Walking into the auditorium at N.C. State for an event held to “Discuss North Carolina’s unequal treatment of students based on family income, and how we can do better” I intently listened. After hearing statistics of what I have experienced both directly and indirectly, I readjusted my posture several times hoping my “inner voice” would move into silence.
I took what seemed to be a forever walk to the podium to ask a question. “Why at 31 years old am I still searching for heroes who look like me?” At that moment I felt myself speaking up for the countless families I have supported, empowered, and resourced throughout the years.
Before I took Racial Equity Training through a yearlong placement with Johnson Service Corps (2016-2017), I had very little language to add clarity to my emotional disdain against injustice. As I pondered my career, I could clearly see why there had been an unequivocal number of black and brown families fighting poverty, systematic injustice, racism, and portraits of unworthiness perpetuated by the media.
As I journeyed through my life, I have found that leaving my job as the Director of Shepherd’s Table was one of the hardest yet courageous decisions I could have made. Although doing what I love daily, being able to serve the community with a free meal and connect with volunteers, I knew I wanted to create a holistic approach as an advocate for the community and further my commitment to promoting community support, financial independence, education, and leadership that addressed their direct needs.
Leaving the Shepherd’s Table gave me an entry way into JSC. There I further honed my skills as a servant leader. According to the Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership, “A servant-leader focuses primarily on the growth and well-being of people and the communities to which they belong. While traditional leadership generally involves the accumulation and exercise of power by one at the “top of the pyramid,” servant leadership is different. The servant-leader shares power, puts the needs of others first and helps people develop and perform as highly as possible.”
The Service Corps also allowed me to make Chapel Hill my home, and it, too, was the place I fully became a Community Liaison between organizations such as: the Orange County Men’s Prison, Justice United, the Interfaith Council for Social Service Community House, their Pantry, the United Church of Chapel Hill and the Community Empowerment Fund. For the first time I felt like my service was being valued, my voice was being heard, and I had support in creating team-based organizational structures to tackle any and every task at hand. Each day was an opportunity to cultivate new strategies on ways to raise awareness for injustice, housing disparities, and a lack of resources for those who have been systematically marginalized.
One of the year’s highlights was speaking in front of the Town Council with the Advocate Choir. I was able to write and recite a poem called “I Refuse.” It was written to challenge the town to pass the housing bond. I am happy to say the bond passed and through collective efforts, strategies, and community support, we are still making changes toward more equitable housing in the ways we know how.
In one impeccable event that took place that year while working with the United Church of Chapel Hill, I was sponsored to travel to Germany with their choir. It was the first time I ever traveled out of the country. It changed my life like nothing I could have ever imagined. I often describe that experience by saying for the first time in my life I knew what it felt like to be a human first, a woman then black. Every year since I have worked to visit another country.
After my time with the Johnson Service Corps, through a JSC staff connection, I began working for the Interfaith Prison Ministry for Women where I became a Special Assistant to the Executive Director. I spent a short time there working directly with women working to become more independent and integrated within society after release from prison. Another significant accomplishment was being able to conduct a “Reentry Simulation” that informed more than 50 participants including community members, elected officials, and service providers on how many hardships returning citizens face after incarceration.
As I transitioned from IPMW, I was able to fully dive into my position at Johnny’s Gone Fishing. It has been a way for me to connect to the community through coffee and community engagement. Since becoming a Co- Manager , the other manager and I have created with our staff an environment that promotes diversity, engagement, and welcoming connectors. Through our group and one-on-one meetings, we have been able to create an atmosphere that continues to grow in the ways of co-learning curiosity and inclusiveness. Together we have implemented strategic budgeting tactics to increase revenue, save money, and implement bonus opportunities and incentives for staff. We have used coaching methodology, along with tools I learned with JSC, to change our space and our staff.
For a significant time while working at Johnny’s I also worked as the Program Director at the Reintegration Support Network. Our small team worked closely, to resource families with youth who have been in the juvenile justice system, drug treatment centers, and/or those who are working to find their way in the world.
With “all” of my experience in community development, empowerment, and the drive to become better personally, professionally, and financially more stable in my own life, I realized something was still missing. Afraid or not, I realized it was the need to take my poetry full steam ahead. So with the support of loved ones, this year I’ve been able to do just that and as a result, I was afforded the opportunity to perform “You Are the Hero” at the 2019 Women’s March here in Raleigh. I’ve been able to use my poetry as a tool to advocate for love, justice, and light in several arenas including schools, conferences, theatres and more! This year, I was even able to conduct my first music and gallery event in collaboration with Mahalo Arts, the Saxapahaw Social Justice Exchange, and The Culture Mill.
Johnson Service Corps really helped me realize how important living into my destiny is — from the first event the core members came to support me in at the Carolina Theatre to every event after, I am feeling what it’s like to live out your dream.
Now more than ever, my vow is to become the answer to my own question I noted early on. “Why at 31 years old am I still searching for heroes who look like me?” The answer is simple, yet I’ve learned there isn’t an easy path to its simplicity. The answer you ask? Is for me to become the person I have been waiting to show up. A voice for my community, a light to this world, and symbol of hope to all the people who look like me, have lived where I lived, overcome what I have overcome and, of course, for any and everyone who is striving to be the hero of their own story.
Thank you for your time and for getting to know more about me and my journey.
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