• Marisa Guerin

Sistering the Joists

Marisa Guerin, PhD – January 12, 2021

No, this isn’t really about carpentry; yes, this is really about politics and democracy. It arises from my musings on the concept of “sistering.”


People who do house repairs or renovations use the phrase “sistering” when they must attach a new, strong beam to an older, weaker beam in order to restore its structural integrity. In our 100 year-old house the sistering had to be done on the joists that run along the underside of the living room and dining room, holding the floors up. Some of the old joists had suffered termite damage back in the mists of time, before we owned the home, and the gradual deterioration of the wood made a few of the joists resemble sponges. This alarmed the contractor a good deal, since our living room features the (heavy!) baby grand piano we inherited from my Aunt Mary. He was afraid the piano and our whole living room would be found in the basement one day.


It wasn’t all that risky, I don’t think, but in any case, it’s fixed now and the floors are solid again. I really love the image of the “sistered” joists, able to take on another 100 years of load-bearing because they have the close, committed support of the new and strong beams.


It seems to me that the image of rotted support beams and structures at risk of catastrophic failure applies as much to our American democracy as it does to the floor boards of our home, along with the possibilities of strengthening through sistering. (No gender bias here, just a feminine image.)


Our democracy has always been highly imperfect to begin with – a precious dream, but fashioned initially out of compromises that failed to guarantee justice and freedom to slaves or to others who were not landed/wealthy Anglo-Saxon men. Fulfilling the dream remains a goal for the future, although the struggles of so many through the decades have brought us closer.


I felt tempted to write that in this present moment, the democratic project is in tatters, but I don’t think that’s quite right. Very volatile, yes. But I think the momentum is shifting, and the possibilities for restoring health to the nation are greater now than they were four years ago.


So this is where I think “sistering” comes in. The people and elected representatives and the councils of governance in our cities, states, and nation are the load-bearing joists that hold this democracy together. Some of them need re-thinking and new legislation to fortify their strength – a Voting Rights Act, for example, and anti-gerrymandering laws, and a raft of other good ideas. The polarization of the political world means these changes will be hard to come by, but the opportunity is there.


I am happy to have observed in the last four years an up-swelling of citizen activism from youngers, and elders, and in-betweens who have stepped up to make their views known to their electeds. I feel tremendous appreciation for the extraordinary, patient commitment of grassroots organizers in places like Georgia, led overwhelmingly by Black women, to extend the franchise to those whose votes were historically suppressed. And I see the formation of stronger coalitions between businesses and the public service sectors to support the work of anti-racism and to cut off the oxygen that fuels the destructive fires of insurrection and hate.


Because I’m now in the ranks of senior citizens, I’m especially sensitive to the inspiring energies of younger folks – people like my next-door neighbor, my nephews and nieces, the young adult children of lifetime friends. They see the dream, too, and they see the injustice and division that remains among us. They are especially aware of the urgent need for action to address climate change.

The energies of the young and strong, allied with the seasoned commitment of the elders is part of what I mean when I speak of “sistering” the older joists to newer beams. This doesn’t rule out that sometimes the old beams of an unjust or corrupted system have to go and new structures have to be built in their place to meet the needs of the new world. But even then – we would do well to build our new society with reinforced, sistered beams that combine the strengths of many and that will ensure a secure and fair future.


Ask any builder – construction or restoration is slow, careful work. We can do this, sisters and brothers. And in any case, as the Talmud advises us: “Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief. Do justly, now. Love mercy, now. Walk humbly, now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.”



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