My mom used to call me a social butterfly—I would come home from my first day of school with a dozen new “best friends,” or likely I was getting pulled out of the classroom for talking too much (sorry to all my former teachers). I always thought my social nature made me unique, that I was just an extremely extroverted individual; however, I’ve learned over time that all humans are hard-wired for connection. We are innately social beings; relatedness brings us meaning, purpose and joy. The fact that we are all connected is what makes us human.
Of course, it’s challenging to build connection right now. We’re living in a world of physical distancing—and as a result, social distancing. Social distancing tears apart the core of our social fabric: our relationships. And yet, it is those very relationships that make us resilient to crises. Think about the power of a good neighbor: when you are struggling, good neighbors pitch in to help.
My sithu (Lebanese term for grandmother) was widowed at age 35 with five young girls and barely any formal education. Born and raised in Detroit, she was resilient. She started working at the factories (and lost a couple of fingers in the process) to provide for her girls. But if you ask her daughters how my sithu got through it, they’ll tell you it took a village to raise them. My sithu had a network of uncles, aunts, cousins, and neighbors who pitched in and helped to raise those five little girls.
The concept of neighborly love hinges on the understanding that we are all stronger when we take care of one another. We’re a part of a greater ecosystem, and when one of us thrives, we all thrive. That’s what makes a community so powerful. And, community doesn’t just live at the local or personal level—it lives at the societal level as well.
My mom remembers waiting by the mailbox for her father’s social security check which is how they kept the lights on. Or how my sithu worked hard in the factories—a union-protected job that gave her a sense of security and stability—which was enough to pay the bills and feed her girls.
And how my mother and her sisters were able to attend college on financial aid and enter careers with little to no student debt. My sithu was resilient despite these challenges not just through the support of her family, friends, and neighbors; but also, through a broad set of social services and policies.
These policies were instrumental to our social resilience; and also, by design, they excluded Black, Brown, and Indigenous communities who were left to fend for themselves. We now see the lasting repercussions of this systemic oppression and the resulting racial wealth gap.
Fast forward to 2020. COVID-19 has exposed the holes in our social fabric—parents unable to care for their children, sick individuals who can’t afford treatment and testing, and workers exposed to a deadly illness in order to pay the bills.
We have retired those same policies that supported my sithu for the sake of rugged individualism and the myth of meritocracy. Black communities in particular are facing another layer of societal oppression: increases in police violence and death while at the same time and in the same cities, white protesters of social distancing orders are met with civility and empathy. Black Americans carry an additional burden within this global pandemic.
A global pandemic calls on our communities to be resilient by caring for one another. But without policies like paid family leave, universal healthcare, and strong protections for working families and Black Americans, we cannot expect to survive this pandemic or any future crisis. At the micro level, our resiliency comes from our social fabric and relationships. At the macro level, it’s our policies that protect our shared humanity and dignity and promote racial justice.
As a country, we desperately need a new vision, especially in the current COVID-19 crisis. If my sithu was raising her girls in 2020 instead of 1960, she would struggle to support them. If we want to bounce back from this crisis, and become more resilient to future crises, we need a vision of a world that designs equity, justice, and love into our social policies to achieve humanity and dignity.
Young people hold the power to realize this vision. We grew up during the 2008 economic recession and Occupy Wall Street. We’re burdened with trillions in student loan debt and we know this burden is more prevalent at the intersection of race and class.
Gen Zers and millennials will be feeling the economic effects of COVID-19 for the next several years, just after many of us dug ourselves out of the 2008 recession. We’ve experienced the harmful myth of “rugged individualism,” and the deep realities of racial inequality, and as a result, we are much more likely than other generations to support economic justice priorities like paid family leave, raising the minimum wage, and universal healthcare.
These policies also work to create a more racially just society by benefiting communities of color who have been intentionally disenfranchised and oppressed throughout our history. We could actually extend neighborly love to those who have historically been “othered.”
As the executive director of a nonprofit that organizes young people to participate in our democracy, I know that young people are a powerful force in imagining a new future. Whether it’s the anti-war protests, civil rights movement, Black Lives Matter, or the fight to protect DREAMers—young people always pushed our country to do better and be better. And it’s young people who will push our country to enact the very policies that supported my sithu and her five little girls.
New generations cast a vision for a world: we are creative, imaginative, and futuristic. We believe in a world where policies support our most marginalized, in particular black, brown, and indigenous communities, to thrive—instead of getting in the way—because we know that we are stronger when we are united. So, let young people lead—it’s our future, and we decide.
Nicole Hensel is executive director of the New Era Colorado Foundation, a youth civic engagement organization. She lives in Denver.