Main content

Livelihood Is a Human Right

24 Jan 2020

Written by Abraham Maslow and featured in a 1943 issue of Psychological Review, Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs assumes that every person must have a core set of physiological, safety, social, and esteem principles met to reach what he referred to as that person’s most “actualized self.” This precept in his papers on human motivation has been criticized for its baselessness in scientific evidence, and as a cisgender heterosexual man, his ability to most intersectionally determine the needs of all people and what it looks like for everyone to manifest their “best selves” is questionable. Stratified measurements of human continuance can’t be purported as the standard to which we claim to empathize with our shared necessities of survival when people are dehumanized and stripped of access to what they need to maintain the excessive comfort of others. Black and brown people, women and femmes, queer, disabled, and systemically marginalized communities at various intersections have been independently achieving the human standards determined by Maslow for centuries. Black femmes have proven that we can be stripped of our access to safety and still have healthy relationships or feel a sense of accomplishment outside of capitalist and patriarchal socio-economic standards of achievement. 

In his research, almost all of Abraham Maslow's examples of “self-actualized” people are cisgender white men, and despite lacking in definitive scientific proof, his pyramid of needs is still referenced in the institutional development of academia, government, geopolitics, economics, medicine, food, and a host of dominant structures which shape our livelihoods. The monopolizing figures behind these institutions often affirm their basic needs while subsisting on the labor, contribution, and trust of those whose needs are restricted by the oppressive burdens of those systems. Benefactors and traditionalist sympathizers moralize their hegemonic expectations while gatekeeping food, water, warmth, housing, and rest only to ask the underprivileged why they haven’t acquired more in life. 


The recent state-sanctioned eviction of Moms 4 Housing from a previously vacant home in Oakland attests to this. In a city where housing costs an extortionate $50 an hour to maintain, the organization seeks to secure housing rights through land trusts that remove power from corporatization and growing barriers to access which contribute to the national housing crisis. This as we navigate a planet that is increasingly on fire, and global temperatures reach new heights due to climate change, capitalists pillage the Amazon for enterprise, and the quality of air, a basic necessity for the survival of all breathing ecology is significantly jeopardized. Instead of setting new standards of accountability for the corporations responsible for decades of decline, we’re told to work harder and check our consumption despite many of us having the lowest means to equity and being the most vulnerable. It is willful denial to expect people who don’t have consistent access to their basic needs to become idealized presentations of conventional society, particularly as they are being loaded with the burdens of their oppressors. For me, sustenance and thriving while navigating housing insecurity, wage disparity, and intersectional harm as a queer Black woman requires communal support, unapologetic self-care, and empowerment through reclamation.


Discussions about the systematic disparities in access to food and nutrition are often reduced to a matter of proximity, but access to communal farm subsidies, transportation, cash and time, plus dietary restrictions, are also vital when considering what it looks like to establish equitable access to food. Wealthy neighborhoods have three times more grocer options than those that are low-income, and a report by the Racial Justice Project found that people of color are up to a third less likely to have access to a local supermarket than their white counterparts. The USDA’s most comprehensive documentation on food disparity was compiled a decade ago, and they reported corner stores in predominantly Black and brown neighborhoods as sufficient grocers despite most of them charging higher prices and lacking fresh food options in comparison to conventional supermarkets.

Since 2009, funding for important government food equity initiatives like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) has been cut substantially, further widening the food access gap, but organizations like Black Urban Growers are working to change this. Founded by activist Karen Washington, Black Urban Growers centers food empowerment in low income and POC neighborhoods through education, training, and cultivating micro-farms. Washington’s career in food equity began in the 1980s, and in the late 1990s, she organized against gentrification in New York to secure land plots for community gardens. Today she runs Farm School NYU and hosts an annual conference that unites and consults food justice chefs, advocates, and leaders with a focus on finding solutions toward what she calls “food sovereignty.”


In April of last year, Flint Michigan was given an almost 80 million dollar loan from the state to fund the completion of a new water pipeline, a temporary municipal water source, and total replacement of the existing water system. While the long-overdue victory was an essential step in government systems taking equitable action toward environmental justice, Flint still doesn’t have clean water. Many forget that it was the state who started the crisis in 2014 by changing the city’s primary water source to a polluted river to cut costs. A Michigan Civil Rights Commission report found evidence showing that the decision to move Flint’s pipelines to a known tainted source was rooted in racial bias, citing redlining, segregation, and unequal municipal management as the cause. Flint isn’t the only city in the United States where the water runs muddy, Black and Brown neighborhoods across the country are struggling with crumbling pipelines and inconsistent safety testing where residents are confined to drinking from plastic bottles and having to leave town to enjoy the sustenance of healthy water. 

In Flint, grassroots mobilization and legal action paired with non-profit resources helped to make clean water accessible to the community until human rights demands were met. In the West, the organization Dig Deep works diligently on the Navajo reservation where many don’t have access to running water at all. In some regions of the reservation, Indigenous people endure poverty and go without utilities like electricity or water and rely on visits from water tank trucks. When approaching the state and county legislatures, they’re told to either wait for further infrastructural development or pay tens of thousands of dollars to build their own water systems. Dig Deep has been installing community wells and off-grid water solutions to help solve this problem not only through accessibility but by eliminating the burden of having to travel for water and reducing expenses for Navajo families who are paying 72 times the utility costs of their suburban counterparts.


When it comes to basic human needs, rest is often abandoned in the scheme of wellness. The capitalist onus of working for survival grows as the dollar weakens and the wage gap widens. Due to inflation, an hour of work doesn’t stretch as long as it used to in terms of income. The more marginalized you are based on class, race, gender, and ability, the more you’re expected to contribute in unpaid or underpaid labor to enterprise and society. Women and femmes have to contend with the expectations of a second or third shift and assumed domestic work while people of color are forced by systemic factors to acquiesce not only a devaluing of their work but a theft of labor and resources. This translates to long work hours, holding multiple jobs at once and even servitude, which leaves no time for rest. In a society where people of color are expected to work the most with the least benefit, Black and brown communities are either made to feel guilty about partaking in rest and relaxation or withheld the privilege of mental calm to enjoy it. 

The Nap Ministry understands the inequities in sleep and uses its creative platform to spread awareness surrounding the rest gap while normalizing relaxation and pleasure for those who are historically and socioeconomically conditioned to never stop working. Mentally and spiritually empowering visuals and installations encourage the opportunity of guilt-free rest as indispensable self-care. The Nap Ministry views rest as a “portal to healing,” and they host events where Black people can feel safe and are given the space to experience the freedom of communal rest. 

It is this level of care, healing, and actionable equity in a community that will help heal the gaps in the health, livelihood, and socioeconomic standing of people from marginalized groups in the United States. Grassroots mobilization paired with a change-based shift from the systemic approach is what has led to growing success in autonomous initiatives and safer spaces for those who are most vulnerable to the institutionalized erasure of their wellbeing and (as Maslow put it,) their most “actualized selves.” 

Written by Kendriana Washington for Youth To The People

Orientation message
For the best experience, please turn your device