Valerie Castile never meant to be an activist. But after her son, Philando Castile, was killed by a St. Anthony police officer during a 2016 traffic stop in Falcon Heights, she became one.
At the time of his death, Philando was a 32-year-old cafeteria supervisor at the J.J. Hill Montessori Magnet School in St. Paul. A compassionate man, he often helped students pay for breakfast and lunch when they did not have money. About six months after his death, Castile founded the non-profit Philando Castile Relief Foundation.
“My son was such a wonderful person. I did not want his legacy to die,” says Castile. “I did not want anyone to forget about who he was and what he represented as a man — his devotion to his job and the children, always thinking about other people. I wanted to keep his legacy alive by doing the things that he held near and dear to his heart.”
One of the Foundation’s flagship efforts was to pay student lunch debt. In Spring 2019, Castile gave a check for $8,000 to Cooper High School, clearing the debt of senior students.
Though free and reduced lunch is available to families within certain income guidelines in Minnesota, children still fall through the cracks in the system. Language barriers, fear of retaliation based on immigration status, or lack of access to the internet prevent parents from filling out the application online. The low eligibility bar also means many families earn just enough to disqualify them from the free and reduced lunch program, although they are still unable to afford food.
“A hungry person is thinking about something to eat,” Castile says. “They are not thinking about what you are writing on the blackboard.”
To add insult to injury, lunch debt shaming is common, whether it is kids who are mean to one another, cafeteria workers posting signs that read “No money, no meal,” marking children’s hands with stamps, withholding diplomas, or sending unpaid lunch bills to collection agencies.
This behavior is “hurtful, and it sends our children into depression,” Castile says. “You are taking the problem of an adult and passing it off on the child. It is ridiculous.”
To that end, Castile stood with U.S. Representative Ilhan Omar in June 2019 at a Capitol Hill news conference for a bill called the No Shame at School Act. Castile’s dream is that breakfast and lunch will become free for all students, with no application necessary. “I think we pay enough taxes that our kids should be able to eat at school for free. That is the least we can do for the future leaders of this country,” she says.
The foundation also offers financial relief of up to $250 for families that are victims of gun or police violence. Families can use these funds to pay for funeral expenses, purchase clothes, or go out for a meal. Over the last three years, around 25 families have received the assistance.
Castile also meets with the families, prays with them, and provides emotional support. “It is one thing when people say, ‘I’m so sorry for your loss, you have our sympathy and condolences and blessings.’ [The reaction to that might be] ‘I appreciate that. Thank you so much. But you really don’t know what I am feeling.’ When I meet with these mothers and families, I know. I can stand there and hold your hand and pray with you and look you in your eyes and say, ‘I know what you are going through.’”
That is not to say that doing this work is easy for Castile. “My heart is broken in so many pieces. To constantly hear about someone losing their lives, my heart just breaks all over again,” she says.
Going forward, Castile hopes the Foundation can form culturally sensitive support groups to counter the stigma against traditional talk therapy in African-American communities.
Castile says her late son would be pleased with her activism. “You know how easy it would have been for me to accept what happened to my son and do nothing? Just go about my life? I didn’t do that,” she says. “When God throws you a curveball, you catch it, baby, and you run with it.”
Valerie Castile encourages people to be active by “attending school and community meetings that discuss issues and challenges the districts are facing. Go to town hall meetings. Participate in the Feed My Starving Children programs. Volunteer at churches or centers to organize donated clothes or food shelf items.” Visit Philandocastilefoundation.org