By Nicole Gollis Golden, MSSW ’04
On Thursday at 5:00 a.m, power was restored at my home in Austin after 75 hours without heat or electricity. For those few days, the temperature read 44 degrees inside during the daytime, while lows outside dipped into the single digits at night.
In a dark and cold cave-like space that looked like my house, I felt as though I was living in what I described to my husband as the Stranger Things-esque “upside down” version of our home. With a flip of some seemingly all-powerful master switch that we would soon learn is controlled by an entity we’d never heard of, the daily comforts that patterned our days were gone, and we had no idea when we would get them back.
I now know that you cannot explain to someone not experiencing a crisis what that crisis feels like in a way that they will fully understand. The way time feels as though it’s speeding by and also standing still, the way your world becomes oddly small and big at the same time, how you plan out each move and use every ounce of mental and physical energy to stay sane and warm. You hold it together to prepare a meal for your family, help a neighbor, or charge your phone in the car, but then something sets you off: for me, it was my shivering dog that broke me down.
That this crisis is an additional layer on top of the global pandemic that has killed almost 500,000 Americans and forced us to live apart from the world in order to protect ourselves and others from death and suffering is something I don’t have adequate words for.
I’ll admit that while I have a deep capacity for empathy that has fueled some of my most important life decisions, I haven’t experienced great personal trauma. Even through this devastating winter storm that left millions of Texas homes like mine without power, I have been keenly aware that I have privileges available to me that far too many don’t have: close family and friends, financial resources, food and water, and a gas stove and fireplace with wood generously donated by kind neighbors.
When we feel powerless, we look for what we can control. For us, it was constantly checking in with our immediate community, preparing hot food and drinks for older neighbors without gas, filling containers with water, and tending to our pipes so they didn’t burst or freeze. When I had access to the internet, I made donations to local organizations. I poured my energy into what was right in front of me, knowing that beyond my personal purview lie generations of systemic injustice such that some of our neighbors can’t and won’t survive yet another crisis.
The 11 year old boy who died in his mobile home.
The woman found frozen in her backyard.
The mother burning belongings to keep her children warm.
When I was in graduate school studying for my master of social work, I learned a phrase that stuck with me: The Personal is Political. I remember feeling as though I may not have been able to adequately explain the meaning of the phrase if someone were to ask me to, yet it resonated with absolute truth deep in my bones.
I became a gun-violence-prevention activist shortly after the Sandy Hook School shooting in 2012, an event that struck me to my core and changed the course of my life. I joined as a founding member of the Texas Chapter of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, ready to take action — and never looked back. Those years as a leader in the movement were filled intensely with The Personal: hugs, tears, and countless stories of heartache and loss; as well as The Political: organizing volunteers, testifying in opposition to dangerous gun bills and pressuring lawmakers.
These interwoven layers came together so completely for me — how a mother’s pain, a child’s loss of innocence, or a community disproportionately and relentlessly rocked by gun violence tell the story of why we need systemic change and leadership that values justice, dignity, and humanity over political gain and financial profit.
As I write this, reports indicate that at least dozens of Texans have died. Hospitals are running out of water supply. Thousands of Texans are still without electricity, food and clean water. Many are looking for who to blame. I am still sorting through the pieces that got us here, but I know for sure that the infrastructure that should have kept us safe wasn’t there.
No one should freeze and starve in a nation as prosperous as ours. No child should be taken by gun violence while the gun lobby writes our gun laws. The tragic, heart-achingly personal is ALWAYS political.
I became an activist when I learned that silence is complicity. We need to use our voices to demand answers, to demand protection, and to demand lawmakers at every level of government who are accountable to the people they serve, who respond to suffering with heart and soul, and who place human value above low costs.
Join me, in honor of our fellow Texans who didn’t survive the winter of 2021.
Nicole Golden, MSSW ’04, is a wife, mother and activist living in Austin, Texas.