Archive for February, 2012

People seem excited for me when I tell them that I am working on a Phd.  “In what?” – they inevitably ask. “In Criminal Justice…”

And then I get the confused face, as if to say : Why Criminal Justice??


This is how it happened…

During the fall of 2009, I was happily directing the women center in Trenton and working towards a goal of bringing the issues faced by incarcerated women to the forefront of public conscience.  Jessie (Soul Friend) was working on this also and she’d made some amazing connections along the way.  One day she suggested that we go see a woman in Newark. 

“She’s done a lot of research on women and federal drug laws; she’s concentrated on Black women and crack cocaine in particular. She is the director of an Urban Policy think-tank that’s affiliated with Rutgers, The Cornwall Center.  I think we should meet her.”

I was happy to meet anyone who cared about the same things we did, and Soul Friend had a history of introducing me to people who made prints on my life; so taking these into consideration, I agreed to go.

Jessie, my “Soul Friend”

We found the Cornwall Center welcoming and warm; it was not what I was expecting.    We were treated with hospitality and kindness.  This was important to me because in the work that we were doing at the women center we’d also put a premium on hospitality; desiring to make each client feel welcomed and wanted.  As visitors at Cornwall, they were treating us the same way.

We sat in a conference room for a few moments, when the director entered and greeted us : Dr. Stephanie Bush-Baskette.  She had style.  her salt and pepper hair was cut a-symmetrically and she was wearing a Misook suit; she was sharp.  She was also friendly and warm.  And she was smart and accomplished.

Stephanie Bush-Baskette, Esq., PhD

During that first meeting, we talked about our work and hers.  We talked about the potential of collaboration; perhaps the Cornwall Center would do an evaluation of our work one day…   And we talked about the larger issues of the criminal justice system in the United States.  It was a nice meeting.  And as soon as Jessie and I walked out of the door, Soul Friend looked at me with a knowing face.  She knew what I was feeling: that this was more than a meeting to me, I’d just had an encounter with my future.

Here was a woman who’d taken a road less traveled; who’d entered a field where Black women are few yet Black issues are many.  She’d taken it by storm, bringing attention to issues of inequality around Black women and federal crack laws…   and she’d done it with style.  She was an attorney, she’d served in the state legislature in NJ, and as commissioner of the Department of Community Affairs.  And after all of that, she’d gone back to Rutgers to get her PhD in Criminal Justice and she was now the director of The Cornwall Center.

She was bad…  and I wanted to be just like her.

Having been completely inspired by that one meeting, I began work on a PhD application to Rutgers School of Criminal Justice.  Our Women Center was state funded, so the transition made sense to me; Rutgers University has a history of doing the type of research that shapes state policies in New Jersey.  I’d been thinking for a long time that the language that defined what our program was supposed to do for women was too narrow. The state wanted us to find women jobs, but it seemed to ignore the myriad of other socio-emotional issues faced by poor women in our community.  I convinced myself that if I got this degree then I would be credentialed to join policy-shaping conversations in a meaningful way.

So I opened an application to Rutgers that Fall…

And then I let it sit there.

During the winter months I lost momentum around going back to school.  I was comfortable where I was and totally committed to The Women Center.  Every once and a while I would think about the application that I’d left sitting on-line, but then I would talk myself out of completing it.  That is, until one fateful day in March..

It was mid-March when I was sitting in a meeting at the Department of Community Affairs with the directors of all of the Urban and Hispanic Women Centers across the state of New Jersey.  It was the regularly scheduled monthly meeting for this group, but this time we were hit with an unexpected announcement.  The Director of the Division on Women entered the room and told us that she’d just learned that our budgets had been zeroed out for 2011.  Governor Christie cut 29 billion from the New Jersey State Budget that year, and we were part of the fall.  Unless we secured additional funding before June 30th, our centers would have to close.

Governor Christie

I immediately went into crisis-action mode, calling Mara for help to develop a “Save the Center Strategy.”  And I also secured a back-up plan for myself: I completed my application to Rutgers.

Six weeks later I learned that I had been admitted.  Kesner was more excited than I was.  “My Sexy Little Doctor,” he called me.  He definitely thought I should go, but at the time I was still focused on trying to save my little community program.  I lodged it in the back of my mind, at least I had a back-up plan if all else failed.  But I didn’t have funding; I’d applied at the absolute last minute and I’d missed all of the funding opportunities, they’d been made months prior.

I also didn’t have anywhere to live. My apartment lease was going to expire at the end of July and If we weren’t able to save the center, I would be out of a job.  Plus I couldn’t work full time AND be a full time PhD student.  Would I have to live in a dorm?  Dorm living never worked well for me.

Plus, I didn’t really feel like going back to school…

But then on June 9th, Kesner died.  That morning Dr. Stephanie Bush-Baskette had invited me to be a morning panelist at a day-long conference at Rutgers on women in the Criminal Justice System.  I was wearing my orange protest Tee-shirt – “9-5 Beats 10-Life.”

“9-5 Beats 10-Life”

It was a good morning.  And when I arrived at Kesner’s house around 4PM that afternoon I found his dead body…

And you know the rest.

I shut down.  I couldn’t do another thing.  I wouldn’t do another thing.  I was pissed.  Heart broken.  And nothing that I cared about seemed to matter anymore…

I came home to Ohio with the thought that I might stay home forever.  I would restart my life in Cleveland with my mom and my family. This is what I thought…

Until one fateful day in Bethany Beach when God made it CLEAR that I was to go to Rutgers.  The unanswered questions about funding and housing would be answered.  And all I would have to do is muster up all my courage and strength and step out on faith…

All I had to do was just show up. God would do the rest.

So why Criminal Justice??  …..Because God said so.

Trust me –  one day it’ll all make sense..

© Copyright Thank You Very Sweet, 2012

Programs For At-Risk Women on Governer’s Chopping Block

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It was in the town of Bethany that Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead in the Gospel of John, Chapter 11…..

The Raising of Lazarus - John Chapter 11

….and how fitting that Bethany Beach would be the location where the Lord would raise me also.

I was not back home in Ohio for more than 24 hours before my mom and I headed to Bethany Beach, Delaware for our summer vacation. We were headed to a dear friend’s lake front condo for the week; the next comfortable place were I would stay.

We decided to drive. The nine hour drive to the Delaware shore was a peaceful ride. The scenery was pretty and Hawks swarmed around us every so often as we drove; I felt Kesner’s presence.

In the car, my mother and I began to talk about next steps. “I don’t want to put pressure on you but I think you are going to have to make a decision about next steps soon,” she told me. She was right. I told her about my plan to just ‘show up’ at Rutgers and she thought that was a good idea. I also said: “I don’t know why, but I have a feeling that everything is going to become CLEAR this week..”

Our week in Bethany was absolutely perfect for a few reasons. One of those reasons was that Amanda and her boyfriend, Steve, were also vacationing there. Amanda and I had learned earlier in the summer that we both had a Bethany Beach connection; so we’d purposely arranged to be there at the same time so that we could spend time together; a beautiful plan.

Amanda and Steve 🙂

Amanda and Steve came by the condo mid-morning on Monday with Chocolate Croissants. We sat on the screened in porch by the lake and ate quietly. This was my first time meeting Steve so I decided to put a wig on. I wasn’t ready to explain the dramatic hair cut in that moment, so I wore a little wig. My mom just shook her head; she too was taken aback by my dramatic cut but she handled it well. I promised my mom that I would keep my wig around until we figured out what my plan was with my hair; the uneven afro was definitely not going to work long term.

Steve was great. I liked his spirit immediately and I liked him for Amanda. I felt comfortable around him and I knew that we would have a great day. After breakfast we went to our friend’s beach house and spent a quiet day together on private beach. Steve, Amanda and I sat on a blanket in the sand. We saw dolphins, and a sting ray. we talked about death, and God and church. Amanda swam in the ocean for the first time in years. She’d been afraid before, but Steve made her feel safe.

"Steve made her feel safe..."

I liked them together; it made me happy to see them swimming in the ocean. It gave me hope. Meeting Steve reminded me that there are other great guys out here. Emotionally mature men; like Kesner.

Men that make you feel safe…

Mom and I said goodbye to Amanda and Steve later that day and we spent the next few days alone; just us two. We relaxed together. At one point during the week I had an anxiety attack, however. I became suddenly anxious about forgetting all of my memories with Kesner. I woke up in the middle of the night and I wrote everything down that I could think of. I opened my journal and literally had a brain dump: nicknames, things he said, things we said to each other, places we went, songs we sang, Scriptures we read.. everything.

I’d been waiting for God to send me the perfect person to help me assemble my perfect scrapbook of memories. But that person hadn’t come yet. I didn’t want to forget anything while I waited.

Once I dumped my brain I felt better and went back to sleep. It was only a moment and it passed.

It was a wave.

Grief is like a wave

After several days of lounging around and doing next to nothing, I decided to check my email. I opened my inbox and found this message inside:

“Dear Ms. Copeland,

I understand from my friend and colleague, Stephanie Bush-Baskettte (she is also an alumnus) that you’ll be attending the PhD program here. I am delighted to learn this. Stephanie also tells me that you are looking for financial support.

As you can well imagine, our ability to support students has taken a bit of a hit recently, with budget cuts. But I would like to meet you and talk about your interests, and then see if there is a way that I can work with you on support.

Let me know when you will be around. I am copying Ms. Sandra Wright, who keeps my schedule.



Todd R. Clear
School of Criminal Justice
Rutgers University”

This was the first communication I’d had with Rutgers all summer and it was coming from a man named DR. CLEAR!! Was this for real??? All summer long I’d been asking God to make it clear. I didn’t want to do another thing on my own; I was only going to move forward if and when I was guided by the hand of God. I said: “God Please make it Clear…?”

and HE did. The man’s name was CLEAR!

Todd Clear - This Man's name was CLEAR!

Mom was also blown away that the new Dean of the School of Criminal Justice was named Dr. Clear. And even more so that he wanted to have a conversation about funding…

I would definitely just show up.

But where would I live?


Several years prior I met a woman at a Links convention who lived in Princeton. Her husband was the COO of a major Fortune 100 firm at the time. I’d just started seminary in Princeton and she told me that if I ever needed a place to stay I should call her. I never took her up on that offer.

Several years later, when I was considering joining the Junior League of Princeton, I came to her home for an interest meeting. Perhaps its a bit of a stretch to call it a mansion; but let’s just say the house is sprawling and gorgeous. I’d regretted not taking her up on her offer.

But as fate would have it, there I was: in Bethany, with an email from a man named CLEAR, and the memory of a gracious offer to stay in a wonderful Princeton home for free..

Could it be that God had not passed me by?

I sent an email to Mrs B., the owner of this beautiful home in Princeton, and I told her my story. I asked her if I could stay in her home while I worked on my PhD…

And then I waited. It was a bold request…

She emailed me back and said “let’s talk on Saturday Morning.”

I spent the rest of the week trying not to be on pins and needles about the whole thing. If I was meant to make this transition then God would make all pathways straight, I’d resolved. Mom’s friend, Gloria, came to join us in Bethany towards the end of the week and the three of us had a good time together.

…and on Saturday morning I spoke to Mrs B.

“yes you can live here! in fact we have a section of the house that’s very private; it’s just past the billiards room… you’ll have your own kitchen and we’ve just had it painted. it’s like it was prepared just for you. Mr. B and I spend eight months out of the year in Florida, so you’ll have the house to yourself most of the time….”

she went on…

I couldn’t believe it. I’d spent one week in Bethany and so much had become CLEAR.

I was going to Rutgers. I was going to get my PhD! I was going back to New Jersey; back to my friends and my community.

and I was going to be living in a mansion!

No, God had not forgotten me.  God was raising ME from the dead…

© Copyright Thank You Very Sweet, 2012

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When my sorority sisters and I arrived at Newark airport – just hours before I cut my hair off – I found a very important message in my voice mail. It was Kesner’s mother, Beautiful Simone. I’d made attempts to reach her in the seven weeks since Kesner’s death, but to no avail. It was just beginning to settle in my spirit that I might remain disenfranchised from the family forever.

Beautiful Simone

But then Beautiful Simone called me…

I called her back immediately and talked to her for the entire ride from the airport. It was such a relief. I’d been needing to connect with her and I would soon find out that she needed me also. We made arrangements to meet the following day.


The next morning – the morning after I cut my hair off –  I went out and bought a new shirt to match my hair cut. I was not comfortable with it yet (my do), so I figured something new would help. I then headed out to Hopewell for my first significant encounter of the day; tea with Mara at her Country House.

Mara was warm and welcoming. She didn’t say anything about my hair right away. Instead we sat together at her wooden table and talked. She asked me about my plans moving forward. By this time I’d applied for the Essence.com opportunity and also for a part-time job in Cleveland at Case Western Reserve University. I’d heard nothing back.”It looks like the PhD program at Rutgers may be my only option,” I told her. “But I don’t have anywhere to live. And I don’t have any funding for the program…”

It was all seeming so unfair. Why wasn’t this easy? Everything that I had already been through had been so difficult, why couldn’t this just be easy?

Then I had an epiphany. I said to Mara:

“I’m just going to show up!”

Having nothing in stone and no plans, I decided in that moment that I was just going to show up on the first day of school and see what happened. Mara agreed that ‘showing up’ was a good idea. Perhaps if I simply showed up, then God would work out the rest. She also told me that I could stay in her daughter Molly’s room for a few weeks while I sorted out my living arrangements. Molly was away in college. I was grateful for that offer.

We finally got around to talking about my hair cut and I told her the story of how I’d chopped it off the night before. “You’re the first person to see it,” I told her. She admitted that she was taken aback when she first saw me and we both agreed that it was most definitely a statement.

After tea, she asked me if I wanted to take a few moments and go see my apple tree, Hope; we’d replanted Hope in Mara’s yard just after Kesner died. I did want to see Hope. I went outside and I sat in front of my tree in the grass. Hope looked so small, but she was a survivor.

It was the beginning of August and Hope had survived the piercing heat – and drought – of summer 2010. She’d also survived the deer that would come around at night and try to eat away at the small shoots growing from her delicate branches. She wasn’t strong yet, but she’d survived. And Pete and Mara were giving her lots of love and care. They’d put a net around her to protect her from the deer. And when it didn’t rain, they watered her.

I sat in front of Hope and I began to cry. I thought about what she’d meant to Kesner and me when we’d first planted her in his yard in April. I thought about how we used to sit on his deck and look at her. And how we prayed over her… And then I thought about what she meant to me now. I realized that my growth would mirror hers. I didnt feel quite strong enough yet, but I had survived; and I was being cared for in the meantime. One day Hope would bear fruit.

And one day I would bear fruit also….

The picture that Mara took that day of Hope and Me. Fragile and tender. ...but one day we would both bear fruit.

After a few minutes passed, Mara came and sat next to me in the grass. We were silent together. She rested her head on my shoulder as we sat. I was not alone. It was a special moment.


I left Mara that afternoon and headed to the court house in Trenton. Kesner’s mother was there handling some of his legal affairs. We’d agreed to meet there. That afternoon Beautiful Simone and I sat together for hours on a bench in the court building. We laughed and we cried. I needed her. I needed to know more about my beloved. She shared childhood stories. And she told me about his journey with type 1 diabetes. She told me all of the things he hadn’t. And then she told me that he’d talked to her about his plans to marry me.

Hurry and get married,” she’d urged.

No, she wants a big wedding…” He’d told her.

My heart fluttered. He’d spoken about these things with his mother. it was real. I needed that. I needed her and I needed to hear that from her.

And she needed me too.

She needed me to share details with her about Kesner’s last days. “I tried to call him Saturday, and Sunday, and Monday, he didn’t return my calls,” she told me. I realized in that moment that I had information that she wanted and needed desperately. I was with him Saturday, Sunday and Monday. I was with him in his last days.

I shared every detail. What we did, what we ate. Things he said..

I told her about the bag of groceries I’d left on his back porch. “That explains the dream I had,” she told me. She said that she dreamed that she’d left him some food but he didn’t eat it. And she didn’t see him again after that. I told her my theory about the heart attack. “I think he had a heart attack” I told her. She thought about it. “Yes, maybe a heart attack,” she agreed.

We talked about the medicine they’d found in his house. The insulin shots and the high blood pressure medication. I told her that I watched him take his insulin shots. I told her that the pastor at the funeral was wrong.

She told me that Kesner didn’t have health insurance..

He didn’t have health insurance?  I didn’t know that.

Just then I had my second epiphany of the day; I finally understood why there were so many insulin shots in his refrigerator. He’d stocked up.  He’d stocked up before he left Morgan Stanley…

Because he didn’t have health insurance.

Kesner was a broker at Morgan Stanley. But then he got sick – a near death experience. Complications with diabetes. His organs had almost failed. I’d known he was ill, but did not know the severity. This happened before we fell in love; while we were still “just friends.”  When Kesner recovered, he quit his job and started his own investment firm: Dufresne Investment Management. He also decided to run for city council. But in the midst of these transitions he hadn’t signed up for a health insurance plan. And he had type 1 diabetes…

Why didn’t he have health insurance? – I wondered.

Had he given up?  Was it too expensive?  Was he waiting for Obama Care? I didn’t understand.  Understanding would come later…

But at least I understood why he had so many insulin shots. He’d stocked up. But that still didn’t explain the high blood pressure medication. I never saw him take that. Ever. He wasn’t taking that.

Understanding about that would come later…

As we sat, Beautiful Simone asked me about my hair. “You cut your hair KimIt makes you look like Kesner,” she said. We laughed. I saw Kesner in her too. In the shape of her face I could see him. I just looked at her as we talked. Her cheek bones, they were the same as his.

The time flew by. We hadn’t realized it but Beautiful Simone and I had been on that court bench talking for more that two hours. “Next time we’ll have to have a meal” she told me. “But this was better than food,” she said.

It was better than food. We would stay in touch; we needed to.


After two great encounters – with Mara and with Beautiful Simone – I had the unfortunate experience of having to return my laptop and keys to the agency I once worked for. Even though I loved the women center, the leadership of the host agency made me uncomfortable. They are ministers, but they hadn’t called me once in the time since Kesner died to inquire if I was ok. And I’d just walked off the job and moved to Ohio…

The encounter was cold.

But even in the midst of coldness, God delivered a message.  The Chief Operating Officer, a Native American woman, said something important to me before I left. She – like everyone- was also taken aback by my dramatic hair cut. But she told me that it is custom for Native American women to cut their hair off when they are grieving. “It’s a symbol of grief,” she told me.

In that moment she helped me open my eyes to see even more meaning in my dramatic change  – this was a symbol.

I was thankful. And with that, I had completed my assignment at the agency.  And I had also done everything that I needed to do during my trip to New Jersey: I’d moved out of my apartment, I’d gone with my sorors to the Delta Convention, I’d cut off all my hair, I’d had two great encounters, and I’d returned my laptop and keys and said goodbye to the women center – officially.

I was now ready to leave. The next day I drove back home to Ohio. I had to get back to the warmth and protective cover of my mother, The Comforter. 

Plus Mom and I were getting ready to go on vacation…

© Copyright Thank You Very Sweet, 2012

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During the summer of 2006, my friend Tasha and I would take joy rides through the city of Cleveland singing along to India Arie’s song: “I Am Not My Hair,” while the song played on blast.

At the time we both had full head weaves


My relationship with the full head weave began in 2004 when I decided to go natural. By “natural,” I mean that I’d decided to stop using cream relaxer to straighten my hair. I had a stylist in Brooklyn, Yvette, who convinced me that weave would be a good alternative for me while I went through this transition.

She warned me that it could be addictive, however..

my weave, long and luxurious...

and it was.

I finally had the long flowing locks I’d longed for as a little Black American girl. And I had options: bone straight, wet and wavy, curly tendrils, etc.

"wet and wavy" in the pulpit..

Weave allowed me to live into a western cultural beauty ideal and I was completely turned out..  Even though I was technically “going natural.”

And by the time I was living in Trenton and dating Kesner, I was somewhere between natural and not. By this time I had fully transitioned from relaxer and I had a full head of natural hair.  My real hair was beautiful, thick and full. I would get it flat ironed and pressed during the cold months, when I didn’t have to worry about humidity.

My real hair was healthy and beautiful...

 And I always reserved the month of August as my afro month; I rocked an afro puff…

But only in August.

In Atlanta with Monet rocking my afro puff... but only in August

 And the rest of the year – or any time that my hair felt dry, brittle, or simply unmanageable- I went back to old trusty.

My beloved weave.

But -if I’m honest- as much as I tried to own it, there was a part of me that never felt fully authentic.  Nor did I feel fully beautiful, because the part of me that made me “pretty” was not real.

It was a covering…

It was a covering...


I’m not quite sure what happened to me on that airplane ride back from the Delta Convention, but somewhere between New Orleans and New Jersey, I made the decision to chop my hair off. In retrospect, I think it was probably about control. I couldn’t change the way that I felt so I needed to change the way that I looked; I could control that. I also didn’t want to look like Kesner’s girlfriend anymore; I was starting over. This was a marker, a turning point, and I needed to look different. I also thought that in that moment I was just crazy enough to justify doing something drastic; it was now or never.

Against the will of my line sisters, Kim and Talithea, I went to Target on my way home from the airport and I bought hair scissors. I was staying alone at Qiyana’s that night, and when I arrived I didn’t waste any time.

I stood in the mirror of Qiyana’s guest bathroom and I took one last look at myself as I had been. Then I took a clump of hair in my hand and I cut it off.

I cut my hair in chunks. There was no method to my madness, I just cut..

And cut..

And cut..

It felt good. Like a shedding. I was shedding away energy that I’d carried in my hair for years and years. With each chop I felt lighter. I cut my hair in a frenzy until it was all gone; it was all on the floor. And what was left on my head was about two inches long all around – a mini afro.

I could hardly look at myself in the mirror when I was finished.

I felt..


What had I done?

I didn’t look for long. I cleaned up instead. It would take me another hour before I could muster the nerve to get back in that mirror….

The second time around I just stared at myself.   This was me. The real me. Without my covering.



Could I get to know me like this?  Could I find beauty in it? In me? As I stared at myself in the mirror, I heard Kesner’s voice in my head, saying: “you know I think you’re beautiful, right?” He’d said that to me on the Sunday before he died.

But did I think I was beautiful?

I went to bed not knowing. I would deal with that tomorrow…

Raw.. Naked.. Me.

© Copyright Thank You Very Sweet, 2012

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