internet, meet the new baby over FaceTime or drink quarantinis.

But there is something irreplaceable in missing the moments, big and small, where we come together to share and reflect. The details we learn paint the edges of the photos we carry in our head. The insights we get from people who see things differently force us to shake up our collective etch-a-sketch and reimagine how we think.

This was never clearer for me than when I heard the news that Andrea Harris had died.

Andrea’s was a life lived at multiple levels. Since her death last week, we’ve read and heard about how she talked to governors and congresspeople and bank presidents and our state’s biggest employers about economics and justice and “wholesale” solutions to problem – and they listened. But then there are the less visible stories: about how she took the time to help people with their “retail” problems – getting through school, keeping their business afloat, paying the monthly bills, navigating a career. If there was a young person in a room nervous about speaking up in a meeting, she turned to them before the meeting was over to make sure their voice was heard. If there was a young reporter (like me) trying to figure out a complicated financial story, she took the time to make sure I understood the background I needed to get to report it correctly. Almost everyone knew about her pioneering work leading a community action agency and the Institute for Minority Economic Development; not as many saw her behind-the-scenes work advocating for historically black colleges and universities; as a consultant to the Self Help Credit Union, or as an advisor to the Institute for Emerging Issues.

She had an ability to “speak truth to power” while still ensuring that “power” would keep listening. She could disagree without name-calling; advocate without shutting down the conversation. She could look at a big problem and somehow locate the exact right place to get started in unraveling it.

But sorting through how she did that? That takes time. You have to be in a deep conversation with someone if you want to understand something like that. You need a funeral for that.

I want to spend a moment with someone I’ve never met, like Nimasheena Burns, who wrote about Andrea “you taught me a lesson, spanked my hand and made me laugh every time we spoke,” and others who didn’t write but have similar stories. You need a funeral for that.

It’s one thing to read about memories online and another to talk with the people who lived them and understand the nuance of it. It’s important to reflect in a quiet room and be sad, but it’s not the same as sharing and sorting through and crying out that sadness with others. You can vow to yourself to honor a legacy by making changes; being in a room of others sorting through the same thing is better. You need a funeral for that.

We’ve lost so many people during this pandemic, missed so many celebrations of life, so many chances to say hello for the first time, good luck for the next time or goodbye for the last time. There’s no end in sight. So we’ll keep trying out new ways to grieve and cheer by Zoom and tweet, snap and insta and phone and blog. But when it is over, we’re all going to need some really good weddings, graduations and funerals.