The Power of Collective Action

Coronavirus has exposed many fault lines in our society. We need to work together to enact change.

Melissa Begg
August 11, 2020

This is part of a Columbia News series, titled Lessons Learned, which invites the Columbia community to reflect on the pandemic and the insights they have gained from their COVID-19 experience. These essays speak to the innovation, creativity and resourcefulness we have witnessed during this period of unprecedented challenge, as well as some of the silver linings in the actions we have had to take by necessity.

We are all deeply affected by what has transpired over the past few months. We have borne witness to a tidal wave of profound events: from the emergence of COVID; to acts of discrimination against the Asian and Asian American communities; to the heartbreaking loss of life from the virus, especially among the Black, Latinx, and Indigenous communities; to the extreme economic damage being wrought on the most vulnerable among us; to the horror of the murders of George Floyd and so many others. What can we learn from these experiences to help us re-envision a better future?

If we look closely, I think we can identify a common thread in all of these events. That thread is social justice – or rather, the lack of justice and the inevitable consequences of deep-rooted, unchecked, long-term inequity. COVID trained a spotlight on systemic racism in our society, the deficiencies of the social safety net, and the lack of a coherent health care system. We cannot feign surprise at the higher rates of death from COVID among people of color, given that the cards were stacked against BIPOC communities from the start – including a disproportionate burden of chronic disease, reduced access to health care, increased exposure to environmental pollutants, and greater representation among both the unemployed as well as job categories designated as “essential.” As captured so perfectly by Jamelle Bouie in the NY Times, “Today’s disparities of health flow directly from yesterday’s disparities of wealth and opportunity.”

It all comes down to this: much of human suffering is manufactured. It is the inescapable result of the policies we put in place. Disparities in wealth and opportunity have been promoted and sustained by our tacit (or, at times, explicit) acceptance of the status quo when it comes to employment discrimination, lack of affordable housing, food insecurity, denial of health care, mass incarceration, voter suppression, and brutally unequal scales of justice. An “underlying architecture of division” has led to these disparities, in the words of Boston University epidemiologist Sandro Galea and research fellow Salma Abdalla.

Evidence for this abounds. Researchers have found that zip code correlates with life expectancy, and provide an online “calculator” and interactive maps to expose differences by census tract level. In 2014, Ta-Nehisi Coates laid out a detailed history of racist housing policies in the U.S., and the degree to which they severely curtailed Black families’ accumulation of wealth. Recent economic analyses, including findings from the Columbia School of Social Work, have revealed that COVID-related expansion of federal aid has helped to minimize increases in poverty rates despite rising unemployment; but projections indicate that poverty rates will soar when these benefits end, further exacerbating disparities by race. Is this the world we want?

There is only one possible answer: we all want a more just world. If our policies generate suffering, let’s rewrite the policies. We created them so we can change them – provided we have the know-how and the will to do so. Columbia is one of the greatest universities in the world, with exceptional expertise in so many crucial areas. In my own academic home of social work, we have scholars in the disciplines of psychology, sociology, economics, social welfare policy and public health – united by a mission centered on social justice and anti-racism. We have forged interdisciplinary partnerships with colleagues across the University, deepening our ability to tackle complex societal problems. And we most assuredly have the resolve. How do we harness these to chart a path forward?

If there is one great lesson I have taken from our current situation, it is this:  there is tremendous power in collective action. Whether it was New Yorkers’ ability to “crush the curve” of COVID, or the response as protesters across the country and around the world united against anti-Black racism – we have proven the potency of acting together in the name of social justice and mutual regard.

These achievements have brought to mind a powerful passage from The Grapes of Wrath, which beautifully depicts how adversity can propel us from acting singly in our own interests, to acting together for the greater good – moving literally from “I” to “we.” Our future depends on transforming our mindset, because so much more is possible as “I” becomes “we.” We have the knowledge, and we have the will. We have the responsibility to use both to create a better world.

Melissa Begg is the Dean of the Columbia School of Social Work.