For the past 20 years, activist Mia Birdsong has traveled across the country, advocating for stronger communities and the self-determination of people at low incomes.
Birdsong has led TED Talks and worked with top executives, policy makers and think tanks to reimagine their approaches to supporting people in need.
She was also the keynote speaker at Tuesday’s 2023 Building Futures Symposium, an annual event, hosted by Habitat for Humanity of the Charlotte Region, which focuses on addressing the nation’s affordable housing crisis.
Housing, Birdsong said, is a “basic human right.”
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In her address, she also discussed points from her latest book, “How We Show Up: Reclaiming Family, Friendship, and Community.” According to Birdsong, building stronger communities starts with the people closest to us.
QCity Metro sat down Birdsong to discuss her appearance at the symposium, her book and what efforts she believes can be made to address homelessness.
Responses have been edited for brevity and clarity.
Why was it important for you to accept the invitation to speak at Tuesday’s symposium?
The South has a tremendous amount to teach the rest of the country. There is amazing activism happening in the South, especially among Black folks. There’s a lot of work happening here in the South that is important for me to understand and to learn about.
It’s always an honor when a community of people that’s not my community, hears about the work that I do and are interested in hearing more.
That’s always really powerful for me. I have things I want to come and say, but it’s important that this dialogue needs to be in exchange, so that I can learn as well.
What do you plan to discuss at the symposium? Will your book be a focal point in your speech?
I will be discussing topics in my book. I’m going to talk about this idea of ‘deservingness’ and how we have all kind of been socialized to believe that we have to demonstrate that we’re worthy of things we deserve as human beings. An example of this is housing, which is a basic human right.
The other thing I will discuss is the celebration of individualism and how we don’t function [well] as independent. We’re interdependent.
We’ve been socialized to believe there is shame in asking for help. I’m going to talk a bit about why it’s important to ask for help and what the people in your community get from supporting each other.
What inspired your book, “How We Show Up: Reclaiming Family, Friendship, and Community?”
It’s called “How We Show Up Reclaiming Family, Friendship, and Community,” so it’s coming from an assumption that those are things that we need to return to in some way.
I was looking at how it would look for us to return to the time when we lived in multi-generational families, when we had tribes and kinship.
The reclaiming part was thinking about how to live as a true community, building family and relationships with each other in the most supportive ways for all of us.
In my research, I wanted to figure out how we could return to a time when we were less dependent on money, and more dependent on resources and relationships. I interviewed a number of people to share their own experiences of this.
How do we get to that point?
There’s no blueprint. There’s no steps to build a community.
First, each of us really needs to get quiet with ourselves and check in with a part of us that is longing for something that feels unseen or unheard.
We then have to use those things as a way of feeling our way forward to the kinds of connections that we want to have.
Next, start a conversation with the people you are closest to. Many of our relationships would benefit from having a conversation about what the relationship is, how it’s going for the people in it, and if we want something else from it.
I’ve found that building circles of people you can trust and depend on is beneficial.
We each need to do this in our own lives with the people we already know. I feel like that’s where we need to start. Vulnerability is required, especially for people who are in positions of power and decision-making.
How important is it for every member, no matter status or occupation, of the community to have input in decision-making?
It’s important that people be able to see that they have a voice. There is power in people who grow up in a community and evolve in their sense of agency and belonging, and they’re able to participate in decision-making.
That’s what democracy is supposed to be, but in America, we don’t have democracy and haven’t had it in a while.
We have to make sure that each of us as decision-makers can participate in democracy responsibly, which starts with being informed by what’s going on in the world and making critical decisions on how to make positive change.
Affordable housing is a big issue nationwide. What needs to be done to address this issue?
Like I mentioned before, housing should be a basic human right.
We are the wealthiest nation on the planet. There is no community that I know of where the inventory of open homes is lower than the number of unhoused people in that community. The way that we solve homelessness is simply by providing all people with homes.
If we wanted to solve that problem, we could very easily, but we’ve decided that unhoused people have to demonstrate that they’re worthy of being housed.
We make people jump through all kinds of hoops and tell their stories about their lives to prove to us that they’re worthy of housing.
What big lessons have you tried to teach executives, think tanks, and policymakers regarding using their positions to better the community?
The number one thing is to listen to those people and work with those folks who actually have been leading whatever the changes are themselves.
In a previous interview, you mentioned the importance of giving and receiving, especially at a time when people are less generous with their assets. How important is it to be both a giver and a receiver?
It’s so critical. We hoard resources and limit our capacity to help because we are in a culture that tells us there’s scarcity. We’re worried that we are going to run out. A prime example is how everyone reacted to resources at the pandemic’s beginning.
It’s [concerning] to feel like you might not have something that you need, but we need a better calibration of what enough is.
For example, Billionaires have all that money but make excuses on why they feel they can’t share their resources because of fear they will run out.
I’m not trying to criticize billionaires, but it’s important to discern whether or not [scarcity is] real.