In trying times, Mr. Rogers taught us to look for the helpers. I’m seeing much of this online. While I very much appreciate the importance of uplifting goodness in these circumstances, I also believe there is a critical need to look for the underlying problems that are surfacing. The cankers. The substances bubbling up. There are obvious and hidden signs of social disfunction that need to be acknowledged in order to be more fully addressed.

What follows are examples of concerning things I am seeing inside my circle of friends, family, and neighbors. I bring these up because I believe we can self-correct as we go if we are aware of the issues. Just like steering a bike or car, there are always imbalances and we must make consistent micro-corrections along the way. Just like in the body where the quadriceps, hamstrings and gluteus maximus do the majority of the work to move you forward, the stabilizer muscles keep you from collapsing inward or outward.

As you read these short sharings, think about the micro-corrections we can make or the stabilizing muscles we can activate. I am inspired by the work of Guy and Heidi Burgess of Beyond Intractability, who are focusing their attention on a series of major challenges during the Coronavirus crisis including the need to: 

  • Break down enemy images and rehumanize adversaries;
  • Reframe politics away from us-vs-them and toward we-are-all-in-this-together; 
  • Obtain and sensibly use trustworthy analyses of complex problems and potential solutions;
  • Foster mutual respect, tolerance, and coexistence as the key to living with moral differences; and
  • Expose and delegitimize targeted social-media-based political propaganda. 

Relief efforts have not all been suitable for specific communities.

“We have found that a large population of Rohingya refugees now live in the Devon area [West Ridge, the Chicago neighborhood that is home to our Dance Peace initiative with refugee families] … and are unfortunately unaware of how to protect themselves. Along with other new immigrants, low income families and the Orthodox Jewish communities, all are under prepared and help hasn’t been easily available that’s suitable for them,” Essam Choudhary explains.

To address this, West Ridge residents have organized a number of importance neighbor-to-neighbor response efforts. For example, the Islamic Circle of North America has donated $70,000 in groceries and family aid to area residents, coordinated a large food distribution effort, and set up a free healthcare hotline with an understanding of Muslim practices and available translations. The hotline number is 630-444-7411.

Information is not getting out.

Last week, a student in our program messaged me on WhatsApp to ask why no one has been picking her up for dance class. I was surprised by this, assuming the situation was clear for everyone. This made me realize that basic information and resources are not getting out to some of our most vulnerable neighbors. Her family speaks Afar; if you know a translator, please let me know. Some other refugee families have had their phones turned off and there has been no way of contacting them.

We are crossing our fingers that the case managers have been able to do safe home visits and been able to have basic services restored for every single family. The mutual aid societies and refugee/immigrant advocacy and service organizations are doing incredible work but are also struggling to keep afloat and pay their own staff.

There is much blame and misunderstanding.

Netflix’s “Unorthodox”

West Ridge was reported to have the highest number of COVID-19 cases in the city. When I went online and asked if there is any collective effort to get those residents masks and gloves, someone responded with, “The Orthodox Jewish folks would never be interested in getting masks from outside, IMHO, as they are a pretty closed group.” I am seeing other examples of misunderstanding, contempt, and even blame. Unorthodox on Netflix is not helping.

Perhaps that Purim celebration did contribute to a spread of the disease, but local Orthodox Jewish leaders are doing many right things, including grocery delivery, emergency funds, and this video communicating the importance of distancing during Pesach. My Orthodox Jewish friends, students and colleagues are all taking necessary precautions. For the high school’s Erev Shira performance of “Annie” in Mid-March right before the shelter-in-place order, my collaborators worked directly with the local health officials to make sure it was as safe as possible.

Migrants, left with few options, may be overstaying visas.

An issue that hadn’t occurred to me until a friend reached out to me for help is employment authorizations that are ending during this COVID-19 crisis. My friend reached out to me for help. She is in a panic. She has been in the country working, contributing to society as an artist, and paying taxes for 8.5 years but her employment authorization ends in July and no one is hiring right now, especially arts organizations and employers willing to sponsor migrant workers.

Advocates are urging lawmakers to automatically extend employment authorizations for 6-12 months. Undocumented immigrants and migrant laborers are suffering during this crisis, left out of most relief efforts. If we don’t extend employment authorizations, many migrants like my friend may find themselves in situations where they overstay their visas and break the law, joining the plight of undocumented immigrants.

Divorced families are deepening their wounds.

While some divorced couples such as Demi and Bruce, are living the quarantine together in one household, in matching pajamas, other couples are facing incredibly tense times of disagreement and legal battle. One local mother, a friend of mine, is fighting her ex in an attempt to prevent the kids from having to move from home-to-home on alternating weekends. She could be in contempt of judge’s orders if she keeps the kids at home. It is a painful and currently unresolved story.

Our friends and neighbors residing in shelters and public housing are in danger. And Black citizens are dying.

Last week, I saw a friend of Facebook asking for prayers for her and the other residents of Marshall Field Garden Apartments, just a couple blocks away from my home in Old Town. My heart sank with thoughts to what could have happened. It turned out that three residents had died in one day. It’s unclear if they were COVID-19 related. In any case, it’s devastating, especially for the children and families who live there.

Today on average, a Chicago public housing development is made up of: 70% African-American, 27% Latino, and 3% White and Other. I have been working alongside these neighbors for a few years now, and I believe that at least 90% of the residents identify as Black or African American. In Chicago, it has been reported that 70% of the COVID-19 deaths have been our Black neighbors and friends who have passed. The fear is unimaginable. The inequities are sickening. We at Dance Peace have donated gloves & masks are collaborating with partners at Art on Sedgwick to create a resource of at-home arts experiences for these families and other neighbors. But so much more critical support and social justice work are needed.

Regarding our fellow citizens of all races/ethnicities who are living in other dense circumstances, the reports of Coronavirus outbreaks are heartbreaking: 37 undocumented immigrant children in one of Heartland Alliance’s Chicago facilities, 400 Cook County Jail inmates and 181 Cook County Jail employees, 12 people inside one homeless shelter…. There has been a few Band-Aid measures for our neighbors and friends facing domestic abuse and needing a ride to shelter, and for those needing emergency or transitional housing. And facilities are trying their best with limited resources and public empathy.

Farmers are struggling.

An associate of mine recently shared that, “Food security challenges are starting to crop up, in countries in sub-Saharan Africa, with farmers being unable to refund for planting since lack of buying power from the population of their current produce.” More locally, a friend who works for a certified organic, zero carbon footprint farm in Wisconsin has spoken to the exhaustion and fears they feel alongside the wish that they could provide for families-in-need rather than reacting to market pressures.

Trump supporters’ demands are becoming more flagrantly militant and commonplace.

The images from the anti-Whitmer, anti-Quarantine protest by Trump supporters in Lansing, MI made my stomach churn. Michigan is my homestate and home to my entire family. Most of my family are essential workers as gas station employees, drivers, auxiliary staff in senior living centers, construction workers, healthcare providers, etc.

While some of my friends are posting memes expressing what they see as the inconsistencies and hypocrisies of government, I am sitting here frightened that my family doesn’t have protective gear while their fellow Michiganders are taking risks. For me, self-regulation and freedoms needs to be in careful balance with empathy and shared, common-good goals. Temporary restrictions are sometimes necessary. I’m seeing that several friends disagree on this, and I fear these disagreements will only heighten as the election gets closer.