The Great Decimation and the fight for the public good

Karla L. Monterroso
7 min readMay 7, 2020

A call to recognition, mourning, and purposeful action for philanthropy, the social and public good sectors.

We are at the beginning of the Great Decimation. A decimation galvanized at the crosshairs of a pandemic, historic levels of inequality, and an erosion of investment in the public good. It is important we treat this like decimation because a pandemic may have kicked over the final domino, but the complex web that allows all of them to come tumbling down has been building and building for decades. We weren’t just unready, we were made unready. The loss of life we are seeing right now could have been prevented but few wanted to believe this was coming.

‪A week after the Presidential election I was on the phone with my cousin and he was insisting these four years would not be as bad as I imagined they would be. He was confident, as many were, that our systems would hold off major catastrophe. ‬

‪I was bawling on the phone.

“Tell me what is happening right now, why this kind of crying,” he asked.

I said, “you have no idea how many people are going to die.”

He very confidently replied, “This is mostly an act, it will be fine,” as warning flag after warning flag popped up: the Muslim ban, the natural disasters and subsequent abandonment of Puerto Rico, concentration camps at the border, a sneering Supreme Court Justice nominee threatening in confirmation hearings that a progressive party would pay, both sides-ing the Charlottesville white supremacist rally, the mass shootings of everything from synagogues to an El Paso Walmart, the clear corruption of our government being sold to the highest bidders, nothing made folks with resources move to prepare for this. In fact, many of us were told that our funding for the public good was contingent on not talking about it directly. People of color were, as always, the canaries in the coal mine. It didn’t occur to anyone that we were an indicator of the conditions of the coal mine to come for everyone else.

From election night on I saw two common themes, one, folks desperately wanted to talk about how we possibly could have gotten here. That came in a couple of different ways.‬

‪Among predominantly white progressive groups both centrist and liberal I saw bewilderment and a desire to Monday morning quarterback each moment that led up to the 2016 election.‬ ‪It was discussions of Hillary’s lack of fitness for the moment, “Bernie woulda won!”, Bernie’s inabilities at effectively cheering Hillary on, an obsession with poor white racists and hillbilly elegies — whether or not they were racists, whether or not they could be held accountable for their actions given how left behind they had been, and a deep desire for their absolution.‬ ‪It showed up in 1,000 details over podcasts, think pieces, philanthropic lunch and learns in which many of us tried to explain the American politics of race to newly “willing to listen” middle-class to wealthy white folks. ‬

‪The second way it manifested was a group, mostly people of color, expressing being disturbed but not surprised. We analyzed with each other and in public versions of “Let me tell you how White Supremacy has always overplayed its hand”‬

‪And out of those two responses, I saw a tremendous amount of leadership go out into the field and organize and prep. Those leaders went to get funding to prepare for what it meant to do our work in a hostile world. To prep for the disasters to come.‬

‪On the philanthropic side, I saw the event that launched a thousand strategic evaluations. And while many folks tried to plan for the future, we faced yet another round of people saying “We’re changing direction but would love to hear more as we flesh out our strategy”‬

As a society, we are proving to be terrible at believing that the situation we are in IS as terrible as it seems. We don’t want to admit that in a battle of good and evil, sometimes good losses. We don’t want to admit that we lost the current battle.

‪The thing about both of these reactions is they don’t build for the future. On one end you have folks paralyzed looking at the past as if that will change the future. ‬‪On the other end, you have folks so undercapitalized that the present is all they can build for. We are given “hold the line” money for the encroachment of plutocracy and literal fascism. The resources we would need for the future are held up by baffling “let’s see how this plays out” echo chambers, with many folks holding out to see if they could pick “the right intervention” or the “most valuable intervention”. ‪As a society, we are proving to be terrible at believing that the situation we are in IS as terrible as it seems. We don’t want to admit that in a battle of good and evil, sometimes good losses. We don’t want to admit that we lost the current battle. That this loss as many before it has come with a body count. And that penchant is robbing of us of much-needed prep time.‬

Many will interpret “we lost this battle in 2016” as yet another indictment of the election. But it isn’t. When I refer to losing this battle in 2016, I’m referring to how slow we all were to create the infrastructure needed to battle the moment we are in today. Imagine for a moment, if we had.

In an alternate universe, we assume that voting rights are under deep attack and start taking our case for Vote-By-Mail not just to legislators but to our people. Alongside primary campaigning, each presidential campaign is giving out vote-by-mail information and advocating for their voting bloc to fight for more access and with instructions for how. State voting parties unravel themselves from tradition to think about what it meant for the Democratic Party to protect voting rights. We have flooded the public health and natural disaster preparedness space with money to plan for a global catastrophe, and they have the resources to join forces with everything from water rights to food pantries to homeless shelters to create emergency plans. We have given labor and workforce organizations the ability to create not just their direct service work but the kinds of media and direct service informed legislative agendas that allow them to be prepared for a collapse. Prison abolition organizations that are normally hamstrung by funding that requires their participation with the very police forces and jails they are fighting against are able to work with public health and labor organizations to develop restorative justice and release plans that ensure the safety of all people. We are given planning money and encouraged to collaborate. We are given resources to collaborate. Because collaborating takes resources.

What happens in this moment of catastrophe if instead of having spent the last 3 years denying how bad this could get, we vaccinated our public good space against the pandemic of inequality for the battles we were screaming were sure to come?

We keep asking the same people to hold the line, over and over again. We are burning them out because the end of that work is nowhere in sight. Our frontline public good workers — organizers, direct service providers, educators, community leaders — are navigating sometimes undiagnosed but surely astronomical amounts of anxiety and depression. Ask any non-profit executive in an off the record conversation and they will tell you how much more this mental toll has taken in the last four years. This is making folks turn on even the concept of a public good, believing that they will never be allowed to exist. Turning to the option of destruction as the only hope for real change.

We need to fund and support not only the folks we need to stem the losses of the current fight but the folks that need to plan and build actual infrastructure for the battles to come.

The Great Decimation launched before any of us were willing to admit what was happening around us. It will force us to do more with less as inequality has always done. Holding the line is not enough. We need to fund and support not only the folks we need to stem the losses of the current fight but the folks that need to plan and build actual infrastructure for the battles to come.

We already have a map of what is coming. The 1918 Flu happened and spread in large part as a consequence of World War I and eleven years later we saw the 1929 stock market crash and subsequent Great Depression. It took four years from the Great Depression to New Deal politics and passage. It took from 1933 to 1939 and then end of World War II to finish out the New Deal project. We need only to look at the pattern. Our stock market crash came first in 2008. Our pandemic came 12 years later. A second economic decimation is happening around us now. Will technology accelerate, or as a result of misinformation, impede what real recovery might mean? Will we even have a functioning democracy at the end of this election cycle to be able to move in a direction that starts to minimize a loss of life? It’s hard to know, but we will be devastated if we don’t plan and build for all of it now.

What does that tell us about the battles we need to fight now. Why can’t we look into the future of worst-case possibilities, believe them possible, and then start waging the fight for those battles now? Why can’t we look at these possibilities less as doom and gloom and more as the pragmatic need to move us towards being a country that really values life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness? We can spend this time doubting this will get worse and/or in a deep emotional depression that saps us of any desire for the next iteration of “the work” or we can grow. We can choose not to move with urgency but to move with clarity of purpose and intentionality.

When I replay the conversation I had the weeks following the election in my head I regret that I allowed doubt of what I was saying cloud what was unrepentant certainty of what was to come. It is all of our responsibility to make sure that doesn’t happen again.

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Karla L. Monterroso

Leadership coach, strategist, racial equity advocate, Covid survivor, long covid, former CEO @Code2040, former @HealthLeadsNatl, @PeerForward, @CollegeTrack.