This year has been marked by political and public health turmoil, environmental disasters, and widespread social injustice, and it’s strained our communities and also inspired us to imagine and demand better futures. From workers’ rights and education to democracy, racial justice, and more, Prism’s reporting and commentary have covered a lot of ground in 2021, informing and shining a light on the push for collective liberation. To close out the year, we’ve rounded up the stories that resonated most with our community of readers—the ones that uncovered injustice, lifted up new perspectives, got people talking, and moved you to action. 

Guttmacher Institute staff say a ‘toxic’ work culture has the reproductive rights research giant in a ‘death spiral’ 

After a nearly year-long investigation, this deeply reported story by Tina Vásquez brought readers inside the storied Guttmacher Institute and revealed the struggles of workers of color, caregivers, and disabled workers to thrive in an inhospitable workplace. “Workplaces routinely fail to live up to their stated values, but national reproductive health and rights nonprofit organizations are uniquely bad for workers of color,” Vásquez wrote. “Namely, high-ranking staff members are overwhelmingly white women who—while purporting to advocate for marginalized communities—adhere to some of the most toxic tenets of white feminism.” According to the past and current employees who spoke out, Guttmacher is no different. The story made waves in the reproductive rights, health, and justice community, confirming longstanding whispers about Guttmacher and sparking conversations about workplace issues at similar organizations. 

Not sure if joining a union is right for you? Here are some things to consider 

Union organizing efforts have ramped up around the country during the pandemic, sparked in large part by unsustainable working conditions, low wages, and workers recognizing and harnessing their own power in the midst of crisis. Carolyn Copeland’s explainer shared insights from worker advocates about the benefits of unions and tipped off readers that the power of organizing was well within their reach. “Despite common misconceptions, most workers in the private sector, regardless of industry, have the right to unionize,” Copeland wrote, and “[n]on-unionized workers still have other options to fight for fairness in the workplace if they fail to form a union.”

With anti-Asian violence rising, it’s past time for Lululemon to change its name 

The pandemic fueled an uptick in racist and xenophobic anti-Asian violence, and Allison Torres Burtka argued that the dangerous climate meant it was long past time for corporate responsibility. “In 2004, Lululemon founder Chip Wilson reportedly said he chose the name because ‘it was funny to watch [Japanese people] try to say it,’” Torres Burtka wrote. While Lululemon made #StopAsianHate posts on Instagram, “corporate statements against racism aren’t actually useful if they’re not followed by concrete action. If Lululemon wants to truly express support for our communities, there is at least one way it can make an active difference: The company needs to change its name.”

We can’t police and imprison our way to a crime-free society, activists say 

This Q&A between Tamar Sarai Davis and Ash-Lee Woodard Henderson, co-director of the Highlander Center in Tennessee and an activist with the Movement for Black Lives, pushed back against the widespread and inaccurate “crime surge” narrative that flooded the media for much of this year, and refocused on the abolitionist aims of investing in communities rather than policing. “People do want something different than gun violence in their communities; they do want to see these mass shootings, typically by white supremacists, to stop; and folks want to understand how to radically reimagine public safety in a way that gets them beyond being dependent on a system that also consistently criminalizes them and their culture,” Woodard Henderson said. 

Schools can’t address racism until they acknowledge how they got to this point 

At the end of another pandemic school year, Prism’s series on the Racial Reckoning in Education took a look at what has and hasn’t changed since 2020 sparked a national conversation on race. In this op-ed from the series, executive director for the National Public Education Support Fund Frank Gettridge argued that “[w]hat many people do not understand is that critical race theory is not an attack against white people or any other group, and it is not a concept that is currently being taught in K-12 schools. The current narrative pits individuals against each other by personalizing what is really a systemic and political issue, which creates barriers to the type of partnership and dialogue that needs to happen for us to address educational inequities.”   

Guam won’t give up more land to the U.S. military without a fight 

In Guam, “[m]ore than 1,000 acres of native limestone forests, which have been part of the island landscape for millennia, will soon be cleared to construct a massive firing range complex as part of a planned U.S. military buildup—an operation more than a decade in the making that will relocate some 5,000 Marines (and 1,500 of their family members) to the island from Okinawa and elsewhere beginning in 2025,” Frances Nguyen reported. But an Indigenous-led resistance movement on the island is continuing the fight against increased militarization, and speaking out against Guam’s “separate but unequal” status as an unincorporated territory—a colonial possession of the U.S.

Texas educators and activists fight against whitewashed history textbooks 

Even before bad faith right-wing attacks on teaching accurate U.S. history on racial injustice really gained steam around the country under the guise of fighting “critical race theory,” the conservative influence over the Texas Board of Education was clear. But, as Umme Hoque reported, educators and activists have pushed back against their efforts to whitewash U.S. history: “This is about equity, representation, and inclusivity,” said Georgina Pérez, a teacher in El Paso, Texas. “If we don’t start in schools, it’s almost impossible to do it anywhere else. When you are left out of your own education, you’re not fully participating [in your education], your community, and in your own future.”

We don’t need an ‘abortion Underground Railroad’—Black and brown people already lead the most powerful abortion fund network in the country

With Roe v. Wade hanging in the balance at the Supreme Court and abortion care being steadily eroded or banned in several states, this fall made clear that the future of abortion access will rest in the hands of frontline organizers—and Black and brown-led abortion funds have already been doing the work. “As the Black leader of Access Reproductive Justice, a statewide abortion fund that has been serving Californians for almost 30 years, the majority of whom also identify as Black, Indigenous, or people of color, I’m troubled when I hear folks, in particular, privileged white women, try to reinvent the wheel and ‘solve’ the problem of abortion access,” wrote Jessica Pinckey, executive director of Access Reproductive Justice. “This instinct demonstrates a pervasive unawareness and disinterest in learning about and working with the nation’s foremost experts on abortion access—the abortion funds that day in and day out help our communities navigate the hostile restrictions and harsh barriers designed to prevent people from getting abortions. What’s more, abortion funds are largely led by BIPOC and LGBTQ+ people, and the notion that our country needs a new ‘Underground Railroad’ of sorts is a blatant erasure of our work and leadership.”

U.S. launches private group sponsorship program for Afghan refugees. Will it help?

As the U.S. welcomed an influx of Afghan refugees in the wake of the Taliban taking power when U.S. troops left Afghanistan in August, refugees told Natasha Ishak that the overburdened resettlement system would need the extra support to ensure resettling families get the assistance they need. The government announced a new community sponsorship model in October, and Afghan chef and resettled refugee Hamidullah Noori emphasized the importance of keeping refugees’ voices front and center as policy develops: “The Afghans, they should decide what they need,” he said, not nonprofit organizations and sponsors. Ishak’s reporting followed up on Prism’s series, Reimagining Refugee Resettlement, released in the summer. 

Who’s paying the human costs of plastic pollution?

With all the focus on individual actions with tactics like straw bans, what often gets lost in environmental justice conversations is the impact of larger scale manufacturing on vulnerable communities. In this op-ed, Yvette Arellano and Mariana Del Valle Prieto Cervantes from GreenLatinos pointed out that an estimated “1.8 million Latinx people in the U.S. live within half a mile of an oil and gas facility, increasing odds of preterm birth and respiratory illness. The production of plastic feedstocks and the raw fossil fuels used to make most plastics affect communities’ immune, reproductive, developmental, and respiratory systems, starting right outside factory fence lines.” As a result, they wrote, “it is no surprise that our communities have been hit the hardest by COVID-19, as our immune systems are already compromised. Plastic pollution violates our human right to breathe without fear.”

Ashton is an accomplished writer and editor—and recovering lawyer—whose work focuses on the intersection of race, culture, and law. Her writing has been published by The Washington Post, Slate magazine,...