By Jondou Chase Chen
I’m a tender-headed guy. Tender-headed as in I’m really sensitive. Just about anything will set off my cough. Cold air. Musty dust. Mammal dander. Electrical buzzing and flickering lights give me headaches as I wonder about their source and why can’t they stop. And then there are those conversations that don’t get anywhere, or more specifically don’t get to where they can and they should …
Ten days into our PNW adventures with snow, I’m feeling pretty sensitive.
There’s snow. Yes. This is the season for snow. This is Seattle snow. That means there’s snow on hills. There’s snow melting quickly into slush and ice. Our geography – our terrain, our proximity to the ocean, our latitude – can make snow more challenging (although according to Seattle.gov, this is only reason #8). This is our snow story, and it has been since time immemorial. I’m good with that.
Then there’s the amount of snow. It’s historic, yes. And is it possible that it is connected to climate change? Despite what our President says, yes, it is actually possible that it is connected. Not only that, it is even more probable that we will continue to experience weather like this moving forward. Are we talking about this? Sure, some of us are. But is the conversation moving forward into action? Moving beyond social media critiques of climate change deniers? I’m not so sure …
Then there’s social impact of our recent snow. Most immediately we’ve seen our transportation systems shut down, bogged down, and mired in ice, slush, and mud. Power has gone out for thousands as our above ground utilities infrastructure remains exposed to the elements. And there have been the daily staring contest as families with children in schools wait to hear if we need to make emergency care plans and educators work to update and re-update lesson plans. Again our city and governing bodies acknowledge these challenges, but in a way that describes our situation and their response, rationalizes our minimal infrastructure, and removing themselves from liability or responsibility to do more.
And then I’ve heard the jokes. Jokes from folks across the country at how this amount of snow is laughable. Jokes that seem to frame this as being about regional dispositions and individual incompetencies rather than attending to geographic and sociopolitical differences. I’ve seen the memes from exhausted Seattle folks who have the capacity to turn to the internet to vent about our exhaustion and frustrations which are incredibly real.
But here’s my point: when we blame the weather, our geography, our infrastructure, and our disposition, we’re not entirely wrong. AND we’re also missing the opportunity to say something just as important: to acknowledge the ways in which what is happening is deeply systemic and the ways in which we have agency and responsibility to act differently. The snow and its associated challenges reveal rather than cover deep intersectional injustices.
In terms of race and social class: What areas and corridors of the city have seen more snow plows? Who is more likely to live there? Who is more likely to profit there? Who can afford to live and work closer to public transportation, especially the more reliable options like the light rail and express bus lines? Who are the folks more likely to be on salaried positions whose overall income and pay schedule are less likely to be impacted by the past two weeks? Who are the hourly and part-time employees who lost the opportunity to earn during the past two weeks? Who was more likely to spend extra hours while risking their health and wellbeing to be out in the snow? Who was more likely to have positions that allowed them to telecommute and work from home and to afford deliveries for food and other necessities?
In terms of age and ability: How many and whose children had to be unsupervised or attached to screens because their parents had to go in to work? How many mobility-impaired folks faced even steeper than usual challenges in traveling to access work, groceries, and other day-to-day needs? How many of our fellow Seattleites weren’t able to access social programming and human connection because of closures and cancellations and inadequate transportation options when we know that such opportunities greatly improve life outcomes, especially those marginalized by age and dis/ability.
Thankfully, through the snow and my tender-headedness, there were moments of relief and release. Seeing those who were able find joy in their first snowflakes or their fiftieth sled run. Working with neighbors to make sure that people got home safely and had the groceries they needed to make it through the snowmelt. All of this lifted me up, and reminded me of how capable we are of advocating for systemic change to ensure that the next time this happens that we don’t have to witness the further amplification of social inequities. It made me appreciate the efforts of so many of our local sibs of color at organizations like Got Green and Puget Sound Sage, who have taught me so much about how addressing climate change is about intersectional racial justice. And about acknowledging these lands and waters, their ecosystem, and our First Nations … we still have a long way to go and so much more to learn and do.
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