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Social Change, at the Cellular Level
When does a cell hold power? That depends on who you ask.
As a reproductive justice advocate, I consider the power of a cell most viscerally when thinking about abortion rights. A cell’s power has new significance as millions have been robbed of abortion rights and access. I’m discomforted that, even in its early stages, an embryo now has more protection than I do as a Black mother in the United States.
Cells are rarely categorized as bad or good. But they can serve as an analogy of how our politics work for the benefit or harm of our larger social system. Far-right conservatives have played the role of malignant cells. Determined to nurture their own growth, regardless of the cost to their fellow cells and systems, they spread like a cancer. Their power is disproportionate to the relatively small size of their movement, but these harmful cells rob us of peace of mind. The rest of us feel powerless in the wake of their efforts, forgetting that the sickness began with a single cell.
The malignant cells—of racism, viral infection, or robbed bodily autonomy—are old acquaintances. The coronavirus pandemic persists. We seem eager to forget the loss of lives we’ve seen these past few years. Most want to return to the illusion of health we held pre-global pandemic. But Viral Justice: How We Grow the World We Want by sociologist Ruha Benjamin compels readers to remember when the pandemic illuminated the disparities that were already toxic to Black, Indigenous, and other marginalized communities.
Despite this, she reframes the virus as a model for change.
“What if, instead, we reimagined virality as something we might learn from?” Benjamin asks. “What if the virus is not something simply to be feared and eliminated, but a microscopic model of what it could look like to spread justice and joy in small but perceptible ways?” Her approach offers gradual chances to start “in our own backyards” so we can “identify our plots, get to the root cause of what’s ailing us, accept our interconnectedness, and finally grow the fuck up.”
Viral Justice’s suggestion that small, localized resistance is the building block to creating new worlds takes me back to late August. I was in Dallas, Texas, for SisterSong’s 2022 Let’s Talk About Sex Conference. The theme was “Our Blueprint for a Body Revolution,” but every cell of my being was over-fatigued and uninterested in the labor of revolution or optimism. Still, I felt energized as Sonya Renee Taylor danced onstage during the plenary session. The tone shifted when she let us know she would perform “The Summoning: A Channeled Lyric for Reproductive Justice.” I stopped recording to offer my full attention.
The poem was a call to action and a message of encouragement evoking the power of a cell and what we inherited from our ancestors. Tears streamed from my eyes as Taylor told us, “Ain’t no prize in despair. Ain’t no point in pretending we ain’t already been here and won. Tell them the work has already been done in you, in rice fields, and through prayers. It was braided in your hair like seeds.” Taylor lets us know that cellularly, we have the tools. “You have been given the spells. Your cells hold the lightening of evolution. In your bodies is the revolution for this age.”
Viral Justice proves that many outside the conference walls are also contemplating how to survive these times. Benjamin names how white supremacy, capitalism, anti-Blackness, and cisheteropatriarchy erode health and safety as “inequality makes us all sick.”
The book has familiar references, like the U.S. Public Health Service’s Syphilis Study at Tuskegee and the high-profile murders of unarmed Black people by the police. But there are lesser-known references as well. One is the 1985 Philadelphia police bombing of the Black liberation group MOVE; the bombing killed adults and children. There’s also the subsequent finding that the University of Pennsylvania and Princeton University held on to two of those children’s remains without their family’s knowledge and used them in coursework. Another is the Kennedy Krieger Institute’s (KKI) studies in Baltimore that exposed children to lead paint. Benjamin lets us know that these relentless and continuous abuses contribute to worse public health outcomes for many, namely Black and Indigenous communities. Research on weathering and intergenerational trauma proves our cells aren’t just impacted by viral infection—the climate of racism and injustice also shifts them. Yet thankfully, so do efforts of resistance, writes Benjamin.
“If the COVID-19 pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that something almost undetectable can be deadly and that we can transmit it without even knowing. Doesn’t this imply that small things, seemingly minor actions, decisions, and habits, could have exponential effects in the other direction, tipping the scales toward justice: affirming life, fostering well-being, and invigorating society?”
Though Viral Justice leans into the collective cost and trauma of capitalism, settler colonialism, and individualism, among other things, Benjamin uplifts trust, interconnectedness, and using our individual gifts for collective benefit. Each chapter includes the power of a single cell—small, localized efforts to repair harm, build trust, and move toward reconciliation.
The text is sometimes academic, yet accessible. Benjamin’s choice to weave personal stories of childhood and motherhood with action and theory made it easier to see how I fit into the narrative she was crafting. She references disability rights advocacy, SisterSong’s work through the reproductive justice movement, and the powerful lessons we can learn from the work that’s already been done.
She’s clear there isn’t one path to this new world. It requires abandoning either-or thinking and embracing the multiplicity of possibilities for change. Viral Justice leaves us with more questions than answers and prompts important reflections. Her concept of the “datafication of injustice” asks us to know when the search for data is a barrier to progress. Her insistence that we name the sources of structural harm helps prevent victim blaming and deficit-based narratives. Naming the source works whether the culprit is a system or an organizational entity exploiting communities. And lastly, Benjamin describes the “doula effect” as a useful model to intervene in hostile social climates beyond reproductive health care.
In the spirit of activists and writers like Octavia Butler, Benjamin encourages us to dream up a new, more equitable world. Like Taylor, she believes the cells and the seeds hold power and memory.
“In the end, if inequity and injustice are woven into the very fabric of society, then each twist, coil, and code offers a chance for us to weave new patterns, practices, and politics … new blueprints,” she writes in the book’s conclusion. “The vastness of the problems we face will be their undoing when we accept that we are patternmakers. Whether in seemingly simple exchanges or more elaborate forms of community organizing and world-building, this is a microvision of change.”
Strife and joy can exist simultaneously. Like Taylor’s description of the loved ones braiding seeds into hair, Benjamin speaks to the power of the pattern, the seed, and the cell. I see all three in the world. The patterns of pain, the seeds of resistance, and my weary cells seeking rest. Neither Benjamin nor Taylor lay out the map for this lifelong journey. To expect them to would continue the tradition of placing a burden on Black women to save the world.
These messengers encourage me to weep, to rest, to dream. Benjamin is clear we should spend our energy cultivating our sphere of influence instead of pressuring ourselves to multiply efforts and bring them to scale. Still, I don’t walk away from the book empty-handed.
I know a cell is the most powerful thing in the world.
A. Rochaun Meadows-Fernandez is an award-winning writer, speaker, and activist working to amplify Black women's voices in the mainstream dialogue, especially within conversations on health and parenting. In addition to YES! her work has been featured in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Fast Company, and a host of other publications. She is also the founder of the #FreeBlackMotherhood movement. She can be reached at amfcontent.com for business inquiries and on social media for social connections.