The Need for Moral Imagination

Art from Amplifer:  “What is politically, socially and economically possible has always been about will. When ‘This is all over’ we cannot go back to normal, we the people need to demand and do better. Our collective trauma needs collective healing, out of this darkness we can imagine the revolution.” – Emma Ismawi
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Editor’s note: Friday, 19 June 2020 is Juneteenth. It is the oldest commemoration of the ending of slavery in the United States. Read more here.

For White and Non-Black POCS: What are you doing today to act in solidarity with Black folx?

Black folx: Sending you joy and rest.

I’ve spent the past several weeks in too many Zoom video meetings listening to presenters about reopening programs, schools, and attempting to return to ‘business as usual.’ I understand the desire to go back to what is known and comfortable. The social relationships many thrived on are now fraying and there is a desire to return to life as we knew it. But we can’t and shouldn’t return to what we had before. We have a rare, one-in-a-lifetime (I don’t use those words lightly), opportunity to morally reimagine the way our society operates. We shouldn’t go back to just what we knew — it didn’t work for many pocs.

Inclusion Instead of Charity

What if we stopped and said instead of providing programs and schooling, we paused to ask families what has worked since COVID19 abruptly closed much of society what would we hear? A lot of the closure experiences has sucked like bitter sour li hing mui (sour plums), but at the same time there have been bright spots. Some of the brightest spots have been places where people have seen potential, morally imagined a solution, and made it happen. I use the term moral imagination to say people act with morality. There is a desire to bring partnerships and morals to the solution.

As an example a friend, Selam, who is bilingual in Amharic and English, saw many in her Ethiopian immigrant community had questions about COVID19. In the early days of the COVID19 shutdown (just a few weeks ago in March) information was coming out rapidly and not much of it was translated or interpreted into languages other than English. My friend took it upon herself to organize a weekly Zoom call for the Amharic speaking community to join in, ask questions, and share information. The calls have reached several thousand people. While it may not feel like it took a lot of imagination to start a call it did – Selam saw a way to fix a problem with the resources she had and made it happen. She is embedded in the Ethiopian community and was able to analyze the situation and come up with a solution that worked for her community, a morally just solution. She also didn’t look for a charity model of begging others to take on the problem, she used what was available to start and along the way welcomed help from others led to this new way of working.

High Expectations, Even during a Crisis

As we start returning to pre-COVID19 activities we also need to hold each other and institutions to high expectations. The current COVID19 crisis and the failures of police and other government institutions to keep people safe equally show us we need to morally reimagine systems with higher degrees of accountability and expectations to pocs.

As an example, I’ve listened in on state and local education calls about reopening schools. One of the common themes of these calls is the desire, maybe even mandate, we return to school buildings and education in some form as we previously knew it. I am not naive in thinking we can reimagine education in the next three-months, but I am frustrated so many of these calls default to providing education in traditional models.

Such as, we know school buildings were not designed to keep people six-feet apart. In many urban schools the buildings are already packed and overflowing with students which won’t work in the coming months. In response to this we’ve seen people suggest staggering schedules so only half of the students are in the building at one time. It is a failure of imagination to ask where does education take place and where could education take place that centers poc students. If we listen we might hear education takes place in churches, outdoor nature spaces, gardens, community kitchens, etc. which all of a sudden gives us more physical spaces to conduct education. When we do this we dignify community voices in different ways. I totally understand there will be millions of logistical and regulatory red-tape to make these things happen, but if there was ever a time to force systems to confront themselves as ask what is important it is during a crisis.

We also need to hack other processes, like elections. There is no better time to reimagine these processes. What would it look like if we held to the standard of 100% voluntary voting rate? If we think about it from a morally justice based perspective, don’t we owe it to ourselves to have a high voter participation rate? Too often we make excuses and don’t think we can fully accomplish goals. Holding ourselves to a higher standard pushes the burdens of non-participation back where it belongs on systems and institutions. It would also force us to really evaluate what the election process is about and stripping it down to its essence of civic engagement and designing from there. When we design with racial equity principles we get more equitable results.

Humble and Audacious

Now is the time to be audacious with morally reimagining our ways of life. If we approach these problems humbly and say “We’ve screwed up,” and ask “how can we work with you to fix it,” we might find some daring and bold answers in the simplest of ways. Selam’s call didn’t take a lot of resources – a computer, a Zoom line, and a community who had questions. In reimagining schools the problems get a little more complex but it isn’t at the same time – education takes place all around us, we just need to stretch our thinking to be more inclusive of community views and values.  

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