Yousef Rabhi is the State Representative for the 53rd District of Michigan and represents Ann Arbor. I first met him because he lives in Ward 4. In our conversation, Yousef described how trips to Lansing expose him to risk, how much his cat appreciates him being home, and how the challenges we face now are an opportunity to “think bigger” about how to create stronger and more resilient systems for the future.
This is part of a series of interviews with Ann Arbor residents, talking about personal experiences adjusting to (and adapting during) the COVID-19 crisis. This interview was conducted remotely via the ZOOM application. I appear in this video as “Mrs. Nelson” - we talked over the ZOOM account that I use primarily with my preschool class. Interviewed May 16, 2020
Today I am talking to Yousef Rabhi, who is our state Representative. Thank you for talking to me today.
Yeah, happy to be here. Thanks for having me!
Alright, so even though you are a big important person, I’m asking you the exact same questions that I have asked everybody. What kind of changes have you had to make to your lifestyle during this pandemic? How has your life changed?
Well, as an elected official, one of the things that I’ve been doing (used to do a lot of) was going to community events, talking to people in person. That’s the main thing that’s changed dramatically. I don’t have events every night, where I’m going and shaking hands and talking face to face with people. It’s basically all ZOOM meetings now and it is a whole different experience, it really is. As someone who really likes to connect with people, on a personal level, it’s different in person than it is over a ZOOM. So that’s definitely been a major change for me.
The other thing is just how busy I am. Honestly, I’ve always been really busy but it feels like I’ve never been busier with constant calls coming in, especially at the beginning when people were trying to figure out what was going on with the governor’s orders: how does this impact my business, how does this impact me as an individual. It felt like it was constant like call after call. I was getting two or three calls - while I was on another call - that I had to then return. And it’s important. I wanted to make sure that we could connect with all of these people that had different questions.
So it has been very busy, it has been completely different, but I’m trying to do the best I can, given the circumstances.
What kind of precautions are you taking day-to-day in these situations where you can’t avoid public places? Every single one of us is wrestling with: how are we going to get groceries now and things that we can’t… we’re supposed to stay home, but… What kind of routines do you have in your household?
Yeah, so for grocery shopping but also I have to - every once in a while - go in and vote for the legislature, as well, I have to go into session. So far, that’s only been once or twice a week (which is better than what we usually do, which is three times a week). The grocery store I’m not as scared of in many ways as I am going to session, because in session its an enclosed room where you have 110 - actually it’s more like 120 - people that are all in the same space.
I don’t want to be - I’m not trying to be - partisan with these statements but it’s just facts: the democratic side of the aisle, we all wear masks. The republican side of the aisle, it’s 50/50 on a good day. That, to me, is scary to be in an environment where only about half (or three quarters of the people, on a good day) are wearing a mask and everybody else is sort of ignoring the directive.
But in terms of my own…what I do, is I do really try to wear a mask at all times. Often I try to wear gloves when I can, when I have access to them. And it’s really avoiding getting near anybody to the best degree that I can. Of course, it’s hard when you’re on the floor with limited space, really trying to avoid that close… anywhere within six feet of another person. That’s really what I’ve been trying to do.
Then of course (again) - whether its representatives or whether it’s those members of the public who come in the building and are refusing to comply with public health directives - there’s a lot of people around that capital building that are not using masks, which is inappropriate in my opinion.
Some people I have talked to describe feeling really cooped up. We’ve lost a lot of the outlets that we used to have: going to a coffeeshop to meet a friend or going into public places, a lot of which are now closed. What are your strategies for overcoming those feelings of isolation, where maybe you are looking at the same four walls a lot of the time and you’re only face-to- face in person with a lot of the same people?
Yeah, that’s real. And I live in a pretty small house, too. What I try to do is I try to get outside and garden as much as I can. I go on a lot of walks. I snuggle my cat. (laughs) That’s a key one. I think my cat is really keeping me happy through a lot of this. She’s been really really friendly and I think has really appreciated that I’m home so much, because the contrast to the Before Time was that I was really not home very much, to be honest. I was spending a lot of time in Lansing because we had session, back to back three days a week. I was in Lansing for long periods of time. Now that I’m here at home, she’s really enjoying me being around, so it’s been really nice.
Do you take any special precautions when you do go outdoors?
I mean, just try to keep social distance from people, I think that’s the main thing. I do bring a mask oftentimes, but when I’m out by myself on a walk, the main thing I focus on is social distancing.
What would you say to people who are sick of the isolation? I know that you’ve confronted them in person in really frightening circumstances in Lansing, but I’ve asked this question of everyone: what comments would you have for people who have said, “Look, we’re done, let’s get back to normal”?
Yeah. (pause) I think probably what I would say is: I would hope that those individuals would realize how blessed they are to be alive and that there are thousands of our fellow Michiganders who are not that lucky. If we rush back into this without the right precautions being taken, many hundreds or thousands more will die. Having lost a colleague early on in this, the people that are saying this is like a hoax, that are saying… there’s a lot of theories out there about what this is and I just.. it’s real when you lose somebody. I guess the main thing I would say is I just hope that they realize how blessed they are to be alive and to not jeopardize that for other people or even potentially themselves.
I appreciate that. Is there anything else that I didn’t ask you about that you think is worth commenting on, on this topic?
I think this is obviously a very difficult time for a lot of people, whether we have somebody that we know that passed away or who is suffering through this horrible virus (because it does cause a lot of pain) or whether we’re working through economic loss, there’s just a lot of negativity right now around us. What I’ve been really trying to do, too - and I guess this gets to one of your other questions, about how we’ve been trying to get through it - is I’ve really been trying to think positively about the future. Because this crisis has really opened up a lot of the societal fault-lines that have already existed, frankly - flaws in the way that we do things in this country and around the world - that have really been exposed in a way that’s new to a lot of people.
I’ve been trying to think positively and dream about the world that we can create, based on what we know now, based on what we have seen, and how poorly the system has worked for so many people. If we can’t, as a society, go a month [or] two months without total economic collapse maybe it’s time to re-think how our economy works. So this has really been an opportunity for me to think bigger and dream bigger. Every opportunity I have, what I encourage people to do is to engage in that themselves because - whether it’s right now while we’re all home, using our technology to communicate or whether it’s at a time when hopefully someday we’ll be able to interact again - we have to be pushing for a new world that can be more resilient in the face of this type of crisis.
Whether it’s a virus or something else, we need to do better as a society and I think this is our opportunity to really think and dream and hope for a better future.
I agree. I agree completely. I want to thank you for taking the time to talk to me because I know that you’re busy with a whole lot of things. It was good talking to you!
Yeah, thank you, and thanks for all your good work, too. Thanks for putting these on, I think it’s a great opportunity.