Black History Month is a time of reflection. This year I've been reflecting on my own black history and how it brought me back home to Baltimore.
Growing up black, I used to think that at a certain point in my life I would go and help the kids in Africa. Maybe it was those kids on the commercials. They were black like me, but while things may have been lacking in my family, they were really bad in Africa. My mom reminded me of that at every meal time in an effort to bring forth my gratitude, and it worked. Someday I was going to work in, and for, the Motherland.
During a recent life pivot point I realized that it was time to leave Boston where I had lived for over thirty years. Life had just gotten a little too smooth; when life is too smooth I take it as a sign that I am no longer growing. My son had grown up and flown the coop. So had my (ex) husband. I had a portable diversity consulting business, so I was free to go wherever I wanted.
I originally thought I would go to D.C., drawn by the age of Obama. I wanted to be close to the sense of possibility and energy that his presidency evoked. Many friends had gone to work for the administration - besides, after years in Boston, I was looking forward to living somewhere where more of everybody looked like me. Who said one had to go to Africa? I'm not saying people in Africa don't need help or knocking those who do great things to serve them. I just realized there were black people who needed help right here in the nation's capital.
Shortly after making the decision to go to D.C., I embarked on a spiritual fast, something I do at the beginning of every year. The point of the fast is to slow down and get quiet enough to hear God's voice more clearly. It's a time where I ask God, How do you like me? What should I be doing? This time, however, it had a twist: God, I'm going to D.C. You good with that? You've got 21 days to let me know.
I had been meditating for days on Isaiah 61 in the Old Testament of the bible, and if this is getting too religious for you, just hang in there. The chapter is about being anointed by God's spirit to bind up the broken-hearted, proclaim freedom for the captives and bring joy and solace to those who have been dispossessed. I said to myself for twenty days, This is me. I want to be someone who speaks for the voiceless and "proclaims good news to the poor." On the twenty-first day a word dropped into my spirit. And that word was: Baltimore. Baltimore the land of my birth.
I wish I could say, my reaction was Yes and Amen, but instead I said, No way and rushed to the bathroom crying. Why are you crying? I asked myself in the mirror. Because I don't want to go to Baltimore! came the answer. I escaped Baltimore. Baltimore is not cool like D.C. Of course I'll visit; my family is there...
And then I was reminded that I had been praying, journaling, and reading - looking for an answer and I had gotten one. How often does that happen? "You keep saying you want to help the dispossessed," the answer said. "Well, your family and lots of folks in your hometown are part of the dispossessed."
That was three years ago and I am learning every day the humility, curiosity, patience and cultural awareness it takes to be useful to my family and community as they struggle daily to get free of their captivity and gain a dignity that gives their lives more meaning.
I talk about these issues all the time: equality, opportunity, and fairness as the "diversity lady" - but mostly to those occupying or aspiring to occupy the C-suites. It's a totally different thing to find a way to make a difference on the ground for the deeply disenfranchised. What I have realized is that I'm not going to come to Baltimore like some knight in shining armor. My job is not to be the savior for my family, in particular, hero but to be the facilitator. Because things are real on the streets of Baltimore.
My nieces and nephews tell me stories of what life is like that make my head hurt. The economic and structural impediments that they are attempting to navigate and surmount require money, genius and great optimism to unravel. Jobs are not impossible. Although any infraction with the law, even a minor one, even if it is resolved in your favor, comes up on security checks and disqualifies you with many employers. After three years, you can pay to have it removed from the system. Youthful indiscretions are not allowed in this life. If they can get jobs, those jobs pay $10 an hour and that doesn't pay for rent, gas and food - and certainly not for child care.
Back-breaking labor jobs pay a bit more, but offer no benefits and no future. Uncaring bosses find ways to weasel more hours out of their employees without paying overtime. Employees are too afraid to complain because people get fired every day for the slimmest of reasons, with a long line of applicants waiting to take their place. College is too expensive, even community college. Without college, they know, there is little chance of changing the vicious circle they seem to be caught in.
I sit and problem-solve with my nieces and nephews and learn more than I want to know about how things I have taken for granted like a car and respect are in short supply. But I've also gotten the opportunity to say yes to things. Some of them come to me with projects that they want me to try to help finance for them. They tell me what they're trying to do and I consult and sometime contribute. It's crazy how many of their most difficult quandaries could be solved by a little bit of money. They want to go to community college which costs X amount of dollars. Say they could get that money... How are they going to get there? Because the community colleges are only available by public transportation at this time or this time, so they need a car. Now how are they going to get a car? Usually from used car dealers with unconscionable practices. Then there is how are they going to pay for insurance, gas? And so on and so forth.
I wish I had all the money needed to fix things for them and for so many others, but I don't. What I have is my belief that my support is making some kind of difference, sometimes giving them a sounding board or clearing a path and at other times delivering a dose of tough love by letting them know that to reach their goals they must work harder and believe in themselves first. The best part about coming home is the chance to connect and touching their brilliance, enjoying their humor and hearing their dreams. Likewise, I am embracing Baltimore, seeing the gem that "Charm City" is with all of its promise.
And there is reciprocity. My nephews, for example, are my dating experts. I say, "Here's a guy, he said this, but then he didn't show up... What do I do?" And they say, "Nope! Move on, Auntie..."
My move to Baltimore has made life so much more real for me. I am so far from knowing everything. What I thought I was doing coming home to make life better for my family, for people of color or poor people - I didn't have a clue. I am now immersed in real-life examples of what is hard about trying to move ahead in this society. It's clearer how racism and socioeconomic barriers and preferences embedded in systems of opportunity affect people on an everyday basis. I totally get it. I get their depression. I get their stalling out. I get their ill-conceived schemes and missteps. The snares that entrap have become so much more obvious in a way that allows me to advocate more authentically, whereas before everything was more removed and intellectual. My empathy has grown. I am learning not to judge as much and that is a huge gift. I am here for them and they are here for me.
So that's my path at least. Africa, if you need me, I'll be in Baltimore.