a personal story reported by Anne Winkler-Morey, in conversation with Shauen Pearce
From about age 14 until 22, I didn’t have stable housing. I was couch hopping, in that survival mentality. I spent my junior and senior year of high school, and my first year of college homeless. In the summer before college, one of the adults that I worked with had an extra room and I spent the summer there. Before that, I was in a homeless youth program. Before that I was sleeping in my car. When I go home now, I pass a park and say, “Oh yeah, I slept on that park bench.”
I didn’t talk to my family for six years. I was close to them, but they were dysfunctional. My mom is in her 60s. She had the water hoses turned on her by police officers and dogs attacked her. What I’ve come to realize is there is a significant breakdown between those who are now in their 60s and those who are in their 30s and 40s. The generation who experienced the end of Jim Crow told my generation how to get an education, but less about how to survive in this country. They spent more time protecting themselves, and dealing with all the epidemics that were hitting them at that time — from crack to ongoing lynchings to increased policing.
My parents’ generation didn’t transfer the lessons they learned — they transferred their reactions to trauma. I think my parents’ generation experienced more pain, and a confusing type of hate, than any other Black generation. If you grew up in the 1960s, it was an ambiguous time — policies looked different, but you were still hated.
I saw it in my friends’ parents as well — those who didn’t let their kids leave the backyard, as well as parents who didn’t pay attention to their kids.
I think the six years of distance I had from my family was partly because I thought, “if you can’t protect the children in the family, then I can’t keep giving my emotional and spiritual energy to it.”
What I didn’t understand at the time is that they didn’t know what to do. They learned that the way you get by is to shut up, keep your head down. They knew they had to look “good” in order to survive, which meant not airing issues — which also meant being unhealed from their own traumas.
My cousins and I broke the cycle. My cousin is an amazing parent to her two young children, living in a city where young Black kids are gunned down on basketball courts. That is huge. She has transformed a critical part of the family fabric.
It took me years to learn I was better off summering with my family than being in the cold world that didn’t understand my culture. I am not talking about race. I come from a very distinct culture. We are not power-hungry. We do not disregard people based upon class. We are lovers, creatives, leaders, strategists, and inventors. That is my culture.
When people couldn’t afford food on my block, my mom and the other parents would make food so that the kids could eat. When they would all go shopping, there was a cooperative exchange of money so people could get what they needed.
A turning point was when I was enrolled at the only university in the Twin Cities that would grant me financial aid without having my parents’ financial information.
Today I am the Economic and Development and Inclusion Policy Director for the City of Minneapolis. We focus on growing economy through inclusion. You can’t want prosperity, yet keep behind those who are historically left out. We are intentional about specific strategies that address the historical foundations that have kept folks of color in positions where they have been exploited and excluded from society.
I love the work, as Audre Lorde defines it. The full body of work. The tangible.
If you are really going to be a person committed to economic justice, to joint struggle, you have to realize that poor Black, poor white, and poor immigrant — it’s all poor.
We need self-care, but we also need to be selfless and nodal — in tune enough to be a vessel, to receive the work, to know everything is not a personal attack. In fact, it rarely is. I know, for example, that many liberal people have learned that their lives are most important. I can’t take their pettiness personally.
This conversation was adapted from Anne Winkler-Morey’s “Minneapolis Interview Project.” Find more at turtleroad.org