By Mia Birdsong
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Our stories of family and relationships are deeply layered. They are sources of love, care, and inspiration. They are also sources of pain, trauma, and rejection. They are intimate, personal, and revealing. People’s willingness to share their stories with me for this book is courageous and humbling. Their openness and truth telling is the heart of How We Show Up. Understandably, many of them asked me keep their identities between us. Some of the names and details of people’s lives have been changed.
Telling other people’s stories, particularly when they are folks whose stories often get mistold or erased, comes with tremendous responsibility. I do my best to do it well, accurately, and with care, knowing that I’m learning along the way. Thank you to the people who have helped me move further along by directly or indirectly educating me.
IN LATE 2018, my mentor Akaya Windwood convened a retreat of about two dozen women of color to contemplate what she called the New Universal, something she and I had started talking about the year before. I had been exploring (and continue to explore) Black women’s culture of leadership as an antidote to the damage wrought by the dominance of patriarchy and white supremacy. It’s overly binary—Black women versus patriarchy and white supremacy—but was a simple starting point. Akaya expanded it to include women of color more broadly. New Universal is, in part, about redefining what leadership needs to be for us to create a world that is interdependent, generative, and loving. Her invitation was to come together with “like-minded, like-hearted sisters who are dreaming of a world that celebrates, understands, and cherishes our wisdom… gathering to create space that is emergent, unstructured, and designed to evoke the best in each of us.”
Akaya is a master facilitator, brilliant leader, and believer in infinite possibility. She chose each of the women who attended the four-day gathering, and applied what she calls a “Wise Fools” structure (no agenda or clear outcomes, but an invitation to embrace a “beginner’s mind”). I picked up my friend Aisha from the San Francisco Airport and headed north to Petaluma, where the retreat was taking place. On the way, we both admitted our skepticism about this retreat. It seemed like a lot right before the holidays when we both had a million things to take care of. But we were looking at it as an opportunity to spend some time with great folks and have extended solitude to check things off our to-do lists. We agreed that the only reason we’d said yes is because we love and trust Akaya, who is renowned for her ability to develop leaders and her commitment to a just global community infused with purpose and delight. Both of us have been supported, shaped, and encouraged to stand more powerfully in our strengths because of her mentorship. Neither of us could give our husbands any explanation for what we were doing other than when Akaya asks us to do something, we do it. In fact, all Aisha had in her calendar to block out the four days was “Akaya said.”
Of course, we were smart to listen to her. What we experienced was extraordinary. Akaya brought all of us together in the mornings and evenings so we could get to know one another and share whatever was on our mind, punctuated with brief free-flowing sermons from her. With little guidance other than “don’t do anything you do not fucking want to do,” we practiced world making. In the space of four days, we created a culture that was safe, curious, joyful, caring, and generous. We decorated cookies and went for long walks. We discussed our wildest dreams and unspoken desires. We laughed—a lot. We talked—a lot. We cried, sang, and disagreed. We soaked up wisdom, love, and joy in one other’s presence.
For sure, it was time out of our regular lives, and there was a suspension of the labor and attention daily life requires. The retreat center provided our food and shelter. We did not have to tend to the needs of children or elders or anyone else. There were no threats to our well-being that we needed to defend against or navigate. We didn’t spend enough time together or get close enough to have any serious conflict. But with very little effort we stepped out of the demands and constraints—external and internal—of our modern lives. We dispensed with the constant rushing and linear ordering of hours and days. We stepped away from the sense that everything from time to money to food to space will run out at any second. We let go of the desire to be right, the fight to be seen and heard, the race toward better and more. We lingered, we listened, we inquired, we wondered. Our rhythm was not driving and relentless, but continually transforming and spacious. We had time to enjoy and learn, to rest and reflect, and to offer and receive care and consideration from one another.
When I returned home, I felt full and inspired by the people I’d met or reconnected with, and encouraged by what we’d done together. I was also keenly aware of the absence of the world we’d made. It was quite clear to me that if the broader culture was closer to a version of what we’d made, everyone would be better off—not just women of color, but everyone. And it made me a little heartbroken to be newly aware of what’s possible but absent from the world I regularly live in. For sure, I have bits of it. I have circles of women I gather with regularly. I have taken steps to remove myself from contexts that demand rushing and vying for space to be seen and heard. I am breathing more, challenging my tendency to consume, and encouraging myself to hold abundance in my mind and heart when I’m feeling the panic of scarcity.
But I want more of the world we built—one where we feel seen and accepted, where we feel like we have enough of what we need and can ask for what we want, where we love up and lean on each other. I want to bring the culture of the New Universal into my life and the lives of my loved ones, and ultimately all of us.
James Baldwin wrote, “The place in which I’ll fit will not exist until I make it.”1 We all seek belonging, and for very few of us, even the most hermitic, is that place completely separate from others. That means it’s something we must build together. As a politically radical Black woman and a curious person, I am committed to living the most liberated life I can with those around me. And I’m not interested in having to step out of my daily life to have it or in creating a separate place in isolation from the rest of the world—that leaves too many people behind. We have to make it where we live.
1. Claudia Roth Pierpont, “Another Country,” New Yorker, February 2, 2009, https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2009/02/09/another-country.
When Failure Leads Us Home
The Trap of the American Dream
A country is only as strong as the people who make it up and the country turns into what the people want it to become.1
THE AMERICAN DREAM is both an illusion and an aspiration. It is a false promise and real potential. It is a jumble of contradictions. The Founding Fathers wrote powerfully about freedom and self-governance while inhabiting stolen land, enslaving people, and excluding most of the population from participating in that self-governance. Today, America is a place where a Black man can be elected president by people who would not hesitate to call the cops on a Black person picking up trash outside their own house, barbecuing in a park, or napping in a dorm. It’s a country where we celebrate the extravagance of the superrich collecting cars they will never drive and buying mansions for their horses while witnessing whole communities of people living outdoors in tent cities because the cost of housing is unreachably high.
While the American Dream has never been an option for most members of some communities—queer folks, unmarried adults, Black folks, people who grow up poor, just to name a few—it’s also overpromised on the satisfaction, contentment, and happiness it delivers to people who do get their piece of it. The people winning at the American Dream are some disconnected, unsatisfied, lonely people.
The American Dream’s narrowly defined paths to happiness and success rely on an acceptance of prescribed roles, and a lot of accumulation and exhibition. The quintessential “self-made man” (and it is almost always a man) is self-sufficient, confident, stoic, righteously industrious, performatively heterosexual, and powerful. His success is signified through acquisition—home ownership, marriage, and children—and display of taste and things—craft beer and Courvoisier, Teslas and big trucks, bespoke suits and I-don’t-care CEO hoodies. On the surface, it looks like that idea has evolved some. We have our Beyoncés, Baracks, and Buttigiegs. But that doesn’t mean the American Dream has become liberated from its origins or that its promise of freedom is more free. It just means more of us are permitted entry to the club if we do the double duty of conforming to its standards and continuing to meet the ones set for us—women must lean in, queer couples must get married, people of color must be master code-switchers.
The American Dream remains defined by whiteness and masculinity, no matter who occupies the role; our most rewarded and celebrated leaders, even if they are not straight white men, exemplify these standards. And because it is held up as the ideal we should all want to achieve, we’ve all been socialized to reach for it. Perhaps most damaging, it includes a toxic individualism that creates barriers to deep connection and intimacy. When we are oriented toward doing it ourselves and getting ours, we cut ourselves off from the kinds of relationships that can only be built when we allow ourselves to be open and generous.
My work sits at the intersection of race, gender, and class, and has a particular focus on family. My advocacy and activism through organizations like the Economic Security Project, Family Story, and the Family Independence Initiative, and think tanks like the Aspen Institute and New America point toward reframing our understanding of how we achieve the “good life” and who we live it with. In order to be able to tell a reimagined story of what should matter when it comes to family in the United States, I have studied and scrutinized our most accepted versions of “good” and “bad” families. Family holds a place of honor in the American Dream—a “good family” has some of the status of a successful career, but with the added weight of morality and virtue. By American Dream standards, a “good family” is an insular, nuclear family comprising a legally married man and woman raising biological children. This family is self-sufficient—and as such, functions as an independent unit. It’s toxic individualism, but in family-unit form. Despite adjustments that have made a little room for same-sex partners who conform to a heteronormative standard, Black people who can live up to a white standard of respectability, and women who do paid labor in addition to the unpaid labor they already shoulder, the model is basically the same. Any deviation from the model is seen as second best or underachieving. Adoption is something you do after pregnancy doesn’t work out. Being a single parent only happens when you can’t keep or find a partner. Divorce is a failure. A rental is where you live until you’ve gotten your down payment together. Unmarried couples are asked, “When are you getting married?” We may understand why a couple does not have children, but somehow being child-free confers a lack of completion of, and commitment to, family. Married couples without kids, particularly women, are regularly asked, “When are you going to have kids?” And while a woman might not be considered a failure as a human being if she never marries, she’s still seen as a bit sad.
It’s not just those of us who have families at or near the top of the hierarchy who hold these perspectives. We all internalize cultural norms, including the people whose lives are belittled or disregarded because of those standards. And we often do see our choices through the lens of society’s judgment because we are not separate from society. Even if we intellectually understand the double standards and antiquated values underlying those norms, our heart and gut doesn’t always evolve at the same pace. Hell, I have been studying and thinking about all of this for more than two decades and I still catch myself upholding some old story about love, happiness, or success.
Without accessible, celebrated models of what happiness, purpose, connection, and love look like outside the American Dream model, we are pulled in toward it. I feel this tugging all the time. I’ve achieved just enough of the American Dream that sometimes it has me thinking, Maybe, just maybe it is for me. Just maybe its security and sparkle are real. Deviating from the beautifully packaged path can seem reckless and even arrogant. I mean, I have not just myself to consider, but my husband and kids as well. Who the hell am I to question this reward? Sometimes I just want to ignore all the obvious holes in the story, the places where the lies show through the façade, and just let the current take me.
There is a version of my story that makes it easy to hold me up as a poster child of the promise of the American Dream. But the reality has more nuance and is, frankly, a more beautiful truth. I am the only child of an only child on my mother’s side. I am a first-generation American on my daddy’s side. I am the child of divorce, raised by a single mom. I was poor to working class as a kid. I left home at eighteen and eventually made my way west like colonizing pilgrims, like hopeful fame-seekers, like Black refugees of the Great Migration. I found my American Dream in Oakland, California.
I don’t remember as a young child ever wanting to be married to a man, raising children. As a teenager, I remember clearly that I didn’t want children—I did not like them. I don’t remember ever wanting the house, the car, the dog, the career. I remember those Enjoli commercials with the career woman leaning in pre–Sheryl Sandberg—acquiring literal and figurative bacon without emasculating her husband (and smelling lovely the whole time, apparently). I don’t know if I didn’t think those things were for me, or I truly didn’t want them. But one morning, the summer I was twenty-seven, I woke up and as I looked at the ceiling beams above me, I felt both an emotional and physical urge to be a mother. It was like a switch had been flipped and I was filled with a longing that had weight. It felt like falling in love and heartbreak at the same time.
My dream of motherhood didn’t shift my idea of family toward the nuclear. It didn’t really occur to me to do it with a partner. I was raised by a single mother, but maybe more than that, I am very much an only child and the idea of having to make parenting decisions with another person was unappealing to me. In deciding on pregnancy versus adoption, I chose the latter because sperm cost money. I eventually began readying myself to become a foster-adopt parent. I researched my options, questioned social workers, reviewed forms and pamphlets, did some vague budgeting, and began looking for the kind of housing that the system requires foster parents to have.
And then I met Nino. When I tell this part of our story, I usually say he ruined my plans. I knew within days of meeting him that I would marry him and that complicated my adoption plan and messed up my timeline. But, really he helped me realize something much fuller than I had imagined for myself. I am still sometimes surprised to find myself here living this seemingly quintessential American Dream. We’ve been married since 2005. We have two biological kids—a girl and a boy. We are entrepreneurs. We own our home. We make enough money to pay for gym memberships, tutors, and the occasional vacation.
But, from the beginning of our lives together, I knew that maintaining and continuing to develop my chosen family and my community was not only how I would get my needs met, but how my marriage and my kids would be supported. Ours is not the insular, self-sufficient nuclear family. We have created some of the sense of safety, belonging, and care we all need—not just with the four of us, but with others. Our family is made up of chosen, adopted, and biological aunties, grandparents, siblings, uncles, and cousins. Further, we have a community of friends and neighbors that provide both safety net and spring board—support when things are hard, and celebration when things are especially good. We, in turn, provide those things for them.
All that said, it is hard and not quite enough. I struggle with the cultural push toward insularity and self-reliance. I suffer from the inertia of screens and the ennui of stuff. I indulge in the brief hit of dopamine comfort that comes from online shopping (the kitchen gadgets, the houseplants, the skincare products). I drink wine to unwind. I sip from the warm cup of promised safety and comfort the American Dream serves up even though I know it’s a lie. The closer I get to the mirage of security and achievement and the more trappings of capitalism I acquire, the harder it is to resist.
But I do have examples to reach for when I find myself floundering. Growing up, I had models of how to do family and community in ways that are expansive, that provide safety and security through love and commitment, not money and alarm systems. I had sketches of blueprints that showed me how family can be built, not just from blood and law, but shared experience and values, from love that looks like a million things.
My mother, an only child, was orphaned at a young age. What little family she did have disowned her when she married my father (she is a white woman from Macon, Georgia; he was a Black man from Jamaica). My parents split up when I was three. My dad moved a few states away to go to law school and the rest of his family was in Jamaica or Canada. I saw him and them once or twice a year and regularly talked with my dad on the phone, but in terms of consistent, present support, we were without family. So, my mom patched together community for us. I remember a Thanksgiving at her English professor’s home and a week living with friends when my mom had knee surgery. I had a trio of aunties—Melanie, Lisa, and Dorothy—made up of her closest friends. We joined the Jewish Community Center because they had a single parents group (we are not Jewish). With them, we did things like have potlucks, go on camping trips, and celebrate holidays. She made sure we knew our neighbors and the important details of their lives. That meant that when I got home after school and forgot my keys, I had places to stay until she got home from work.
I built family and community for myself starting in my late teens. I built it out of childhood friends and people I worked with. I built it out of people I met at bars and shows and protests. I built it out of friends of friends. Actually, it’s inaccurate to say I built it. One person does not build family or a community. While I can claim my deliberate effort, everyone who is part of my circles participated in their creation—actively or passively, they built with me.
For many years, part of the economic justice work I’ve done has focused on shifting the public narrative around poverty and people who are poor. By using a combination of data and storytelling, I shine a light on the resilience, creativity, knowledge, and capability that exists in low-income communities. In doing this, I counter a narrative that blames people for being poor instead of recognizing both the assets of poor communities and the systemic barriers people are up against. One of the things I focus on is how people who are poor often leverage social capital to mitigate their experience of poverty. Or, to put it more plainly, how connected people help one another out.
Sometimes this is relying on practical support, like when friends pitch in to help with things like home repairs, childcare, and haircuts, instead of paying for it the way middle- or upper-class people are likely to do. Sometimes it is the emotional support people lean on to get through hard times. When I give talks or presentations, I tell anecdotes: A trio of women who created a cleaning business together so they could collectively care for their children while earning money for their families. A mom who got support in raising a child with learning disabilities by starting a parents group for other families with children who have learning disabilities. A man who got his neighbors together to transform the neglected, empty lot across the street from his house into a community green space.
The audiences I speak in front of are full of policy makers, government officials, think tank leaders, and nonprofit executives—people who, by American standards of success, have made it. But inevitably, after my talk or presentation, one of them—almost always a white man—will come to talk to me afterward, waiting until others have asked their questions, and tell me they wish they had in their own lives the kind of community I described.
It’s not that these folks don’t have friends and family. They do. They have spouses and children. They have people with whom they have dinner or sometimes go on vacation. But something about their lives leaves them feeling lonely.
They are not alone in feeling lonely. There is a wide and growing body of research on how lonely and disconnected people in America are from their friends and from their neighbors. A 2018 survey from Cigna found that a quarter of us don’t have people in our lives who we feel understand us.2 Only half of us have daily meaningful interactions with others. “At least two in five surveyed sometimes or always feel as though they lack companionship (43%), that their relationships are not meaningful (43%), that they are isolated from others (43%), and/or that they are no longer close to anyone (39%).”3 Only 26 percent of us know most of our neighbors.4 A third of us have never even interacted with our neighbors.5
Not having deep connection is causing us mental and physical harm. Vivek Murthy, former surgeon general of the United States, wrote in the Harvard Business Review that “Loneliness and weak social connections are associated with a reduction in lifespan similar to that caused by smoking 15 cigarettes a day.”6 A meta-analysis from the Association for Psychological Science warns that loneliness and social isolation significantly decrease length of life.7
The American Dream version of success can also damage our ability to relate to others. In an article from the Atlantic called “Power Causes Brain Damage,”8 John Useem cites the work of Dacher Keltner, a professor of psychology at UC Berkeley, who found that people in positions of power become “less adept at seeing things from other people’s point of view.” And what is the American Dream if it is not attaining power? Useem goes on to relay findings from McMaster University neuroscientist Sukhvinder Obhi, who found that power “impairs a specific neural process, ‘mirroring,’” that may be the cornerstone of empathy. The more successful we become, the harder it may be for us to connect with others not only because we’ve developed the habits of toxic individualism in order to succeed, but because we have rewired our brain.
This thing where white men confessed to me their lack of community happened consistently for a few years, but I didn’t give it much thought—until one of these men asked me a question. This man, probably in his early thirties, walked toward me after a talk I’d given. He clearly wanted to say something to me, but kept politely gesturing others ahead of him because whatever he had to say, he did not want to say it in anyone’s presence. He began like others had, confessional in his admission that he lacked the kind of connection and community I talked about. He made it clear that he had friends, but when he compared his relationships to the ones I’d spoken of, it felt lacking. I nodded in understanding.
But then he asked me how to create community and family. I asked him a few questions and gave him a handful of ideas. In the days that followed, I found myself thinking about our conversation, and it made me uncomfortable and unsettled because, as I finally admitted to myself, I should have said, “I don’t know.” The answer I’d given him was pat and inadequate because the truth was, I couldn’t really answer his question.
It was then that I started to see that the more “successful” I became, the harder it was for me to carve out the time that building connection demands, and the less I prioritized deepening relationships. The more uncomfortable I became with being vulnerable and authentic—sharing my flaws, struggles, and fears—the more I felt the need to keep on my armor and present the most together, bad-ass, and brilliant version of myself.
As much as I have witnessed beautiful, strong, interdependent community and expansive, connected family, I have yet to really pull it off the way I truly want. In the last several years, I’ve felt both agitated and excited about what might be possible. I’ve felt an energizing desire to be more explicit about the life I’m building. And I want to build that life in deep alignment with my best self’s values, and a vision of the world I want to help create.
But what does it really mean to be in deep, close community? What form does it take? Who is included and why? How much of my life do I have to let go of to make room for the kinds of relationships I want? How far and deep must the reach of my heart extend? Can I hold in the light of generosity those who would wish me harm? And what cost is not too much to do so?
Figuring all of this out feels particularly urgent right now, for me personally, for the people I love and care about, and for the future America that I hope for. There is something untenably severed in America right now. I don’t mean the “division and divisiveness” so many pundits and thought leaders are lamenting. Those divisions—of class, race, and gender, of values and priorities—have been here for a long time. Now they are just more apparent to more people. What I’m speaking of is our ability to hold space for one another, to empathize, to make time for connection, to care for one another, to be part of one another’s lives.
- "Mia Birdsong is one of our most important thinkers and strategists for how we build structures to support the families that we actually have and the kinds of families we would build if we weren't all so obsessed with respectability. This book gives us both the vision and the blueprint for how to do this in ways that feel sustainable, and quite frankly otherworldly. I left this book feeling something I haven't felt in a long time...hopeful. "—Brittney Cooper, author of Eloquent Rage: A Black Feminist Discovers Her Superpower
- "Mia Birdsong's deeply personal book calls forth a deeply public truth: that we're all better off when we're all better off. Her search for the meaning of community and belonging will inspire Americans from many walks to show up in a new way."—Eric Liu, CEO of Citizen University and author of Become America
- "This is a the book we've all been waiting for about the 'craft'--and that's what Mia Birdsong so insightfully names it--of creating community. She's a master craftswoman herself--gathering stories of such intentionality, honesty, and reliability that you will immediately start living your life more radically and reaping the rewards."—Courtney E. Martin, author of The New Better Off: Reinventing the American Dream
- "This book is a blueprint to being vulnerable enough to love harder, dig deeper and be unafraid to redefine and expand our relationships. A beautiful and helpful piece of work. "—Tiq Milan, writer and LGBTQ advocate
- On Sale
- Jun 2, 2020
- Page Count
- 272 pages
- Hachette Go