When protests began in the wake of the deaths of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor, Daniela Bayon was ready to take action both on the streets and at her workplace. As a marketing manager for a global tech company, Bayon wanted to support her Black colleagues and organize companywide conversations about racism. “There was a mass awakening everywhere, including at work,” she said. “People kept asking: What can I do?”
Bayon wasn’t alone in her desire to make change happen. In 2020, the pandemic, a reckoning with systemic racism in the United States and a fraught political climate combined to create a social change tipping point. No longer could we ignore the structural inequities underlying the pandemic’s devastating consequences on people of color. No longer could we deny the entrenched anti-Black racism that pervades our country’s institutions. People of all backgrounds, professions and ages began to recognize that issues of equity and justice couldn’t simply be entrusted to policymakers, movement leaders, and diversity and inclusion staff. In 2020, these issues became our business. They became everyone’s responsibility.
And it showed. During the uprisings over the summer, a historic number of people — an estimated 15 million to 26 million — participated in rallies and protests, from Washington, D.C.’s Black Lives Matter Plaza to Talkeetna, Alaska. Students urged university administrators to condemn anti-Black violence; the American Medical Association identified racism as a threat to public health; and numerous corporations recognized they have a responsibility to act in solidarity with their Black employees and customers.
2020 was grueling and unrelenting, and as the new year begins, it brings a mix of fatigue and relief. Many of us are fighting the effects of what psychologist Paul Slovic calls “statistical numbing” — the human tendency to be unresponsive in the face of overwhelming numbers of loss and pain, whether that is in the context of the pandemic or the ongoing violence targeting Black people. And, with the vaccines signaling the possibility of returning to some semblance of normalcy and a new administration promising to heal some of the divisions of the past four years, there may be the temptation to move on, to assume that everything will be all right.
But history shows us that inequity and injustice will not subside simply because of changes in political power, temporary Band-Aid fixes or occasional peaks in social engagement. Instead, dismantling oppression requires a daily commitment to cultivate empathy and take action by as many people as possible in every sector we occupy.
In 2021, we must commit to making social change a lifestyle choice, rather than an acute reaction to moments of urgency. Our activism and engagement cannot be passing trends that get activated amid a crisis, and then set aside. Let’s ask ourselves what’s possible if we become social change ambassadors in our everyday lives, and when our ecosystems — be they workplaces, classrooms, networks or families — meaningfully support our participation.
Thankfully, there are already resources to help translate our commitments to tangible actions. The social change ecosystem map is one such tool that I developed for individuals and organizations. It’s anchored in a fundamental premise: that each of us can get better at doing good in the world when we are aligned with our values, clear about the roles we play and deeply connected to the people around us. This framework emerged during a period of confusion and uncertainty in my own life about how to show up in movements for justice during the emergencies of the past four years. As I began to observe how people were responding to various crises, I realized that they were engaged in an array of practices, from disrupting and storytelling to building and healing. These roles and many others are reflected in the social change map.
When Bayon encountered the social change ecosystem map, her roles at work began to fall into place. “I recognized myself as a storyteller, builder and caregiver,” she explained. “I began holding space for Black and Latinx colleagues so that we could express our anger and grief, listen to one another and support each other.”
Here is a four-step process to use the map in your own life.
Concepts such as justice, equity and solidarity have become buzzwords. Ask yourself: Why are they important to you? The process of values alignment requires us to examine our own internal biases and privileges. To be a true ally means that we are ready to take risks and utilize our power for the sake of a larger cause. This might mean that a man declines a speaking engagement on a panel unless it includes women, or that a White person challenges racial stereotypes held by close family members. Are you willing to take the steps necessary to make justice and equity hold more substantive meaning in your life?
Next, consider the roles that best exemplify your values and skills. The 10 roles described in the framework (caregiver, builder, healer, disrupter, storyteller, guide, weaver, front-line responder, experimenter and visionary) invite us to play particular roles that can strengthen the broader ecosystem. We shouldn’t be playing all or even most of these 10 roles, and our roles might change depending on the situation.
For example, while many people became front-line protesters during the uprisings against anti-Black racism in 2020, there were others who played different roles as builders, storytellers, healers and more. The Lily featured Laura Navarrete and Brianna Barrett and their project Signs for BLM, which provided protesters with free signs. Healers such as Richael Faithful and the Nap Ministry focused on spiritual nourishment and rest. Many non-Black people played the role of a disrupter by interrupting a racist conversation at the family dinner table. Still others were storytellers who shared the experiences that queer and trans and disabled people have with institutional racism.
Recognizing our roles also helps us deepen our connections to each other. Strong social bonds — what Detroit-based activist and scholar Grace Lee Boggs called “critical connections” — are the cornerstone of individual and collective transformation. Over the past year, many ecosystems of social change have emerged as people recognized the importance of coming together for a common purpose, from groups of teachers centering non-White peoples’ histories in their classrooms to giving circles supporting Black-led organizations. In 2021, consider the ecosystems around you, the ones you are part of and the ones you can build. How can the ecosystem as a whole support your sustained participation in social change through skills-building training and mentors, as well as time for reflection and renewal?
Each day, we can take a step to dive into our roles and deepen our connections. We can take time to learn about the experiences of those on the front lines of the pandemic in our city and play the role of a caregiver. We can show up as an experimenter by coming up with innovative methods to spread information about the vaccine to hard-to-reach communities. We can become visionaries, offering bold solutions on abolition and health equity that incorporate the lessons of 2020.
As we begin 2021 after a hard-fought period of personal and collective challenges, it can serve us well to spend time in quiet reflection to understand how we showed up for social change causes last year, and how we can sustain the momentum. After all, we must continue what we so courageously started. Let’s make sure that the statements our workplaces and institutions made about anti-racism in 2020 translate into meaningful actions in 2021. Let’s keep up the pressure on political leaders to enact visionary policies. Instead of returning to pre-2020 days, let’s choose our roles and chart a new path forward to usher in the just and equitable world that we truly deserve.
Deepa Iyer is a South Asian American builder and weaver. She is the director of Movement Building and SolidarityIs at the Building Movement Project, and the author of “We Too Sing America: South Asian, Arab, Muslim, and Sikh Communities Shape Our Multiracial Future.”