This week’s post is penned by my niece, Caroline Bringenberg, an LA-based Millennial activist who challenges me to think about the world I am leaving the next generation.
Growing up I remember hearing stories, at home and in history class, about America during WWII. We learned about the victory gardens, where families were encouraged to grow and eat their own food to conserve goods in the supply chain for our allies. We learned about women like Rosie the Riveter who stepped into the workplace, many for the first time, to keep industry afloat while the men were overseas. These are only two examples of the many ways that the U.S. government encouraged Americans to do their part by making sacrifices and altering their behavior for the greater good – defeating Nazi Germany.
Despite the horrors of the Second World War, this era and the following post-war period is often romanticized in American history. It wasn’t a perfect time—sexism and misogyny were rampant, racism went completely unchecked under Jim Crow—but Americans nonetheless abided by the idea that it was a priority to stand up to challenges united together as a nation, and that patriotism and loyalty to country transcended our differences.
Over the last six months, I’ve found myself reflecting on my understanding of the WWII era often. I feel very similarly about my role in the Coronavirus pandemic as I imagine those during WWII may have felt as they planted seeds in their victory gardens. I’m a middle class, white, millennial woman. I work in digital media, which means that my transition to remote work was simple and I likely won’t ever go back to a traditional office. My husband, an insurance underwriter, has also transitioned to permanent work-from-home. We don’t have children to care for, which means we’ve been lucky to avoid the stress around remote learning. Aside from our general anxieties around the state of the world, concerns about the future of the economy, and occasional double-booked Zoom meetings (which take a bit of coordinating, since we live in a small one-bedroom), the pandemic has been manageable for us to navigate.
As we know, this isn’t the case for millions of individuals and families in the U.S. Estimates show that 30 million Americans are facing joblessness, some of whom are close friends and peers. Those who are still employed are navigating remote learning for their children while also, in many cases, adjusting to a work-from-home schedule for the first time themselves. Eviction protections are running out in many states meaning that we are barreling towards an unprecedented housing crisis. We’re sending the lowest paid workers in our economy, like grocery store employees, teachers, factory workers, into the most at-risk environments with little more than a pat on the back.
American inequality is nothing new, especially along racial lines, though our income inequality has grown exceptionally stark in the past three decades. The Coronavirus pandemic has laid to bare the worst of these inequalities—those who were already struggling to get by are hanging by a thread, and those who were already doing well are doing better than ever before.
So what can those of us in the middle, like myself, do? We can take a page out of our history books. We can take it upon ourselves to do our part – make sacrifices and change our behavior for the greater good – even when the going gets tough. If we have the privilege of retaining employment while working remotely, we have a responsibility to our fellow Americans who don’t have those privileges to, at minimum, stay home and to wear a mask when out for essential activities. Even when it can feel isolating or boring – even when we feel gaslighted by those in other cities and states attending large events, or by our President telling us the virus is fake news.
What scares me is that staying home and wearing a mask is the minimum we should do, and yet we are divided over it. Every day when I open my Instagram page I’m flooded with images of my peers taking vacations to Mexico, gathering in groups, or posting maskless photos. If we can’t agree as a collective to do the minimum, how can we expect to get through this moment as a nation? Masks and social distancing shouldn’t be up for debate. We should expect more from each other—we should be participating in advocacy work to pressure the federal government on a sweeping stimulus bill that would aid frontline workers and keep renters afloat. We should be donating what we can to organizations helping families who lack home internet to make sure their children can attend classes. We should be educating ourselves on the ways that the virus is disproportionately impacting Black and brown communities and find ways to uplift these communities. We should be getting involved in our neighborhoods, meeting our neighbors, and asking how we can help those around us make ends meet. We should stay up-to-date on the latest science and practice media literacy in filtering out the fake news and the noise. We should dedicate our time, our energy, and our empathy to the cause in the same way our ancestors uprooted their lives for men overseas they had never met. To forego these temporary behavior changes while others suffer all around us is categorically un-American.
We’ve progressed as a country in many ways since WWII, but we’ve lost the collectivist patriotism along the way. This pandemic, six months in (and likely, unfortunately, six months from now, at the rate we’re going) requires us to look out for our fellow Americans—our grocery store clerks, the people we pass on the street, the person who delivers our mail—with a collective conscience. Not because we know them, not because we agree with them, but because we have to do our part through our empathy for all.
If you’re able, do the brave and patriotic thing: plant your victory garden seeds in the safe haven of your home. We can do it!