I’ve always been confused about how much people can ignore their neighbors. We don’t live in a rural area, we can see people who are hungry in this city. We pass them every day on the street while we go about our lives. In the four years I’ve worked at Brooklyn’s largest emergency food provider, I have watched people aggressively ignore the people we serve as they go to the train; they pass on by with an intense stare forward that never wavers. It’s a shame people lack the curiosity and compassion to see others they come in contact with daily. It’s a pity that they can’t see this city’s greatest asset—the people.
Many people move to New York with the stars in their eyes, to set themselves apart and make something of themselves. People have vision for only their ambitions, predetermined paths and who and what they think they need to achieve them. The American mythology of exceptionalism, that success reflects just how special a person is, is a racist notion. A lot of success in this society is built on familial and institutional privileges. Meanwhile, the people living a few doors down have a totally different reality. Before the pandemic, food insecurity, along with housing, was the biggest issue affecting this city. And now it’s even more so. Hunger in this city is a fact, but it’s not a failure of the hungry, it’s a failure of the system.
The pandemic revealed everything that doesn’t work in this country. Spoiler alert: It’s a lot. It turns out there is no true support or safety net for most of us. This whole damn city shut down and so many people were left to their own devices for survival. For some, this shutdown was the first time living in crisis, with life out of their control, unable to buy everything they need. Their real first scarcity. For many people in this city, this was nothing new, the pittances the government offers do little to ensure anything more than base survival.
This year I grew tired of asking why we constantly scrutinize the people with the fewest choices. I want to know why the people with the most options make the decisions they do. Why so many people left the city and bought houses upstate. (It’s called white flight, people.) Why business owners decided to put their employees at risk for infection. Why some people only made $2 an hour more to put their lives at stake, and that was a temporary raise for those few months when everyone banged pots for nurses, doctors, grocery store employees and delivery guys. Why are so many people breathing a sigh of relief that Joe Biden is president and putting on their “I don’t have to pay attention to politics anymore” sweatpants, even though the NYPD Union endorsed Trump and rent hasn’t been canceled.
The people who have done the most for others in this city are the people with both the fewest resources and the most to lose. I’m not talking about restaurants, powerful media roles, yearly bonuses and TV shows. I mean homes, food, civil rights and loved ones. There’s something messed up in this country; it constantly tells us we have nothing to share with anyone else and to stockpile it so no one takes it from us. It tells you to run away from a place you love and live in. And yet it’s still the most powerful country in the world?
White America lives in the promise of comfort and safety, prioritizing their own needs and immediate family to the point of no return. It’s made for a selfish nation, one that believes in hoarding and scarcity. There aren’t good examples in white America for what we need to do to make this city and this country work, to change and move towards equity, fairness and a safe society for all people. We must follow the lead of Black, Brown and Indigenous communities who recognize the abundance of people and their resources.
La Morada, an Oaxacan restaurant in the South Bronx, is run by an undocumented family, and since the start of the pandemic has been providing 5,000 meals a week to neighbors in need. In a recent photo essay by Cinthya Santos Briones published in The Nation, La Morada co-owner Natalia Méndez Saavedra said, “This system has taken away everything and even our fear. In this crisis, we do not mind dying because our spirit and values as a family is to fight for equality, social justice, and human rights. To facilitate a place that the most needy can call home and thus to respond to this crisis as we as Indigenous people have always done.”
This stunning essay focuses on the safety nets Indigenous people created during this pandemic in the city, based on values, practices and priorities from their many communities. Please read it. Prospero Martinez, who manages a community garden at his church, says “Being a part of this community response, giving food or helping others, is a commitment, an act of solidarity and at the same time a way of expressing autonomy: We do not need the government to help us; the communities have known how to do it for more than 500 years.”
The communities that have always taken care of one another have been amplified during this pandemic, demonstrating how compassion and empathy are reciprocal and necessary. The best thing about 2020 was how many people committed themselves to feeding others, offering weekly food pantries and groceries for neighbors and strangers, setting up and maintaining community fridges, cooking for protesters and anyone who was hungry. How many people have taken to the streets to tell everyone in this country that there must be justice for Black people and Brown people and immigrants and LGBTQIA, these communities we describe as “marginalized” and “vulnerable” and “under-resourced.” People don’t refer to themselves intentionally with these terms. These are polite terms we liberal people use to convey some false sympathy along with acknowledging that we are not blind to how the system has failed people. Yet we never implicate ourselves.
This country, this city, our society, will not change unless how we act changes. When I say “we,” I’m talking about white people. I’m talking about people most interested in their own comfort who think they can buy their way and donate here and there for actual systemic change in this country. That is not the case. We cannot apply a neoliberal approach to the problem of neoliberalism. We are on the precipice of this new year that people will hang every hope on. I imagine the promise of vaccines obscures the important memes about racial justice, housing and food insecurity everyone was sharing just a few months ago. Instead of thinking that the turning of a calendar page will make the world better, we need to be better. We need to follow the people who see the abundance, who believe in helping each other and prioritize it every day.