I have a tradition of sharing my personal reflections at the year’s end with friends, colleagues and supporters of our work at the National Health Law Program (NHeLP). Here are this year’s thoughts.
I am reading All That She Carried: The Journey of Ashley’s Sack, a Black Family Keepsake. It is a remarkable book by historian Tiya Miles. The sack of the title was recovered from a flea market in Nashville, Tennessee in 2007. It bears a hand-stitched inscription:
My great grandmother Rose
mother of Ashley gave her this sack when
she was sold at age 9 in South Carolina
it held a tattered dress 3 handfulls of
pecans a braid of Roses hair. Told her
It be filled with my Love always
she never saw her again
Ashley is my grandmother
Like many white people (but not nearly enough), I’ve spent some years wrestling with the horrible and ongoing legacy of white supremacy and systemic racism. This book and Miles’ evocative prose — explaining the significance of the pecans, the tattered dress, the braid of hair, and, most of all, the love that Rose put into the sack — brought me yet again to face the horror of what white people did to enslaved people not so many years back in our past. We have so much inhumanity to account for. We can only glimpse the courage and “radical imagining,” in Miles’ words, for a Black enslaved mother in the 1850s to hold onto a vision that her daughter would survive and for Ashley to realize that vision by surviving.
There is no parallel to this vision and courage in my own experience. Yet Miles asks us to see a parallel. As she says, we are in a predicament in which division is elevated over connection, greed over care, and the predicament has put us in a place of political and planetary emergency. Miles reminds us that we are the ancestors of our descendants and asks what “radical hope” for their survival we have; what we will put into their sacks.
I have a 4-month-old granddaughter, Billie, our first. I am pondering Miles’ question: what am I putting into Billie’s sack? My love, of course, but what else am I doing to ensure that she will survive and thrive? It is overwhelming to think about all that we need to do to give our children and grandchildren the future we dream of for them.
In Rose’s honor, I dare to hold “radical hope” in my heart and believe with all my might that what I will put in a sack for Billie will make a difference.
I am putting into Billie’s sack my individual efforts that, combined with the efforts of many others, can reset our out-of-kilter political compass. I was heartened to note during the mid-terms that many people understood that their individual actions matter. They came out to vote. They showed their support for steady, level-headed leadership.
I see an increasing recognition that policy impacts real people. At NHeLP, we work to improve health care law and policy, and, through our close partnerships with advocates across the country, we are inspired and informed by the stories of peoples’ lives and the obstacles they must overcome. Rose and Ashley and Ruth passed down a story of slavery and resilience that enabled their family to survive. I am putting into Billie’s sack other stories of resilience and determination, like that of our partners in southern states, who keep fighting for the low-income people — disproportionately people of color — in their states, despite their leaders’ determination to deny them essential health care services.
I am putting into Billie’s sack my commitment to my own equity journey, my resolve to keep seeing inequity more clearly and doing what I can to address it. NHeLP’s Equity Stance recognizes that the stark inequality in our country is a collective failure resulting from structural racism and political and economic systems that perpetuate inequality. Each of us is accountable for that failure and responsible to make a change. Through NHeLP’s work, we will make sure that the stories of lives affected by our health care policies continue to be told and heard by policy makers, judges and the people who implement policy at the state and local level.
We can’t change the future alone. I am encouraged by the resolve at NHeLP and at so many other organizations to come together for a better, more equitable future. We have to improve health care and the environment and education and immigration policy and so much more for Billie and all of the other grandchildren we care about to live and thrive. At NHeLP, we are doubling down on our commitment to look for opportunities to partner with and lift up the work of other organizations, especially organizations led by people of color. We are launching our new strategic plan early in the new year. I’m putting that in Billie’s sack, too.
The sack I will pass down to Billie is very different from Rose’s sack for Ashley, to say the least. The thread that connects our different sacks, however, is the “radical hope” for a better future, for the loved ones and for those whom we may not even meet.
I am beyond grateful to have friends, colleagues and partners like you who inspire me to keep working for change and enable me to hold onto hope to pass down to Billie.
Wishing all of us a new year full of radical hope.
Elizabeth G. Taylor
Executive Director | National Health Law Program