OK, friends, I think most of us can agree this is not how we wanted this year to go.
2021 was supposed to get America back on track, but instead, we got more 2020 — with a little 1933 thrown in.
It started with an attempted coup and violent attack on the US Capitol, and is ending with Omicron and an unthinkable toll of largely avoidable deaths. We’ve had cataclysmic climate events, yet more mass shootings, and not enough will to really take on either of them. Voting rights — and democracy itself — are under attack, as are reproductive rights. Conservative states are banning books and rewriting history. In the Build Back Better bill, we are tantalizingly close to real change that could transform the lives of millions of Americans, if only Joe Manchin would stop whatever the heck it is he’s doing, which seems unlikely.
So, hard as I try, I’m having trouble feeling hopeful right now. But I don’t want to spoil your festive mood, should you be enjoying one right now. So today, in my last column for this god-awful year, I am outsourcing my positivity.
I reached out to some of my favorite thinkers, some of them inveterate optimists, to ask what gives them hope, even now. They offered plenty of good cheer, some finding it in the unlikeliest of places.
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How unlikely? How about Mass. and Cass, that Boston intersection where a humanitarian disaster continues to unfold each day — where poverty, addiction, mental illness, and homelessness collide. There — or, more correctly, in the discussions of what is happening there — Charles Anderson finds more hope than in his 30 years working in health care in Boston. The solutions being offered for the folks living on those streets go beyond clearing their tents, he says: Politicians, community leaders, health workers, and businesses are talking about dealing with the upstream problems that drive the disaster, including unaffordable housing, inadequate health care, and poor coordination of services. It’s the kind of big-picture thinking that makes real change.
“I landed in Boston in the middle of the so-called crack epidemic, and through all the other changes,” said Anderson, a doctor who now heads the Dimock Center in Roxbury. “I have never seen this type of organized effort coming from this place of real sincerity. . . . How can you not feel hopeful?”
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For political consultant Wilnelia Rivera, 2021 made clearer than ever the power of young people, and of women of color, to drive change as voters, activists, and elected officials. In Washington, the Squad, which includes Representative Ayanna Pressley, has driven discussions on what constitutes compassionate public policy. In Boston, Rivera says, new Mayor Michelle Wu is already making City Hall, and city policy, more inclusive.
“We understand that while the status quo is bringing our democracy and social norms to its knees, we will be the ones that resurrect and transform it,” Rivera wrote in an e-mail.
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At the church of San Lucas in Chelsea, where the immigrants who make up much of the congregation were battered by the policies of the previous White House, then by COVID, Vicar Edgar Gutiérrez-Duarte has found comfort in the enormous resilience of his community.
“We have this sense that hope is not gone,” said Gutiérrez-Duarte. “We have a bond of shared suffering. With every challenge we have found a way to continue our life together as a congregation of faith. We just adapt, and we know God is with us.” San Lucas continues to help feed and clothe new arrivals, who have risked the treacherous journey from Central America because of their unshakable belief in this country. It’s hard to beat that for optimism.
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Optimism might not be the right word to use when it comes to how those in the restaurant industry are feeling right now, given how many of them — especially those downtown — are still struggling to come back as we prepare to enter the pandemic’s third year. But Bessie King, general manager of Boston’s Villa Mexico Cafe, is at least hopeful, because the struggles of restaurant workers are more visible than ever. These days, it’s not just servers and prep cooks who feel the effects of poor wages and high food prices: Customers feel it every day, too, in higher grocery bills and longer wait times sparked by labor shortages.
“‘The customer is always right’ is no longer the case,” said King, also a founding board member of Massachusetts Restaurants United, a coalition of independent eateries. “People have started to realize how expensive it is to run a business, and there’s this awareness that things have to change.”
For the restaurants diners love to thrive, that means higher wages, better transportation, cheaper child care for workers, and affordable housing. It means workers returning to downtown so that restaurants like hers can come out of hibernation in the spring, which King says is more likely now that Boston (finally) will require proof of vaccination for everybody at restaurants and other indoor venues.
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It’s been a mixed bag for environmental activists this year, what with the world failing to agree in Glasgow on measures aggressive enough to head off extreme warming, and the already-watered-down climate measures in the Build Back Better bill stalled on Capitol Hill. But Elizabeth Turnbull Henry sees cause for optimism to the East. Construction begins next year on the Vineyard Wind offshore wind farm, with energy to come online in 2023, said Turnbull Henry, who heads the Environmental League of Massachusetts. Not everybody loves the project, but she said support has built among an unlikely coalition of business groups, labor unions, and environmental activists. And she’s confident that enough farms will follow to revolutionize energy — as long as we can upgrade the transmission networks that carry it.
“Massachusetts has some of the best offshore wind resources of any place in the world,” she said. “The Atlantic Coast is the Saudi Arabia of offshore wind.”
Imagine the good that could come from harnessing it.
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Plenty of what is happening in the world has Thabiti Brown down these days, including Omicron, which forced him to cancel his visit with family in New York this week. But at Dorchester’s Codman Academy, the school he leads, there are kids who lift the spirits.
“Our students are just really happy to be in school,” Brown said. “Even in hard moments, when they’re pushing through some concept they don’t understand, they express joy. That spontaneous connection that is so hard to come by in remote times is just there every day.” And this despite the fact that some of their families are dealing with impossible circumstances.
“They’re so resilient and eager, it always gives me hope,” he said.
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For Janet Domenitz, as for so many of us, an antidote to the miseries of the wider world can be found closer to home. Not always, but often our better selves live in our neighborhoods, said Domenitz, head of public interest advocacy group Masspirg.
“I see people being so generous and thoughtful in everyday, small but huge, ways,” she said. She has seen her neighborhood groups coordinating help for recently resettled Afghan refugees, collecting gifts for the victim of the recent attack in the Middlesex Fells, and coming through with Christmas gifts for kids who need them.
“As Mister Rogers said, it’s a beautiful day in the neighborhood,” Domenitz said. “Often I read what’s going on in the ‘hood and I feel that little thing with feathers perched in my soul.”
It turns out that feeling is catching, so I’m going to add some of my own hopeful signs: Democrats and some Republicans passed legislation this year that lifted millions out of poverty and will fund desperately needed infrastructure projects and the jobs that come with them, showing the power of government to do great good for those who need it most. The Senate confirmed a remarkable 40 federal judges, seeding courts with a diverse class of judges, including civil rights attorneys and public defenders. The FDA has just approved the first at-home treatment for the virus.
And, as of today, there is literally less darkness in our lives. See you next year.