Activist and storyteller Mia Birdsong takes on a different approach to the concepts of community and relationships in „How We Show Up — Reclaiming Family, Friendship, and Community“.
Loneliness is like a ghost that haunts a lot of people in these modern times. Especially now, since many have been forced to stay at home without the possibility to be with friends, family, colleagues or participate in social gatherings outside of the digital world.
Social Distancing feels strange to us as we are social creatures that like to gather in groups of any kind. But loneliness has been an issue long before the pandemic hit us in 2020. The root of this feeling lies, as many suggest, in the lack of community. As more and more people are searching for a sense of belonging, it is time to reshape our view of it. The non-fiction book „How We Show Up — Reclaiming Family, Friendship, and Community“ offers a different view on how we interact with the people closest to us.
Mia Birdsong, the author of this book, describes herself as a pathfinder and community curator. She is known for her activism regarding poverty and family for over twenty years. Especially the later topic has been the focus of her previous work, being the founding co-owner of Family Story and having served as the Vice President of the Family Independence Initiative. In her TED Talk from May 2015 however, she focused on the topic of poverty and did so in her typical way of approaching problems and injustice.
She makes it a point to put storytelling and therefore peoples’ lived experience on the forefront rather than scientific studies and opinions from proclaimed experts in a field. The goal is to evoke change and transformation in society by bringing individual stories to the surface and letting them stand on their own.
“The ability to hold space for another’s experience is a critical one. It’s not about giving advice or trying to fix anything, but witnessing and just being an active, attentive presence. Sitting with the grief and pain of other people can be so hard. I often find it uncomfortable to just listen and watch a loved one in distress. I want to fix, I want to advise.”
While her own story is fascinating and uplifting in and of itself, the stories she chooses to tell are even more enriching and an invitation to rethink love and connection and have the courage to look further than what we know. She allows us to explore different varieties and options of transforming what we understand under the terms of family, friendship and community.
When it comes to family Birdsong breaks with the pattern of the nuclear and heteronormative family of father, mother and children. While respecting the idea that this constellation can work and be the source of happiness for some, she also offers alternatives and wider varieties of the concept of family and belonging. She broadens the horizon of what we traditionally understand as a family by including strong platonic bonds and the idea of „chosen family“ as it is often found in the LGBTQIA+ community, as well as the idea of „aunties“, which is well known in BIPOC communities and is especially relevant for parents raising children.
When it comes to the topic of friendship she urges the reader to intensify the connections they already have by asking questions, holding themselves and others accountable, being more vulnerable and showing up. She calls to eradicate the invisible boundaries of intimacy and responsibility that separate their ideas of family, marriage and friendship and to reinforce their efforts regarding support and love for each other. By changing the perspective and our own actions towards friendships we open the door for more meaningful connections built on trust, reliability and love.
“Amoretta Morris, a wise woman I know who is rethinking philanthropy, wrote, “It’s okay to ask for help. In fact, by doing so, you are taking part in the divine circle of giving and receiving. While we often focus on what the request means for the asker/recipient, we should remember that giving can be transformative for the helper[…].By not asking for help when you need it, you are blocking that flow.”
Regarding community, she lets the stories of marginalized people like homeless and poor folx lead the way. This highlights many of the problematic issues the American (or western) society faces but also shows solutions. It does not go unnoticed, however, that for a bigger change we all need to rethink belonging, community, love and accountability. Luckily, this book is a great starting point for that.
Unfortunately, it does not explore the meanings and practices of community and relation on a global or even Indigenous level. It is heavily anchored in the U.S. experience, often equating capitalism with „American Dreamism“ and not looking beyond the borders of her country.
Although the discussion of the topic and the chosen stories she explores are primarily centered in the United States, it does not offer perspectives of the Native folx of North America. This is a missed chance as there would be much to discuss, especially as the Indigenous people in the U.S. and Canada have always stood up for other minorities within their stolen land, like the ones Birdsong is representing in her book and is, as a black woman, a part thereof.
While she shares snippets of a vast variety of people with a diverse understanding of community, family and friendship, she, unfortunately, misses out on the voices that might need to be heard the most regarding this topic.
Many of the ideas she presents, especially when it comes to community, are an expansion of what we already know. Yet the book is a fresh take on the topic and leaves a taste of revolution as the alternatives it presents are opposite to capitalistic and patriarchal structures that are embedded into western systems and are heavily criticized throughout this book. Everyone will find a piece on themselves on these pages and everyone will learn something new that has the potential of transforming their life.
„How We Show Up“ is an invitation for change and the creation of a world without the feeling of separation. It is a proactive way of showing the possibilities we have to shape and build bonds that fulfill us, erase loneliness and create community. While it is not without flaws it is groundbreaking work that leads the way to not only envision but to construct a future based on community, resilience and togetherness.