Leading with Love, A Women's History Month Reflection

Women’s History Month is always an introspective time for me. I think about all the ways that women have been, and continue to be, visionary shapers of their communities. And I think about how I have been prepared to be the visionary leader that I am today by the example set by the women who have gone before me. I stand in that truth without backing away from the light it creates.

I didn’t have much choice in the kind of woman I would become. I come from a long line of strong, Black women from a hilly village called Moriah on the small Caribbean island of Tobago. My grandmother Esther, whom everyone called “Mother,” gave birth to nine children, including five daughters. Vanessa, Mother Esther’s middle daughter, is my mother.

All my life, I have been transfixed by the resilience and resourcefulness of these six women. As a child, I remember marveling every time my mother turned a nearly empty pantry and refrigerator into a deliciously healthy family dinner.

All my life, I have been humbled by their courage. I watched their journeys of immigration and sacrifice, rebuilding their lives from scratch in North America. I remember attending night classes with my mother at Howard University. She didn’t allow the lack of a babysitter to keep her from earning a master’s degree to provide a solid life for us.

All my life, I have been taught how to love by watching their service to others. To follow the example of the women in my family means I must also be a strong, spiritual, and loving leader with a servant’s heart.

Mother Esther was a force. My mother tells countless stories about how my grandmother brought women in the village together to problem solve when someone was sick or in need; and how she assigned her daughters to visit and care for elderly and widowed women in the village. She turned her front yard into the hangout spot on the weekends to keep the youth in the village safe, stringing lights and baking coconut buns for them to enjoy in within the sanctuary of her space. I grew up with the understanding that the wellbeing of young people is vital to the future of a community. Mother Esther’s commitment to children and youth struck a chord in me to also create spaces that ensure their safety and opportunities to thrive.

Mother Esther cast a vision for her village and her family in her little home at the top of the hill in Moriah, and she let nothing stand in her way to achieve it. Likewise, my mother and my aunts Wilcenia, Vandalyn, Eunice, and Joan added to that vision for our family through their diligence and sacrifice. All of them saw the needs of others and served them, even in the midst of their own struggles.

When I look into the faces of the four generations that have come from my grandmother’s womb, I am overwhelmed with gratitude for her vision and her constant prayers. I am sure of my purpose to write the next chapter of the vision for my family and for all children in the place I now call home – these United States of America. I founded The Moriah Group to honor my grandmother’s vision for her village and her family. And each day, I pray I’m doing everything with the tools I have been given to continue her legacy in ways that make her proud.

Author: Rhonda Tsoi-A-Fatt Bryant, EdD


As Schools Reopen, How Should They Meet the Needs of Students of Color?

Author: Rhonda Tsoi-A-Fatt Bryant, EdD

With COVID-19 an ever-present threat, many parents are burdened with questions as some school reopen for face-to-face instruction:

  • Do I keep my child in the current school with only a temporary plan or enroll them in year-long virtual learning?
  • Will my child be safe if they go to school in-person?
  • Who will manage my child’s virtual learning while I’m at work?
  • What if I make the wrong decision and my child fails?

As a child advocate and a parent to children of color, answering these questions is even more difficult because of two factors: an understanding that continuing my children’s education is a critical component to their growth, and an awareness that the weighty experiment of in-person learning is borne on the backs of people of color—as has been the case throughout this pandemic.

Since this health crisis began, the lives of working-class people of color in “essential” industries have been placed at risk to maintain the economy and conveniences of affluent white Americans. We have witnessed the seriousness of this virus downplayed as some spun the story of its disparate impacts on people of color.

Then Southern students, nearly 60% of whom are children of color[1], were used to test the waters of school reopening. At the prodding of the President, and against health experts’ advice, many Southern districts opened in late July and early August for in-person education. Others opted for virtual learning in the first quarter, with plans to reassess. The nation held its breath to see what would happen and proof of the danger in placing children back in school buildings manifested quickly. In Tennessee, Hamilton County Schools had to close two school buildings just hours into the first day of school after reporting confirmed COVID-19 cases.[2] Across the state, the majority of school districts opened for in-person education and hundreds of teachers and students were quarantined almost immediately due to potential exposure.[3] While some schools across the country decided to postpone in-person schooling because of the risks, there are some schools who are making plans to transition from virtual to in-person schooling in the coming weeks because virtual learning simply failed.

The lack of federal leadership on the issue of schooling during the pandemic has meant that all of our children are at greater risk. The politics of this pandemic makes schools reopening feel like a tug-of-war between opposing parties with the health and wellbeing of our children hanging in the balance.

The dangers accompanying virtual education, while not immediately life threatening, also have potential for negative consequences. The beginning of this pandemic revealed major inequities in the education of students of color. Gaps in technology access, hunger, supervision, and learning support have not yet been resolved. Tragically, this will create learning gaps for students of color that may take years to correct, if at all.

Schools can help improve outcomes for students of color in four ways:

Ensure the physical safety and wellbeing of students and families. Schools can create a sustainable means of distributing food to families during virtual learning to offset the loss of school meal programs. They can also provide families with information about securing their homes while parents are at work and students are home. Schools can also engage a technology partner to assist families with cyber-security while children are learning online.

Equip parents and students with the necessary learning tools. Students of color have historically faced an internet and hardware digital divide. Now is the time to partner with local internet companies to provide free internet access to families and laptops and Chromebooks to all students who need them. Schools should ensure that all communications are translated for students for whom English is a second language. In the process, reach out to parents and caregivers of color to ensure they can take full advantage of the supports available.

Structure the virtual learning experience to address the present needs. A regular 8 AM – 3 PM school day does not work for many families during this crisis. Schools can make the learning day flexible so students can begin at the time that is most conducive for their household. Use teacher specialists, aides, and other school staff as learning coaches to support students who have limited parental support. Partner with a trusted community organization to safely provide learning assistance to families of color. Make learning coaches available during evenings and weekends.

Be attentive to the mental health needs of students, families, and teachers. The challenges of essential work or loss of income, food insecurity, housing instability, and COVID-19 deaths are faced most harshly by families of color. This, coupled with ongoing racial tensions and protests, significantly impacts the capacity of students of color to learn. Provide mental health workers to regularly check in with families and provide care. Similarly, ensure teachers have regular opportunities to care for their mental health as they are thrust into a new type of teaching and feel immense pressure from both administrators and families.

How schools will address the new (and long-standing) equity gaps students of color is the problem to be solved. In addition to the academic, logistical, and safety net issues disproportionately impacting students of color and their families, they should not be expected to continue to serve as guinea pigs in all aspects of this pandemic. As tumultuous as 2020 has been, we have an opportunity to do more of what is right to ensure that students of color thrive.

 

[1] Digest of Education Statistics, 2019. (n.d.). Retrieved August 18, 2020, from https://nces.ed.gov/programs/digest/d19/tables/dt19_203.50.asp
[2] Mangrum, M. (2020, August 13). These Tennessee school districts are already reporting COVID-19 cases after reopening. Tennessean. Retrieved August 24, 2020 from https://www.tennessean.com/story/news/education/2020/08/05/tennessee-school-districts-reported-coronavirus-cases/3296529001/

“I AM HUMAN,” a film project of Forward Promise.

https://youtu.be/3qHM2F_BXbI

Limited Release: October 16, 2019

Public Release: June 4, 2020

Ask a young child what they want to be when they grow up and they will likely give you a list. Their dreams are boundless and they derive genuine excitement from planning their future. They believe they have a future of their own choosing. As boys and young men of color (BYMOC) get older, many lose the sense of the possible. The dehumanization they and their villages face make hoping frivolous when survival becomes the goal.

Dehumanization is the persistent invalidation of humanity through perceptions or actual treatment, and is the cause of generations of historical trauma. At the center of dehumanization is the pervasive idea that people of color do not need, and are not worthy of, basic human dignities. Dehumanization threatens the healthy development of BYMOC and their villages and manifests in the narratives, policies, and practices that impact them.

Paulo Freire wrote “Dehumanization, although a concrete historical fact, is not a given destiny but the result of an unjust order that engenders violence in the oppressors, which in turn dehumanizes the oppressed.” Because dehumanization is not a “given destiny,” we can help boys and young men of color to shift the narrative and disrupt the cycles of emotional and physical violence that oppress them. This short film, “I AM HUMAN,” is part of our multi-pronged effort to reclaim and affirm the humanity of BYMOC and their villages.

Clink the link below for more on the dehumanization framework and strategies for disrupting its effects, read and download our paper, Disrupting Dehumanization and Affirming the Humanity of Boys and Young Men of Color and Their Communities.”

 


Justice for Ahmaud Arbery: Dehumanization Is Not Normal

 

Author: Rhonda Tsoi-A-Fatt Bryant, EdD

Jogging on a sunny spring day is normal. Chasing, shooting, and murdering a Black man while he is jogging is NOT normal.

Playing music outside and enjoying yourself is normal. Being shot and killed because someone else does not like your music is NOT normal.

Walking to the convenience store to grab some snacks is normal. Being gunned down on the sidewalk while walking home is NOT normal.

Getting a driver’s license, a significant teenage milestone often met with celebration, is normal. The deep anxiety and stress that a Black parent feels when it’s time for their child to get a driver’s license is NOT normal.

Going to the mall to shop with friends and enjoying a pizza is normal. The chest-gripping fear, shallow breathing, and even sharp pains that a Black parent feels when a child is fifteen minutes late for curfew is NOT normal. The release of shoulders, sigh of relief, relaxing of jaw muscles that a Black parent experiences when their child finally walks through the door is NOT normal.

I spend another Mother’s Day grateful for my children’s safety, and yet keenly aware and saddened that there are weeping Black mothers all across this country.

This is the America that Black people experience. This is the America that we are all living in. An America that, since its very beginnings, has dehumanized Black people and, indeed, all people of color. White America has systematically demonstrated that the bodies of people of color are disposable. From using our bodies for economic gain to demonizing our bodies to create fear, this notion of control over bodies and the boundless ability to take the lives of people of color is a theme that runs deep in our nation’s narrative. And while society tries to downplay the abuse people of color as ancient history that should be laid to rest, the truth is that in my own short lifetime, the chasing, beating, burning, dragging, and shooting of Black bodies remains a part of my reality and the regular news cycle.

No matter how long it’s been happening, YOU CAN’T CONVINCE ME THIS IS NORMAL.

***

The media coverage has seemingly desensitized the American public to some to these happenings but let me tell you, Black folks are not desensitized. Black people are living in a traumatizing state of anguish with deeply emotional responses ranging from a deluge of tears or profane ranting to stunned silence and internal weeping.

Every incident is profoundly re-traumatizing. Each heinous act of dehumanization, coupled with the injustice that white aggressors are largely free from consequence, carries the message: “You, Black child, are unworthy. Your body and your life have no value. You, Black parent, have no recourse. This is our America where we can kill Black people without fear of punishment.”

Racialized trauma carries deep emotional and physical consequences for people of color. The mental scars will be felt most deeply by those who knew Ahmaud Arbery best. However, the entire Black community also experiences mental scars. The continual reminder that society deems us “less than human” is a psychological burden which reinforces a hopelessness that Black people must fight hard to overcome.1 Research tells us hopelessness is tied to depression, suicidal ideation2, substance abuse, mental health disorders, and violence.3 The physical consequences are also very real. Racialized trauma is linked to higher presence of stress-related hormoneswhich set the stage for obesity and heart disease. Teens who experience heightened discrimination have trouble sleeping5, higher blood pressure, higher body mass index, and higher levels of stress-related hormones—all of which are tied to the manifestation of chronic diseases.6

And when we talk about pandemics, like COVID-19, having greater impact on people with underlying health conditions such as chronic lung disease, severe asthma, diabetes, obesity, and kidney disease, we neglect to connect it to the underlying reasons why these health conditions exist in the first place. For Black people, racism, dehumanization, and its accompanying trauma are proven contributors.

Despite all of this, people of color are expected to thrive in this America. They are even blamed for not thriving because this is supposed to be a land of great opportunity where anyone who seeks advancement can attain it. Nevertheless, attaining it does not guarantee your safety or wellbeing.

There are many things in America that need to be fixed. Thoughts and prayers for the victims of racial violence are rarely offered and not enough. We must reform gun laws so that guns do not fall into the hands of people who seek opportunities to do intentional harm. We must eliminate Stand Your Ground laws that have been shown to increase violence rather than improve safety. We must reform our justice system so that racists who commit these crimes are not protected by loopholes in the legal process, by insufficient investigation, and by corruption. We must change the way media covers the stories of these incidents. Too often, coverage is slanted to reinforce the loopholes and racism that exist in our legal system and demonizes victims of color by unearthing any speck of dirt that can be found about them. They use the most stereotypical pictures that conjure up false narratives of the predatory and dangerous characteristics of Black boys and young men. All the while forgetting to state the obvious: this person was a victim.

These abnormal atrocities cannot continue.

We, who believe in freedom, will not rest. We will not rest until this country sees the humanity of people of color, guarantees our safety, and provides real opportunities to thrive.

References:

1. Madubata, I. J., Odafe, M. O., Talavera, D. C., Hong, J. H., & Walker, R. L. (2018). Helplessness mediates racial discrimination and depression for african american young adults. Journal of Black Psychology44(7), 626–643. Retrieved from https://doi.org/10.1177/0095798418811476
2.  Polanco-Roman, L., & Miranda, R. (2013). Culturally related stress, hopelessness, and vulnerability to depressive symptoms and suicidal ideation in emerging adulthood. Behavior Therapy, 44 (2013), 75-87.
3. Smith-Bynum, M., Lambert, S., English, D., & Ialongo, N. (2014). Associations between trajectories of perceived racial discrimination and psychological symptoms among African American adolescents. Development and Psychopathology, 26(4pt1), 1049-1065. doi:10.1017/S0954579414000571
4. Lee, D. B., Peckins, M. K., Heinze, J. E., Miller, A. L., Assari, S., & Zimmerman, M.A. (2018). Psychological pathways from racial discrimination to cortisol in african american males and females. Journal of Behavioral Medicine, 41(2): 208–220. doi:10.1007/s10865-017-9887-2. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5844784/pdf/nihms908411.pdf
5. Wang, Y., Yip, T. (2019). Sleep facilitates coping: Moderated mediation of daily sleep, ethnic/racial discrimination, stress responses, and adolescent well‐being. Child Development. Retrieved from https://srcd.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/cdev.13324
6. Brody, G. H., Lei, M. K., Chae, D. H., Yu, T., Kogan, S. M., & Beach, S. (2014). Perceived discrimination among African American
adolescents and allostatic load: a longitudinal analysis with buffering effects. Child development, 85(3), 989–1002. Retrieved
from https://doi.org/10.1111/cdev.12213

A Mother’s Love Liberates

 

I’ve been a mother for 14 years. I have a teenage son and a young daughter. Being a mother is a great honor that brings an indescribable joy. I marvel daily at the ways my children are growing and developing. I am also humbled at how parenting has made me a better human being. At night, I often gaze at my two precious children sleeping and am filled with gratitude and warmth.

But being a Black mother is also a heavy mental load. At times, it is both physically and emotionally exhausting. My need to protect my children from all types of dehumanizing attitudes and actions in the world around them takes a toll. I feel the stress in my jaw when I get angry over an unjust situation and then realize I’ve been clenching my teeth. My neck and shoulders tighten as I worry about their well-being when they’re out with friends, and realize I’m unable to truly relax until I hear them come in the door. My heart aches and my eyes sting from holding back tears when we discuss an injustice carried out against a child who looks like them.

Having “the talk” in households of color isn’t just that discussion about sex. It’s also the talk about what to do when someone calls you a racial slur. Or what to say when a teacher tells you they don’t expect you to do well in their class. Or how to respond when someone disrespects you by touching your hair, your clothing, or your body because it’s “different.” Or how to behave in the mall so you don’t get accused of stealing. Or how to engage with police officers so you make it home safely. These are talks I wish I didn’t have to give, but they are necessary to keep my children safe.

Every day, I look at my precious son, who now towers over me, as he gets up and prepares for school. I pray that his mind and spirit are well as he faces each new day. I think about how the opportunities to thrive for boys and young men of color are obstructed by the day-to-day indignities they face in our society. The historical treatment of people of color, and the current laws, practices, and social conditions in communities in the United States continually send a message that it is okay to degrade, shame, and devalue our boys and young men.

The weight of these messages, and the trauma it creates, is a heavier burden than a boy should have to bear. The work of humanizing the injured heart and mind of a boy of color happens through protection, connection, affection, direction, and correction, as coined by my friend and colleague, Dr. Howard Stevenson. So, as a fiercely determined mother to a boy in this predicament, I work daily to liberate him from the weight of this load.

I protect his heart and his mind by affirming him each day. I call him “scholar,” and “prince,” and “world-changer.” I protect him by offering a counter-narrative to the harsh characterization of his people, and giving him the knowledge of his ancestral history that reveals the legacy and power that lives within him. I protect him by connecting him to media that tells positive stories about boys like him. I send him stories of triumph and tenacity to invalidate the oppressive stories of hate.

“I protect him by offering a counter-narrative to the harsh characterization of his people, and giving him the knowledge of his ancestral history that reveals the legacy and power that lives within him.”

I connect him to the rich history of his immediate and extended family — the men who came before him and worked tirelessly as laborers, entrepreneurs, pharmacists, teachers, chefs, and nurses. I connect him to a tight-knit circle of friends who are like family that we have created to be a part of our village. I connect him to community institutions that pour into him — our church, his martial arts master, his basketball coach.

I pour affection onto him like running water. Even when we are in disagreement, I want him to feel love in my words. It sets the tone for his day when the first words he hears before he leaves our home are words of love and positivity. I also shower him with physical affection. Even as a teen, he still accepts my wet cheek kisses and warm hugs. That affection beats back the harshness of the world around him. Proximity and touch do wonders for the heart.

“Affection beats back the harshness of the world around him. Proximity and touch do wonders for the heart.”

I direct him by listening to his dreams, and pushing him to develop the skills to support the fulfillment of those dreams. I point out for him abilities that he may not recognize yet in himself, and I encourage him to build on them. I direct him by helping him to conceive how seemingly disparate skills come together to form a vision for his life that is fulfilling and rich.

I have high expectations for his behavior, his treatment of others, his honoring of elders, his respect for women, and his work ethic. I correct him when he falls short, and I hold him accountable. I want him to understand what it means to walk strongly in his manhood — with a sense of purpose, responsibility, and grace. I correct to foster understanding and changed behavior. This requires a lot of conversations, examples, and sharing of my own missteps in life.

“This is how I show my love. To liberate his mind from the chains of dehumanization that threaten to drag him down when he wants to soar.”

This is how I show my love. To liberate his mind from the chains of dehumanization that threaten to drag him down when he wants to soar. To transcend the negativity, and instill a hope that stirs up in him the strength to thrive. I don’t always get it right. And, I don’t do it alone. I am held up by the power of the ancestors, my own mother, his fathers, and the village that wraps its loving protection around us. This is my child, and I see this as my charge as a Black mother. And to all the mothers of beautiful boys of color who embrace this as their duty, I see you, sis. I see you.

A mother’s love liberates.


Let’s Heed the Charge from Our Elders

 

(Ms. Shirley Christian, Dr. Rhonda Bryant, Ms. Laquita Brown, and Dr. Karla McCullough)

Author: Rhonda Tsoi-A-Fatt Bryant, EdD

 

It was a short exchange, really. One that might seem insignificant to onlookers who couldn’t hear the words being spoken. But it is a small moment I will cherish forever.

I was invited to Jackson, Mississippi by the Juanita Sims Doty Foundation to conduct a training on the cycle of dehumanization and racialized trauma, and its impacts on health and well-being for children of color. Representatives from two school districts, higher education, public health, and the justice system were all in the room, as were mentors and volunteers who work daily with children. I scanned the room before the training, mostly to gauge the racial composition and mood of the audience. In that moment, I didn’t give thought to the range of ages in the room.

In my presentation, I unpacked dehumanization and its five forms – historical, cultural/spiritual, social, emotional, and physical. I shared historical and contemporary examples of how dehumanizing actions and policies have been enacted against people of color. I talked about the grandmothers, grandfathers, aunts, uncles, and parents going back in time who experienced these atrocities, and the pain and trauma that follows families for generations. I discussed how we punish children of color for behaviors that are actually responses to unfair treatment rooted in white supremacy. As I shifted to sharing solutions, I talked about the importance of the narrative we tell about people of color and how the story is incomplete without hearing from people of color. I also gave examples of programs run by our Forward Promise grantees and Fellows who are doing transformative work, healing the hearts of youth of color. Programs like Beats Rhymes and Life in Oakland, California and LatinxED in Chapel Hill, North Carolina anchor youth of color in their culture to withstand the dehumanization that plagues them daily as they go to school, as they go to work, and as they live in their communities that are too often plagued with social problems beyond their control.

And then it happened.

After the program, two Black women in their mid-70s came up to me. They seemed quiet and unassuming in their demeanor – until one of them began to speak. Her name was Ms. Laquita Brown. She took my hand and held it tight. She looked directly into my eyes and said, “I want to thank you for your work. I want to thank you for putting words to our experience. You need to continue to take this message on around the world.”

Her message was simple, but all that she represented gripped my heart and I was at a loss for words. There before me stood two elders who lived this experience of dehumanization in ways that I can only read about. They were alive when Fannie Lou Hamer was beaten. They were alive when Medgar Evers was assassinated. And now, they volunteer their lives in service to Black boys in Jackson, teaching them about justice, service, and racial healing. They are living examples of the connectedness between our history and the present day.

That small moment was a powerful reminder to me of how much this work matters.  Those who have come before me as trailblazers in this fight for freedom, humanity, and equity need me – need all of us – to pick up the mantle and press forward with our passion and commitment to disrupt the cycle of dehumanization for the sake of our youth.

This endeavor to change our society so that it works for EVERYONE is no easy task. But time is ticking, and our children are growing. This work of transforming the way society functions for people of color is urgent. This work needs the mighty groundswell of our unapologetic voices for change, our knowledge of history and weaving it into a narrative that connects it to the present. Together, we must create the will to implement solutions we already know can work, and to think more innovatively to develop even bolder solutions. We will see a new day if we amass the power and promise of each of us that are committed to the fight.

So bring your best to the line, and let’s labor together for the betterment of our children, our communities, and our society. The elders and the ancestors are counting on all of us.