Since the infamous spring break email that informed students that we would not be returning to campus, not a day seems to go by without someone mentioning that we are living through history. We are trying to manage a global pandemic in a country with inadequate public health infrastructure while addressing both historical and present racism in all spheres of the country. After more than 400 years, this American racism has been laid bare for white Americans with the global protests following the murder of George Floyd.
The past year has tested our country’s ability to address significant and systemic issues at a local and national scale. But have we actually tried to improve our society?
We should engage in a discussion of what change really looks like at a personal, local, state and national level, and all the different forms it can take. But there is a profound difference between suggesting change and actually pursuing it.
One common example of the illusion of change is when wealthy corporations and individuals simply write a check or promise minor alterations to their company policies, rather than demonstrate a serious reflection of systemic issues which require systemic responses. Some companies, such as those in the pharmaceutical industry, turn such a large profit that a multi-billion dollar payout doesn’t even dent their profit margins. These types of payouts seldom make a difference as they rarely result in broadscale change in how corporations operate and prioritize profits over the well-being of their employees.
Right now, we should be looking at how we can turn discussion into actual change during, and following, this pandemic. Last month, National Geographic’s magazine feature story reviewed previous epidemics and what we learned from each of them; they left it open to what we may learn from COVID-19.
Let’s suggest a lesson, perhaps revolutionary: We set new expectations for our communities, leaders and country; we demand equity and we establish systems that protect our most vulnerable communities.
We are, without a doubt, living through some of the most challenging crises in the last century. However, as we move forward—especially us students who will soon (if we haven’t already) joined the workforce and be leaders in a variety of fields—we should carefully contemplate what it really means to “live through history,” and any responsibility that is attached to a statement of that magnitude.
We should aggressively review the way policing is done in this country (and its intimate connection to the military) and how racism is deeply embedded in our society. We demand the restructuring of these systems and investment in bold, sustainable infrastructure in healthcare, housing, education and transportation.
Herein, we are suggesting that there is, or should be, greater responsibility in how we lead our lives in these times. However, this responsibility can vary widely. For people in leadership positions, these include pushing our organizations and companies to respect workers and provide living wages and decent benefits (paid parental leave, adequate health, dental and eye care, and so forth).
For students, it primarily includes being an advocate for change and engaging in campaigns seeking to improve the quality of life for people in this country. It also takes the shape of respecting others and, especially for those of us still on campus, remembering that we are largely visitors in Cleveland and that our actions have repercussions (perhaps even deadly ones) for local residents.
Addressing these responsibilities takes place every day; people in our communities and around the world are working to promote distributive justice and to elevate the voices of those too often silenced. We can see this work in social media pages such as @cwru.survivors and @black.at.cwru, which were started by Case Western Reserve University students in order to bring attention to sexual assault and racism on campus.
The final thing to consider is that the ability to engage with our communities and advocate for systemic change is, in some ways, a privilege. Our country’s toxic individualism complex forces many people to work three jobs a week and still not be able to afford food or rent for the month, let alone higher education. These are among the many people with whom we need to stand in solidarity and emphasize that their reality should not exist while there are billionaires (and trillion-dollar corporations) escaping taxes, accountability and responsibility.
Moving forward, let’s question whether we can improve our world if we don’t take responsibility and promote actions that lead to direct change. As long as profit is prioritized over people, we can’t expect significant change to occur.
However, that doesn’t mean all hope is lost. With organizers working on demands like “Defund the Police,” which would emphasize reappropriating funds from the military-grade weapons of local police departments into community resources, and other people taking their time to elevate the voices of students and community members, we might very well see authentic change in our lifetime. But it will take a lot of time, patience and people. There is a lot to get discouraged about in our world today, but that doesn’t mean we can’t simultaneously recognize the work already happening.
We don’t have to just “live through history.” We have the ability to make and shape history and remake our country and world into one that is just.