THE POOR PEOPLE’S PANDEMIC REPORT AND WHY WE MARCH
By Dorothy Van Soest
Western Washington FOR newsletter, June 2022
When society puts people’s lives in jeopardy so they die, it commits social murder,
which is more malicious than individual murder because it is rendered invisible.
It is a violence that is not seen as such.
It’s only natural for us to want so badly for it to be over—this pandemic that has left so much death and destruction in its wake. Yet, if we learned one thing from the COVID-19 epidemic it is this: that all of our lives depend on things not going back to normal. The exploitative economic and social systems that created the conditions for many of the negative outcomes associated with the virus are still in place and must now be confronted and dismantled. The approximately 140 poor and low-income people (over 40% of the population and more than half of our country’s children) who were rendered invisible before the pandemic by the widespread unequal distribution of wealth, income and resources in our country must be made visible.
The Poor People’s Pandemic Report that was released on April 4th at the National Press Club in Washington DC does just that. It exposes the glaring omissions and inconsistencies in the collection and dissemination of data on poverty, income and occupation, as they relate to COVID-19 outcomes. Since income and wealth information have not been systematically collected for people who have died or fallen ill from COVID-19 in the U.S, there is no systematic way to know the poverty status of those who died. That is why, with this report, a joint effort of the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival in partnership with the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN), is an important step toward filling this gap and overcoming a long-standing aversion to understanding the full extent of poverty and economic insecurity in the U.S.
The Poor People’s Pandemic Report maps the intersections of poverty, race and COVID-19 by aggregating data from more than 3200 counties in order to connect information about COVID-19 deaths to other demographic characteristics, including income, race, health insurance status and more. Data is organized and an intersectional analysis used to uncover how poverty, age, gender, race, ethnicity, disability and class intersect with COVID-19 outcomes.
We make better possible by making the pain visible
A central finding of this study is that poverty was not tangential to the pandemic but deeply embedded in its geography. Counties with the highest death rates are both poorer than counties with lower death rates and have higher percentages of people of color. When the pandemic was broken down into six waves, it was revealed that after its first wave, COVID-19 became largely a “poor people’s pandemic” as poor communities grieved nearly two times the losses of richer communities during the second wave. After that, death rates spiraled even more in poor counties and vaccination rates did not explain the whole variation in death rates:
During the third wave (winter 2020-2021), death rates were four-and-a-half times higher in the counties with the lowest median income than in the counties with the highest median income.
During the fifth phase (Delta variant), death rates were five times higher in these low-income counties.
The sixth phase (Omicron) has had a death rate nearly three times higher in counties with lowest median incomes than highest median incomes.
The Poor People’s Pandemic Report with its interactive dashboard offers an account of poverty, economic insecurity, race and COVID-19 by county and state that helps us to both develop our understanding of these intersections and summon the political will to implement bold policy solutions to fully address them.
A major mobilization is needed to confront and dismantle the
exploitative economic and social systems that created the conditions
for many of the negative outcomes associated with the virus
WHY WE MARCH
—We march because the system is killing all of us and the pandemic taught us that, if we don’t lift from the bottom, our whole society is at risk
—We march to declare that any nation that ignores nearly half of its citizens is in a moral, economic and political crisis
— We march to carry forward the lessons from the past two years and demand that we target the root causes of inequality such as poverty and discrimination, that the harm done must be repaired, and that no one is left behind.
— We march to declare that it is violent to deny people health care, a living wage and basic necessities
—We march to name poverty as the worst form of violence and show that it is killing people
—We march for 230,000 children in Washington state who live in poverty, more than the combined population of Bellingham, Yakima, and Wenatchee, and for at least twice that many who live in families with incomes too low to meet their basic needs.
—We march to expose the inequality of the three richest billionaires in the U.S who live in Washington getting $1 billion richer every day and yet not being required to pay the taxes we need to fund healthy communities and meet peoples’ basic needs.
—We march to demonstrate our people power because for far too long, cultural wedge issues and racial fears have been used to pit poor people against one another.
WE MARCH BECAUSE WE WON’T … WE CANNOT … BE SILENT ANY MORE!
For more information and to register/sign up, go to: www.washingtonppc.org
Finding Energy for the Struggle When the Crisis Is Over: Ways to Overcome Despair and Find Hope
Dorothy Van Soest, PhD, MSW
Do not get lost in a sea of despair. Be hopeful, be optimistic. Our struggle of a day, a week, a month, or a year, it is the struggle of a lifetime. Never, ever be afraid to make some noise and get in good trouble, necessary trouble.
—Representative John Lewis
Even when the United States leans into Rep. Lewis’ inspiring words, it’s difficult not to despair over the disproportionate number of poor and low-income People of Color who have suffered from and whose lives have been taken by COVID-19. How can we hope that anything will be different after the crisis is over when intolerable health disparities already existed for years, in plain view for all to see, and COVID was just the latest public health crisis to expose statistics about the gap between White Americans and communities of color (Appold, 2020)? Weren’t Americans unlike all other developing countries, already tolerating the fact that 27.5 million people were uninsured before the pandemic (Khatana & Groeneveld, 2020)? The reality is that, after the burden of this crisis has ended, we will need to work even harder to eliminate structural inequalities and injustice. We will also need to support policies such as a living wage, paid sick leave, affordable quality health care for all, equitable allocation of health care resources, and provider training to
improve economic and health outcomes for people who are marginalized.
Whatever our practice settings, social workers can expect more challenges than ever to fulfill our professional mandate to be social justice advocates (NASW 2017). We will have to resist succumbing to the pressure to get back to normal—that is, back to the inequitable way things were before
the pandemic. We will need to find ways to resist despair, a challenge that is as much psychological as political when, in so many ways, we’re led to believe that we’re helpless, that if we can’t solve every one of the problems, we shouldn’t bother trying. We will need to tap into the antidote to helplessness, which is hope—defiant, resilient, persistent hope. Here are some suggestions about ways to find that hope and sustain our energy, especially when our spirits begin to flag (Garcia & Van Soest, 2021).
Use your imagination. Allow yourself to imagine the world you would like to inhabit and then believe it is possible to create it, no matter what evidence here is to the contrary. Imagine a world where there are no poor people. Imagine a world where adequate food, shelter, and access to health care are universal human rights for all. Imagine a world where no one suffers pain and death due to a blatantly unjust health care system. Imagine the world you want and then work to create it.
Change the narrative. Challenge dominant superior-inferior ideologies that, by valuing some over others, ensure the creation of disposable people (Cherry, 2018). Challenge the widespread belief that the poor must always be with us. Replace the dominant narrative that poverty is an issue of personal responsibility to the true narrative that poverty is the consequence of structural changes to the economy and labor market. Changing the narrative changes the policies we support and the actions we take.
Turn to history. Our spirits are buoyed by stories of others who, despite equal or greater challenges, kept working to make a better world. Not the kind of myths about superheroes that make it harder for us to act, but the real stories about ordinary people who did seemingly insignificant things and acted in the face of uncertainty and real danger. When we act today we stand on the shoulders of untold numbers of people in the past who joined together to act and persevered against all odds. Our efforts, combined with and multiplied by millions of people across the globe and over time, transform the world.
Take any step. Even one small step on the journey changes our perspective on the landscape. Action, whether practical or symbolic, overcomes the inertia and apathy connected with the absence of hope. We don’t have to do everything, be everything, be impossibly eloquent and confident and certain in a way that nobody is. Remember the incalculable numbers of people before us who slogged through decades and even generations of small, boring, and frustrating actions—and persisted despite the odds and obstacles.
Be willing to take uncomfortable steps. Acknowledge that it’s human nature to stay in one’s safe and familiar comfort zone, plan to do something uncomfortable anyway, and then watch your comfort zone expand.
Don’t be intimidated by “those who have power” (Zinn, 2004). No matter how much power others have, they cannot prevent us from living our lives, thinking independently, speaking our minds, and following the still small voice that whispers the truth to our hearts.
Be a critical, analytical thinker. Don’t unquestionably ingest what you see or hear or read. When someone uses words, like social change or social justice, don’t assume they share your understanding of what the words mean. Know the belief of who is saying it and watch what that person does.
Pair a deep-seated sense of social justice with pragmatism. People are not necessarily either with us or against us. There’s a vast center of those not in ideological sync with us yet with strong opinions about some issues and a willingness to work on beginning reforms (Hardisty & Bhargava, 2010). Consider that the Social Security, Medicare, voting rights, and affordable health care acts were all reforms that over time added up to a kind of revolution. Reframe issues to effectively reach more people. Our brains allow us to have both conservative and progressive world views but on different issues. Instead of negating others’ opposing positions, reframe issues based on what’s important to them using your words, not theirs. By successfully reframing the discourse, we can help people see the world differently (Lakoff, 2014).
Know when to step back. When we feel red-hot rage—no matter how justified—take a breath, look at the spiraling anger of others, and decide not to ratchet it up. We can be impatient with evil and, at the same time, be patient with people.
Hold our leaders accountable. Politicians will always tell us this is not the time to ask for anything that costs money. History proves otherwise. In 1935, even in the depths of a depression, people held their leaders accountable and got the Social Security Act passed; during the Vietnam War era, they got the Civil Rights, Medicaid, Medicare, Elementary & Secondary Education, Women, Infants and Children, (WIC) program, and economic opportunity acts passed (Amidei, 2010). By holding our politicians accountable now, we can save countless lives and lift millions out of poverty by making aspects of the $1.9 trillion COVID relief plan permanent and getting a universal health care bill passed.
Solve common problems through common efforts. Inspiration and energy come from joining our voices with millions of others. By uniting our efforts with larger movements like the Poor People’s Campaign (www.poorpeoplescampaign.org) and Black Lives Matter (https://blacklivesmatter.com/), we cast our lot with others who believe that, in the long run, social justice will win out.
Dorothy Van Soest, PhD, MSW, professor emerita and former dean, University of Washington School of Social Work, is past chair of NASW Peace and Social Justice Committee, a novelist for social justice, and an activist with the Poor Peoples Campaign. www.dorothyvansoest.com.
Amidei, N. (2010). So, you want to make a difference. CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform.
Appold, K. (2020). Deadly and revealing: The toll that COVID-19 has taken on the African American community. Managed Healthcare Executive Publication, 30(6).
Cherry, K. (2018). Critical thoughts on American social work and the crisis of modernity: Lessons from theory and current events. Journal of Progressive
Human Services, 29(1), 40-60. https://doi.org/10.1080/10428232.2017.1334286
Garcia, B., & Van Soest, D. (2021, in press). Social work practice for social justice: From cultural competence to anti-oppression (2nd ed.). CSWE Press.
Hardisty, J., & Bhargava, D. (2010). Holding the center. The Nation, 291(3/4), 23-26.
Khatana, S. A. M., & Groeneveld, P. W. (2020). Health disparities and the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic in the USA. Journal of General Internal Medicine, 35(8): 2431-2432.
Lakoff, G. (2014). Don’t think of an elephant! Know your values and frame the debate. Chelsea Green Publishing. NASW. (2017). Code of Ethics of the
National Association of Social Workers.
Zinn, H. (2004). The optimism of uncertainty. In P. R. Loeb (Ed.), The impossible will take a little while (pp. 63-72). Basic Books.
Volume 41, Issue 5 Dec 2021
Forward Together! Not One Step Back!
by Dorothy Van Soest and Romy Garcia, Members of the Washington Poor People’s Campaign Coordinating Committee
Our goal is to create a Beloved Community and this will require a qualitative change in our soul as well as a quantitative change in our lives.
—Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
At the November program meeting of the Seattle Fellowship of Reconciliation Chapter, we began our presentation about the Washington Poor People’s Campaign with the vision of a beloved community, the concept first coined by philosopher and theologian, FOR founder Josiah Royce, and then popularized by Dr. King, himself a member of FOR. Dr. King’s beloved community philosophy centered on the belief that “racism, bigotry and prejudices will one day be replaced ‘by an all-inclusive spirit of sisterhood and brotherhood’ and that ‘poverty, hunger and homelessness will not be tolerated because international standards of human decency will not allow it.’”
Actualizing the beloved community constitutes the ongoing work for people of faith and conscience who value the dignity of each person and the sacredness of Mother Earth and illustrates how the Fellowship of Reconciliation’s vision of a world of justice, peace, freedom and environmental regeneration and adaptation is perfectly aligned with the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival.
The Poor People’s Campaign: Past and Present
In 1968, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and many others called for a “revolution of values” in America. They sought to build a broad, fusion movement that could unite poor and impacted communities across the country. Their name was a direct cry from the underside of history: The Poor People’s Campaign.
In 2018, the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival picked up this unfinished work. From Alaska to Arkansas, the Bronx to the border, people are coming together to confront the interlocking evils of systemic racism, systemic poverty, ecological devastation, militarism and the war economy, and the distorted moral narrative of religious nationalism.
At this critical juncture, the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival is needed to shift the moral narrative, impact policies and elections at every level of government, and build lasting power for poor and impacted people. It is a moral fusion movement that unites people all over the country to address the five interlocking injustices that have led to over 140 million people being poor or low wage. It is a fusion cross-class movement led by poor people of all backgrounds and their allies who come from every region and state of the country. While grassroots from the states up, it includes over a hundred national sponsors, 15 national faith endorsements, and thousands of allies.
Creating a Third Reconstruction
The Poor People’s Campaign is building towards a Third Reconstruction that draws on the transformational history of the First Reconstruction following the Civil War and the Second Reconstruction of the civil rights struggles of the 20th century. The Third Reconstruction is a revival of our constitutional commitment to establish justice, provide for the general welfare, end decades of austerity, and recognize that policies that center the 140 million poor and low-income people in the country are also good economic policies that can heal and transform the nation.
In May of this year, the Poor People’s Campaign joined Representatives Pramila Jayapal and Barbara Lee when they announced a congressional resolution titled, Third Reconstruction: Fully Addressing Poverty and Low Wages from the Bottom Up. In June, the Washington Poor People’s Campaign joined more than 50 simultaneous actions across the country to deliver the resolution to and demand that our members of the US House of Representatives embrace it.
The Mass Poor Peoples & Low Wage Workers Assembly and Moral March on Washington, June 18th 2022
Between now and June 18, 2022, the Washington Poor People’s Campaign along with forty-six other state campaigns will focus on organizing toward a generationally transformative event, a moral fusion moment of gatherings locally and a mass gathering in Washington DC. It is one part of the broader movement to realize a Third Reconstruction that is building across the country.
It is not just a one-day event. It is a declaration that there are more than 140 million poor and low-income people and we must do more to make them hear us and meet the needs of the people—a declaration that this is not a political game, that people are dying, that more than 50% of our children are poor or low wealth—a declaration that we are here, that we will never again be divided, and that we will be heard— a declaration that we are doing M.O.R.E.—Mobilizing, Organizing, Registering, and Educating—of poor and low wealth who are eligible to vote to vote in 2022—a declaration that we understand, in the words of Frederick Douglass during the years leading up to the First Reconstruction, that “power concedes nothing without a demand.”
An Invitation to Become a Mobilizing Partner
As part of a moral fusion movement that is uniting people all over the country to address the five interlocking injustices, the Washington Poor People’s Campaign is building people power here by inviting groups, organizations, and faith communities to become mobilizing partners. Local and regional chapters of organizations that are already endorsing/mobilizing partners on the national level, such as the National Fellowship of Reconciliation, are invited to affirm their alignment by signing on as a mobilizing partner of the Washington state PPC as well. For more information, go to www.washingtonppc.org. To sign on, write to email@example.com and let us know your chapter is in alignment with the PPC fundamental principles and that you want to be a mobilizing partner, along with contact information for a person with whom we can communicate.
To sign up for regular communications, register at: www.poorpeoplescampaign.org
Which Side Are
We On? A TIME FOR ACTION
By Dorothy Van Soest
WILPF Liaison to the Poor People’s Campaign (PPC)
A Call to Moral Revival Into Real Action
The first person I met was Sister Carol Gilbert. I had read about her and Ardeth Platte and their anti-nuclear work. She asked if I knew Ray Acheson and helped me put on my WILPF sash... I was only a few feet from Rev. Barber as he spoke about the huge costs incurred by social cuts... and held the banner all the time except for a few minutes when he told us to put our signs down and clap. Numerous people noted and took pics of the banner. I was glad to have WILPF represented.
— Dianne Blais, Jane Addams Branch, at the Supreme Court on Nov 15, 2021
Dianne Blais, in Washington DC at the PPC march & rally on November 15
Our nation is at a critical crossroads when, now more than ever, we must put WILPF’s partnership with the Poor People’s Campaign: A Call to Moral Revival into real action.
WILPF and the PPC are on the same side. The side of ensuring education for our children instead of insulating billionaires from tax cuts. The side of providing paid sick leave and paying fair wages instead of creating more money for fewer people. The side of politicians who vote to uplift the whole society and guarantee full access to the ballot instead of those who would hide behind a coward’s filibuster and allow voter suppression to go unchecked.
The side of fighting for the soul of the nation and democracy instead of letting the love of money, which is the root of all evil, be our nation’s guiding principle.
WILPF is on the side of the Poor Peoples Campaign as an active partner in the moral fusion movement, uniting people all over the country to address the five interlocking injustices that have led to over 140 million people being poor or low wage. Now more than ever, we are called to realize WILPF’s partnership with the PPC through taking action.
CALL TO ACTION: WILPF Representatives needed for Moral Monday
March in Washington on December 13 at 12 p.m. EST
CALL TO ACTION: WILPF REPRESENTATIVES NEEDED. With the pandemics of systemic racism, poverty, ecological devastation, militarism and a war economy, voter suppression, and COVID-19 decimating our lives and democracy, we must demand that Congress pass voting rights and Build Back Better before the year ends. RSVP today to join the Poor People’s Campaign Washington DC to tell Congress: Get It Done in 2021!
Don’t have enough people to fill a bus? Join with your state Poor Peoples Campaign. To find your state contact go to the PPC Website.
Unable to travel to DC? Watch the action on livestream, by yourself, with others, with your branch. For viewing information, visit PPC's Facebook.
Register to get updates and more information: PPC Website.
What else can you do? Call and email your Senators, demand that they listen to the 140 million poor and low wealth people in the United States. Tell them to get legislation done in 21! Here’s a sample script:
My name is _______ and I am a resident of ____ State at zip code______.
I demand that you pass critical legislation that serves the 140 million poor people in the United States. Justice delayed is justice denied. The Senate must end its legislative filibuster immediately and pass critical legislation before the end of the year, including:
President’s Build Back Better Agenda as a first step to addressing poverty in the wealthiest country on earth
For the People Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act to protect the sacred right to vote for all Americans
PRO Act and a $15 Minimum Wage for All Workers to give the working class the ability to organize in their workplaces and a basic minimum standard of living
SAVE THE DATE: June 18, 2022 for Mass Poor Peoples & Low Wage Workers Assembly and Moral March on Washington
ORGANIZE AND MOBILIZE WILPF TO BE THERE! This will be a generationally transformative event in DC that is one part of the broader movement to realize a Third Reconstruction building across the country.
It is not just a one-day event. It is a declaration that we must do more to make DC hear us and meet the needs of more than 140 million poor and low-income people—a declaration that this is not a political game. People are dying; more than 50% of our children are poor or low wealth—a declaration that we are here. We will never again be divided, and we will be heard— a declaration that we are doing M.O.R.E., the Mobilizing, Organizing, Registering, and Educating of poor and low wealth who are eligible to vote in 2022—a declaration that we understand. In the words of Frederick Douglass during the years leading up to the First Reconstruction, “power concedes nothing without a demand.”
Watch this video Announcing the March and show it to others: Poor People's Campaign: A National Call For Moral Revival
RSVP for more information: PPC Website
Sign up to receive WILPF for PPC email messages: firstname.lastname@example.org
The Next 500 Days: Together We Grow a New, Unsettling, Unstoppable Force
By Dorothy Van Soest
WILPF Liaison to the Poor People’s Campaign
Member, WILPF Women, Money & Democracy Committee
We shall have to learn to use moral energy to put a new sort of force into the world and believe that it is a vital thing - the only thing, in this moment of sorrow and death and destruction that will heal the world.
— Jane Addams, Zurich, 1919
WILPF US has been supporting the Poor People’s Campaign from the beginning. On December 11, 2019, several WILPF members marched in San Francisco as part of the PPC’s nine-month “We Must Do M.O.R.E.” national tour. Among them were Peninsula/Palo Alto branch member Cherrill S. (left), with Jackie Cabasso of Western States Legal Foundation and Betty T. of San Francisco WILPF.
Jane Addams’s call at the second Women’s International League for Peace & Freedom Congress, during a time when another epidemic was spreading its misery across the globe, is echoed today in WILPF’s committed partnership with the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival. Since its inception three years ago, the Poor Peoples Campaign has been building a “new sort of force” in a movement that is shifting the moral narrative in the United States about the intersecting pandemics of poverty, racism, voter suppression, environmental injustice, militarism, and COVID-19.
The Poor People’s Campaign has spent the past three years building a broad and deep national moral fusion movement that crosses the many divides in our society, creating what Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. called “a new unsettling force.” From the thousands who launched the Poor People’s Campaign in 2018 with 40 days of direct actions—to the over two and half million who participated in the online mass march on Washington, D.C., on June 20, 2020—to the hundreds of thousands of people who are now active in 46 states, the movement is growing day by day, person by person, organization by organization, region by region, state by state.
When we “flex our power together” and “lift from the bottom up, everyone rises.” With these words from the Rev. Dr. William Barber at the Moral Monday action in Mississippi on April 19, 2021, he announced the Poor People’s Campaign plans for the next 500 days. The movement will continue to grow and move forward toward two massive actions that will bring us all together to flex our power as a new and unstoppable force in the world:
June 21, 2021: Online Mass March on Washington
June 18, 2022: In-person Mass Poor People and Low Wage Workers Assembly and Moral March in Washington, D.C.
As a mobilizing partner of the Poor People’s Campaign, WILPF US plays an important role in growing the movement’s base as we build toward those two mass actions. Whatever your connection is with WILPF – individual member/supporter, member of a branch, part of a program committee – there are many ways to be involved.
Be informed. Keep up with regular news and updates by joining the Poor People’s Campaign.
Find your state PPC committee on the above website to find out what opportunities there are for you to get involved in your region.
Identify and engage organizations and groups in your area that have a base of people impacted by the five evils (systemic poverty, systemic racism, ecological devastation, war economy/militarism, and distorted moral narrative), plus other organizations and individuals that share a commitment to the principles of the PPC, and invite them to join the campaign by becoming an endorsing organization/group.
Engage in and encourage others to participate in PPC campaigns and actions (e.g., Moral Mondays, national and state press conferences).
Share information about the Poor People’s Campaign in your group’s newsletters, on Facebook and on other social media platforms.
Develop skills, knowledge, & collective analysis by studying and exchanging ideas about the five intersecting issues of the campaign.
If you’re a member of a WILPF branch and/or program committee, identify the intersections between your issues and those of the PPC and find ways to work in coalition.
Participate in national PPC training programs (e.g., about recruitment strategies, how to organize).
Practice the fundamental principles of the Poor People’s Campaign.
Together, the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom-US and the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival are creating and growing that new and unsettling force that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Jane Addams called for in their eras. For more information about ways you can be involved with the campaign over the next 500 days and to get on the WILPF-PPC mailing list, contact WILPF-PPC Liaison Dorothy Van Soest at email@example.com.
State of Washington participation in
National Demand Day!
Overcoming Despair and Finding Hope in Difficult Times
By Dorothy Van Soest
WILPF Liaison to the Poor People’s Campaign and WILPF Women, Money & Democracy Committee member
Do not get lost in a sea of despair. Be hopeful, be optimistic. Our struggle of a day, a week, a month, or a year, it is the struggle of a lifetime. Never, ever be afraid to make some noise and get in good trouble, necessary trouble.
– Former Representative John Lewis
Money Creation is A Form of Violence
February 12, 2021
By Dorothy Van Soest PhD, MSW and Mary Sanderson
Alliance for Just Money
Even when we lean on longtime Representative John Lewis’s inspiring words, it’s difficult not to despair when more than half a million U.S. lives are already lost to COVID-19 and 2,000 more continue to be taken daily. It can be hard to hold onto hope when our economy is collapsing, increased violence endangers our democracy, and ecological devastation threatens the survival of our planet. And optimism is sometimes hard to find when more and more people are living in cars, RVs, and tents and tens of millions are on the verge of eviction because powerful and indifferent forces ensure that a tiny sliver of people will receive an ever-larger share of wealth even as the hundreds of thousands working minimum wage jobs cannot afford basic essentials no matter where they live in our country.
Forward Together, Not One Step Back
Our job is to resist despair even in the face of so much pain, death, and blatantly intentional injustice. The challenge is as much psychological as it is political because we’re led to believe that we’re helpless, that if we can’t solve every one of the problems, we shouldn’t bother trying. But the antidote to helplessness is hope — defiant, resilient, persistent hope. Here are ten ways to find that hope and help us sustain our energy, especially when our spirits begin to flag.
Use your imagination. Allow yourself to imagine the world you would like to inhabit and then believe it is possible to create it, no matter what evidence there is to the contrary. Imagine a world free of nuclear weapons and war. Imagine a world where adequate food, shelter, and access to health care are universal human rights for all. Imagine, as does WILPF’s Women, Money & Democracy Committee, changing the purpose and intent of our economy from structural inequity to structural equality.
Change the narrative. Challenge the dominant superior-inferior ideologies that, by valuing some people over others, create disposable people and make war inevitable.
Turn to history. Our spirits are buoyed by stories of others who faced equal or greater challenges, yet continued on to make a better world. Not the kind of myths about superheroes that make it harder for us to act, but the real stories about ordinary people who acted despite uncertainties and in the face of real danger. Sometimes their actions failed, sometimes they bore modest fruit, sometimes they triggered a miraculous outpouring of courage and heart. Today, when we join forces with the Poor People's Campaign* and with WILPF’s efforts to make the UN Treaty Abolishing Nuclear Weapons a reality, we stand on the shoulders of untold numbers of people in the civil rights and nuclear disarmament movements who joined together to take action and persevered against all odds. The point is that our efforts, combined with and multiplied by millions of people across the globe and over time, transform the world.
No action is too small. Even one small step on the journey changes our perspective on the landscape. Action, either practical or symbolic, overcomes the inertia and apathy that accompanies the absence of hope. We don’t have to do everything, be everything, or be impossibly eloquent and confident and certain in a way that nobody is. Remember the incalculable numbers of people before us who slogged through decades of small, seemingly insignificant, and sometimes frustrating actions—and persisted despite the odds and obstacles.
Don’t be intimidated by “those who have power.” No matter how much power they have, they cannot prevent us from living our lives, thinking independently, speaking our minds, and following the still small voice that whispers the truth to our hearts.
Pair a deep-seated sense of social justice with pragmatism. People are not necessarily either with us or against us. There’s a vast amount of our neighbors who are not ideologically driven but they may still have strong opinions about some issues and be willing to work on beginning reforms in those areas. Consider that the Social Mecurity, Medicare, Voting Rights, and Affordable Health Care Acts were all reforms that proved, over time, to add up to a kind of revolution.
Reframe issues to effectively reach more people. Our brains allow us to have both conservative and progressive worldviews on different issues. Instead of negating the opposing positions of others, we can tune in to their worldviews and reframe issues based on what’s important to them.
Know when to step back. When we feel red-hot rage—no matter how justified—take a breath, look at the spiraling anger of others, and decide not to ratchet it up. We can be impatient with evil and, at the same time, be patient with people.
Hold our leaders accountable. Politicians will tell us this is not the time to ask for anything that costs money, that our country is in debt or at war. History proves otherwise. In 1935, even in the depths of a depression, people held their leaders accountable and got the Social Security Act passed; during the Vietnam War era, they got the Civil Rights, Medicaid, Medicare, Elementary & Secondary Education, WIC program, and Economic Opportunity Acts passed. And now, if we hold our politicians accountable and get President Biden’s $1.9 trillion COVID relief plan passed, countless lives would be saved and millions would be lifted out of poverty.
Believe that, in the long run, justice will win out. Join the Poor People's Campaign and one or more of WILPF's seven issue committees and cast your lot with others who believe it is possible to reconstitute the world.
*WILPF US is all in as an organizing partner of the Poor People’s Campaign
Poverty is the worst form of violence.
Imagine having to choose between paying for necessary health care and paying for food, rent, or your child’s school supplies. Or working two to three jobs just to meet your basic needs when suddenly you’re faced with an unexpected expense followed by an eviction notice. Or living in a trailer home with no other choice but to make the 10% interest mortgage payment even though it’s moldy, uninhabitable, and worthless. These are the kinds of untenable situations in which millions of poor women find themselves.
In the United States, more women than men are poor. According to US Census Bureau data, of the 38.1 million people living in poverty in 2018, 56 percent—or 21.4 million—were women (Bleiweis, et. al., 2020). An estimated 52.1% of our children (38.5 million) are poor or low-income according to the Poor People’s Campaign.
In 2019, the Federal Reserve reported that four in ten Americans didn’t have enough cash in their bank accounts to cover a $400 unexpected expense. And in 2020, millions of Americans—disproportionately women and women of color—find themselves unemployed due to COVID-19. Yet, even as more than half of our children do not know if they will have a place to sleep, nutritious meals, and safe communities, billionaire wealth has continued to grow during the pandemic (Woods, 2020).
With tens of millions of Americans out of a paycheck, how is it that the rich have continued getting richer? The dominant narrative is that all you have to do is work hard and make good choices and you can bootstrap your way out of poverty. That is a sinister lie, and the truth of our system is shocking. The system that creates and issues new money into circulation needs to be examined. The violence of scarce money for most people is a feature of this rigged system; likewise with the concentration of real wealth and money power to a shrinking elite. The rigging starts with the Federal Reserve Bank, which is neither part of the federal government nor a public system.
Money Creation and Artificial Scarcity
Few Americans know the Federal Reserve is a network of privately owned banks, empowered by Congress to create dollars—but only through loans. The need to also pay added interest on loans creates an artificial scarcity of money, which is a system of oppression that transfers wealth and power from the many to a tiny elite. It limits people’s life choices and thrusts many into poverty, which is a form of violence. This assertion is based on the following definitions and illustrated by the iceberg diagram below.
Oppression is the domination of a powerful group—political, economic, social, cultural—that acts to prevent subordinate groups from attaining access to resources or acts to inhibit or devalue them.
All systems of oppression:
1. bestow power and advantage on certain groups and/ or people based on the money power inherent in an ideological foundation of superiority;
2. are held in place by violence—physical, interpersonal, psychological, institutional— or the threat of violence;
3. keep the impact of oppression invisible by devaluing and/or ignoring those in the subordinate group who are denied resources.
Violence is any act or situation in which a person injures another, including both direct attacks on a person’s physical or psychological integrity and destructive actions that do not involve a direct relationship between the victims and perpetrators (Bulhan, 1985; Van Soest, 1997).
This definition broadens traditional perspectives of violence in four ways:
1. it emphasizes the consequences of violence from the victim’s perspective;
2. it treats all types of violence equally, whether the perpetrators are individuals, groups, institutions, or society;
3. it includes socially sanctioned violence, unintended violence, subtle or covert violence, violence that causes nonphysical harm, and violence causing long-term consequences;
4. it includes any avoidable action that violates a human right in the broadest sense or that prevents the fulfillment of a basic human need (Salmi, 1993).
Based on this definition, poverty is a form of violence that injures those who suffer under its conditions, even though direct links to obvious perpetrators usually cannot be made. It destroys life, not with a single blow as with physical violence, but by blocking the full development of the life potential of millions of people who suffer from undernourishment and malnourishment, who are more vulnerable to disease and high stress, and who experience higher infant mortality rate and reduced life expectancy.
Oppression Operates at Three Levels
As illustrated by the iceberg diagram, debt-money mechanism creates and maintains a system of oppression at three interconnected levels—individual, institutional, and structural/cultural—thus weaving a tight web of poverty and low wealth conditions into the fabric of our economic system.
Like the submerged root of an iceberg, the base of the triangle represents the firmly embedded ideological foundation that undergirds and gives rise to the institutional and individual levels of oppression and violence. It holds the conventional values and everyday social realities and relations that form a collective way of thinking, which in the United States is white supremacy, patriarchy, and other superior-inferior categorizations. The structural level of violence is difficult to grasp because it is rendered invisible by a passive acceptance of inequalities and deprivations (for example, “the poor will always be with us”) and because social and economic indicators of inequality (such as differential infant mortality, a premature death rate, and other avoidable differences) reinforce beliefs in white, male and other superiorities instead of being accurately perceived as symptoms of violence.
The Debt-Money System: An Intractable Cycle of Violence
Wealth disparities and conditions of poverty, low wealth, and debt produced by the artificial scarcity of money are maintained by an intractable cycle of violence as illustrated by the following. When viewed in the context of a rigged financial/economic system of oppression, some senseless and irrational individual forms of violence committed by those in the subordinate group reveal their inner logic as a form of counter violence to economic practices and conditions. It is within the context of impoverishment that violence on an individual level can best be understood (Gil, 1990).
Figure 1. Money Creation and Violence at Three Levels
Figure 2. Cycle of Violence
The institutional level of violence is submerged from view so that its forms are almost completely invisible. Violence at this level includes harmful actions by social and financial institutions (the Federal Reserve system, large commercial banks) that obstruct the development of human potential through the use of discriminatory lending and other economic policies and practices. Violence at this level is not universally condemned because it is often subtle, indirect, covert, and involves long-term rather than immediate consequences. It is a form of “violence not seen as such” (Keefe & Roberts, 1991).
The top of the triangle represents harmful actions taken by individuals or groups against people or property. Like the tip of an iceberg, this is the violence that can be seen. But it is not seen (when it is) in a neutral, objective, or systematic way, but instead in a discriminatory fashion based on a superiority ideology and beliefs that are held at the structural-cultural level. For example, wealthy people who benefit from the debt-money system are admired for being ambitious and successful, while poor and low wealth people are condemned for being lazy or poor money managers rather than being seen as targets (victims) of an unjust financial system of oppression.
The individual, institutional, and structural-cultural levels of a violent debt-money system are interrelated and cannot be understood apart from one another. The violence of institutions and individuals gives expression to the dominant ideology of superiority at the structural foundation. Oppression is inherent in all three levels. Dominant beliefs and norms at the foundation rationalize institutional violence and depersonalize and decontextualize individual violence.
To learn more, read Ellen Hodgson Brown’s The Web of Debt: The Shocking Truth About Our Money System and How We Can Break Free (available as a free pdf). Join the Women, Money & Democracy Committee (W$D) to help research the inner workings of money power structures and explore the question: Is violent scarcity the natural outcome of our private money creation system? W$D needs your help to examine public money proposals and support public banking initiatives.
Dorothy Van Soest is a member of the WILPF US Women, Money & Democracy (W$D) Issue Committee and liaison to the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival.
Mary Sanderson is a member of the WILPF US Women, Money & Democracy (W$D) Issue Committee and chair of the Debt Drives War, War Drives Debt Project, and board member of the Alliance For Just Money.
Bleiweis, R., Boesch, D., and Gaines, A.C. (August 3, 2020). “The Basic Facts About Women in Poverty.” Center for American Progress.
Bulhan, H.A. (1985). Franz Fanon and the Psychology of Oppression. New York: Plenum Press.
Gil, D. (1990). Unravelling Social Policy: Theory, Analysis, and Political Action Towards Social Equality. Rochester, VT: Schenkman.
Keefe, T. and Roberts, R.E. (1991). Realizing Peace: An Introduction to Peace Studies. Iowa State University Press.
Poor People’s Campaign (2020).
Salmi, J. (1993). Violence and Democratic Society. London: Zed Books.
Van Soest, D. (1997). The Global Crisis of Violence: Common Problems, Universal Causes, Shared Solutions. Washington, D.C.: NASW Press.
Woods, H. (2020, Oct. 30). “How billionaires saw their net worth increase by half a trillion dollars during the pandemic.” Business Insider.
Copyright © WILPF 2020. For reprint permission, call 617-266-0999
Originally published in the Winter/Spring 2021 issue of Peace & Freedom, the magazine of the US Section of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF US).
Life in the Balance: Knowing, Caring, and Acting
By Dorothy Van Soest
WILPF US Liaison to the Poor People’s Campaign
At the beginning of March, Seattle is designated a COVID-19 hot spot. Sheltering in the comfort of my privileged existence is an inconvenience, not a hardship. As a white woman in America, it is second nature for me to center myself in the crisis, search for ways to stay balanced. But the pandemic fills our morgues and hospitals with bodies of the most vulnerable, people who keep our cities and towns running without a safety net, disproportionately black and brown and poor people. Where is the balance in such staggering inequity, such unfathomable human suffering?
Spring comes, its hope of new life overpowered by grief, terror, and discord. Morgues are full, dead stored in refrigerated trucks. On my morning walks, I curse those for whom precautions are a mere inconvenience. I scowl at people not wearing masks, place my palms together, mutter “Nomaske” instead of “Namaste,” give them the finger, sometimes hidden, sometimes not. I have a satanic urge to unleash the virus on those who care more about the economy than people, who mismanage and manipulate the crisis for personal gain. My friends say anger is normal but a little voice inside says otherwise. You’re not like other people. You’re too excitable and unstable. You make people uncomfortable. I cancel my inner critic and my airplane reservations to Washington, DC for the Poor People’s Campaign mass march and rally in June, promote it as an online event instead.
Summer comes and, as if the pandemic isn’t evidence enough that there is no context in which black lives matter, police kill Breonna Taylor, a frontline ERT worker. Wanna-be cops murder Ahmaud Arbery while he is jogging. Police murder George Floyd. Two days later, Tony McDade. Collective grief and outrage flood the streets with protesters of all races, ethnicities, genders, ages. Unidentified armed militias sent in to silence cries of “stop killing us” met by a wall of white moms in Portland. Emotions are raw. COVID-19 takes 1,470 lives, the highest number in a single day, four times as many people of color as whites.
I look at myself in the mirror, forehead angry and tight, shoulders sagging under the weight of two public health emergencies. Uncontrollable cowlicks sprout from my head like ghastly COVID-19 and racism viruses stuck in my hair. I long to be out protesting, rail at the health vulnerabilities holding me captive at home. Outraged, I focus on what divides us, the unmasked from the masked, the racists from the anti-racists, the privileged from the oppressed. Then, on June 20th, tears flood my cheeks as two and a half million people unite at the massive Poor People’s Campaign virtual rally and sing, “Everybody has a right to live.”
By mid-October, 220,000 American lives have been snuffed out by COVID-19. The racism pandemic, far deadlier and longer lasting, paralyzes Jacob Blake, a black man shot in the back seven times by police who then let a white boy with an automatic rifle walk away after committing murder. Fires consume millions of acres of our land while conflagration on our streets burns down centuries of willful ignorance and silence. For weeks before the election, falsehoods and nightmare scenarios have been spreading like wildfire, and crowds of white people are gathering at mass rallies without masks.
I reject the privilege that I know is mine to focus right now on my own coping. Instead, I get to work. Write. Contribute. Organize. Collaborate. Call. “No action is too small, every action counts,” I shout at the voice inside whispering you’re not doing enough, it won’t make any difference.
September 23. My last nerve. No charges are filed against the plainclothes police who killed Breonna Taylor, her name not even mentioned. No one will answer for her death. Peaceful protests are decreed as unlawful assembly. States of emergency declared. White supremacist groups galvanized. I rage in defiant rejection of everything I was taught about white people being rational and intelligent, in other words, superior. I scream at my inner critic. Don’t even try. No more with there she goes again. No more with you need to be balanced. My outrage honors the fire raging within, the deep mourning that spurs me on, the moral compass that points me in the direction of fairness and justice. Yet, even as I rage, I know it’s not about my feelings—it’s about what I do with them. It’s not just about being informed—it’s about getting out of bed and doing something about it. It’s not just about shouting, it’s about doing. Ringing in my ears are the words of Rev. William Barber, co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign, at a recent Get out the Vote rally: “it’s not about the awakening, it’s about the rising.”
I rise up and look at myself in the mirror. The wrinkles and age spots and caved-in places on my face jump out at me and remind me where I’ve been. What I’ve lived. My hair, wild and uncut during the pandemic, is once again a symbol of free expression like it was in my twenties, when it was blonde. When I remember the despair of the sixties, the eloquent rage and actions of that time branch and flower on my weathered face and the old becomes new. I look into my seasoned eyes and they tell me who I am. And then I know that, even when it may not appear to be so, I am as balanced as a three-legged stool. The first leg is my knowing: read, listen, learn. The second is my caring: suffer, grieve, scream my rage in private, not as a performance or a burden on others. The third is acting: use my abilities to do what I can. Old messages about being too loud, caring too much, and not doing enough make me wobbly sometimes, but my stool stays steady. And as long as I do what I can, the best I can, for as long as I can, then I know that change is still possible.
Dorothy Van Soest is a Seattle writer and novelist for social justice. Nuclear Option, her third Sylvia Jensen mystery, will be released December 1, 2020. For more information about her and her work, go to www.dorothyvansoest.com
ISSUE NO. 14 • 2020
What Happens When It’s Over: What COVID-19 Is Teaching Us
...when the crisis is over, our lives depend on things not going back to normal.
Dorothy Van Soest,
The wake of death and destruction in COVID-19’s path leaves us reeling. Deaths in the United States at this writing have topped all other countries. Every day, new cases, and deaths cause experts to fear that the actual numbers could grow even higher. As time goes on— even with staggering numbers and the human suffering they embody unfathomable—there are calls to continue to open businesses and get life back to the way it was. A desire to return to normal is natural but, given what we know about the consequences of the pandemic, going back to the same exact systems we had in place should give us pause. COVID-19 is teaching us many things that point to a need to rethink our structures and reimagine our society. Here are some of them.
COVID-19 is shining a spotlight on racial inequality. Although all of us are facing a dangerous situation now, people of color faced a dangerous situation before the pandemic, due to inequities such as those related to poverty (54 percent of the 2.9 million poor or low-income people in Washington state, for example, are people of color); criminal injustice (40 percent of the 19,104 people imprisoned in Washington state are people of color, almost six times the rate of whites); and health disparities (black people are 1.5 times and hispanic people 2.5 times more likely to be uninsured than whites).
COVID-19 is worsening racial inequality even more. The virus is hitting people of color hardest. In King County, where I live, Native Hawaiians/Pacific Islanders and Hispanic people are testing positive at four times the rate of white and Asian people; black people, at twice the rate of whites. In Arizona and New Mexico, the coronavirus is taking an astoundingly disproportionate toll on Native Americans, while in most other states they are not even being counted. Across the country black people are dying from COVID-19 in staggering numbers compared with their proportion of the population. For instance, in Michigan, black people make up 14 percent of the population but 50 percent of the deaths; in Louisiana they are 32 percent of the population but account for 71 percent of deaths; and in Mississippi they are 38 percent of the population but 67 percent of deaths. Eight of the top United States 10 hotspots are prisons and jails, which house a disproportionate number of inmates of color.
COVID-19 is exposing the vast disparities of wealth in our country. Before the pandemic, 700 people a day died because of poverty; in my state, 33 percent of our population (2.5 million) were already poor or low-income people (including 48 percent, or 787,000, of our children), 513,000 lacked health insurance, more than 21,000 experienced homelessness (fifth highest state in the country), and more than 894,000 used the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) food assistance. Approximately 140 million people in the United States (more than 40 percent of U.S. citizens) cannot afford even a $400 emergency, much less the reserves needed to prepare for this public health crisis. They do not have the resources to stock up on food and supplies, stay home if they are sick or exposed, or take other precautions to survive COVID-19. Further, those individuals who have been unable to address other health conditions aremore vulnerable to the virus.
COVID-19 is worsening economic disparities. Millions of people have joined the ranks of the unemployed; more people have been thrown into poverty and homelessness. Tens of millions remain without health care during a public health crisis. Many of the least respected and lowest-paid workers have been deemed essential, but their wages have not been raised and they face shortages of the personal protective equipment needed to weather this storm.
COVID-19 is teaching us that poverty is everyone’s problem. It’s showing us that we are all affected when we ignore poor and lowincome people, that it’s more expensive to ignore poverty than it is to fix it, and that poverty threatens not only the lives of the poor but the lives of all of us.
Think about it. The most vulnerable among us work in low-wage jobs in the service industry, where coronavirus is most likely to spread. These individuals prepare and serve food, clean hotels and public buildings, and care for children and the elderly—those most susceptible to COVID-19. And when they go home, they do not leave the virus behind at work. Approximately 1.2 million workers (37 percent of Washington state’s workforce) make less than $15 an hour, and more than two-thirds of the lowest-wage earners get no paid sick leave. They cannot afford to miss a paycheck by staying home, even with symptoms of coronavirus. Even under normal circumstances, the uninsured people in my state do not have the money to pay for health care. And when we ignore people who are sick and do not have the money to go to a clinic or emergency room or stay home from work, we are all in danger.
COVID-19 is showing us that poverty and race are inseparable and that we cannot resolve one without resolving the other. Although we know that black Americans are dying at a rate more than twice their population share and that people of color are disproportionately poor, we also know that, in absolute terms, poor white people outnumber poor black people and other poor nonwhite people—and that COVID-19 is ravishing all sectors of the poor and dispossessed. Both racial and economic inequities are worsened by the epidemic. And when we ignore the most vulnerable among us, and yet count on them to keep our cities and towns running without a safety net, we are all in danger.
If we are to learn anything from this epidemic, it is this: When the crisis is over, our lives depend on things not going back to normal. The exploitative economic and social systems that COVID-19 has exposed and laid bare for all to see must be confronted and dismantled.
With the Poor People’s Campaign across our country, people have been coming together since spring 2018 to continue the work begun in 1968 by Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. On June 20, 2020, over 2 million people participated in the largest digital and social media gathering of poor and low-income people, moral and religious leaders, advocates, and people of conscience in this nation’s history. Voices representing the 140 million poor and low-income people across our country talked about how the global pandemic is exposing the already existing crisis of systemic racism, poverty, ecological devastation, the war economy and militarism, and the distorted moral narrative of religious nationalism.
This is a time of great suffering and danger, but it is up to us to join our voices with those who are insisting that it does not have to be this way. The tens of thousands who have taken to the streets to protest police violence in the past weeks are calling for widespread, deep, systemic change—starting now. If we learn from what the past few months have laid bare before us all, we might embrace the real possibilities before us to reimagine our society.
Dorothy Van Soest, PhD, MSW, is professor emerita at the University of Washington. A novelist and activist, she is the former chair of the NASW Peace and Social Justice Committee. She can be reached at www.dorothyvansoest.com.
Johnson, G. (2020), Coronavirus Disproportionately Impacts King County Residents Among minority groups, Hawaiian native and Pacific
Islanders had the highest rate of cases, according to public health data. Patch, Health and Fitness, Retrieved from: https://patch.com/washington/seattle/
For more information about the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival, go to:
By Dorothy Van Soest - Fall, 2020
You cried when you told me. We were sitting in the cozily sophisticated home you’d created with cast-off furniture and artwork from your many friends.
“Promise you won’t tell,” you said through tears. “No one will see me anymore. Just what I forget.”
I promised. But we already knew that summer when the four of us, friends as close as sisters, were at the lake cabin. We knew when you couldn’t follow the instructions to Bananagram. When you laughed and made up your own rules. We knew when you couldn’t figure out which door was the bathroom. We knew when you threw up in the car on the way home.
In the midst of the magic of small things, the potency of everyday life—giggling like schoolgirls, painting each other’s toenails, and the smells of tuna fish, lasagna, and pecan pie—your unholy diagnosis hung in the air as loud as a slammed door. Our shared intimacies were filled as always with contradictions like dueling dog barks—insightful, ridiculous, bizarre, irreverent, and hilarious. But that summer, all the sentimentality of our shared history was shattered by the loss of your last five minutes.
According to the Alzheimer’s Association, there are 10 early signs and symptoms. Forgetting recently learned information is one of the most common. Others include having trouble following a conversation, losing things, and being unable to retrace one’s steps to find them again, getting easily upset when out of one’s comfort zone, and problems with decision-making.
But it was always hard for you to make decisions. Whenever we made plans to go out to eat, you’d call to change the time, or the place, or both. You chose several items on the menu before placing your order, then you’d call the waitress back to change it, and when your food came, you’d point at mine and say, “I should have ordered that.” You always forgot things. Lose things, once even a plane ticket. Did you know then and joke to cover it up? All those times I got frustrated or irritated. Did you have early-onset Alzheimer’s then and I just didn’t understand?
Oh, but you were such fun, the life of the party, witty and clever. I can still see you dancing on the table at one of our university parties. I can still see the twinkle in your eyes when you got us laughing so hard we begged for mercy.
Five years ago your wonderful adult children, who I’ve known for 44 years, moved you to memory care. You didn’t want to go. Didn’t understand. I was living in Seattle so was only able to visit you once or twice a year. Each time, even as your disease progressed, you were as funny and alive and sexy as ever. One time, when us four “sisters” were at your favorite church, you whispered in my ear.
“I have a new boyfriend.”
“Yeah? What’s his name?”
“Tim.” You smiled. “And he likes me just as much as I like him.”
After lunch, we brought you back to the memory care unit and you knocked on his door. You called out “are you decent” and then opened the door without waiting for his response. I heard that you slept with him and each morning the aid took you to your own room so Tim’s disapproving family wouldn’t know. I heard he was a priest. I hope that was true.
During another visit, you pointed to a painting of an elephant on the wall. “The elephants are coming back. The social workers are going to make sure they’re freed. It was in the paper.” I knew you were confabulating the recent news about the Ringling Brothers elephants but each time you repeated the story I listened as if it were the first. You thought you were living in the university building where we’d taught together. You talked about students you were concerned about. Whenever there was a problem in the memory care unit, you said you’d get the social workers to fix it.
During my last visit, I noticed that all your dresser drawers were labeled (panties, bras, pajamas) except for the bottom one.
“What’s in there,” I asked.
The twinkle sparkled your eyes. “Dirty socks.”
“Dirty socks? What do you do with them?”
“I take them out.”
“I put them on the floor.”
“Then what do you do with them?”
Your face lit up. “I. Lick. Them.”
Oh my God, you had me rolling on the floor. And you loved it. I treasure that moment—you, outrageously funny as ever, and me, your willing collaborator.
When you died, I felt sad and relieved. I don’t know what comes after we die but maybe, in death, we no longer forget things. Maybe, in death, we remember everything. Maybe, in death, it doesn’t matter whether we remember or forget.
A few weeks later, I saw you early one morning when I was still in bed, half-awake. You were suspended in space, doing cartwheels and flips and being your outrageous self. And now I know, wherever you and your energy are, that you are still laughing.
Dorothy Van Soest is a Seattle novelist, a professor emerita, and a former dean of the University of Washington School of Social Work. See more of her work at www.dorothyvansoest.com
THIS IS THE TIME
June 15, 2020
Written by Dorothy Van Soest at the Boulder Writers’ Retreat
The last time I had a haircut was Friday, February 14th, three days after the World Health Organization announced it had named a deadly virus COVID-19. Fifteen days later an outbreak sent Seattle into lockdown. Schools closed, Microsoft and Amazon employees worked from home. On March 23rd a statewide stay-at-home order was issued. By Memorial Day, our state had over 20,000 cases and over 1,000 deaths. As I sit and write this, the U.S. has over 2 million cases and over 118,000 deaths, more than any country in the world.
Despite the staggering numbers and the unfathomable human suffering they embody, my defiant hair sprouts from my head like plants from the earth, a symbol of life in the midst of the pandemic’s devastation. It’s growing so fast I can almost hear the hairs shooting through the follicles in my scalp, the buzz of tiny sebaceous glands multiplying by the millions in order to produce hair as thick and dense as mine. When I’m asleep, they go on growing binges without me. After four months, ten days, and four hours—but who’s counting—my hair is shaggy in a time-to-take-our-dog-Tinker-to-the-groomer kind of way. A rippled dome, like a helmet on my head, obscures my face. I grow cross-eyed from staring at the hair hanging on my forehead. In the cowlicks, those little tufts of hair springing up wherever they want, I see everything dreadful, everything I can’t control, as if the pandemic has gotten stuck in my hair.
Musing about how I don’t quite look like myself anymore is, I know, a dumb privilege. But the truth is I don’t quite act like myself anymore either. On my morning walks, I curse those for whom precautions are a mere inconvenience, scowl at people not wearing masks, place my palms together and mutter “Nomaske” instead of “Namaste,” give them the finger, sometimes hidden, sometimes not. I have a satanic urge to unleash the virus on those who care more about the economy than people, who mismanage and manipulate the crisis for personal gain. I am no longer myself. Or is this really who I am? Or who I’ve become? Is this who I want to be?
COVID-19, of course, could care less about how I or anyone else looks or acts. It just keeps filling our morgues and hospitals with the bodies of the most vulnerable, people we count on to keep our cities and towns running without giving them a safety net, disproportionately black and brown and poor people. As if the pandemic isn’t evidence enough that there is no context in which black lives matter, police kill Breonna Taylor, a frontline ERT worker, in her bed. Wanna-be cops stalk and murder Ahmad Arbery while jogging. Police publicly lynch George Floyd. Two days later, Tony McDade. Collective grief and outrage burst onto our streets. Cries of “Stop Killing Us” drown out privileged cries of “We Demand Haircuts.” Unidentified armed militia attack peaceful protesters. The state accrues more authority. Emotions are raw. We mourn the dead, knowing there will be more.
Police fists throttle a young woman with a long blonde ponytail, their hands push a seventy-five year old man down onto cold hard concrete, pull a mask down before blasting pepper spray. Helpless rage consumes me, focuses me on what divides us, the unmasked from the masked, the racists from the anti-racists, the non-racists from the anti-racists, the privileged from the oppressed. This is a different time, the hopeful say, pointing as proof to the lily-white legs at a Houston die-in and hundreds protesting in an Alabama town that is 97% white. But I know my people. When things calm down, they will forget, their moment of being woke a feel-good memory, a temporary blip in their normal lives of privilege. Aren’t they already forgetting the pandemic even as the numbers of cases are spiking in 22 states and it claims over 1,000 American lives every day?
I don’t recognize myself, feel like I’m walking around in someone else’s life. It’s not just my hair, it’s my forehead, too, angry and tight—my shoulders, sagging under the weight of two lethal viruses—my eyes, devoid of hope in the face of two public health emergencies. In despair, I grab a pair of scissors and a fist full of hair. Then I look in the mirror and stop. The wrinkles and age spots and caved-in places on my face jump out at me, remind me who I am. Where I’ve been. What I’ve lived. What I know. I put the scissors down and run my fingers through my thick gray hair, remember when it was blonde and its waves flowed down to my waist, a symbol of protest against racist injustice and war. It’s growing right now and the tiny sebaceous glands are singing. Won't you gimme it down to there . . . hair shoulder length or longer . . . Here baby, there mama, everywhere daddy daddy . . . grow it, show it, long as I can grow it, my hair . . .
I sing out and the old becomes new again. I’m going without makeup most days now and my hair grows unfettered like it did in the sixties. My voice grows louder and stronger, transforming a tuft of thick hair on my head into a symbol of free expression that brings me back to who I am and what I know. That this is the time for me to act in ways both possible and unique to me and to believe that every action counts. This is the time to trust that the smallest of individual efforts, when joined with others, creates a chain reaction and releases human energy leading, over time, to the critical mass that will make change inevitable. I don’t know if this is the time that will happen or whether this will be the tipping point or not. What I do know is that, just as those tiny sebaceous glands on my scalp are multiplying by the millions to produce my thick hair, this is the time for our numbers to multiply by the millions into a defiant racial justice movement that is unstoppable.
The following essay appeared in the June 2020 WILPF US e-newsletter, a monthly online publication of the US Section of the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom
Poor People’s Campaign Mass Gathering on June 20 Confronts Racial and Economic Inequities
By Dorothy Van Soest
Women, Money & Democracy Issue Committee
As new COVID-19 cases and deaths keep climbing each day in the U.S., reaching staggering numbers that represent unfathomable suffering, the pandemic is revealing that our systems and structures desperately need to be reimagined.
When we ignore the most vulnerable among us, but at the same time count on them to keep our cities and towns running without a safety net, we create a morally unconscionable situation that leads to dangerous public health consequences for us all.
Both racial and economic inequities are being worsened by the epidemic, revealing to us that poverty and race are inseparable. We cannot resolve one without resolving the other.
When the pandemic is finally over, all of our lives depend on things not going back to the way they were before. As Kenia Alcocer, co-chair of the California PPC and Organizer with Unión de Vecinos puts it on the PPC website, “We don’t want to go back to ‘normal,’ because normal wasn’t good.”
The exploitative economic and social systems that COVID-19 has laid bare for all to see must be confronted and dismantled. The Poor People's Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival is doing just that. From Alaska to Arkansas, from the Bronx to the border and all across our country, people have been coming together since the spring of 2018 to continue the work begun in 1968 by Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
On June 20th, the PPC will hold the largest digital and social media gathering of poor and low-wealth people, moral and religious leaders, advocates, and people of conscience in this nation’s history. Voices representing the 140 million poor and low-wealth people across our country will be talking about how the global pandemic is exposing the already existing crisis of systemic racism, poverty, ecological devastation, the war economy and militarism, and the distorted moral narrative of religious nationalism.
WILPF US is an organizing partner of the Poor People’s Campaign and we are all in! To register for the mass gathering on Saturday, June 20, use this WILPF-specific link. For more information about the PPC and this important event, go to: www.poorpeoplescampaign.org
THE EMPEROR’S RED BUTTON
by Dorothy Van Soest
NOTE: I wrote this story as a way to deal with my own fears after our president called for the population of Seoul to be moved in case we launched a nuclear attack against North Korea. It subsequently appeared in the February/March edition of “The Retiree Advocate,” published by Puget Sound Advocates for Retirement Action (PSARA)
The Year 2020
“Is it red, Grandma? The button. Is it red?”
I turn down the volume on the radio. More news about North Korea. Another missile test. About #45 ordering the evacuation of almost ten million people from Seoul, South Korea. About someone talking him down from his alternative universe so then he said to just evacuate the Americans living there. And now Iran. My four-year-old granddaughter doesn’t need to know any of this.
“Is it in his office? On his desk? Does he sleep with it?”
“So many questions, Sweetie. Go out and play now.”
“What’s nuclear, Grandma?”
“A form of energy.”
“Momma says I’m full of energy. Do I have a nuclear button? Can I push it whenever I want, too?”
I place my forefinger on her up-turned nose. “Whenever you want to release energy, just push this cute little button.” I give her a big hug.
She giggles and heads for the back door, then stops and turns around. “Grandma, what is energy?”
“You. You’re energy. Go outside now.”
I sit down at the breakfast nook with a steaming cup of coffee. I watch my granddaughter on the swing and listen to National Public Radio. The purpose of having nuclear weapons is to never use them. But the president gives no indication that he understands our deterrence policy or what a nuclear war would mean. During his presidential campaign, he said . . .
I cover my ears. I know what he said. Somebody hits us with Isis, you wouldn’t fight back with a nuke? If we have nuclear weapons, why can’t we use them? If we can’t use them why do we make them?
My granddaughter screams. I look out, see her on the ground under the swing. I race out the door and pick her up, kiss the scraped boo boo on her elbow. “What happened?”
“I touched my button to make the swing go higher and I fell off.”
I pull her close and whisper in her ear. “You’re okay. Ready to get back on?”
She whimpers. “I have too much energy.”
“Sweetie, there’s no such thing as too much energy. Just remember to hang on.”
I watch her get back on the swing and push off, tentative at first then bolder. What I just told her isn’t true; there is such a thing as too much energy. The energy in one megaton nuclear bomb is enough to wipe out the largest city on Earth and suck all the oxygen out of the atmosphere. My granddaughter doesn’t need to know that. But adults do because it’s our job to ensure the safety and survival of the next generation. We need to comprehend the difference between nuclear and conventional weapons, chances of surviving weapons of mass destruction versus chances of surviving weapons that target a limited area.
I brush the dirt off my jeans and go back inside, turn up the volume on the radio. The world is once again contemplating the very real possibility of a nuclear war. And one man has authority to push the button.
I sigh. There is no nuclear button. There’s a nuclear football, though, a forty-five pound briefcase containing a list of targets that goes with the president wherever he goes. To launch a nuclear attack he verifies his identity with a code, nicknamed “the biscuit,” that he is supposed to carry with him at all times. Four minutes after he gives the command, the missiles leave their silos.
No president in his right mind would ever actually launch a nuclear attack. I mean, seriously, if Clinton had even remotely considered the idea, he wouldn’t have gone around without “the biscuit” for several months without telling anyone he’d lost it. Nor would Carter have sent his suit off to the cleaners with the biscuit in one of the pockets.
And, now, as a tumultuos fall season draws to a close with the President impeached, a long and difficult winter lies ahead. There are rumors that the President has been stricken with an unnamed malaise and is deteriorating at an alarming rate.
I talk back to the radio. Everyone already knows he’s not of sound mind. Last night at a rally, he raged so violently they almost had to restrain him. Even some of his supporters are now saying they think his behavior is unbecoming. He rants about a plague on the land. It’s like he wants to hasten his own demise.
What happens if the president comes unhinged, the radio asks. What safeguards are there if he goes off the rails? All our prior concerns that a deranged president might use the nuclear button irrationally are now magnified. And since all the adults in the White House have been purged, who is left to remove the nuclear football from the President’s hands as they did with Nixon in his last days? Is there anyone left to step in quietly, like Schlesinger did, to order a pause on any nuclear strike commanded by this president?
I turn off the radio, look out the window at my precious granddaughter, and pray.
The Year 2022 (or thereabouts, no one’s really sure)
Ivanka sits on his lap, plants a noisy kiss on his cheeks followed by a feathery caress on his lips. “Good morning, Daddy. I mean, your majesty.”
He squeezes her body against his. “You like having a daddy who’s emperor of the country?”
She smiles. “Of the world, Daddy.”
“That’s right, isn’t it. Emperor of the whole world now.” He smiles, proud to be God’s gift to the world, to be the chosen One.
Jared appears, leans against the bedroom door frame. “The whole planet, Dad,” he says, smiling indulgently.
“Oh yes. I did that, didn’t I.” But then his smile fades. His head jerks from side to side, his eyes are saucers, his mouth a suction cup. “Where is it?”
Ivanka points to the bedside table. She picks up the square black plastic box with the red button on the top and places it next to him on the bed, gives it a little tap. Then she runs her fingers through the few wisps of hair remaining on his head, strands of spaghetti turned gray/white long ago when they ran out of hair dye. Jared winks at his wife. He used to get jealous when she sat on her father’s lap and wiggled her cute little butt on his crotch. But that was before. Everything is different now.
A bell rings and Ivanka jumps off the bed. “Time for breakfast, Daddy. Bacon and eggs? Or would you like a double hamburger with all the fixings this morning?”
Jared shoots her a warning look. “Or maybe a bowl of cereal for a change, Dad?” He told his wife just last night that their food supply is alarming low. Everyone else in the bunker is eating so little they’re losing weight. But not him. He’s turned into that fictitious fat man he talked about during his presidential campaign, the one who he said, instead of Russia, sits on his bed and hacks into computers.
“What’d you say?” Distracted, he rests the black box in the folds of his stomach and his short fingers stroke the red button like a lover’s breast. “Where’s Mike? Has he been found yet?”
Ivanka and Jared shake their heads.
“I know what he’s up to. He wants to be me.” He rocks back and forth, one finger on the button.
“It’s okay, Daddy. He can’t hurt you. Nobody can hurt you now.”
“We can’t know that. Not until we’re sure he’s gone for good.” One flourishing twirl of his little hands and both forefingers take aim, press the button. “Done!”
Ivanka and Jared exchange meaningful sighs. The system had made him a nuclear monarch and now with the toy button in the bunker—Ivanka’s idea and a good one—he still thinks he is, still boasts that his button is much bigger & more powerful than anyone else’s.
“Now how about those bacon and eggs,” he says. With great effort he lifts himself off the bed and waddles to the door wearing only his underpants. “And after breakfast, how about a round of golf?” He doesn’t put on a robe, maybe he forgets, maybe he just doesn’t bother, maybe, because they removed all mirrors in the bunker, he’s forgotten what he looks like.
He waltzes like an elephant into the spacious dining room and looks around for Melania. Ivanka holds her breath, hopes he won’t ask where she is. The few loyalists still with him after the purge look the other way. “I think I got Mike this time, honey,” he says as he jabs his fork into a piece of fatty bacon.
“I’m sure you did, Daddy.” Ivanka kisses the top of his shiny head and sits next to him.
He talks a lot, with a mouthful of food as always, about the button that isn’t real. He doesn’t remember the nuclear football. He has no memory of when, in a fit of rage, he used the code to launch a nuclear attack. He remembers what he was angry about, though. Those damn traitors. Their lies. The unfairness. No one told him that Seoul was wiped out first. Then Seattle. Then the others, a chain reaction. Nothing about human tissue vaporized, the fatal burns, radiation sickness, starving, painful cancers.
He thinks the bunker is his new Imperial Palace and it suits him. His daily life is the same as always. He uses twitter to ward off his enemies with no internet to transmit his vitrialic tweets and no one alive to receive them. But he doesn’t know that.
IN PRAISE OF INDEPENDENT BOOKSTORES
Jul 29, 2016
When my novel, At the Center, was published last year, five bookstores in four different cities helped launch it by hosting book events. Thanks to the forging of strong author-bookstore partnerships, the events were like parties in packed houses with enthusiastic audiences, strong sales, lots of energy, and sometimes even food. Each event was magical. The four cities were selected because of the number of people I know there—friends, family, colleagues, and other contacts—and because they represented different parts of the country. The bookstores were selected because of their popularity, community spirit, and support of writers.
SEATTLE: THIRD PLACE BOOKS
Thank you to Wendy and Kalani at Third Place Books-Lake Forest Park for the first party and to Michael and Alex at Third Place Books-Ravenna the University of Minnesota Alumni Association who joined forces for a second event in the Pub.
MINNEAPOLIS: MAGERS AND QUINN BOOKSTORE
The next party was in the state of my birth, the place I will always consider to be home. A huge shout-out to Ann Mayhew and this wonderful bookstore in the heart of the popular Uptown neighborhood for being so generous with her time and so welcoming to all my friends and family who filled every seat and more.
BALTIMORE: THE IVY BOOKSTORE
Ed Berlin, owner of this the popular and wonderfully community-centered bookstore, couldn’t have been more thoughtful during the planning phase or more gracious and encouraging during the event, even when he had to keep bringing in more and more chairs until there were no more.
Kudos and deep gratitude to owner Susan Post of this premiere feminist bookstore that has a rich forty-year herstory of providing books to change women’s lives and the world. Thanks to her, the last launch event of the tour was filled with the joy and laughter of reuniting with friends and meeting new people and discovering new fans.