By Lenora Rand
At the start of the year for the past couple of years, Mylene, the co-founder of SmallGood, and I like to choose a “word of the year.” It’s meant to be our collective intention, our touchstone, a way to reground ourselves and SmallGood in who we are, what we’re about, and how we want to be in the world. In 2021 the word we chose was “Openness.” The year before that it was “Antiracism.”
Photo: Zero Take on Unsplash.
So, as we’ve been thinking about our word for 2022, I've gotta admit the possibilities that immediately came to mind weren’t all that positive. Didn’t seem all that “north star” like. The problem has been that hopeful, upbeat, optimistic words have all felt a little hollow. Flimsy. Naïve. Because 2021 was…how to put this politely? More than a little messy.
I mean, just when the year was getting started, on January 6, it kicked off with the attempted overthrow of our government. Yeah. That happened.
And then there was the pandemic. I had been hoping, going into 2021, and yes, almost convinced, things were about to be better with the COVID situation. We had VACCINES after all. And the vaccines WORKED! And our president believed in them and was trying to make them readily available to everyone!
In my heart of hearts, I was imagining we’d soon be out and about, back in offices, wearing “hard pants” (or at least soft pants that looked more like hard pants). We’d be meeting friends at restaurants and eating popcorn in movie theaters and flying on airplanes without complete paranoia. We wouldn’t be checking the Covid Cases maps to see where the infection rate was rising and hospitals were getting too full.
We wouldn’t be wearing masks. We’d be hugging people again.
Photo: Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash.
That didn’t happen.
Yes, vaccines became a thing. But so did variants. And then there were the tensions, the polarization, between the vaxxed and the non-vaxxers. Between those who wore masks and those who didn’t.
The pandemic also brought us the “Everything Shortage.” And the “Great Resignation” with burnout and risk vs. reward assessments and a general feeling of “I can’t take it anymore” -causing people to quit their jobs in record numbers.
And then of course in 2021 there also were floods and extreme wildfires and droughts - and deep freezes in Texas! As Jennifer Marlon, a climate scientist at the Yale School of the Environment said, "What we think of as climate change is now becoming very personal." And the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report came out, which the UN Secretary-General António Guterres called nothing less than "a code red for humanity." The alarm bells are deafening, and the evidence is irrefutable."
Oh yeah, and then, although in 2021 we saw police officer Derek Chauvin found guilty of murdering George Floyd, systemic racism kept going strong.
As Nicholas Turner of the Vera Institute wrote, the United States continues to spend "more time, energy, and money criminalizing, policing, and imprisoning people than helping them, with cities nationwide using about one-third of their general funds for law enforcement. We spend double on the apparatus of mass incarceration than what we do on public assistance to poor, disabled, and low-income people.”
And, because of health and wealth disparities, the life expectancy of black people continues to be dramatically lower than that of whites. Here in Chicago, Linda Villarosa reports in the New York Times, that difference can be a chasm. Chicago “…has the country’s widest racial gap in life expectancy: In the Streeterville neighborhood, which is 73 percent white, residents live, on average, to 90 years old; in Englewood, where nearly 95 percent of residents are Black, people live to an average of only 60.”
As a world, as a country, and as individuals we faced so much loss in 2021. Losses from Covid, from racism, from hate crimes, from the climate crisis we’re living in, and of course, we lost a lot of amazing people last year too: Betty White, Desmond Tutu, Joan Didion, Steven Sondheim, Mary Wilson, Cicely Tyson, the list goes on.
Photo: Amanda Edwards for Wire Image.
So, although Mylene and I had some very positive experiences in 2021 – through SmallGood we worked with amazing clients who were each in their own ways adding to the goodness in the world and who were inspiring partners as well as just cool people - 2021 was still in too many ways, for too many people, still pretty much a steaming pile of crap.
We weren’t sure what word we could come up with that wouldn’t gloss over that reality yet would still push us forward, keep us on track, help us renew our commitment to growing more good in the world.
But bell hooks helped us find it.
Photo: Courtesy Twitter
Outspoken feminist and anti-racist, author and activist bell hooks died on December 15 last year. I don’t know how familiar you are with her work. She is one of those people whose quotes show up quite often in things I’m reading and every time I run across one I think, “I need to read more bell hooks.”
On the day she died I read a New York Times interview from 2015 in which I came upon this quote from her:
“…if we think of anger as compost, we think of it as energy, that can be recycled in the direction of our good. It is an empowering force. If we don’t think about it that way, it becomes a debilitating and destructive force.”
That’s it. This steaming pile we’ve got on our hands maybe isn’t crap.
Maybe it’s COMPOST.
Photo: Gareth Willey on Pexels.
The hard things that come into our lives, the loss, and setbacks, and the frustration, anger, sadness and fear and hopelessness that can grab us and hold us too tight… maybe this is stuff that can be recycled in the direction of our good and for more goodness in the world.
In case you don’t know much about it, composting is nothing less than transformation. Food scraps and yard waste - what seems like garbage, without value, and worthless - through the support of a vital community of bacteria, fungi, and other microorganisms in the soil gets broken down and becomes something new. Something regenerative.
No, it’s not pretty and it doesn’t smell great, but compost is, as writer Margaret Simons describes it:
“...fetid messes that might, nevertheless mature into useful stuff.” It’s “resurrection in a bucket” she says.
I should already know this of course, because this is also a key part of the creative process. Out of the chaos and messiness I feel with every creative brief I get, I know that if I can stick with the challenge, and work with it, it becomes something better, sometimes even something wonderful. As Brian Eno has said so well:
So yeah, Mylene and I have decided that this will be SmallGood’s Word of the Year.
Photo: Neslihan Gunaydin on Unsplash.
That’s the word we are committed to come back to when things feel hard and overwhelming and broken and confusing and maybe even edging toward utterly hopeless.
Compost will be the north star that we reach for.
Compost will be the word that reminds us that the hard things we encounter and the messes we find ourselves with in 2022, don’t have to destroy us - they can empower us. We just need to remember that for good things to grow we must stay resilient enough to keep doing the work, brave enough to trust in the process, and receptive enough to accept the support (and challenge) of a community.
By the way, we are always grateful for those of you who are a part of our SmallGood community.
And we’re wishing you all some life-giving composting in the year ahead.