be yourself and make them pay
I knew I was loved supreme when my mom called and asked me,
“Can I come over and clean your house?”
She was telling me about her diabetes. And how two of the psych meds she takes name diabetes as a side effect. We were talking about eating healthy and drinking water before we both went into very sweet monologues about how we feel once we break a sweat. I talked about whining all the way to yoga and never making it to the gym (even though it’s EXACTLY two blocks away from my house). I told her that I always felt so relieved when it was all done—when I broke a sweat and endorphins hovered around me like those swarming packs of little gnats that come around you when its dark outside and there’s water nearby (are those mosquitoes?). She talked about the satisfaction she gets when cleaning her house. She said she often cleaned until she broke a sweat, then she cleaned some more. This was her alternative to “real exercise”. When I’d asked her what “real exercise” was, she said, “like power walking.” This is when she had told me that her bathroom and kitchen were already clean, and that she needed to break a sweat, and could she come over and clean my house?
Who am I to deny anyone of their workout routine?!
So, it’s Friday night at my house and my eight year old sister is jumping on my couch dancing to “Off the Wall”. The album is playing from my phone in a cup in my living room while my mother mops my kitchen floor with a towel (she asked if I had a mop and when I handed her my swiffer, she covered her mouth before laughing). I got out of the way and worked on my mom’s resume. She had sent me an outline more than a week ago asking for my help to create it and I had been negligent, prioritizing my own writing and assignments from work over the resume. While she’s making due with my inadequate cleaning supplies, I’m asking her “what did you do when you worked at Morgan Stanley Dean Witter Online?” and “how long did you do accounts payable for Caltrans?” My mother’s last working experience in an office was sixteen years ago. I’m looking at a draft of the resume she sent me and I see that she has created a ‘personal’ section. Under the header I read “three amazing daughters”. I can’t mention it aloud to her because I’ll want to cry and I don’t know how to handle anything that sweet with other humans sometimes.
As I’m asking her questions and crafting her resume I am realizing how different she is now. When I was a child she was very stern. She was stressed and exhausted from full-time work and raising two young girls. When she was my age, she had two daughters—I was six and my sister was four. I am in such deep gratitude when I consider the miracles in patience and love that she made. She made these miracles all while (what we didn’t have language for at the time) a severe mental health crisis was looming over our heads. I barely have enough patience to get through the two minute timer on my electric toothbrush, I don’t know how the hell she woke us up, got us ready for school, made us dinner every night, worked all day in an office ripe with microaggressions and racism (which we heard about often, and didn’t know what to do with), all while suffering from untreated depression.
I had a knot in my throat when she moved on to cleaning my bathroom. I was mad at the world for creating the perfect storm conditions for my mother’s mental health crisis. I was infuriated and swelling with grief and gratitude because she had survived. And we had too. And I was so damn proud of us.
Some weeks ago I was invited to share my story of growing up and graduating from SFUSD at an Our Children Our Families Council meeting in San Francisco. For weeks prior to the meeting, I’d had pieces of my life experience tossed around like hot food on a too-eager tongue, assessing it for trauma and ping points and evaluated for places where leaders in the city could recognize factors for city systems improvement. As I crafted my story, part of me wanted to just say “fuck it” and go rogue and walk in there and tell the department heads of the city that they were full of shit and I didn’t need to share my story for them to stop screwing over poor folks and Black people in this city. It makes me want to snarl and show my teeth whenever I suspect that someone wants to use me as a token or a sob story or respectable survivor of some sort. It makes me want to transform into a cautionary tale instead. But, I think it makes me so upset because I went for a long time not realizing that I was lightweight being exploited for my story. Each time I told it, I became more detached from the reality that what I was sharing had actually happened—to me, and it was hella scary and I actually don’t know how I survived without breaking sometimes and I do still fear that I am just breaking slowly and don’t know it. But when I told it, I had to be past it, for it to be a story of triumph. So I got numb about it.
I’ve agreed to tell my story to help raise money, help raise awareness, help make people feel better, help influence change, etc. But my father is still incarcerated, my mom is still not paid a living wage, and Black people are still getting pushed out of their homes in San Francisco everyday.
This is what was running through my mind as I considered the audience of the council (the department heads of nearly every San Francisco agency, in one room). A big part of me wanted to have, as I had once heard Miss Major Griffin-Gracy say ‘the best revenge’, which was to be myself and make them pay.
I cried and got nauseous and felt shame and experienced fear remembering things I had forgotten when I crafted my story. I felt it when I wrote it this time. And I felt better.
I am writing this because I have been trained in repeating my own story for good causes without receiving benefits or getting the support to do that heavy lifting and remembering. I will not let anyone make me numb to what I have experienced. I don’t give a damn what the cause is. People have deadlines and matrices and points to make with my life experiences, if I let them. I will not. I will not let anybody rewrite my experience in a way that makes me the victor, the innocent, the smart one, and anyone who I know to be a victim of systems of oppression and inequity the guilty, the bad, the lost cause(s). If they think of my loved ones that way, there’s no way I can be too far off.
I say this to say, I love my mama and my daddy. And I’m so goddamn proud that we made it. To wherever we are today. We all survived shit storms and I’m still in awe that we all somehow made it out, clean(ish). If and when I shine, it is a reflection of you and all the people you brought to the fore, to help raise me up when you couldn’t do it yourself.
I have made peace with the me that told my story before without regard for the me that was still experiencing the moving parts of the trauma. The me that agreed to play the role of the example and the exception just because I wanted admiration and acceptance. I accept and admire myself. We fiercer now.
These are some of the recommendations I named to the Our Children Our Families Council when I presented my story this Monday:
What might it look like to…
· Have all hands on deck to create specific initiatives to improve the quality of life and the retention rates of Black San Franciscans who are being pushed out of our communities and our homes (San Francisco has the highest displacement rate of Black families since post-Katrina New Orleans)
· Consider that youth know when they are being approached and dealt with like they are their problems. This problem based approach in schools discourages trust and authentic relationship building
· Consider that art can be therapy, too
· Yay free MUNI for youth! If it’s really free, youth should be auto enrolled and shouldn’t be receiving fare evasion tickets
· Have trauma care plans be just as prevalent as IEPs, if not more, ask your youth how many of them have witnessed violence, have lost a loved one, ask them what they need to grieve
· Serve low-income youth food at school that you would eat
· Recognize that fines and fees assessed to adults are fines and fees assessed on the entire family, if you don't think so, try choosing between groceries and lights or school uniforms and gas for your car
· Consider what a transit-first city is like for a family that lives in a community with a history of negligent transit systems to begin with (how do we make the T run down third like it does for the Giants games?)
· Not send all your bills and notices to low-income families on the same day and make your fees based on ability to pay
· Give incentives to landlords who house long-time residents and low income families so that they can stay in the city
· Making families prove over and over again that they are poor and low income to qualify for services is humiliating; use your data to talk to each other instead
· Don’t assume that because someone is unemployed or doesn’t have money that they have time. Poor people spend most of their time waiting in lines and being told no
· Reach out to youth in SFUSD who were failed by your school system. Who were pushed out. Ask what you can do now to make it right. Ask them what they needed. It’s not too late to meet that need as a city.
In this historical moment, the changes that need to be made, need to be done with care as if your life depended on it. For our undocumented neighbors, for our family members struggling with specialized care and mental health, for our Black neighbors just trying to remain alive and free in this city—our lives do often depend on it.