The year started in a way no one could have predicted – with hundreds of President Donald Trump’s supporters attempting to overthrow an election. Capitol-police-officer-turned-American-hero Eugene Goodman guided rioters away from the Senate floor and almost certainly saved lives.
It ended with, among other things, the death of an international hero – Archbishop Desmond Tutu.
Between Jan. 6 and Dec. 26, the nation, sadly, faced more of the same from 2020: thousands of COVID-19 deaths; demonstrations over the murders of George Floyd and Ahmaud Arbery; mass shootings in states such as Colorado, Michigan and California.
The year also brought moments of triumph: young Olympians who won gold (and silver and bronze) despite being isolated from family members and friends; athletes who boldly taught the world that seeking care for one’s mental health shouldn’t be stigmatized.
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As the year comes to a close, many of us are trying to learn from the nation’s collective experiences, and our personal ones. As late journalist Joan Didion wrote, “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” Didion, who also left us this year, published a collection of essays in “The White Album,” in 1979. In it she wrote, “We look for the sermon in the suicide, for the social or moral lesson in the murder of five. We interpret what we see, select the most workable of the multiple choices.”
We look for lessons. We try to glean something positive and inspiring (even through difficulty). So what are the lessons we, as a nation, can learn from 2021? And how can we make 2022 better?
We asked a few people – activists, athletes, writers, actors – to share lessons they learned this year, and talk about what they’ll carry into the next.
Eileen Rivers is the projects editor for USA TODAY’s Editorial Board.
Bishop William J. Barber II
Co-chair, Poor People’s Campaign
‘Lift from the bottom so everyone can rise’
In 2021, we learned that poor and low-income people have power when they take collective action. When Democrats, who had promised a $15 minimum wage during their campaigns, failed to deliver in the Senate and Republicans refused to act, low-wage workers left their jobs in a historic strike that forced many companies to pay more than $15 an hour to stay open. Renters facing evictions across the country formed tenants’ unions and took action to stay in their homes. Over and against harsh and subversive tactics deployed to undermine their efforts, service workers formed unions and unionized workers went on strike to demand better working conditions.
In a nation where so much of our public conversation about what is possible is dictated by super-wealthy people who invest millions in lobbyists and public relations campaigns, this year’s upsurge of action by poor and low-wealth people has taught us the need for mass mobilization and collective action to demonstrate the power of people too often ignored in our common life. This is why the Poor People’s Campaign is organizing in every state to mobilize thousands for a march on Washington on June 18.
People who are rarely heard in the nation’s capital will have a day to declare they won’t be silent until a third Reconstruction is attained to fully address systemic racism, systemic poverty, the denial of health care, ecological devastation, the war economy and the lie of scarcity. Then they’ll return to their communities to organize the 140 million Americans who are poor or low-income to vote for representatives who have the courage to fight for policies that lift from the bottom so everyone can rise.
Barber is president of Repairers of the Breach, a nonprofit organization that focuses on moral and constitutional values to fight for the rights of, among others, the poor, women and the LGBTQ community.
‘Scrolling through news like a dating app’
I lived much of 2021 on Zillow trying to escape my reality. The pandemic was making me long for more open space, less handshaking, more waving. I thought I’d be safer and more content if I moved somewhere else. I also kept myself informed, scrolling through news like a dating app – clicking on every hot new thing.
I went from being informed to being overly informed – and overly worried. Worried about global warming, human rights, mask positioning, sneezes, and if everyone had enough toilet paper for all that sneezing and even more so for the other stuff it’s used for. Basically, I worried about how to clean up all the messes we humans made.
Then I couldn’t sleep. Figuring my vicious scrolling cycle was to blame, I arose with a plan: Listen to one daily news podcast, instead of endlessly clicking and holding myself hostage by all those links. A healthier dose of information has made me happier and genuinely connected to life and those closest to me.
Global warming, homelessness, human rights, sneezes, and now the nearly 50-city tour I’m about to embark on, fully-vaccinated, but nevertheless during a pandemic, are things to worry about. But I’ve learned I’m far more capable of life and taking action when not in a cesspool of worry. By pulling my head out of the cycle and not trying to uproot my family to someplace better than our cozy home, friendly neighborhood, local farmer’s market or the school our children adore, I’ve discovered the reality surrounding me is a pretty good place to be.
Notaro is an Emmy and Grammy nominated stand-up comedian, radio contributor, writer and actor. She hosts two popular comedy podcasts, Tig and Cheryl: True Story and Don’t Ask Tig.
Criminal justice advocate
‘Status quo doesn’t help most people in the U.S.’
This year was a cognitive dissonance of outlandish events: the violence at the Capitol on Jan. 6; the rhetoric about crime, policing and violence; the crazy-quilt patchwork response to the pandemic. I watched the systems that uphold the status quo wobble, then retrench. The status quo doesn’t help most people in the U.S. live the lives they want and deserve. We cannot have the future most of us want – one with safety, meaning and purpose – until we have a society built to include everyone.
So, in 2022 we must reconcile the hard truths. There can be no reconciliation without truthfulness, so liars have no part to play. If we want to deliver on our beliefs, we can no longer systematically belittle them. Reconciliation does not have guaranteed results, but the results we get now are untenable.
I have hope for reconciliation that brings us together rather than to a point of no return because I see people working for it in cities and towns across the nation. Tennis great Arthur Ashe said, “Start where you are. Use what you have. Do what you can.” Americans are taking down Confederate monuments; they are striking for fair wages and working conditions; they are refusing exploitation. These actions are not simple conflicts, they are steps toward truthful reconciliation for all people who call this country home. Reconciliation is much more difficult than retribution, and far more equitable than redemption, which is why it’s a worthy pursuit.
Kerman is author of “Orange is the New Black: My Year in a Women’s Prison,” which became an award-winning Netflix series.
Former NFL football player
‘We all covet justice’
I stood with a silent multitude at the east façade of the Supreme Court in January, holding a single rose representing the millions of voiceless children who were no more.
Above the marble columns, the words “justice the guardian of liberty” somewhat mockingly stared at me from the architrave. In America, it seems we all covet justice, but differ on what it is and who deserves it.
I have been a follower of Christ for several years, but at the beginning of 2021, my wife and I decided to read through the entire Bible together, a feat I had yet to accomplish. This historical document, written in multiple languages, is truly an incomparable masterpiece. Each word is living and active, but one cannot read these books without witnessing God’s desire for justice.
From the prophets to the gospels, these inspired words weave the thread of justice from the cause of the oppressed to the widowed, fatherless and poor. They condemn favoritism and abuse of power, levying punishment on wrongdoers and restitution for the maltreated.
As the sun rises on 2022, I am increasingly convinced that caring for the vulnerable and living in relationships characterized by equity, fairness and generosity are not suggestions. They are mandates to be applied to a breadth of issues. Where there is wrong, we must be willing as individuals and as a nation to count the cost to make it right. Only then will the promise of liberty be fulfilled.
Watson is a former Super Bowl champion and NFL tight end. He is vice president of strategic relationships with Human Coalition, an organization that helps abortion-determined women and operates telehealth and in-person women’s care clinics.
Alice Marie Johnson
Founder, Taking Action for Good
‘My mourning is over’
This was supposed to be our bounce-back year following the turmoil of a global pandemic, George Floyd’s murder and deeply divided elections. I had hoped that we could heal wounds, rekindle the spirit of the First Step Act, and rectify sentencing and incarceration injustices.
But too often I found myself mourning the violence and division in our nation, fearing that the incarcerated people I’m fighting for would suffer anger and outrage from the uptick in crime. I worried that Americans and our leaders would move from compassion and forgiveness for the unjustly sentenced and incarcerated, to retribution and apathy.
But my mourning is over. It’s OK to mourn setbacks, but it’s not OK to stay in that place of mourning because it paralyzes our ability to hope. Our hopes for a brighter future inspire us to unite to take action for good.
Next year will be my year of renewal, and hopefully America’s. We must all continue to help those who can’t help themselves and who have been forgotten.
Let us all continue to pursue our dreams and hopes for our nation’s future.
Johnson is the founder of Taking Action for Good, a nonprofit organization focused on advancing criminal justice through story telling, commutations and second chances.
Xavier Navarro Aquino
Author of “Velorio”
‘Radical change’ for America and Puerto Rico
This summer, my spouse and I loaded up our one-bedroom apartment and headed for South Bend, Ind. We’d grown used to this kind of movement. We fell into the narrative of young and skilled Boricuas (meaning that we are originally from Puerto Rico) drifting through the United States searching for opportunity. Much of modern Puerto Rican history is filled with these migrations and displacements.
While the pandemic seemed to ease, and there was promise for the future, I felt sadness. Not because of my situation. I have had tremendous luck – I managed to land a job at Notre Dame, and my debut novel, “Velorio,” is set for release in January. I felt sadness because I read more accounts of Puerto Rico being commodified and sold. The target for this market is always foreigners.
Puerto Rico is not unfamiliar with these problematic ventures. It hit me differently because I began to despair that many of us, many native daughters and sons, could potentially never return home, that home was something looted by a terrible foreign conquest.
I believe radical change is needed for America and Puerto Rico. I also hope for a Puerto Rico free from colonial scars that can experience peace and sovereignty. This is about more than political status. We need the freedom not to inherit and pass along the same pain we’ve experienced for decades. I grow concerned about the indifference that exists in America. We need to be purposeful in our actions to eradicate indifference and to sustain, above all things, love.
If the inflection points that we’ve experienced – a pandemic, a climate crisis and social injustice – are not enough to inject true change, what is?
Puerto Rico’s scars, like America’s, are deep. It will take a collective effort to redeem those fates and not let them fall into despair.
‘Trust young leaders’
Six days into 2021, the nation’s Capitol was under siege, with a mob flooding the building with clubs and confederate flags to prevent votes from being counted. Our democracy was attacked, our right to vote was attacked.
The year began with a scream that echoed throughout our nation, warning us that if we don’t double down in our efforts to protect Black people and defend democracy, America may soon be unrecognizable. The energy at the NAACP is through the roof. Our leaders have led the association in a new direction, never losing sight of our roots. Our network of 2.2 million changemakers is more connected and ready to take action. Our staff has massively expanded. Our campaigns and initiatives are led by young leaders with a compassionate heart and a strategic mind.
If 2021 has taught us one thing (and it has taught us many), it is that the fight for justice is different than it previously was, and we need to trust young leaders to be the leaders, to fight for Black people and democracy in a new and different way. The NAACP has always been different, inspired by the past yet focused on the battles before us. Today, it is a new generation of leaders driving our central mission throughout every street and every state in America.
Johnson is the president and CEO of the NAACP.
Author of “The Empathy Diaries”
‘Things work best when we show … empathy’
We’ve allowed politics and social media to tear us apart. But things work best when we show each other empathy – putting oneself in someone else’s problem, in the hopes of understanding and bridging a gap.
For 2022 to be better, we need more empathy. A lot more. We are missing it in politics, and we are missing it at work. Many Americans are considering the same stressful questions we faced in 2020: Will we continue working from home, staring into the cold eye of Zoom and juggling partners, children and roommates?
When we first faced COVID, workers felt the solidarity of a mass lockdown. Now, some are being called back to the office with a patchwork of safety protocols. Others are told that the office is gone forever. Hybrid routines may work for established professionals, but young people likely feel abandoned. At work, before we leap to new rules, we need to understand each other’s anxieties.
Empathy in the workplace can be a messy affair. It’s both rewarding and time-consuming to listen to other people without preconception. And yet, it’s in humility that empathy begins. Similarly, in politics, where we are so deeply divided, we must be willing to pay attention to people who have different views and different life experiences.
If we listen respectfully to other people, and accept their right to difference (when their party wins an election, for example), we are accepting their right to victory. Empathy fuels democracy because at its core it accepts the human rights of others.
For next year to be better, empathic capacity has to be at the heart of American life.
Turkle is a professor of the social studies of science and technology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
— Theresa Olohan and Jaden Amos contributed to this project.