By Leslie Lynn Smith, National Director for GET Cities
Today, July 1, 2021, I turn 54 years old.
I’m not convinced it’s fair to age a year after the lost time and experiences we’ve collectively accumulated during the pandemic. I feel like we deserve a bit of a do-over. I can turn 54 next year.
But in all seriousness, I’m grateful to be aging at all. Too many people don’t have the privilege and have been lost over the past 18 months; 600,000 Americans have perished from COVID-19, I just read. Among them are people I know, love and respect. Their loss is deeply felt and we are worse off for the gaps they leave in our lives and communities. For those of us who remain, I hope we revere our fate with gratitude and optimism and also with a sense of deep obligation.
At the beginning of the pandemic, I was overwhelmed by concerns about closing Epicenter’s offices in Memphis which also served as a co-working space and a sacred, special place for our community and entrepreneurs. But, on March 13, 2020 we announced the decision to close our team and co-working members. The next day, our oldest child had plans to celebrate her 27th birthday with a trip to Cincinnati with friends, and my husband and I were NYC-bound for a long-dreamt-of surprise trip for our youngest child to experience Broadway theater. Slowly, over the days, all of our plans fell apart and more and more of the world shut down as we opened our eyes to the seriousness of the moment in which we found ourselves.
Schools closed across the country and quite quickly, insidious failures of our society were exacerbated. First, I remember the concern about food insecurity; and then lack of access to transportation; next up, the aha moment about uneven access to technology and broadband internet.
Over time, the historic pandemic revealed more and more to us, such as the importance of teachers, medical personnel and yes, grocery store workers and last mile delivery professionals. These dedicated people who’ve long been underpaid, undervalued, and under-appreciated were suddenly widely understood as critical to our survival.
Also revealed was how unprepared our healthcare and emergency communications systems are for a crisis, and how inequitably resources are distributed across our communities.
By immediately coming to a halt in our daily activities, we realized how tired we are, how connected to a productivity mindset and addictive technologies we’ve become, such that we had lost ourselves. The veneer of our ‘instagrammable’ lives was ripped away to reveal that we could hardly recognize ourselves.
I recall a conversation with a good friend who shrieked when I admitted that our youngest child was struggling intensely with virtual learning, was struggling to pass their classes and plunging deeper and deeper into depression so severe that medication and therapy were barely staving off soul-crushing anxiety and suicidal thoughts. She said (relieved), that she thought her kid was the only one struggling, and that she also was the only one who felt like she was a failing parent for not being able to support her child better. In that moment, we breathed a sigh of relief in the camaraderie of shared distress.
In my role as an economic development professional who supports entrepreneurs and small business owners (particularly those who’ve been marginalized and underestimated by the economic power structures), I watched business after business close without the information, resources or infrastructure they needed to support their businesses, employees, families and communities. The pain was palpable – and without any way to calculate or plan because it was impossible to understand all the variables.
Over time, we settled into the new way of life (once-in-a-century pandemic life) and started to wonder what the future would or could look like once we passed the acute terror of the moment and the constant fear of infection, serious illness and death began to subside. We were tired. We are tired. But, we’ve come to understand a bit better what it is we want on the other side of this. I’ve come to understand what I want as I march my way toward 55.
We share an obligation that responds to our collective experience and the clarity we’ve gained about the world we’ve built, which by any estimation is falling well short of our full potential. A potential that is both just and loving. A potential that is gracious and inclusive. A potential that is empathetic and innovative.
We have the resources to do all of the things we imagine. The burning question that roils through my brain incessantly is: will we?
We can make sure that kids are fed in their homes, and that school isn’t the only place they find nourishment.
We can remind our kids that the value of their existence is not represented by a grade they earned during a once-in-a-century pandemic, or by any grade for that matter.
We can build innovative pedagogies and ways to engage with our young people to replace our urges to stick them in Zoom rooms for eight hours a day so we can convince ourselves no learning has been lost.
We can eliminate racist and sexist policies that prevent access to education, transportation, economy, food, housing, agency and joy.
We can build a childcare infrastructure that supports women and families and ensures that our youngest bodies and minds are cared for from the earliest days of their lives.
We can build an economy that is just, inclusive and thriving. We can support entrepreneurship with thoughtful abundance, we can welcome immigrants to build with us and research and develop new technologies at rates consistent with our curiosity and intellect.
Further, we can stand in a deep and thoughtful reflection of what matters to each of us personally, and decide if we’ve been living with purpose to build the existence that means the most to us. We can choose peace over busyness. We can nurture love over hate. We can expect justice. We can say the hard things. We can take big risks. We can admit when we screw up. We can act with abundance and urgency. We can acknowledge that all people are worthy. We can name and change the systems that prevent people from their dignity, independence and joy.
We have the resources to do all of the things we imagine. The question for all of us is: will we?
Leslie Lynn Smith is nationally recognized for her leadership in entrepreneurship and economic development, and currently serves as the National Director for GET Cities. Smith is a TEDx speaker, is a frequent moderator of panels about gender and racial justice in economic development, has been a keynote speaker at myriad economic development and social impact conferences such as Meeting of the Minds, SSTI, INBIA, and Rise of the Rest. She has been featured in Forbes, USA Today, Crain’s, Style Blueprint, The Commercial Appeal, the Memphis Business Journal and is a regular blogger on Medium and guest on podcasts, such as Grindset and Storyboard. She’s also delivered entrepreneurial master classes virtually and in-person. Smith was recognized as a 2019 Super Woman of Business and a 2020 Leadership Memphis Changemaker. Smith has a vision for American Cities: one that centers entrepreneurship as a key economic development strategy and pathway to individual, familial and community wealth.