Archive for the ‘Chapter 17’ Category

Now it may seem trite that in the midst of tragedy a priority was to get my clothes organized for the Links convention. This was actually very important. The Links convention was less than two weeks away and it was going to be a big week for my mom. At the time she was the sitting national vice president of the organization and she was preparing to run for national president. A lot of people were going to be paying attention to her that week and, by default, me also. Clothes were important.  Mom knew that I would not have the energy or will to get myself ‘wardrobe ready’ for the week, so she staked out Monday as the day that we would go to my apartment. She was planning to go through my closets and pick out my outfits for the assembly.

So here it was Monday morning and we were preparing to go back to Trenton. Over the weekend I’d sent a text message to DaNae and told her: ‘I need to see the baby, bring Naomi to see me on Monday.’ DaNae was my eighteen year-old AmeriCorps intern at the women center and Naomi was her 6 month old baby. If I was going to go back to my sad little lonely apartment, I needed a baby to be there. I was making very few requests during this time. I didn’t care much about anything. I wasn’t talking much. Kesner was still dead. But when I did want something (like my tree, chicken salad, or to see a baby) it came out like a very direct demand. Since I was going to be in Trenton, I demanded that DaNae come see me and that she bring Naomi and Vicki also.

DaNae and Vicki were the only two remaining employees at the women center. It was June 14th and we were preparing to shut down operations on June 30th. Our program was state funded and shortly after Governor Chris Christie won the election in NJ, our funding was eliminated from the state budget. After June 30th, 2010 the women center would no longer be the way it was;and I would have to say painful goodbyes to the remaining members of my staff and to my clients. I was planning to stay at the center through the summer to help close things out administratively;  my plan was to leave in August and head to Rutgers to start my PhD in September.

But since I had just found Kesner dead in his house, everything seemed up in the air and I didn’t feel like doing another thing.

I especially didn’t feel like doing anything hard like saying goodbye to staff and clients and shutting down the program that I had grown to love….

But the women center hadn’t closed yet. It was Monday June 14th, Vicki and DaNae were still at work and I was still their boss. So I asked them to shut down the office and come visit me at my apartment. While my mom was busy going through my closets, I would sit with them and hold the baby. It would be the only way that I could stand being in my apartment.


The women center.

After Princeton Seminary I was planning to move home to Ohio. I loved my home church, Olivet, and it was my plan to go home and work on staff as a minister there. My Pastor at the time, Dr. Otis Moss, Jr., had always been such an important part of my life and I wanted nothing more than to work with him.

My greatest advocate in ministry…. married my parents, baptized me, ordained me, and gave me opportunity to preach. Reverend Dr. Otis Moss Junior, Pastor Emeritus of Olivet Institutional Baptist Church.

We had discussed me coming home to Olivet, but as the time drew near I sensed hesitation from him. I soon realized why he wasnt making any commitments…

Dr. Moss was planning to retire.

This would change everything.  What would I do now?

At the time I was working part-time at a small faith-based non-profit in Trenton, NJ. as a case worker for women living at and below the poverty line.  And as graduation approached, I was extended the offer to become director of the program. My salary offer was less than my lowest bonus on Wall Street.  I didn’t know how I would live; but my passion for what I would be doing outweighed my perception of need, so I took the job.

I started as the director in July 2008 with the challenge of trying to figure out how to make our services meaningful for women.

I began working with a small group of women who were required to take our job-skills class, as a condition of welfare.  They didn’t want to be there so they gave me a hard time.  In order to get on the same page I needed to make it fun.I brought in a radio and several old school cd’s. I had women in my class that ranged from age 18-65 and the one thing that could connect us all was music. I started teaching the job skills class with Cameo, Soul-to-Soul or Chaka Kahn playing in the background.  Soon work became fun.

Women would be moving their shoulders to the beat and working at the same time. The music set a mood. people were having a good time in my class. I was earning their trust.

And I didn’t feel the need to teach every day. Sometimes I liked to sit and learn from the women in my class.  They shared their experiences with me and I shared mine with them.  Some days I simply allowed space for down time and casual conversation. Time to just sit around the table and share. It was cool.

My class and me

Some classes would not be structured at all; rather we would just talk about the things going on in our lives. Here the focus was not on work but family, relationships and concern about the community and connecting.

I also taught some job readiness classes in the prison system.  I did the same activities with incarcerated women that I was doing with my welfare-to-work class, and I brought my radio and cd’s with me wherever I went.

Before long, the women center was building and growing. The cornerstone of our work was imparting wisdom and hospitality. If women walked away from my classes with nothing else, they left knowing The 4 Agreements by heart:

The Four Agreements

1) Be impeccable with your word

2) dont assume

3) dont take anything personally

4) always do your best

I also made sure to affirm them constantly. I would recite the Maya Angelou poem “phenomenal Woman” – a poem I learned by heart when I was fourteen –  and as I shared it with them, I  let each woman know just how phenomenal I thought they were.

Maya Angelou – A pheonomenal woman!!

I was beginning to love my work, but I needed some help.  I began to pray for the right people to come and help me…

Julie was my first hire.  I met Julie first, she was working in the prison. She is an artsy/quirky Jewish woman from Long Island in her late 40’s. She was very blunt and had a sarcastic sense of humor. She was the GED teacher at the prison and there was always a lot of laughing and excitement coming from her classroom. Upon introducing myself to her, I learned that she’d earned her doctorate in education and that she was working as a consultant with the local community college to teach adult basic education classes in prisons. At the time, I’d developed concern for the women in my class who could not read.  Julie could help. I hired Julie to teach an adult basic education course twice/week.

Then God sent me Tina.

There was this woman in my job skills class who was head and shoulders above the rest.  Her name was Tina. Tina shared her story with us and she allowed me to interview her later.  She was very open about her life journey, and her story went something like this:

Tina is Black. She was born into poverty and molested by cousins and uncles growing up. The men in her family used to call her a ‘tease’ and tell her she had ‘bedroom eyes’ when she was just a little girl. She tried to tell her mom, but nothing happened. She had nobody to trust. In her home there were always parties and lots of alcohol around so at the age of six she started drinking. By the time she was 13 her aunt introduced her to crack. She was smoking marijuana with her aunt and her aunt laced it with crack. Tina never felt so good. So free. She never had so much energy. She felt like she was miles away from her chaotic world and she loved it. She had to have crack again and again. For her, crack was salvation.

For her crack was salvation…

She began to do whatever she needed to do to get crack. After she sold everything she could, she began to sell her body.  Each morning her goal was to make enough money to buy beer and crack to get her through the day. And even though her high was never as good as the first time, she kept going back. All the while she was having children that, once born, she would have to give to family members or to the state because she was in no position to raise them. She was powerless over her addiction.  She hated the way she was living, but her life was out of her control.  She told me:

‘The world thinks that people on drugs have no feelings, Kim, like we are less than human because of our addiction.’

Tina was still a feeling person, she was just sick.

She told me about how she was treated on the streets. She was violently raped on several occasions and the police would just pick up her naked bloody body, wrap her in a dirty blanket, and drop her off on her stoop in the projects. Her rapes were never investigated. She was treated as if she was less than human, just simply a “crack head;” never a victim. worthless. And the pain of it all kept her in her addiction.

Pause – I hope this story is breaking your heart. It broke mine. This story is not unique. it is reminiscent of the stories of so many poor Black people in America.  And not only that, but our collective understanding of who are and are not “victims” in our culture needs to change.  Drug addicts can be victims, they typically are.  Poor Black people can be victims.  Any human being can experience victimization, in the United states we are just partial to (and passionate about) the victimization of white people.  Hopefully this will change.  But I digress…

One day, as Tina was preparing to earn her daily money for beer and crack, she got in the car with a man and they drove around the corner so that she could perform tricks on him. When she took off her clothes, the man was disgusted and ordered her to get out of the car. He said; “you are nasty!” By this time Tina wasnt giving much consideration to self-care. And in that moment she was less than 100 pounds and she had eczema covering 60% of her body. But still, she had never been rejected and she was devastated. She stood on the street corner and cried and cried because someone had just called her ugly.

Drugs or no drugs, no woman wants to be called ugly.

She was so ashamed and that triggered something in her – a desire to get better. God would bless her with the means….

When I met Tina she was beautiful and healthy and very much in control. She was an inspiration to me and I decided to hire her as my assistant.  Tina was so honored and excited that I offered her a job, but soon after she accepted, she was called away to join the army. This was her life’s dream. I had to say goodbye. But even though we were not together long, Tina’s story left a print on my heart and on my work – this is why I share it.

I still needed help though, I prayed that God would send someone else.

God answered by sending Vicki. Vicki came to see me one afternoon. She was unlike the majority of the women that I had been serving. Vicki is an Italian-American single mom in her mid-forties. She came to see me for a basic one-on-one computer lesson. She had been working for the same employer for 28 years and she had just been laid off. she saw our brochure at the local unemployment office and scheduled a computer lesson with me. Fifteen minutes into the lesson she began to cry. Being laid off had really broken her. She was a single mom with no way to pay all of her bills. She was so sad.

As we continued to talk I asked her to tell me about her job search and what she had been doing to secure new employment. She opened a very detailed portfolio of all the jobs that she had applied for. She was so organized in her search, so resourceful.  I offered her a job. The title that I gave her was “Job developer.”  Her role was to usher women through the job search process, and also to develop and maintain relationships with local employers. Vicki was superb. And she was so very very loyal to me.

So then there were three: Me, Julie and Vicki. Things were beginning to pick up and more and more we were getting women walking through the door. And we began attracting a diverse group of women from within and outside of the community. We were growing.

One day a woman from the NJ parole board came to visit me and she brought another woman with her. The other woman represented a private foundation in NJ that was interested in funding reentry programs. These two women wanted to know about our involvement with women in prison because they were interested in offering us funding for a program called FORGE. FORGE stands for female offender reentry group effort, and the two of them had been traveling across the state looking for centers that could house this initiative. They were very impressed by the fact that we were already offering classes behind bars and in the matter of a few weeks, they committed to funding a new staff position: A Reentry Specialist.

This was so exciting!!!!! There was only one person that was fit for the Job: Jessie, My soul friend. Jessie is empathetic and she has a special way about her that makes people put their guard down. She is a great listener and she naturally reflects back and makes you think. That, combined with her natural concern for disenfranchised people, makes her a very special person; and for me, the ONLY person that I wanted for the role.

We continued to grow…

Around that time we were also inundated with clothing; many people began donating clothes to our center but we had no organized way to give them away. A group of college students at Rutgers were interested in volunteering with us, so I gave them the task of organizing our clothing closet. These students created what later became known as : “The Clothing Exchange;” One of our signature projects.

The Clothing Exchange

The clothing exchange would become a shopping free-for-all that took place on the first Friday of each month. We would transform our women center into a boutique and sell  clothes for $1; everything was $1.00.  It was a big success. What woman doesn’t want clothes?

Our staff and volunteers became personal shoppers and helped women find exactly what they were looking for. This also helped to bring many women together from all walks of life. Whether they were donating clothes or buying clothes, women were sharing resources and it was a beautiful thing.

In the midst of our season of growth, we were also given three americorps positions to fill. Vicki, Jessie and I hosted a series of interviews and decided on three special people: Linda, Terri and DaNae. Linda is an extremely resourceful Latina woman from the Bronx who knows a lot about a lot.

Linda, with the clipboard…

We hired her and gave her the title of “Community Advocate”. She was so proud and confident in her role. She developed a ‘street team’ comprised of mostly children and they were responsible for promoting all of our events in the community and for cultivating resources for women.

Jessie and I met Terri at the domestic violence shelter that we partnered with. Terri was a professional black woman in her late 30’s who had been previously married to an abusive minister. On Sundays he would bring her to church and smile and pretend they were perfect and during the rest of the week he kept her locked in the basement and chained to a bed. She escaped. And she had the most amazing resilience. She is a survivor. She was in transition and didn’t want full-time work, so the americorps position seemed just right for her. We hired her as the FORGE assistant and she also served as a liaison between our program and the domestic violence shelter.

And Lastly there was DaNae. She was quiet and sweet, a 17 year-old who had just graduated from high school.  She didn’t have work experience, but she could learn.  And she was 5 months pregnant; she was going to be a mom. And her baby – Naomi – would become our “office baby.” DaNae became Vicki’s assistant working in job development.

And there we were, a team. A machine. Me, Julie, Vicki, Jessie, Linda, Terri, DaNae and pre-natal Naomi. We became a family. We were three black women, three white women, one Latina woman and a fetus. We came from different walks of life. We represented different generations. We were diverse and thus could accommodate diverse women. It was a beautiful thing!

Amazing things were happening with the women center and it had only been 18 months since I accepted the job!! This was my calling. My life’s work. The sole reason for my being. This was it!

Our climactic moment was the day that Naomi was born.

Welcome Naomi!

We were all so excited about the coming of this baby and she was finally here!! We were a family and now we had a baby. All was well in the world.

Jessie and Naomi

Ujima Urban Women Center


That is until Governor Christie cut our funding.


It was all VERY dramatic!

As soon as I got the news about the budget cut, I sent an email to Mara, the owner of the lovely country house that I’ve been writing about. She and her husband own and operate a branding and communication strategy firm in Princeton, and in that moment I knew that she could be an invaluable resource to us. My mom is always saying that “a good leader knows what they don’t know.” I knew that I needed a communication strategy and I didn’t know how to do it. Mara responded immediately. The next morning I was on a 6AM conference call with her and her husband and the two of them walked me through the steps of developing a strategy to “SAVE THE CENTER”. Our strategy included communication with key supporters, a lobbying campaign with state legislators, an aggressive grant writing strategy, a media campaign, a client letter writing initiative, a Tee-shirt campaign, AND an effort to engage national celebrities like Oprah and Mary J. Blige.

We tried Oprah’s Angel Network….

…and Mary J’s FFAWN Foundation

Our entire strategy centered around the tag line: Prevention is Cheaper than Incarceration.  At the rate that New Jersey spends per prisoner/per year, we argued that if we just kept three women out of prison then our program has paid for itself.  Mara and Pete advised that we needed to make a financial argument that would resonate with taxpayers.”Prevention is Cheaper than incarceration..”  That became our slogan.

“9-5 Beats 10-Life”

My staff was fully on board and they were helping me as much as they could. Jessie and I applied to many funders,we developed a promotional video, wrote letters to Oprah, developed orange protest tee-shirts, wrote op-ed’s, lobbied with legislators and tried to garner support from key constituents in the community.

Programs for At-Risk Women on NJ Gov’s Chopping Block

Nothing was working.

When it appeared that this was really out of our hands, Jessie and I took the staff to the country house. we had a day long retreat there and we focused on transitioning and next steps. The retreat was our goodbye.

…but I was not going out without a fight.

My last stand was at that conference at Rutgers on June 9th. I sat on that panel in my orange protest Tee-shirt and made one more plea on behalf of our sweet little center. I was down to just two staff members at this point, and I traveled to the conference alone. But I gave one final argument for why we should not be zeroed out. We were different. We were special. We prioritized hospitality. We treated women like human beings. We were gracious and welcoming. We created a safe place for women to open up and share their stories. We were sensitive, diverse and culturally competent.

We were special.

As I sat on the conference panel and I told our story to the audience, I fought back tears. The most important thing I had ever done was ending.

Why God, Why!?!     Why was this happening???!!!???

And then I came home that afternoon and I found Kesner dead.




So there it was, June 14th. Kesner was dead and I didn’t care about anything anymore. I had no more fight left in me. When mom and I walked in my apartment my white sparkle gown was out and hanging in the same place where I’d left it. I was planning to wear it to the Kappa Ball that weekend and I was at home trying it on while Kesner was at home dying. I looked at the dress with disgust and sat down on my couch miserably.

Vicki and DaNae showed up with a bottle of wine and some sandwiches. And most importantly they brought the baby. I held sweet Naomi in my lap as we talked. They told  me that my boss at the non-profit had been questioning them about my whereabouts – but no one had called me directly to see how I was doing.  Upon overhearing this, mom said: ‘they don’t care about you. And they’re supposed to be ministers! Hypocrites! That’s it – I’m taking you home to Ohio with me.’ She was disgusted at their lack of concern.  I was too.  The program was fabulous but the host agency leadership left a lot to be desired.

Vicki and Danae were disgusted with them also. By this time we were all tired of working for the agency, there was too much messiness. And we had bumped heads ideologically on several occasions. Vicki and DaNae jumped on the bandwagon with mom and made plans to collect my belongings from the office and bring them to me. I was not returning to work, it was decided. After the funeral I was going home to Cleveland with my mom.

Mom began to organize my clothes for the Links convention and for the rest of the summer. She worked in my bedroom while I sat and held the baby. I didn’t care about my clothes, whatever she chose would be fine. Nothing mattered.

Vicki and DaNae left, and mom and I were preparing to leave, when we got a text from Kesner’s brother. Mom had been communicating with him all weekend about different details leading up to the funeral. We had been trying to reach Kesner’s mom also, but nobody was answering her phone. His brother said that he wanted to stop by my apartment and see me. He wanted to make sure that I had some input into the funeral. I was so honored by that. He came by and asked me about any Scriptures that Kesner and I read together and any songs that we sang. None of the Scriptures that we read seemed appropriate for a funeral, but I did suggest two songs: ‘Just as I am without one plea’, and ‘Pass me Not O Gentle Savior’.

Kesner’s brother and I agreed on those two songs. He also showed me an obituary that had my name listed in it as Kesner’s girlfriend. And he said they were putting together a slide show of pictures and he asked me for any pictures that I may want to include. I had lots of pictures and I let him upload some, and I told him that I would email some more to him later that night.

There were also two things that I wanted from him: my tree and a painting. By this time we had connected with Mara. She said ‘yes’ we could plant Hope (my tree) at her house and she had picked out just the right spot for Hope. Now I just needed to get permission to dig Hope up from kesner’s backyard. I asked his brother for my tree and at first he said no, he wanted it.

But then he thought about what he was saying and he changed his mind (Kesner’s fraternity brother was already planning to dig up the tree  for me anyway…)

I also asked about a painting. Kesner was an oil painter and he had a collection of original pieces around his house. There was one in particular that I wanted. It was the only painting that he created while we were together. I felt it captured the energy of our love. It was striking and had a vibrant splattering of red in it. I loved it from the minute I saw it. I told Kesner how much I loved it. It was my favorite. He hung it in his bedroom. I wanted that painting so badly. I would treasure it forever.

His brother said no, he wanted it.

He wanted to keep all of Kesner’s paintings.

I decided not to press my luck then. He had agreed to deliver my tree to Mara’s and in that moment the tree was my priority. I haven’t given up on the painting, maybe one day…

Before he left, mom and I asked how he was doing; so much weight had fallen on him to plan everything and we were concerned. He said he was fine. I think he needed that stuff to keep him busy. But he did mention the fact that they had found all that medicine in Kesner’s house. High blood pressure medication and insulin needles… ‘it looks like he wasn’t taking his medication….

NO!! – I thought.

They’re wrong.

I wished people would stop with this nonsense. Kesner would never let this happen intentionally…

© Copyright Thank You Very Sweet, 2011

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