Marches and Masks: Organizing and Community Engagement Amid a Pandemic

It will take years for the world to come to terms with the sheer volume of loss the Covid-19 pandemic has caused. Lives, income, relationships, physical touch, bodily and emotional safety, the freedom to move through public spaces unfettered, the observation of cultural and religious traditions, and our accustomed way of life have all been altered, or are forever gone. The death toll alone is staggering; comparisons have been made to the numbers of casualties seen in wars and conflicts of recent memory, in addition to other illnesses that have rocked society in the past. It is startling that we have had no national or global call to grieve. For me though, the most demoralizing loss is a sense of decency between people; the deterioration of the illusion of a common good and the stark illumination of the deep fissures in our society.

I am first and foremost, a woman of color living in America. I am a community organizer and educator. The existence of gross inequality, discrimination and disregard for human life is not news to me. What is new though, is the depth with which this pandemic has made us feel the divisions among our people and their subsequent consequences. In my role as a community organizer, my response to the pandemic — following an initial period of shock — has been a desire to take action. But with shelter-in-place orders, the inability to gather in physical space, among other barriers to organizing as we know it, I have had to reassess my relationship to work in my community. Through the need to innovate in the face of the pandemic, I have found ways to lend a hand while participating in the necessary social distancing measures encouraged by experts in public health. Too, I have had the opportunity to think more deeply about what it means to be a helpful community member while also honoring my need to grieve.

When the news first broke that Covid-19 had gained a foothold in our communities, I was mad, sad, confused, and listless. Mad, because our elected officials had downplayed the gravity of the Coronavirus. One of my senators, Richard Burr (R-NC), participated in insider stock trading upon receiving information about the impending misfortune. In effect, Senator Burr profited off of the suffering of his constituents while intentionally withholding important information about what was to come. The result has been hotspots of Coronavirus outbreaks among the poorest and most vulnerable citizens. I was sad, because the loss of life following the outbreak was and is inevitable. The evidence that the disease is disproportionately affecting black and brown people left me heartbroken. I felt confused as I consumed information from a variety of media outlets. Like many, I saw banter escalate as to whether the threat of Covid-19 was worth taking what some deem to be extreme precautions. I was listless because I felt useless when contemplating what I could actually do to help. Following a period of days where getting out of bed proved an incredible task, I sprang into action.

At first, my activities felt frenetic; I donated small sums of money to countless organizations. Fires, everywhere! I participated in zoom meetings with other organizers to plan actions and initiatives, many of which never came to pass. I became pen pals with people sheltering in isolation. I boycotted certain products. I wrote to and called my representatives. Looking back, this frenzy was an anxiety response, which often naturally follows periods of depression for me. In mid-April, I initiated a “March for Democracy and the End of Injustice (Online)”through the local civics group I founded in 2016 called, Small and Mighty Acts (SAMA). Protesting the inequities laid bare by the pandemic, this was the first event I had organized since discontinuing meetings in December to give birth to my daughter. The event included an online sign-making party and an all-day virtual march where speakers hosted Facebook Live discussions on a variety of topics from the role of public health professionals in fighting the virus to the affect of the pandemic on black, brown, queer, and trans communities. People were invited to post pictures of themselves with their protest signs and to share the Facebook Live links. The march was a success and it was the first time I felt effectual since the pandemic began. No, it didn’t accomplish the kind of spectacle (a tried and true organizing tactic) that a physical march would have, but it was the dose of hope I needed to keep going.

The day before the march, I got out my sewing machine and quickly stitched a mask to wear in my protest pictures. After weeks in the house, I ventured out to run errands. I was dismayed to see hardly anyone wearing a mask. In that moment, I experienced a flash of clarity. Masks and other protective equipment were and remain in short supply. I could make masks for my friends and family and that would be something small I could do to contribute to our efforts to quell the virus and see the days beyond the pandemic. I started making masks that very day. The end of April came, with an announcement that the state of North Carolina would move to stage one of the state reopening plan on May 8th.

Protest photo for SAMA’s March for Democracy and the End of Injustice, April 2020.

Mask, Mask, Revolution” was the next SAMA initiative I decided to focus on. The premise was simple: make masks, wear masks, practice radical community care. If everyone in our mountain town of Boone, North Carolina had a mask, we could help the state move toward zero new cases of Covid-19. I asked the community for help. On a Monday morning, I parked in a vacant lot on our university campus and received bags and bags of masks from sewers across our community. Masks from this stockpile and stockpiles to follow were donated to the High Country Area Agency on Aging where eldercare workers and their clients could be more protected in their interactions. Donations were also made to OASIS, a family service provider, as well as to the staff at a local child care center. Many of the masks have been used to stock three community mask stations now situated at local businesses. Take a mask, leave a mask. Though the masks go quickly, I have worked to keep the stations stocked for a month now, and I plan to continue.

The Littel Free Pantry at Bluebird Exchange in Boone, NC acts as one of the community mask stations.

Though successful, Mask, Mask, Revolution has been imperfect: not everyone who needs a mask has one. I have received messages that the mask stations run out of masks before folks can get them. Essential workers need more masks than we can make. There has been an outbreak of Covid-19 among construction workers in town and as I pass by their worksites, I see throngs of workers in close proximity with no masks. I have been sewing like a fiend. This means that my dining room table is unavailable for use, that I have had a lot of late nights so that I can sew without having to tend to the baby. Time I could be spending with my husband is spent sewing. I’ve even given a bit of blood to the cause — boy those straight pins are sharp! Some days, I choose not to sew. I’m still mad and sad. I am allowing myself to sit with those feelings, and to cry often. Requests for masks keep arriving to my inbox. I’m trying to protect my time and be brutally honest with people about what I can accomplish in a day, a week, in two weeks’ time. I’m taking time to disconnect from the news cycle. I’m trying to keep in focus that my choice to make masks is made possible from a place of privilege. I am not an essential worker. I am food and housing stable. And when I make it a point to, I can perform self-care in ways that go beyond my basic needs.

These experiences bring a few reminders to light. Maybe they will help you on your civic journey, as well:

1. Every action taken in the name of civics requires a sacrifice. The scope of the sacrifice may help you to decide whether an action or stance is right for you now, or ever.

2. Not everyone will understand or agree with your work in the world. Be guided by your moral compass, which you hone through showing up to your civic practice each day.

3. You have to work in alignment with your limitations and capacities. Every person has an individual level of energy, a specific set of skills, and a threshold for bullshit. Know your stats.

4. Do nothing today. Do something tomorrow. It’s ok to take breaks. Hopefully, when you bow out to rest, someone else will be there to work in your place. You can do the same for others when they need rest.

5. Not asking for help is not an option.

6. Sometimes, attending to your own wellbeing and/or the wellbeing of your family is more important than attending to the problems of the world. You and your kin are important pieces of the societal fabric and the world and its problems need you at full capacity.

7. Allow yourself to feel your feelings. Organizers are not automatons. When we hold in our feelings, our bodies, minds, and communities suffer.

8. Do what you can, be proud of what you can do. If all of us do what we can, together, we accomplish big things.

Working at the intersections of movement, words, digital space, contemplative practice, community. University prof, community organizer, film festival curator.