Showing Up in the Whirlwind

Colette Murphy is the Chief Executive Officer of the Atkinson Foundation. She sent this letter on December 23, 2021, to Atkinson’s extended community. You can subscribe to receive her occasional updates here.


This latest variant of COVID arrived like a sudden blizzard: disorienting, frightening and all-too-familiar. Since then, we’ve been madly pumping our brakes, keeping a cautious distance, and rapidly recalculating routes. 

Some of us are, once again, getting organized to wait this one out from the safety of home – fully vaccinated, boosted, and compensated. Many others head out into dangerous conditions every day, with too few protections, to earn an inadequate hourly wage.

The only thing more deadly than this virus is the illusion that inequality is inevitable. It doesn’t have to be this way. Not if you believe, as we do, that all of us really are in this together and dependent on each other. Unless everyone is fully protected, no one is.

That’s why I’m asking you to take some time during these holidays to listen to the workers who have been essential through every season of this crisis so far. The Decent Work and Health Network are among those who are raising workers’ voices above the din of those who profit from their hardships. And then, I hope you’ll re-up your commitment to decent work starting with the reasonable expectation of paid sick days.

The country has learned a lot about “containing a contagion” since March 2020, but will we do it? Armine Yalnizyan, the Atkinson Fellow on the Future of Workers, says “It’s up to us, through our individual behaviour, and through the governments we’ve chosen to represent us.” We’ll have another choice in 2022 between those who know it’s wrong to deny a worker the use of a bathroom during a pandemic, and those who know it’s right to treat every worker fairly whatever their employment status.

Next year also marks the 150th anniversary of the Trade Union Act – the first piece of legislation that made it legal for workers to organize. While it gave them the right to join a union, the government simultaneously passed another act that made picketing illegal, according to this account by the Canadian Labour Congress. “In the years following this ‘first’, unions came to realize that governments could take away rights as easily as they could be bestowed.”

Today, the Charter of Rights and Freedoms protects the right to unionize as well as the right to strike among other fundamental rights. This legal protection is essential. I believe it’s also a false floor. For Joseph Atkinson, “humanity above all” was the deeper moral foundation of his commitment to social and economic justice. He imagined – and fought for – a world in which we stand up for each other. We catch glimpses of its existence in moments like this one. Atkinson’s shared mission is to “pollinate” open hearts, minds, places and spaces until we’ve grown a world no one can or would want to take away.

Everywhere, we find inspiration and reassurance. This colourful mural was created by David Loewenstein and many others at a farmers’ market in Lawrence, Kansas in 2007. Their intention was to celebrate the African American artists with Kansas roots who pollinated American culture. 

If you take a close look, you’ll find these words by poet Gwendolyn Brooks woven into this concrete tapestry:  “We are each other’s harvest, / We are each other’s business, / We are each other’s magnitude and bond.”

My co-worker Ausma Malik brought them into an Atkinson team discussion about renewal as part of The Circle’s year-long Partners in Reciprocity Program. She spoke about “community-made” people, not self-made men. 

Subsequently, I learned that this mural was demolished upon the sale of the property to a private developer in 2015. The Spencer Museum of Art, at the University of Kansas, recommissioned the team of David Loewenstein, Nedra Bonds, Eugene Sarmiento, and Janada Birdling to recreate the mural on the same site after discussions with the new owner about its significance to the community.

In this transformative process over two years, the story of its destruction was not lost. Rather, it remained an integral part of the narrative tying together the past, present and future. Brooks is quoted a second time: “This is the urgency: Live! And have your blooming in the noise of the whirlwind.”

I want to thank the Atkinson board and staff team, and the pollinators with whom we’re privileged to collaborate, for teaching me more than I can say here about renewal and the meaning of these words and images. My wish for 2022 is that we will continue to find hope and build strength by showing up for each other in the whirlwind.

Keep well and stay in touch.

Colette Murphy
Chief Executive Officer

December 2021