• Palma Joy Strand

The Way Out of Tragedy

In Greek tragedy, irony describes a situation in which the significance of a character’s actions or words is known to the audience but not to the character.

What I heard in the interview, in contrast, struck me as the opposite of irony – a situation in which the significance of a character’s actions or words is known to the character but not to the audience.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, we were living in a world in which low-paid, low-status workers were cast in supporting roles – bit parts. Many people looked right past them, unaware of them, their work, or how their work is the foundation on which our entire society rests. They were, in a way, part of the scenery.

Now these supporting actors have moved toward center stage. The media have been zooming in to highlight the personal stories of grocery store clerks, home health aides, barbers and hairdressers, delivery folks, manicurists, people in the post office– whether they have been deemed essential or non-essential. We are hearing these stories, listening to these voices.

Some media have also been zooming out to take in a bigger picture – to tell a larger story about these workers:

This larger story reveals that the individual story of the Whole Foods grocery worker isn’t unique:

- Many workers are not provided safety gear or protected by workplace precautions.

- Many workers do not have benefits because companies have taken people off the full-time payroll and moved to part-time staff or contracting for outside services, but only full-time employees are eligible for benefits.

- Many workers do not even earn minimum wage, and so they cannot afford to shelter-in-place; if their work is essential and needs to be done, they do it.

In addition, many essential workers are people of color, which contributes to high rates of being exposed to, contracting, and falling sick or dying from COVID-19.

This larger story is about systems – our economic and social systems. This story reveals that people who are economically precarious are often in that situation because the way our economy is structured allows – in fact encourages – companies to shift funds from workers to shareholders. Companies do not need to pay people well or provide them benefits such as leave or health insurance. And the fact that many people who are economically precarious are people of color simply continues a longstanding national practice.

The individual stories and the systems story we are hearing in the media enable us to see people who have been mostly invisible. And there is an outpouring of gratitude, of connection, of support.

Through Civity’s work, we have seen how the practice of being in relationship and putting difference on the table is transformative for individual local leaders. Hearing stories creates a shared sense of belonging across and through difference that gives people permission to be relational, to see people not ordinarily seen. This relational seeing moves people to transform their decisions and actions – how they operate in their spheres of influence.

The current pandemic moment is this civity work writ large. The stories of individuals we often do not see are being shared widely. The opportunities to hear and listen to those stories – and understand how those stories are connected to the collective systems story – abound.

When stories are known to some and not to others, lines of communication are closed off, and potential relationships unborn. This is tragedy.

The practice of hearing the stories of people who are different enables us to see people. No longer part of the scenery, they become instead part of the community and our shared humanity.

They belong.

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