Dear Essential Aunties, Cousins, Uncles, and Beyond,
I love you. From making sure our mail gets delivered under fascism, to asking me how is mom doing at the grocery store where you should be paid $50+ per hour and benefits during a pandemic, you risk your life everyday to meet our communities’ needs. To honor you, even as we know drivers, cooks, and nurses like you are dying the most, is to feel the mixed truth of loving our people and despising these conditions. And still, you continue to do that seemingly small thing that keeps saving our lives.
When I stopped by your house a few months into the pandemic, you told me that you’re scared about COVID-19 and that the preschool you work for is opening back up. Your mask is sliding off your nose as we talk and I’m starting to feel scared for you, too.
It’s funny that I always fumble when trying to explain what I do for a living to you, when really I am the millennial remix of you — an essential auntie. I’m a community organizer who protests policing, distributes free medicine, and teaches farm-to-table cooking classes to young people. I believe food is a key ingredient for building community power and healing. As you send me home with a five course meal I didn’t ask for, I think you may have planted that seed in me. And as millions of farmers protest against Hindu authoritarianism in India, I know that seed can be one of the most powerful forces in the world.
I’m writing to you because I disagree that being essential means you are disposable. Everyday since March 2020, we wake up to what feels like the millionth day of the pandemic. Almost one year later, there’s been no substantial aid or relief. The U.S. government would rather dilly dally us to death before doing what we actually need to do — like shutting down the country, distributing $2,000 monthly checks so workers like you can afford to stay at home, and providing universal health care. Meanwhile, billionaires worldwide have seen a 27% increase in their wealth. A small minority of disturbingly wealthy people are benefiting from this crisis. As MTA conductor Sujatha Gidla writes, “we essential workers — workers in general — are the ones who keep the social order from sinking into chaos. Yet we are treated with the utmost disrespect, as though we’re expendable. Since March 27, at least  New York transit workers have died of Covid-19. My co-workers say bitterly: ‘We are not essential. We are sacrificial.’” I despise the Americanness in making your resilience, your Blackness, your migration story, and your assumed working class obedience, a heroic act to justify your death and dying. I’m sorry if there are tinges of that Americanness in this love letter that keep it from feeling like an unencumbered love. The way we live here is compromising all of us, even those of us who love people over profit.
I’m writing to you because your audacity, your wisdom, and your kitchen table remedies have always been worthy of what a six-figure salary means to a capitalist economy. You’ve always been worthy of paid time off, without worrying about losing a job or how you’d make up the money. If I really had technology figured out the way you think I do, I would take Jeff Bezos’ billions and redistribute it to all our aunties worldwide so they’d never have to worry about the cost of affording groceries or medicine again. I want you to know that I organize because I know that this and so much more is possible. And because you taught me to act like it already is.
I’m fighting for a world where being an essential auntie is a collective responsibility — because the work of community is up to all of us. Please let me know when the next strike is. I will bring back your tupperware.
sumi dutta (she/her) is a writer, organizer, teacher, and herbalist from Durham, North Carolina. She writes and teaches about neighborhood herbalism as community organizing, studies astrology and dog whispering, and pulls a lot of tarot when making decisions. sumi is a digital organizer with 18 Million Rising, a member of Southerners On New Ground, and a co-creator of a local mutual aid apothecary. Engage with her work at: www.sumitadutta.com.