Last week felt like a huge case study for systemic infrastructure failure in Texas. It was such an intense and personal reminder of how close to home inequities are and how quickly a system can change if it’s the only option. I have more questions than anything right now…

What is it about tragedy that magnifies who we are as people? On one hand, we saw folks coming together in profoundly new, compassionate, and innovative ways, and on the other hand, we saw politicians leave town and some folks distance themselves from the most vulnerable among us. What brings us together? How do we define what a tragedy is? How can we make sure to codify what we learned from this experience?

The thing that was most disheartening about the entire week of power and water outages in Texas was just how little state guidance, assurance, support and resource-distribution there was from the state to local areas. It really amplified the lack of infrastructure for crisis response at our state level.

And yet, our local community–everyday citizens and grassroots organizations on the ground–really stepped up and created systems and filled gaps closed holes and stopped the bleeding (providing life-saving support) before any other state government agency did.

We’re still IN it and thousands of folks in Austin are still without water; the road to recovery will be long and complex, but I can’t help but ask–what are we learning from this experience in the midst of a pandemic we’re still learning from on a daily basis?

The impact of collective trauma and the impact of inequities and collective experiences is so vast. How do we codify and capture the stories of superheroes on the grounds? How do we lift the voices up of everyday people who stepped up and provided resources, donated, provided life-changing support?

A lot of folks in Texas are still processing what we just went through. And the lessons may serve as warnings on so many levels for people across the country. I can feel the fatigue, emotional-fullness, and depletion in every meeting I’ve had this week, every space that I’ve been–we’re sharing stories, unpacking the way that this impacted people differently, we’re talking about how we’re all situated differently, and we’re talking about our shared concern for vulnerable communities. The stories that I’ve heard have been truly transformative. I’ve heard of neighbors saving lives–literally waking up every two hours to ensure an elderly neighbor’s oxygen tank was full. I’ve heard of people bathing in apartment pools and lugging water up for neighbors’ toilets. I’ve heard of homes transforming with multiple families in living room forts and tents.

On one hand when the pipes froze and the grid went out the impact felt randomized and sporadic as to who got water or who lacked power. And then, on the other hand, there was a predictability of the most vulnerable communities being impacted the hardest and hit the worst. And so, what do we learn about addressing systemic inequities? What did we learn about community response during a crisis? What did we learn about coming together and solving problems together? What did we learn about providing access to necessary, life-saving information?

My wife and I were talking yesterday about how much we appreciate, trust, and rely on our council members for information, and how grateful we are that they really stepped up and served last week. It made me think–how do we see this as the beginning of a new wave of conversations? Because we can’t un-experience what we just went through; we can’t unsee and un-hear.

I keep wondering: Where do we go from here? We can’t go back to “business as usual”. What are our lessons and how might we begin to organize ourselves in a way that continues to put people first and continues to support the most vulnerable and the most historically underserved folks? How do folks with privilege continue to pay it forward, share resources, and show up in solidarity?

It’s going to be a long road of recovery, and I hope that we can really take time to assess what happened, what worked, and unpack where the system failed. There will be more crises, so how do we make sure that we have a responsive infrastructure that centers equity? What did we learn about innovation and people’s capacity to dismantle oppressive systems? What did we learn about our own privileges, and our own blind spots and advantages and disadvantages? What did we learn about feelings of helplessness and isolation? What did we learn about what happens with compound stressors (pandemic, storm, and more)?

An example that brought things to light was volunteering in the community Sunday, distributing water to an apartment complex that hadn’t had water for six days. Hearing folks’ stories, knocking on doors, providing access to information, hearing the deep gratitude that people had for our support–it blew me away. There were so many thousands of reasons for people to be angry and frustrated, and yet people expressed gratitude. I got to witness the most sincere humanitarian compassion.

What was also illuminated was truly how equity versus equality works. We showed up with a huge 275-gallon cube of water, and the landlord sent an email to everybody on the premises and said something along the lines of, “volunteers brought free water! There’s a truck with water near the main office. Bring your containers to fill up!” That was the only mechanism for sharing information that I know of.

So, here’s this huge resource that everybody needed, and the email was an equality strategy–send the same thing to everyone. Everybody received the same email, but the way privilege and the opportunity gap play out is pervasive. It was a Sunday. Some people were really plugged into their computer/device and others weren’t, so the people who got the email first came down first with their coolers and their containers.

And then there was this lul of time where nobody was coming down and we thought, “Hmm, it’s Sunday I wonder if people aren’t seeing the email…” To our knowledge there was no text message that went out, so we thought “we needed a better mechanism for getting the information out.” We decided to go door to door and start knocking. “I’m here as a volunteer…just letting you know that there was an email about water downstairs. We have drinkable water for you!” About half of the people answered their doors, and about half of those people hadn’t seen the email. There was an elderly woman who physically couldn’t leave her apartment. There was a gentleman who didn’t speak English whose daughter was translating for him. There was a mom with an infant whose hands were full. People were in survival mode. Everyone was doing the best that they could with what they had.

That experience taught me that we always have to get creative when it comes to equity work. There was no rulebook or playbook. There is no step-by-step guide; there are some promising practices and there are some things that I think we could all do a little bit more of to help us continue to put people first to help us continue to center equity. So my questions moving forward are: how do we continue to center commUNITY? How do we continue to center the most vulnerable and hear from the voices that most need to be highlighted?

Earlier this week my colleague, Elliott, and I sat down and talked about this more. We ended with hopes that more folks find ways to share their experiences–we’d love hear from you. What are some stories you heard or moments of hopeful unity from last week? Will you join us in sharing reflections and observations from last week here and/or with this hashtag (#sparkunitytx)?

We also encourage folks to join us in volunteering locally and contributing to organizations like:

In Community,

Rachel

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