American Sociological Association

ASA Footnotes

A publication of the American Sociological AssociationASA News & Events
May/June 2020

Redefining Progress

Desi Rodriguez-Lonebear,  Dual PhD Candidate, University of Arizona and University of Waikato New Zealand; Incoming Assistant Professor, University of California-Los Angeles, writing from Northern Cheyenne Indian Reservation

Graduate school is difficult in the best of times. Then COVID-19 happened. As a graduate student in my last year, a mother, and a relative deeply grounded in my tribal community, COVID-19 has upended life in every single sphere. Of course, I am not alone. Most graduate students precariously juggle research, teaching, finances, and self-care (whatever that is). There is no work-life balance, and there surely isn’t when one is also a caregiver. In mid-juggle, there’s always a ball crashing down. Right now, all the balls are on the floor. For some of us, little sticky hands are throwing them back. Still, graduate student life demands that we continue to make “progress.” So, what does such progress in a pandemic look like? 

For me, progress is driving across the country to reunite with my three-year old because a short dissertation writing “break” turned into five agonizing weeks apart after safety became paramount. There is a methodical flow that comes with road-tripping during a pandemic when everyone you encounter could be a deadly threat. 

Progress is speaking truth to power. There’s a reason why the Navajo Nation has the third highest rate of COVID-19 cases in the country behind New York and New Jersey. Like with Black and Latinx people, the health disparities are a direct outcome of the systemic racism upon which this nation was built. Many are witnessing the cracks in the system for the first time. Many of us were born in the cracks.

Progress is helping my brothers navigate the impossible web of applying for unemployment benefits. The frustration from waiting on hold for hours is enough to drive anyone to give up, but we don’t because there are mouths to feed.

Progress is hustling contributions so my reservation community can buy PPE, stock up on food, and take care of our most vulnerable. Weeks after its passage, tribal communities still haven’t seen a penny from the CARES Act. COVID-19 exposes what we have always known as Indigenous Peoples: we are our only defense.

And yes, progress is trying to grind out this dissertation in the hours of darkness punctuated by anxiety and hope. Continuing to juggle business as usual feels impossible because it is. Our new business as usual is literally survival, and that depends on our shared humanity. We need to tell each other that it’s ok to leave the balls on the floor.  

A new ASA section on Sociology of Indigenous Peoples and Native Nations is currently in formation.