On the heels of her new book, How We Show Up, community activist, advocate, and author Mia Birdsong gives advice for creating and maintaining deep communal relationships and a sense of belonging.
Longtime community activist and advocate Mia Birdsong is a senior fellow of the Economic Security Project. She was vice president of the Family Independence Initiative and founding co-director of Family Story.
Her new book, How We Show Up, investigates the benefits of creating community—whether with neighbors, co-workers, college friends, family, or other groups of people—highlighting the fact that we are often already attached to others, and the task we face may be less about adding more people to our lives than about nurturing the relationships we already have. Birdsong reminds us that we are innately wired for connection and gets candid about the importance of building and sustaining community.
S&H: Your book is an exploration of how we make and deepen community—that sense of being connected to others—for ourselves. What prompted you to write it?
Mia Birdsong: I was in a period in my life where I was experiencing tension between the American dream ideals of achievement and success, and what I actually thought would make me happier and give me a more meaningful life. I had been working on the issues I write about in the book for some time, like trying to deepen friendships I had, trying to find concrete ways to support the people I love (whether that was helping a friend track her insulin levels through an app or forming a childcare swap so parents could have regular time together or gathering circles of women to listen and witness each other’s lives) and exploring how people who are excluded from that American dream framework get creative about community. I was in the midst of all of that, and writing the book was a way to keep learning.
How do you define community?
I don’t have a definition for community that I use to figure out who and what fits into it. It’s more that I try to build relationships and connections that feel important for me to have. Social media throws the word “community” around, but in that context, it’s really a marketing term. I approach the idea of community from a place of wanting to belong with others, to be known, and then ask myself: What kind of relationships do I need in my life in order to have that?
Belonging to a community of people, being connected, requires some work, and it can be risky emotionally. How can we take that leap?
In my work, I used to talk a lot about social capital as a mitigating force in the lives of people who experience poverty. The stories I would tell highlighted a really beautiful and meaningful practice of being in community with others, and, afterward, people would often come up to me and say, “I don’t have that kind of community in my life.” These were people who, by American dream standards, would be considered successful.
But meeting that standard requires distancing ourselves from others. We’re meant to be independent and self-sufficient. Being in deep community means being interdependent and asking for and accepting help and support. And we want that. We long to be known and accepted and loved for all of who we are, including our messiness. There’s no checklist of steps that gets us to that place—it’s about deepening the relationships we already have. I think most of us have people in our lives who we love and to whom want to be closer, and to do this, we can begin by having conversations with those people in which we ask for more of what we want.
It is uncomfortable to try to get closer to people, and emotional resilience around this discomfort is something we build by just doing it. It takes some compassion for oneself, especially if we have tended to avoid being close to others. I try to let go of stories I have about how people might react to me or how taking an emotional risk is so scary as to be unrealistic. Sometimes I ask what my future self would say about the action I’m considering now, and the answer has really never been to play it safe. (Please note that I’m not talking about harmful relationships or abuse here.) It comes down to just being a grown-up about it. If we don’t try to develop more depth in our relationships, we definitely won’t get it.
Have you experienced difficulty when it comes to getting closer to others?
Sure. Yesterday I was thinking through an interaction I had with a friend and realized I was going to have to talk to her about it, and I felt uncomfortable about that. But I’ve learned to give myself some grace around my ability to figure out how to “do community right”—when I let go of trying to figure it all out, space opens up, the discomfort eases, and, often, I find a new way to approach the challenge.
What keeps us isolated from each other?
What keeps us from each other—and, ultimately, from ourselves—are these big structural things: capitalism, classism, racism, sexism. The American dream is about independence: winners and losers. I wrote this book because I found that the closer I got to achieving success as defined by the American dream, the less connected I felt to myself and other people. I realized that I needed to really examine what kind of life I wanted—one that feels whole, rather than appearing successful.
Are there role models to whom we can look for this kind of community creation?
Definitely. Writing the book, I found that the people who are the most powerful examples of family, friendship, and community are those who have been excluded from the American dream: queer black women, for example. This is not to diminish the very real harm people experience because of systems of oppression, but to acknowledge that people’s response to these systems is often to find ways to live as fully as they can outside of them.
What are the benefits of reclaiming family, friendship, and community, as you put it?
We’re pack animals—wired for connection. So we can understand building community as uncovering what we already are, rather than creating something totally new. Of course, since we live in a culture that emphasizes individualism, we have to push against it. My friend Eric Liu often says, “We’re all better off when we’re all better off.” In the future I dream about, we all believe that, and we wholeheartedly embrace interdependence.