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Tuesday, June 28, 2022

Pandemics and community wealth: four stories of resilience

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“We can,

Each of us,

Do the impossible

As long as we can convince ourselves

That it has been done before.”

-Earthseed: “The Books of the Living,” Octavia Butler

Race, class, patriarchy and capitalism are the primary driving social and economic forces today. These forces shape and define inequitable resource distribution, power and all aspects of our social constructs. It’s no secret that the unprecedented global health crisis will impact Black, brown and poor communities disproportionately.

And while we must stay relentless in challenging institutions of power and their representatives in addressing these social inequities, we must also raise up and highlight the historical legacy of resistance of people who found “ways out of no way.” We must highlight examples in the present of communities practicing self-reliance and self-determination. The importance of this balance is to make sure this community, in particular our children, do not get consumed by fear and despair. 

The African American historical experience includes surviving the Middle Passage, surviving chattel slavery, surviving Jim Crow, New Jim Crow and the post-civil rights era. I’m sure each of these “pandemics” looked and felt impossible. But our resilience, self-reliance, self-determination and our reliance on each other (community wealth) got us through. 

The COVID-19 pandemic is unprecedented, and the triage globally will be long lasting. If history is a mirror, we can also expect in times of crisis there will be desperate efforts to hold on to yesterday like the American challenge with the ending of slavery. Put simply, racism morphs and changes shape, clothing and ways of proliferating inequity. We will have to continue to be diligent in our resistance. 

At the same time, crisis provides opportunity for systems change. During crisis, what would have previously appeared to be radical may now seem to be moderate. Let us embrace this moment to highlight and model new ways of being, new ways of doing, while also restoring the best of the social fabric of yesterday. Crises focus and highlight these community wealth building efforts. Let’s focus on strengthening existing institutions and creating new ones that will support these new ways of being and doing post the pandemic.

Below are the four promised stories, two from the past and two from the present, that we can learn from and build upon to shape our future.

“To survive,

Let the past

Teach you—

Past customs,


Leaders and thinkers.



Help you.

Let them inspire you,

Warn you,

Give you strength.

But beware:

God is Change.

Past is past.

What was


Come again.

To survive,

Know the past.

Let it touch you.

Then let

The past


– Earthseed: The Books of the Living, Octavia Butler

1. Collective Courage

In her book, “Collective Courage,” Jessica Gordon Nembhard highlights the rich history of cooperatives in the African American community. In the face of physical and economic violence rooted in white supremacy, communities created cooperatives, mutual aid societies and shared resources as a means to economic empowerment, self-reliance and self-determination. This included Fannie Lou Hammer, who helped to start cooperatives in her community in addition to her work as a leader in the civil rights movement. Watch the video here.

2. Marcus Garvey and the UNIA

Marcus Garvey is another historic figure who is often overlooked. In 1918 he founded the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA), which is still the largest movement in African American history. He impacted Black consciousness with a philosophy of self-love, cooperation, agency to improve oneself and community and unity among people of African origin across the world. He advanced an agenda of economic empowerment by starting businesses and enterprises to create opportunities for Black people. He had a major influence on the civil rights and Black Power movement. Watch the video here

3. Climate Justice Alliance: Stories From Home podcast

In the present, the Climate Justice Alliance (CJA), of which Kheprw is a member, is connecting communities that are working to create a just transition from our current extractive and unsustainable economic system to one that is more localized, resilient, self-reliant and equitable. They recently launched a podcast hosted by Kheprw’s own Keenan Rhodes, who is a storytelling fellow with CJA. He interviews leaders in communities that are making a just transition to create a better future. Listen to the podcast here.

4. The Making of Democratic Economy

The Kheprw family recently read and discussed “The Making of a Democratic Economy,” a book co-authored by Marjorie Kelly and Ted Howard of the Democracy Collaborative. It highlights examples of a new economy that is emerging centered on cooperation and community wealth. This movement is not centrally organized but is making change from the bottom up through grassroots initiatives around the country, including Evergreen Cooperatives in Cleveland, Thunder Valley CDC in Pine Ridge and many more. Watch the video here.

Imhotep Adisa is the Executive Director and Co-Founder of the Kheprw Institute, a nonprofit organization focused on youth development in Indianapolis.

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