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Written by writer, storyteller, and activist Mia Birdsong, How We Show Up: Reclaiming Family, Friendship, and Community gathers interviews, research, and personal stories to explore the process of cultivating relationships and defining community when traditional systems and institutions fail to provide for our everyday needs.

Currently a senior fellow at the Economic Security Project, Birdsong builds on her work in economic security and narrative-shifting, which has included a widely-viewed 2015 TED Talk challenging the way poverty is discussed. Recently, Birdsong hosted a four-part podcast series with The Nation focused on universal basic income. In How We Show Up, Birdsong encourages readers to push past notions of worth and value that do not recognize our full humanity.

As the COVID-19 pandemic has exposed the ways people are navigating around institutions that are working as designed but failing many, How We Show Up reaffirms the need to examine how people exist in relation to one another. 

Last month, Birdsong sat down with Prism to discuss her vision for how we show up for ourselves and each other in this moment of crisis and beyond, emphasizing the need for “systems that protect and elevate our interconnectedness.” Despite the challenges of the current moment, she said, people are finding ways to not just survive, but thrive. From the mutual aid networks organizing across the country to the informal check-ins and assistance in existing kinship and community networks, people are showing up for each other in different ways that for some may fundamentally change how they engage with others. How We Show Up is slated for release on June 2.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Anoa Changa: Thinking about the current state of things, have you thought about what may have been different if you were writing the book and having those conversations now versus when you first started?

Mia Birdsong: I think that I probably would have focused more on how we build and strengthen relationships, like in our geography. I feel like my neighborhood has become even more important. You know, the only place I see people who I don’t live with is if I’m walking around my neighborhood. And even though we’re all standing more than six feet away from each other, there’s a presence of people that wasn’t there before. I have people who I bring food or whatever. But I think there’s something about being able to rely on the people who live next door to you that can be really powerful right now and really important.

One of the recurring themes in the book is about the way in which we are allergic to asking for help. There’s a hesitancy we have to insert ourselves into each other’s lives. When we see that somebody needs help, we don’t want to cross boundaries or disrespect their autonomy if we offer our assistance. This is a moment in which our systems and institutions are operating exactly as they were designed to, and they are deeply failing us. They’re not set up to actually serve us and I feel like we need to be able to count on each other way more than we’re comfortable with.

The practice of supporting each other and providing care and assistance to each other is just something we should do anyway. People shouldn’t have to be in some kind of desperate situation in order to ask for help.

Changa: Reading through the conversations you have across the book, in some ways you’re co-visioning this process of redefining what it means to show up. How did you work through this process of building community and deconditioning with your peers?

Birdsong: A lot of it is related to this process of getting into conversations with people. And then asking how does this show up for me? How does this resonate for me? It’s not like at the end of the book I figured it all out. It’s very much a book about the process that I will always be in for the rest of my life. Because just as I’m evolving in my thinking, my practice about relationships changes. It’s not like you figure out the kind of family structure that you want to have, and then you implement it, and then you’re that way ‘til you’re dead, right? Relationships are these things that grow and evolve.

Part of it is about recognizing that those relationships are alive. They’re not these stagnant things where you become partners or best friends and it’s gonna be the same forever. And there’s this kind of parallel of how do we evolve as individuals and what’s the work that we’re doing to be kind of more self-aware. All of us are deeply interconnected people. So whatever we’re doing to work on ourselves, it’s also about how we’re working on ourselves in the context of our relationships. And if we’re constantly evolving, as I think ideally we are, then our relationships are also constantly evolving.  

Changa: Can you talk to me about how this pandemic moment is exposing those gaps in systems and institutions and driving support for a universal basic income?

Birdsong: Back in January, I released a four-episode podcast with The Nation on this topic. There has been a kind of facade that kept hidden the ways in which the current systems were not actually what we need. They’re working as they were designed, but they’re not what human beings need. We need something that is generative, and not extractive. We need systems that are based on valuing inherent worth, and not asking us to demonstrate that we are worthy. Human life is valuable and worthy. People are worthy.

We depend on others for every aspect of our food system. People are growing, harvesting, slaughtering and transporting our food. Farm workers need a fucking living wage. They need to be protected. They need health care and sick leave. Paid sick leave. There are people who are putting our food on shelves and working in grocery stores. Without those people we would not exist and that was true before.

And I think we’re also seeing that systemic racism is deadly for Black people.  Like we know that racism is actually deadly, both in terms of actually experiencing racism over time, it’s like drinking a little bit of poison, but then also in terms of the ways in which it inhibits our ability to access the things we need. We’re seeing it because more of us are dying, right? And it’s not that we don’t eat well or like we don’t exercise enough. It is that we have these systems of oppression that are fucking us up.

Changa: There’s a point in your book when you mention having conversations about apocalypse. Is this what you envisioned the apocalypse being like?

Birdsong: Hell no!

Changa: I really was thinking we were going to go more like The Walking Dead or an EMP [electromagnetic pulse].  

Birdsong: Yeah, I definitely had antibiotic-resistant bacteria on my list. But I thought it would be more drastic in impact. So it’d be like stage one of the apocalypse. Who knows what else is coming? And this is one of the things I’ve been trying to lean into. One of the things I realized early on is that my coping mechanism is trying to figure out what’s going to happen next. My therapist helped me understand it is like a kind of vigilance. But that’s not actually what needs to happen now because we’re still in the crisis and there’s still information that we need to be receiving.

So part of what I’ve been thinking about is the desire to understand and know what’s going on is because many of us are very uncomfortable with uncertainty. And this moment is nothing if not deeply uncertain, right? Like, we don’t know how long the cycle lasts. So I was reminded I can’t figure shit out like it’s still unfolding. This was like, two weeks in. I was reminded of something that was said to me a while ago when I was feeling like my role in my community was shifting and I didn’t know what it was shifting to. I was like, I know that it is no longer this thing over here, but I don’t know what it’s moving toward. I was talking with Akaya, who is [profiled] in the book, about how uncomfortable I was with that and how impatient I was. And she had no sympathy for me and she was like, that is the best time. She said the uncertainty is amazing and wonderful and you should stay in it as long as you possibly can. Because, she said, as soon as you start to figure it out, you’ve cut yourself off from so much possibility.

In the uncertainty, everything is possible. The uncertainty is where you have to listen. You have to listen to whatever messages your intuition, or the universe, or your ancestors or your descendants, whatever it is you listen to, you have to listen in that place to see what messages it’s sending you. And as soon as you start to figure things out, you stop hearing things.

Anoa Changa

Anoa Changa is a journalist and organizer focused on innovating electoral justice coverage. Follow her on Twitter at @thewaywithanoa.