Oppression in Pandemic-Colored Glasses: Marginalized Communities During Moments of Crisis

Like many other folks sheltering at home right now, I’ve been using my spare time to start a garden. It’s the third garden I’ve grown in my adult life. In many ways, it feels like returning to something sacred and familiar. My mom is a gardener. As a kid, I spent summers at home in our backyard, playing in the hose with the dog while she tended to soil and planted seeds and harvested zucchini. She would show me what she was doing and let me reach my small hands into the dirt to feel how warm it was under the gaze of the sun. And then I would get bored and chase a butterfly or run off to inspect the bark of a tree. 

It feels idyllic in my memory. It was idyllic. But, I think back to those moments now and wonder what my mom was thinking of as she worked her way into the earth. Did she wonder if the eggs in the refrigerator had gone bad? Did she hope my brother and I would stay healthy? Did she worry about how she would pay her car insurance that month?

Because that’s what I think of as I slam my shovel into hard, dry dirt, over and over, sweat dripping down my nose. These things, and several others, like, What day is it? and How many days has it been since I left the house? or, Is that tickle in my throat just my usual seasonal allergies or something else? The nature of our most pressing, most frightening demon seems incredibly particular to our moment, and in many ways, it is. We have not seen a pandemic like this in over a hundred years. However, there is a repetitive nature of catastrophe in how it affects the people who endure it. You can see it in how the same people, namely, marginalized people, are always disproportionately affected by them. The intricate relationship between catastrophe and oppression has been winding through our culture for centuries, a creature with many masks. We can trace the ways our current crisis is affecting marginalized communities, and how we, as information professionals, can work together to better understand their struggle. 

Like so many catastrophes, the burden of this pandemic is unevenly carried. Workers who, just months ago, were labeled as “unskilled” are now deemed “essential,” and touted by the press as heroes. What this really means is that folks in lower-income communities who do not have the means to shelter-at-home are forced to put themselves at risk in order to continue putting food in their families’ mouths. And of course, the record levels of unemployment currently gripping the nation due to COVID-19 has a larger impact on folks in lower-income brackets as well. For example, three quarters of all domestic workers employed in the United States have lost their jobs due to COVID-19. Most folks who are currently working from home are only able to do so because they are paid enough to have a laptop, internet access, and work for a company that can support this sort of flexibility. People who do not have these sorts of positions are left with far fewer options.

And many people continue to go without a home to shelter in at all. In fact, homeless folks are faced with even scarier choices than they were before the pandemic began. Now, staying in overcrowded shelters means increased risk of transmission, which makes sleeping outside a potentially more desirable option; despite the lack of protection from the environment or adequate access to sanitation. With such limited options, this community finds themselves particularly at risk for contracting coronavirus. 

Yet here, in the middle of it all, libraries are reopening. Libraries are reopening and people are scared. I browse Reddit and find post after post of people terrified to go back to work, debating quitting, debating dropping out of their MLIS programs and changing careers. I can understand the fear underlying these questions and appreciate the values of personal safety and financial security that they stem from. However, I am not sure that finding the escape hatch will ultimately help us much in the long run. I know it certainly won’t help these struggling communities. They need us now more than ever. 

As information professionals, it is our job to be good stewards of our resources, and to guide people to them. As our world continues to change, it is inevitable that our profession will change with it, and our methods will have to change as well. This means we need to think bigger. Our communities need us to ask ourselves hard questions about the safety of our buildings, how to run them, and if our leading governance is doing enough to protect us and our patrons. They need us to continue dreaming up new methods to deliver resources. They need us to continue innovating, to keep finding new ways to connect with them and with one another. They need us to keep learning together about them, and about ourselves. They need our help to imagine a world beyond this moment, and we need their help too.

My first two seedlings came up today, their tiny green necks stretching up and out of the soil, toward the sun. I water them gently, wishing them to grow into healthy plants. I wonder if the eggs in my refrigerator are still good.  I worry about how I’ll pay my car insurance next month. I hope my family stays healthy. 

The dirt is still warm in my hands.

Mary Elizabeth Allen is an MLIS student at San Jose State University. She holds a B.A. in Literature with an emphasis in Fiction Writing from the University of California, Santa Cruz. Her professional interests include the intersections between critical librarianship and social justice, the history of information sharing, and radical feminist scholarship. Follow her on Twitter @marylizallen for a random collection of depressing thoughts and cat memes.

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

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