This has been a year of unimaginable personal and collective heartbreak for so many of us. 

But it has also been a year that showed us the best of ourselves and who we can be as a community. When the cavalry isn’t coming and we have only each other to depend on, we rise to meet the needs of the most vulnerable and we raise our voices to ensure no one is forgotten. 

What can we learn from this year about ourselves that we can take to build a stronger foundation for 2021 and beyond? That’s the question I asked four Puget Sound community and thought leaders; here’s what they said.

By Paulina López

We all know 2020 has been a year of incredible hardship. Hardship reminds us to reflect on what is important and to prepare for what tomorrow may bring. While many have not rested in the fight for justice, Black, brown, Indigenous and people of color and low-income communities continue to reel from the health, economic and social consequences of racism and the COVID-19 pandemic.  

COVID-19 augmented climate and environmental injustices that have historically disproportionate impact on communities of color, those with poor access to health care, whose English is not their first language, who lack education and employment opportunities such as the Duwamish River and Duwamish Valley communities. We need to end the hardship within communities that contribute the least to the injustice. 

To build a just future, every solution must incorporate features that build economic, social, racial justice as well as climate resilience. This calls for us to incorporate intersectionality into the pathways used to address the repercussions of the pandemic. By doing this, solutions can simultaneously heal the burdens of persistent racism and systemic inequity.

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We cannot simply ‘return to normal.’ We need to lead with transformation and BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and people of color) community-led investment to leave a better future for generations to come.

We cannot simply “return to normal.” We need to lead with transformation and BIPOC community-led investment to leave a better future for generations to come. And while we work toward that transformation, we must remember what is important: the urgency of addressing the climate crisis, protecting our most vulnerable neighbors, and fair access to the benefits of a clean and safe environment to allow our communities to regenerate faster.

Together, we need to fight all of these injustices so we can leave a better future for generations to come. The world needs us — all of us.

Paulina López is executive director of the Duwamish River Cleanup Coalition Technical Advisory Group (DRCC/TAG).

Priya Frank, director of equity, diversity and inclusion at the Seattle Art Museum.  (Priya Frank)
Priya Frank, director of equity, diversity and inclusion at the Seattle Art Museum. (Priya Frank)

By Priya Frank

2020 took me from red gowns and galas to a “Totally Beachin’ Ocean Shores” sweatshirt and slippers.

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If we have connected over Zoom, you’ll recognize that yellow hoodie: an odd beacon of light comforting me through a year like no other. In that signature uniform, I experienced multiple pandemics that revealed truths and tears in the fabric of our country that a Band-Aid, a book club or a vaccine alone could not fix. 

We searched for resolve, grieving our losses while fumbling for hope, finding our courage and along the way bearing witness to the powerful art that exploded across our city documenting our collective journey.

As a museum worker, I think about what the mementos from this time will be when we reflect back years from now. My memento — the signature uniform — will remind me how forced isolation ripped open my priorities to reveal the need to slow down and care for myself in order to best be in service to others.

The simple things kept me functioning: Virtual Zumba with fabulous instructor Sydace; Wednesday grocery shopping and delivery with FEEST; heartfelt car parades; chalk art murals in solidarity with #BLM; learning to make salmon chowder for those I love.

The unexpected creativity and care that so many of us experienced this year feels spiritual, and in 2021, I hope for the prioritization of healing and grace, for ourselves and each other.

The unexpected creativity and care that so many of us experienced this year feels spiritual, and in 2021, I hope for the prioritization of healing and grace, for ourselves and each other. I hope for more empathy, gratitude and creativity as a necessary means of survival and liberation.

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Priya Frank is the director of equity, diversity and inclusion at the Seattle Art Museum.

Susan Balbas (Cherokee/Yaqui), executive director, Na’ah Illahee Fund. (Courtesy Susan Balbas)
Susan Balbas (Cherokee/Yaqui), executive director, Na’ah Illahee Fund. (Courtesy Susan Balbas)

By Susan Balbas

2020 brought to light our collective resilience and the audacity to have a radical imagination about our future as people and planet. I saw this year through the eyes of my ancestors and through the hearts of my children and grandchildren — the devastating events of illness, death, racial injustice and unprecedented environmental tragedies.  It has shown how fundamental inequities are unsustainable, and that we must radically imagine a different future for our descendants.

2020 brought to light our collective resilience and the audacity to have a radical imagination about our future as people and planet.

This year shed light on how our political economic “system” is broken. Amid a global pandemic, health and human services were commodified. Businessmen became more than billionaires. Front-line communities awaited meager relief from mounting debt.

Intensified income inequality went hand in hand with political disenfranchisement. We saw census efforts and voting rights challenged in marginalized communities of color across the nation. This winner takes all mentality is ingrained in the political economy that diminishes true democracy.

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We saw how the racism embedded into our political economic system haunts us.  To believe otherwise upholds the very definition of racism. We must find ways to deepen our collective understanding of structural racism before we can advance racial equity.  This is so clear to a lot of us, but especially so to the next generation — our youth — whose lives and future are at risk because of the impending twin crises of climate chaos and racial injustice. It is this emerging radical imagination that will birth a future that is sustainable and equitable for all.

Susan Balbas (Cherokee/Yaqui), is executive director of Na’ah Illahee Fund, an Indigenous women-led organization dedicated to the ongoing regeneration of Indigenous communities.

The Rev. Dr. Kelle Brown is the lead pastor of Plymouth Church in downtown Seattle. (Bettina Hansen / The Seattle Times)
The Rev. Dr. Kelle Brown is the lead pastor of Plymouth Church in downtown Seattle. (Bettina Hansen / The Seattle Times)

By the Rev. Dr. Kelle Brown

“There are years that ask questions and years that answer.” In all her wisdom, anthropologist and author Zora Neale Hurston understood that years have character and purpose. Years teach.  

We discovered grief and loss is ever-present, that we are disconnected by geography and spin; and that those in authority are often sickeningly ignorant of the impact many face. Further, we learned that much of the suffering and debilitating circumstances stem from the fact our society and its leaders haven’t vowed connection or covenant, or asked the difficult questions that must come with nation-building: Will we be moral people who empower the vulnerable, or continue on a path where racism, sexism, classism, xenophobia and heteronormativity kill the possibility of the beloved community of which Dr. King dreamed? Will we believe the experiences and testimonies of Black, brown, Indigenous and all marginalized people that deserve our attention and right action?

I believe 2021 will be an answering year, one of hope where we reframe our energy while hierarchies and oppressive systems die, and compassion, equity and wholeness are the order of the day.

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Thankfully, there are answers. Though the looking glass of this year is foggy with much despair, we still declare that activists can forge the movements of change. Many believed science and medical professionals, and outlived administrations that seem disinterested in the thriving of American people.  

I believe 2021 will be an answering year, one of hope where we reframe our energy while hierarchies and oppressive systems die, and compassion, equity and wholeness are the order of the day. May it be so.

The Rev. Dr. Kelle Brown is the lead pastor of Plymouth Church United Church of Christ.