2020 Vision: What This Year Taught Us to See

Photo by Sergio Ruiz.

Every aspect of our lives turned upside down this year, whether it’s where we live, how we work, who we’re in contact with or whether we leave the house. Whatever your reality was in February, today it is likely something very different.

This year we also experienced tremendous loss. As a nation, we lost more than 298,000 people to COVID and over 10 million jobs. In the Bay Area, we lost homes and businesses to wildfires. Many of us lost a sense of security — and with it the feeling that, with enough effort, we could overcome our challenges. And it’s been much harder for those who didn’t have a strong economic foundation to begin with. People are going hungry. People are living outside. Kids are disconnected, and suicide and violence are up.

It’s been a hard year, and many of us are eager to close the door on 2020. At the same time, it has become clear that to return to “normal” would be to reembrace a way of living that was neither sustainable nor equitable. As we exit this year, it’s worth understanding what 2020 — with the clarity of vision that 20/20 implies — served up for our collective awareness. Because that awareness can provide a foundation for a better normal going forward.

A Year of Revelations

So, what do we see clearly now that we didn’t before?

First, we see that we are interdependent. If I do not mask my face, you could die. Conversely, when we take the right steps together, we bend the infection curve down. Every action we take has an effect on those around us. Every decision made by others impacts us and our families. Whether we are conscious or intentional about it or not, we are in fact co-creating the reality in which we live.

And yet, 2020 also showed us the divides in how we experience that reality. In one reality, working from home gives a white-collar worker more time for family, or to cook healthy meals. In another reality, an essential worker faces increased stress and daily exposure to a deadly virus. For some, distance learning is an inconvenience. For others, distance learning is impossible.

Underlying these differences is another critical 2020 revelation: the extent to which we as a nation have fallen short of our stated ideals. 2020 has shown us that our institutions, our pedagogies, our practices, our social norms — even our understanding of each other as humans — do not truly rest on a belief that all men are created equal. Instead, they have perpetuated systemic racism, with tragic but predictable results. Black men are 2.5 times more likely to be killed by police violence than are white men. COVID-19 is 2.8 times more deadly for Latinx people than it is for white people. Almost three-fourths of Latinx families report economic hardship as a result of the pandemic, compared to one-third of white households.

These outcomes are not random. They derive from a foundational design error: Rather than recognizing our interdependence and designing for the common good, we have embraced individual primacy and designed for hierarchy.

Instead of designing for our intrinsic belonging, we have designed for exclusion.

These revelations are, for many people, part of what has made 2020 such a hard year. They are also essential. We cannot solve problems we do not perceive. As we look toward a new year, there is one other 20/20 insight that is critical: When we are in the midst of immense tumult, it is essential to put a stake in the ground for hope.

We’ve seen that hope and fear have equal power in driving human behavior. At the same time that we hoarded all the pasta in the early days of the pandemic, we also raised millions in philanthropic money to feed the hungry. We were afraid and we contracted inward — but we also hoped we could make a difference and extended a hand outward, toward others.

This is so important. Everything has turned upside down this year, and it is requiring us to think long and hard about what we want things to be like when we reemerge. If we want to choose hope, we can decide to design for belonging instead of designing for exclusion.

This is the precisely where I see the potential and power of cities. Because at their best, cities are the places that offer shared existence across all identities. They are the places where we experience our interdependence in tangible ways — even in something as simple as getting take-out from the neighborhood restaurant to help keep it afloat.

Cities are also the places where we hash out what it means to live together. Where we learn the lesson that winning at each’s other expense is a short-term victory. Where each of us gets to experience the benefits of the commons. And cities show us that a stable society is one in which everyone can count on a fair shot.

Cities also remind us that we are social creatures. They let us come together in infinite ways. Not just to protest, but to celebrate. Not just for work, but for joy. They will continue to be central to our existence as we anchor our hopes and dreams for the future.

The Work Ahead: Advocating for Equity, Building Belonging

For SPUR, what all of this means is a focus on that better future — not a return to “normal” but building toward a future that embraces interdependence. We will be publishing our Regional Strategy in a few months, and we’re excited to get to work on implementing it. One of the most energizing aspects of the Regional Strategy is its demonstration that we can grow in ways that are sustainable and that enhance belonging. For us, this means advocating for housing production and community stabilization. It means planning for a region in which every neighborhood offers basic amenities. It means ensuring that as the Bay Area returns to economic vitality, that vitality is accessible to all people.

This better future is one that prioritizes racial and economic justice. One year ago, SPUR began a journey to examine race, equity and inclusion in our work — both in terms of the public policies we propose and the internal processes that keep our organization running. After the events of 2020, our commitment to this path could not be stronger. This year we began to integrate this perspective into our policy work, including recommendations to create a more just tax code, address the inequitable impacts of driving and reverse California’s poor record for connecting people to the public benefits they have a right to.

This work will continue in the new year and beyond. We will kick off 2021 with a special event series, Belonging in the Bay. Inspired by our Silver SPUR honoree john a. powell and our recent dialogue with the Daily Show’s Trevor Noah, these one-on-one conversations with Bay Area community leaders will explore the importance of belonging as a means to promote racial and social justice. Stay tuned for details.

Building belonging also means that we will do our work in partnership with others, because we understand our interdependence. We understand the power of our collective dreams. We understand the hope that comes with doing this work together.

Thank you for being part of our community, for adding your own hopes to this work we will do together and for giving us hope through your partnership.