This morning, the third day of Kwanzaa, my teen and I discussed today’s principle of Ujima – Collective Work and Responsibility. They immediately flashed to the utter disbelief they and many youth experienced as the conflict on preventative measures to address the pandemic unfolded. Wearing a mask and social distancing, for them, seemed the most basic action we could take for collective responsibility. Even as someone who prizes their individuality and personal choice, they were shocked that folks would choose to prioritize individual well-being over the collective well-being of the community.
The pandemic has raised awareness of the need for everyone to come together and take action to support all members of our communities. Depending on your access to resources, you may be stunned at the extent of the problems, too easily ignored by many, of housing and food insecurity and unequal access to health care, education, and technology that are now starkly evident. Ujima invites us to see that regardless of our personal resources and comfort, we cannot succeed – as people of African descent, as humans of any background – if any member of our community is suffering. It’s been especially heart-breaking to see how the systemic inequities that so many BIPOC folks face have had cascading impacts during the pandemic. As we think of how to live the principles of Ujima in the face of this, we need to ask ourselves – who is doing the work and bearing the responsibility for making sure our society continues to function? Are we truly holding our share? What can we do so that the burden of the pandemic is shared more equally by all of us? Many communities banded together to ensure that resources of all kinds were directed towards those who needed it. Those who had food and material goods shared their resources with families who did not. Some folks who did not have material resources to donate instead gave of their time and energy – tracking those with need and setting up delivery systems to get resources to them, caring for the children of those who had to work, making meals for elders who were no longer able to rely on organizational deliveries, getting school supplies to youth studying at home.
The principle of collective work and responsibility is not restricted only to actions that attend to the basic needs of a community. Ujima also applies to the work that must happen in communities in order to regain our self-determination, pride, and live to our full potential. The Black Lives Matter movement, and countless other social and political endeavors, are made up of millions of people, each contributing what they can for the benefit of the community. Each person who let their voice be heard calling for action, each person who marched, or supported marchers, each person who participated in efforts to prevent the disenfranchisement of communities of color were practicing Ujima. My teen applied this fall for an internship that sought to train youth to speak up and call for political action about the impact of the criminal justice system. When I saw their fierce interest in supporting that work, despite them not being directly impacted by the system themselves, I celebrated that they were embodying an important aspect of Ujima. When I see Black folks who live in comfortable settings, secure in their vote, putting in countless hours to get the vote out in disenfranchised communities, we are practicing Ujima.
This year, I’ve struggled with the tension of how to practice Ujima while still attending to my safety. While sharing economic resources is one strategy, I longed to be out there marching for the safety of my community. I tried getting on the list of workers who would be reassigned to help in the shelters, serving those in our communities who were at grave risk of getting COVID. I was not called to serve in the shelter because my medical conditions put me at high risk for complications of COVID. And as time passed, I realized that Ujima is, indeed, a collective effort. It’s about each of us rigorously looking at where we can step up and do more, not for our own benefit but for the collective good. I might not be able to work in the shelters myself, but I could offer empathy to my co-workers who were reassigned, helping to resource them emotionally for the work. I might not march myself, but I could write, speak up, raise my voice in other ways. I could write postcards, make phone calls, do anything to help get the vote out to increase the likelihood that the political system could work for my people. I realized that if everyone did what they could, holding on the vision of the collective good, change can happen.
When this pandemic year has passed and social distancing measures end, I imagine my attention may be drawn to family and friends who I’ve missed connecting with for so long. I want to remember that even without the pandemic, the urgency it highlighted still exists. I want to ask myself – what does my community need? What direct work can I do? What else can I do to support those doing necessary work that I cannot do? As you reflect on your year, ask yourself – what actions have I taken to further the well-being of my community? And as you look into next year, what is one direct action and one supportive action you can take?
Read my reflections for the 7 days of Kwanzaa
Day 1: Umoja – Unity
Day 2: Kujichagulia – Self Determination
Day 3: Ujima – Collective Work & Responsibility
Day 4: Ujamaa – Cooperative Economics
Day 5: Nia – Purpose
Day 6: Kuumba – Creativity
Day 7: Imani – Faith