A new canon of books for imagining a better world has been emerging for several years now, led by visionary writers like Robin Wall Kimmerer and Mariame Kaba.
Books like Kimmerer’s Braiding Sweetgrass and Kaba’s We Do This ‘Til We Free Us invite readers to reconsider widely held concepts that have guided much of the past century such as economic growth, individualism, and policing, and instead explore old-but-new ideas like reciprocity, mercy, kindness, and harmony with all beings.
A new addition to this canon has to be Mia Birdsong’s How We Show Up: Reclaiming Family, Friendship, and Community, a book that reads like a warm cup of tea, full of hope, humor, and insights about infusing our lives with as much love, joy, and meaning as possible.
Birdsong, a pathfinder, community curator, and storyteller, writes about how, particularly in the US, the central role that community once played in our lives has been eroded by economic pressures and corrosive ideas about self-reliance and the nuclear family.
She looks to the people who have been most excluded by the dominant American culture — queer women of color — for guidance and shares what they’ve learned while navigating poverty, discrimination, and health crises, by leaning on one another and building their own safety nets while also advocating for structural transformations.
A key theme throughout the book — and the emerging canon for a better future — is the idea that flourishing is mutual, that we all benefit when we all benefit, and that everyone is responsible for everyone else.
“[Our future] is one in which everyone has their needs met,” Birdsong told Global Citizen. “Beyond that, it’s one where our humanity is inherent, and we organize our time and our days around our well-being and the relationships we have, and love and joy.”
What does that mean in practice? Birdsong says it includes engaging in mutual aid, championing an abolitionist framework, and rediscovering our inherent kinship with the natural world. This is hard work, especially on a society-wide scale, but it’s essential, she writes.
As crises from climate change to the COVID-19 pandemic continue to darken the horizon, and systemic barriers keeping people in poverty remain firmly in place, voices like Birdsong’s can guide us toward a future that we would want to live in.
She recently spoke with Global Citizen about her book and some of her ideas around economic security, mutual aid, and movement building.
Global Citizen: The atomization and isolation that seems to pervade American society long predates the pandemic. What forces brought us here?
Mia Birdsong: There are probably many, many lenses for looking at this and answering the question, and I only have one mind. I’m not a historian or an economist. From what I see and the research I’ve done and the conversations I’ve had, it’s deeply rooted in the configuration of capitalism, white supremacy, and patriarchy we have in America. If we look at the founding of America, we’re looking at a country that was formed on colonization, stealing land and resources, and enslavement in order to create the hierarchy necessary for white supremacy and patriarchy to emerge.
And that is largely why we have a culture that prioritizes accumulation and defines success as not really having an endpoint. It really is about having more and more and more, and ostensibly it’s about getting a house and a car and you get married and kids. There’s a picture of it, this idea of middle-class achievement.
[In] our dominant culture and public discourse, there's a way in which we celebrate billionaires, and in my mind being a billionaire is immoral, having accumulated so many resources that are based on the extraction of the resources of human beings and the planet, and it’s more than you can possibly spend in your lifetime. No one needs a billion dollars. You would have to live for so long — your descendants, if they inherit your money, they’re set for a long time. And we live on a planet where people don’t have their basic needs met.
We have this idea of what success looks like that moves us toward this kind of extraction and it’s largely because the narrative of success is told to us by the people who are going to benefit the most from it, wealthy white men primarily, and I think of that both in terms of those who have the most access to that identity, but also as a way of being, because people who are not white or male can also practice it.
In your book, you explore the many ways in which the concept of scarcity shapes our approach to life. Can you unpack this a bit and explain why a worldview centered on abundance can serve us better?
I think it's important to say that there are people who are actually experiencing scarcity — people who are living under overpasses are experiencing scarcity, people who don’t have enough to eat. There is material scarcity that people experience. But when we look at the resources in the US, there is plenty here for all of us to be housed, for all of us to eat. There is enough money for us to spend on education and health care for everyone.
Scarcity makes us feel like we don’t ever have enough. An abundance mindset is one, even if you are existing in the reality of scarcity, [in which] you see that there is enough. And for those of us who have the things we need, it allows us to not feel like we have to continually accumulate to take care of ourselves or to fill this psychological hole that we have inside of ourselves.
There’s material scarcity and material abundance. And then there's kind of an abundance mindset in terms of relationships, where it’s not, "I’m going to give 50% to everyone and they’ll give 50% to me" — it’s not about reciprocation — [but] it’s understanding that you’re in a network, a web of people, and I have needs that I need met, and part of what I’m trying to do is make sure I’ve built community and relationships that meet my needs and that's true for everyone.
It requires a kind of faith that what you’re putting in, you’re going to receive what you need from your network of people. It’s a more organized, complex way of understanding relationships. It’s not all of these one-on-one relationships where people keep tabs of what we’re getting. It’s an alchemy, because when it’s in balance, and people are putting in what aligns with their capacity and boundaries, you get more than what you’re putting in. Not everyone has the same capacity; some people might not have emotional bandwidth, some might have limitations on their bodies. This approach allows everyone to be taken care of.
It requires understanding that, when you have and give to others, that when they have, you’re going to receive the same. In America, it's just so hard to come to that place. It’s so hard to accept and believe that that is going to happen because that is not how we’re conditioned. There are ways in which America celebrates people who get theirs and people who are crafty and accumulate and dont give back to anyone else.
America isn't one thing. There are places where we really value generosity. I think about after Hurricane Sandy. I remember seeing photographs of people putting power strips outside their houses, so people who didn't have power could charge their phones. Disaster is one of the things that brings people together and I think we’re capable of that kind of generosity.
This is one of the things that's so fascinating about the pandemic: both the hoarding of toilet paper and flour but also the incredible sharing and all of the mutual aid groups that expanded and the ways in which people checked in on each other. Some people have had a very isolating experience, but I think others have had a deepening of connection and relationship. We’re capable of all of this.
How do we feed our better self? So much of it is [that] people who do experience generosity, who experience what happens when you can be in that abundant space, are more likely to live it.
People who organize and do community building work often face burnout. What’s happening here and how do we stop it?
Movement work is really hard and it can be incredibly painful, and to have more intention around how we take care of ourselves, and how we process our feelings, and experiences and trauma, is so necessary for the longevity of people who are doing movement work.
There’s a lack of resources, and there’s often this idea that if you’re doing “good work” that somehow you should be sacrificing, that you should sacrifice yourself and your well-being on the altar of doing good work, which I think is utter bullshit. People who do movement work need to be deeply resourced so they can take care of themselves, so they have longevity to do the work. Otherwise, we lose people who we need.
There’s a way in which we’re existing inside of the things that we’re trying to change. Capitalism and white supremacy and patriarchy kind of conspire to have us believe that our value, how we earn our personhood, is through productivity and demonstrating that we can get things done, and move things forward, and you have to earn rest by working. So we have movements that are ostensibly trying to move us toward a world in which our dignity and value as human beings are seen as inherent and there’s nothing we need to do to earn that. But at the same time, because we’re steeped in capitalism, we do the work from the place where we need to demonstrate our value, and it's one of the clearest ways in which capitalism has infiltrated our behavior and our psyche in terms of how we understand ourselves.
How we understand our own personal value is one of the most intimate and important things to pay attention to and people need to — I’m including myself in this — kind of excavate those beliefs around productivity from our psyches and I’m definitely trying to work really hard to do that work. And it's lifelong work. I think about some of the people in this space like Prentis [Hemphill]. The person who mostly comes to mind when I think about our right to rest is Tricia Hersey, who founded the Nap Ministry, who talks about rest as resistance.
I’ve worked in the guaranteed income space and did a podcast on the subject and so much of what came up in those conversations is the idea of deservedness. People are really confronted [with] the way we center work and labor in our lives.
[For] most of us, our day is organized around however we make money … What would it look like to organize our time around pleasure or joy or relationship and connection and understand rest as the kind of thing we return to, the norm, as opposed to having to work to earn rest? We rest and then when we feel replenished, we do. And we don’t work to a point where we’re depleted, we don't use up all of our energy and resources and time, so we don't ever feel like we’re tapped out.
How can mutual aid be a legitimate alternative for people in the absence of structural support? And, more broadly, can mutual aid provide the foundation for a new kind of society?
I think it's the only one. Because we can’t make it on our own. When it comes to systems and structures and institutions and government, there are ways in which the existing systems are obviously inadequate. It's not that they’re failing. They’re functioning the way they’ve been set up and they’re failing us.
It’s vital that our elected officials and governments actually be held accountable and that we change those systems and they function in ways that everyone has their basic needs met, [where] everyone has housing, education, health care, not this health insurance crap, but actual health care, full stop. Our systems need to function in that way. We can’t be waiting for our system to get its shit together. We have to show up for each other. We have to be each other’s safety net. There’s this gap-filling role, and then there are things you do not actually want from your government.
When people say “utopian,” it’s often to be dismissive of things, to say that it's fantastical and impossible. But we should already have all the things, anything we can dream up that is beautiful and nourishing and nurturing and joyful and gives us pleasure and is not harmful ... we should have all those things.
Part of what this taps into is who we are as human beings. The hoarding and the scarcity and the fear, all of that stuff is not who we are. The isolation and the ideas about independence ... That's not who we are.
We are deeply interdependent. Our internal compasses point us toward joy and connection. I’m not suggesting that sometimes people are not fucked up and that relationships can’t be hard and problematic, but when we have kind of a grounding in joy and generosity, connection and care and love, then we can deal with the harder stuff, we can navigate the things that are hard.
Assuming we can navigate and overcome the challenges of today, what does your ideal future look like?
I think it’s a given that it’s one in which everyone has their needs met. Beyond that, it’s one where our humanity is inherent, and we organize our time and our days around our well-being and the relationships we have, and love and joy.
And, obviously, it's not that things won’t need to be done. Food needs to be grown, homes need to be repaired and built, but our lives won’t be organized around the extraction of our labor to get the things we need. We have to make sure that people don’t need jobs to have well-being.
It's also a world in which we’re living in right relationship with the rest of our relations, so we understand that trees are our elders, that the bees and sparrows are our cousins, that the land is sacred.
In the future, it’s not that harm won’t happen, but we’ll have learned ways of addressing harm that recognize that both people who experience harm and people who perpetrate harm are in need of healing. And we’ll be able to think long term enough so that part of our responsibility in preventing harm becomes ensuring that the people who experience harm get taken care, and recognizing that the people who perpetrate harm have experienced harm at some point, so we have a responsibility there as well.
I want flying cars and shit, too — I want all of those things, I want amazing things. It’s this combination of what do we need to return to, and what can we build?
Editor's note: This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.