Mia Birdsong: Community as a Verb
There's a story we're told about how we should save ourselves through sheer grit. But many fall on the other side of that success metric. In this episode, Kate and writer and activist Mia Birdsong discuss expanding our definition of family and how to show up when our community needs us—both locally and nationally.
Mia Birdsong is a thought leader, author, and family activist who advocates for the strengthening of communities and the self-determination of low-income people. She is co-director of Family Story, a think tank dedicated to changing the way we think about family in America. Mia's 2015 TED talk “The Story We Tell About Poverty Isn’t True” has been viewed over 2 million times. She is a Senior Fellow of the Economic Security Project and also an inaugural Ascend Fellow of The Aspen Institute and New American California Fellow. Her most recent book, How We Show Up: Reclaiming Family, Friendship, and Community, shows us how to return to our inherent connectedness where we find strength, safety, and support in vulnerability and generosity, in asking for help, and in being accountable.
Watch Mia’s TedTalk “The Story We Tell Ourselves About Poverty Isn’t True”, here.
Preorder Mia’s book How We Show Up, here.
Find out more about the important work of Family Story, and how it is working to lift up a new national story about what makes a good family. (More love, inclusion, and connection; less marriage, biology, and law.)
Read Mia’s “In Praise of the Auntie,” here. The aunties who Mia describe as “the rule-breaking, adventure-taking, hug-dispensing women who make every family stronger”.
Mia was recognized as one of Colorlines’ “15 Remarkable Women of Color Who Rocked 2015.”
Kate Bowler: Hi, I’m Kate Bowler, and this is Everything Happens. Look, the world loves us when we are good, better, best. But this is a podcast for when you want to stop feeling guilty that you’re not living your best life now. We’re not always having the juicing spree of our lives. I used to have my own delusion of living my best life now. I’m a Duke professor, wine and cheese enthusiast, wife and mom. Instagram gold. Then I was diagnosed with stage four cancer. That was four years ago and I’m still here. And now I get it. Life is a chronic condition. The self-help and wellness industry will try to tell you that you can always fix your life. Eat this and you won’t get sick, lose this weight and you’ll never be lonely. Believe with your whole heart and God will provide. Keep this attitude and the money is yours. But I’m here to look into your gorgeous eyes and say, hey, there are some things you can fix and some things you can’t. And it’s OK that life isn’t always better. We can find beauty and meaning and truth, but there’s no cure to being human. So let’s be friends on that journey. Let’s be human together.
K.B.: There’s a story we’re told, about how we should have saved ourselves. If you’re lonely or suffering or on the wrong side of luck. Well, listen up. Have I got a solution for you. Try harder. Work smarter. Be efficient. There are winners and there are losers. And this country needs you to get back up. But there is a deeper story we need right now. In light of police brutality and the militarization of our streets. In light of the pandemic that shutter’s people in their homes and keeps us from holding each other and bringing food and burying our dead. It’s a story about belonging and community. It’s about getting to interdependence, and it’s a story in the words of our guest today, about the way we show up. Mia Birdsong has spent more than 20 years as an activist and writer. She was the founding co-director of Family Story, where she lifted up a new national story about what makes a good family. And as vice president of the Family Independence Initiative, she worked to improve the lives of low income families. Her podcast, mini series called More than Enough, expands the current guaranteed income movement by tapping into the voices and visions of low income people. She speaks on economic inequality, race, gender and community building at universities and conferences across the country. And if you haven’t seen her TED talk, you should. Oh, my. She is a prophet of belonging. Her book, How We Show Up, shares the stories of brilliant adaptations of everyday people building resilient communities of care. And I feel so fortunate that I get to ask her about family and the expanded work of community in starving out loneliness and doing the work of justice.
K.B.: Mia, I’m so glad to be speaking with you today, but I’m battling a chest cold currently. I’m going to have to stop every couple things cause I just like, can’t take a full breath. It’s so weird.
Mia Birdsong: Yeah, yeah. I’m trying to be mindful of orienting myself to moving at the pace of the people around me. So, like in your case, I feel like it’s. I mean, I’m sure it may be physically uncomfortable, right?
M.B.: But part of it is that we’re all conditioned to try to move at the pace of patriarchy, capitalism and white supremacy. Not at the pace of love and humanity and liberation. And if you and I talk at the speed of liberation, I imagine you’ll be less out of breath.
K.B.: Oh. Oh my gosh, that’s so beautiful. This is gonna be a good one.
M.B.: Thank you.
K.B.: I’m not even American and I know all about the American dream. So I wondered if we could start there. It’s this story that’s like so fundamental to this country’s self narration. So like, what is it? And who is it inaccessible to?
M.B.: Yes, So on its face, you know, it’s this really wonderful story about how anyone with a little grit can be successful.
K.B.: Dot, dot, dot.
M.B.: Embodied in the American dream is white supremacy, which our nation was founded on, with the genocide of indigenous people and the enslavement of black folks. Patriarchy, for sure, is embedded in the American dream. And capitalism is. By which I mean the extraction of value from people and the earth. That’s that’s the American dream. Right? If you are, if you are, if you are already a wealthy white man, then like you’re good to go.
M.B.: The rest of us end up facing a bunch of barriers when it comes to trying to achieve a version of success that, frankly, isn’t really actually good for anybody. Like achieving the American dream is about a deep kind of toxic individualism. Right? It’s about you pulling yourself up by your own bootstraps. It is about accumulation right? And having things that represent success.
M.B.: Ultimately, it is, it is one that creates a lot of walls between us and other people.
M.B.: It’s much harder for women to achieve it. It’s much harder for black people and indigenous people and other people of color to achieve it. It’s much harder to achieve if you’re, if you are born poor, like, good luck not being poor.
M.B.: And that expands to people with disabilities. That expands to gender nonconforming and trans folks. That expands to people who are queer. Like anybody who does not kind of fit into the the tiny teeny tiny little box.
M.B.: Is going to face a bunch of barriers to achieving it. And I think, you know, as I said, even the people who achieve it, like I’m like, oh, is that winning? I’m not so sure that that’s really what you think it is.
K.B.: I was so struck by how the question of the American dream led you into this real exploration of the definition of family. My background’s as a historian and I was an expert in learning about like American Evangelicalism and Pentecostalism. And one of the ways that American evangelicals doubled down on what would performatively make them good. Like what puts us on the right side of God is, is the nuclear family. And that, you know, organizations like Focus on the Family, like it helped white Christians know that they were, that they were winning the culture wars and and that there’s a self understanding of family that at least for me, when, like the sicker I got, the more it really felt like a, like a weapon. Like when people say, like, I have to do what’s best for my family or me and my family. It felt like they were drawing a very small circle around who deserves to be protected. And it really leaves everybody else on the outside of the door.
M.B.: Yeah. It’s also, you know, the nuclear family is, it is the same as the kind of self-made man, but in family form.
K.B.: Yeah. Yeah.
M.B.: And it is, it’s weaponized as a way of saying that anybody who doesn’t have these things isn’t living a life in that way has somehow failed. Right? Or like at worst, like is immoral.
K.B.: Yeah. Yeah.
M.B.: I’m married to a man and we have biological children, but we are definitely not raising those people by ourselves. And I don’t know whoever told, they people who told us that two people could raise children, that is a lie for so many reasons. That is a lie.
K.B.: Yeah, but it does make you feel kind of nuts when like when you read, like, maybe the first time you realize, like, why is this so hard? And it’s because we’re just like we’re not we’re not built for that kind of independence. And like you’re, you’re so good at creating more wrap around language for like, well, what about adoption and single parenting and divorce and unmarried couples and childlessness? Like where where does all this fit in this vision of of an American dream?
M.B.: It’s not that the idea of family is not important. It’s that we have narrowed our idea of what a good family is. Right? The nuclear family kind of sits at the top of the hierarchy when it comes to family in America and everything else, like I said, is some kind of failure, right? If you don’t have kids, it’s because you’re selfish or you or you couldn’t, you know, like the idea that someone would choose to not have kids and and still have family.
M.B.: It just seems very foreign to a lot of folks. If you get divorced, that’s a failure. If you know, if you don’t get married, that’s a failure. Like just all these ways in which we are told we’re failing.
M.B.: People definitely feel that failure. But I think that’s in large part because we’ve all been socialized, if you’re in the United States. There’s this idea that the American dream is going to lead to happiness.
M.B.: And if our idea and if we think that our happiness is tied to this very specific and often unachievable life, then like we’re gonna be sad and we’re gonna feel like we’re not doing a good job and we’re going to be self-critical and all those things.
M.B.: But if we just look, you know, back a little bit farther in our history. And then, I mean, human history, not necessarily American history. Never mind the extended family. Like we often think of that as like, oh, grandma lives with you.
M.B.: I’m talking about like the way that we lived in community with each other and the interdependence of like a tribe right? That was what family looked like. You weren’t out there on your own trying to do anything you were really like with other folks trying to make your way in the world.
K.B.: I took a lot of comfort in the way that you write honestly about the limitations of marriage and partnership, because this is like, you know, a myth that we’re supposed to, we’re supposed to be completed by someone else. And then we find ourselves, you know, I don’t know if it’s just like life, but we find ourselves missing pieces. And sometimes because we just, because we lose so much along the way and we just can’t scaffold our own lives, but we find ourselves needier than maybe we want to be. And that like this vision of one single person that fixes our life is just it’s so insufficient.
M.B.: I don’t think we’re needier. Right? Or that I don’t think that we’re needy in a way that is like too much.
K.B.: Thank you for saying that.
M.B.: I think we need what we need.
K.B.: Thank you. Thank you. Can I put that as a “we need what we need” is now going on my wall as like a good slogan.
M.B.: All of our needs are legitimate. Now where we find them, right, is the question. Some of those needs we actually need to fulfill ourselves. Right? There are things that no other person can give to you. This is, and I’m just I’m like parroting my therapist, and then I, like what you’re saying is like the idea of marriage. Right. Again, kind of embedded in the American dream. A marriage is the creation of a whole from two halves. And those two halves are going to fulfill like all of these things for each other. Right. So first of all, I’m not half a person. I’m a whole ass person. And the idea that another person is going to be the person that you are attracted to and like have really good sex with the person that you’re going to be roommates with, the person you’re going to manage a household and finances with, the person you’re going to raise children with, the person who’s, you’re going to go on adventures and travel with, the person who’s going to be your best friend like that is a lot of things for one person to do for another person. I’m sorry. That’s not a thing. If, if we’re in, if we’re married. Right? And we’re monogamous, like we’re constantly trying to make this relationship be all of these things and then we’re deeply unsatisfied when it’s not.
M.B.: But I’m here to tell you, ya’ll, like I’m here to tell you that you need more than one person. You can’t get all of those things from one person.
K.B.: Yeah, yeah. I think one of the luckiest parts of having this podcast and being part of the sort of Everything Happens community is that most of the common ground that we share is that this this sort of model of self-made personhood that you’re describing has really failed us, either because of, you know, brokenness and bodies or relationships or people are in professions that sort of turn them inside out, but they’re on the other side of that kind of story of success. And you’ve done all this thinking about like the cost of individualism and especially white individualism, heterosexual individualism, perfect families and amazing suburban home individualism, and like one of the things you have a clear vision on is that like when you when you get locked into that model, people are caught in it in a kind of unbearable loneliness where they don’t then assemble the connections that sustain them.
M.B.: Just because of where I’ve seen the examples that I wanted to explore, like the people who I was going to talk to we’re not going to be straight white men.
M.B.: And then at some point, one of, somebody who I consider family, my friend Teddy, who is a straight white man, just like had an instinct that I should just like talk to a handful of straight white men and to see what happened and. Oh, my God. A lot of them talked about their, you know, the struggle to perform masculinity and to, like, be seen as strong and be seen as independent and how lonely that made them, especially when they felt like they were having a hard time. Right. That was the hardest time for them to reach out was when they were struggling.
K.B.: I got this letter last week from a woman who cares for her medically fragile kid. And she wrote something I don’t think I’ll ever forget. She wrote, I’m everyone’s inspiration and nobody’s friend. And I thought, you know, there is a strange and terrible exoticizing of the suffering of some peoples experiences and bodies and and who people show up for. I am wondering if you could read a gorgeous quote that you wrote about this?
M.B.: We are responsible for one another. That doesn’t mean we can heal someone or make them accountable though, they have to own a commitment to those things. But it does mean being there. It means not avoiding our people when they experience trauma, illness, violence or pain we find hard or scary. It means not abandoning them to their relentless pain and hurting. That was one of those things I wrote, like because I’m like, I’m we, right? Like, I need to hear that. We often think of relationship as being a like one on one exchange, like a one on one thing. My friend Mac, whose wife died. Part of what I saw in that is like, oh, you have a circle of people holding you. It’s not one person’s responsibility to take care. It really is like having a circle with, like, very wide arms that are not just connected to the person who’s grieving, but connected to each other.
M.B.: So we’re supporting each other in supporting somebody’s grief. So I think that was the other thing for me is making I was like, oh, I need to make sure that, like, if somebody if, you know, something’s going on with somebody who I love and they’re needing support, that I’m doing that in community with other people, not just me.
K.B.: Because you really mean community. I mean, I feel like people mean community. I’m using air quotes right now. Oh, I love community, I love other people. But you on this research project, you spoke to dozens of people on what made the good life and you came up with, I mean, you discovered this this richer account of why certain communities really have something to really teach us about interdependence. So what did you find?
M.B.: Yeah. And I think, like, I think it just now is using community is like a verb, right. It’s not just like a thing that exists, but the places where I have, you know, for a long time when I was not even really thinking about this work, but where I’ve seen the most kind of expansive and deep and connected and interdependent community and family are among the people who have been excluded from the American dream. So poor people, queer people, people with disabilities unhoused people, sex workers. And in order to survive racism and capitalism, right, and being being being being the victim of capitalism in order to survive gender discrimination, like all of those things, you really have to do that with other people. Right. If you’re going to make it, you really have to be in deep community with other people. That exclusion means that they have to build family community in ways that allow them to stay alive. Right?
K.B.: Communities you work with have had a much stronger vision of chosen family. So, like, what is that and why has it been so central?
M.B.: Family’s not just about biology, it’s also just about like who’s in your tribe, right? That’s such a common experience among black folks in the United States. We remade that way of doing family community for the circumstances that we were in enslavement in America. And that’s never left us. I mean, I know so many black folks who don’t find out until they’re adults that like, you know, Uncle Bob or like Aunt Viola, like are not their parents biological siblings. It’s like it’s like, you know, your mom’s best friend from high school, like is your auntie and you didn’t know that they didn’t grew up together.
K.B.: You have this beautiful story with your friend Mariah, where you realize that, like if we open up our vision of who belongs to us, that it it can lead to like a deeper sense of the way we’re really supposed to be responsible for each other.
M.B.: So Mariah was my daughter’s kindergarten and first grade teacher. I like immediately became a total fan of hers. When my daughter finished first grade, I actually, like, went to her and I was like, can we be friends? And will you be Stella’s auntie? And she said, yes, immediately. Mariah and I have a lot in common. We both were raised by our white mothers. We both had Jamaican fathers. I mean, she is. Yes, she is. She is my sister. Like we are. We are, you know, my daughters now fifteen so we’ve been a family for a long time. She has always been a fiercely independent person and she is a type one diabetic. And she largely had to manage her diabetes herself because she also had a sister who had special needs and her mom’s attention was really focused on taking care of her sister. Like the way that it showed up in our relationship, as we’d like be at a restaurant. She’d like, you know, pull out the, you know, her pump or whatever and like or check her blood sugar or whatever. But there was a point at which I was thinking about how when you’re married, right, your spouse is kind of the person who is like who’s going to handle your medical stuff. Right? If I go to the hospital, my husband, they’re going to tell my husband all the things and he gets to make decisions and blah, blah, blah. And I was just thinking about how many single people there are in America and how we don’t have a story for, like, what that’s supposed to look like and who’s supposed to take care of you if something happens. So I, I asked her, I was like, hey, what happens if you end up getting sick? And she was like, no one’s ever asked me that before. And again, I don’t think it’s because, like, the rest of our friends are assholes. I think it’s because we just don’t, we don’t have a we don’t think about that.
M.B.: So. So we made it made a plan and she she like wrote down all of her like, you know, the serial numbers for her devices and what kind they were and all of her medical information and her doctors and instructions on what to do if she had to be hospitalized. I know how to like, give her a shot of insulin. You know, I think just having that conversation just kind of created a little more room in our relationship for her to ask for support in a way that she hadn’t before. And for me to just feel like I need to insert myself into this person’s life because they’re family and I need to just, like, be up in her business. And then what she did, which was so like powerful is she actually like sent the document to not just me, but like a few other people, too. And now if she’s you know, if she feels like her blood sugars too low, she’ll text like a handful of us and just be like, hey, check in with me in like 20 minutes to make sure I’m not, like, you know, passed out.
K.B.: Yeah, yeah.
M.B.: And now, like, with Covid. So, I mean, I’m so grateful that we did that before this happened because, so because she’s diabetic and she’s also a cancer survivor. So she’s high risk in two ways. She already had this network of people to reach out to when all of this went down. So she could be like, hey, like here’s how I’m thinking about, you know, taking care of myself. And we’ve talked about what happens if she needs to go to hospital. She’s got a go bag. So if she needs to go like I know what I need to go get. And I think just having all of that figured out has just created this, we have this way of being in community with each other that didn’t exist before. And I think there’s something about being able to ask people for to show up in your life and asking people for help. That like that just creates intimacy because it lets us know each other more.
K.B.: Yeah. Yeah. Belonging really is that language of intimacy isn’t it. It’s like all in the details.
M.B.: In this, in right now. Right. Like in the middle of kind of both this cycle of police violence and a global pandemic, what I learned from so many people who I interviewed for the book is how to offer help in a way that doesn’t burden the person I’m offering, with like making another decision. So instead of what do you need? If I dropped off a meal, would that be helpful? Right. Like being specific with what, and part of it is about trusting our intuition about what we know about the people in our lives. Right. And like knowing about their circumstances and figuring out what would make them not even, and part of it is about also recognizing it’s not about what people need. Right. Like, I don’t need anybody to drop dinner off for me. Like I can give my kids another box of mac and cheese if like I really need to. It’s about like what would create ease in our lives? What would, what would lift a burden? Supporting people brings us so much joy. Right. Like there is a way in which I am restored and just feel, you know, it is not about like like the kind of a transactional thing with our friends. We’re like, oh, if I do this thing, then they’ll owe me, it’s not about earning points with your God. It is that like it just is a restorative thing that makes me feel like I’m part of my human family.
K.B.: Yes. Yeah. Yeah. And I think what feels so refreshing listening to you is it helps us create language that moves between the intimacy of these everyday acts like, hey, can you can you check in on me? To these much bigger like networks of belonging that we’re being called to. And like you are you’re fluent in, I feel like sorry to just make a linguistic metaphor. But like, I, I think you’re like you’re you’re really fluent in both languages like the, that very like the personalist intimacy of like local belonging. But this like also bigger web that we especially right now, this country is facing a reckoning. The funeral of George Floyd, who was killed by Minneapolis police officer, was yesterday. And the president has turned the military on the streets in the name of law and order. It’s a time of, surreal unrest and honesty. Your bilingualism is so helpful right now. How should it transform our vision of community in this time?
M.B.: Yeah. I’m being cautiously optimistic here. I think it is that there is a way in which folks have really recognized our shared humanity. And I think it just also just so outraged by the failure of our government to actually care for us collectively and a failure of our leaders to show up, to be, to be, to lead. And even in the you know, even in places where I feel like they you know, I’m in California and like our governor has comparatively like done a way better job than lots of other places. But like, there’s still a lot of failure there. So I think that is just the combination of all of those things has created a level of solidarity that I have not seen before. And, you know, I will I try to keep my petty: Where were you last times? Like private, because ultimately like, that’s what movement building is, right? It’s building something. And not everybody is going to start in the beginning being in the movement. Like I didn’t come out the womb, like in the movement, like it is a thing that you that you come to and we all come to it and are from, you know, in our own way. And often that way is gonna be personal. And then I think the other thing that like this this moment has made has just like laid bare so deeply is that our system I mean, our systems are functioning as they were made to function. Right. They were structured this way to not actually support us. And when our systems are not there for us, like all we have is each other. So, you know, the way that mutual aid groups like, you know, materialized like immediately is filling a gap that is left by our failed medical systems, our failed systems of everything.
K.B.: And our market approach to every grinding problem of universal suffering and injustice.
M.B.: Yes. So, like, I’m just I’m like, oh, we end up doing those things for each other, we’re not supposed to. And we need to like hold our leaders accountable. But like in the meantime, people are gonna make sure that other people are OK. So I feel like, you know, I feel like, you know, in this moment, I know my world has gotten like a lot smaller.
K.B.: Me too. Yeah.
M.B.: I’m really focused on the people who I am geographically close to, who I can, you know, drop meals off to and who I’m checking in with.
K.B.: And I think, too, I mean, I think one of the great gifts of this book. And it’s like you’re helping us set those three circles, which is like, you know, what’s mine to carry? Right? What’s mine to carry? What’s someone else’s to carry? And then what do we hold collectively? And you’ve given us more language for figuring out how that can be like this beautiful, dense, associational thing from chosen family to immediate community to like man nationally, solidarity, is the language of holding each other collectively. And I’m I am so grateful we got a chance to have this talk today.
M.B.: Me too, thank you so much.
K.B.: Community is too often a buzzword, an empty noun without action. But the community Mia describes isn’t community for community’s sake. This is the hard work of interdependence, figuring out where I end and you begin. Community as a verb. The work of belonging takes us all. As Mia writes, all the horrors we face today will only be solved if we understand that we are all in this together. We are most moved toward action by our relationships with others. But we aren’t all going to have relationships with people who are today, to paraphrase James Baldwin, paying a great price to raise our consciousness, forge a better America and save us all. Yet we need to show up anyway. We need to develop a sense of belonging in and to the world that tells us other people are ours to care for. And this active developing community may come through first grade teachers who become aunties and emergency contacts or supper clubs who aren’t afraid to approach taboo topics in politics and injustice, or through knowing your actual neighbors and figuring out how your vote sustains someone else’s future. This is the moment to feel the weight and the joy of belonging and how in both solidarity and friendship, in policy and in deed on a national level and in the people we check in on, we act like we are hopelessly, inextricably tied.
K.B.: This podcast wouldn’t be possible without the generosity of the Lilly Endowment. Huge, thank you to my team, Jessica Richie, Keith Weston, Harriet Putman and J.J. Dickinson. Don’t miss an episode. Be sure to subscribe to Everything Happens whereever you listen to podcasts and I’d love to hear from you. Find me online at katecbowler or at KateBower.com This is Everything Happens with me, Kate Bowler.