Public Kinship Amid a Mandate of Social Distance
Updated: Apr 7
Op-ed by Dr. Bobby William Austin
President of Neighborhood Associates
In the midst of chaos, there is no better time to reassert and reaffirm to the world and ourselves our mutual humanity. "Pandemic:” the word sounds foreboding and its meaning truly is. But more, its outcome has the power to make or break a community, a city, a nation—and a world. I have for some time talked about an idea I call Public Kinship, which seems somewhat at odds with the social distancing that is being demanded of us. To my way of thinking, a society will fall apart if we have not become accustomed to a public ethos for social life. As we address the health and economic infrastructures, we must also attend to the fracturing and crumbling of our social infrastructure.
To my mind, we need a Public Kinship ideal that manifests itself in both theory and practice. The ideal is tied to a worldview espoused by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail:
At the core of Public Kinship is personal self-leadership, leading myself into good action through a process of how I meet the world. With each person and each meeting, I establish a platform of Public Kinship. It is a process of being present and proactive. This simple practice requires me to lead myself through steps to ensure that I do my best to create a Public Kinship affect in my life and my community. The steps are:
This will take me to a much-needed wholeness that nurtures the collective vision of a dynamic Public Kinship community. We go beyond by sharing simple, ordinary, everyday experiences. Like a student at the University of the District of Columbia who knocked on doors in her apartment building to ask residents, particularly the elderly, if she could get their groceries. It’s the act of St. Timothy’s Episcopal Church in Southeast Washington, DC to establish a prayer wall for persons to drop by and leave a note of prayer. It is DJ D-Nice convening an Instagram dance party that brought together thousands of individuals to dance in their own homes, including First Lady Michelle Obama and Vice-President Joe Biden. It is one person engaging neighbors and others to hold something in common by connecting through conscious encounters and then telling their civic stories so that we create Public Kinship and public trust. The key to this Kinship is what I do within, and what I do to build shared experiences with others. Public Kinship can exist on this platform, even during the period of social distance. Through this process, Public Kinship truly becomes something that I do that affirms an inclusive worldview; and it helps me to shape myself, my actions and my interactions. Therefore, for instance, I will not be on a beach in Florida; I will follow health professionals in this grave time. This process of self-leadership means I must educate myself, create a Public Kinship plan that I can learn and use, and create opportunities to put my learning into practice and test it against the environment. This new moral mind of self-leadership, public trust, and Public Kinship is our best bet for saving our own lives, and the lives of those we love and those we do not know, in a time of historic transition.
We must use the experiences of Public Kinship demonstrated during the COVID-19 pandemic to lay the groundwork for a new moral mind that will extend far into the future—even when we are all healthy.
Public Kinship is a “Me Thing.” It is what I do for myself, for you, and for the common good.