Contention + Contradiction: an ode to my momma

**this was a speech written for a community organizing panel at a conference called Neoliberalism: Spaces of Contention**

As I tried to sit down and think of what to say for this panel, I began thinking of the way “spaces of contention” resonated to me as a designer. We often use the term space in our work, it’s what we imagine and manifest into the world. We are considered the experts at creating space. But the more I thought, the more I realized dealing with spaces of contention in my current design context is almost laughable despite the reality of us inhabiting them daily. Instead, I began to think more deeply and saw that my life had been a series of such spaces. Moments filled with inherent struggles against forces much larger than me, all of which culminated to my decision to commit my life to community organizing where we attempt to really manifest the world we want to see.

Knowing this I knew it would be impossible to talk about my work without acknowledging my mother. From what I can gather from old photographs and stories, she dreamed of becoming a writer, loved to play tennis and sew various clothing items. She was afro-futurist before I knew what afro-futurism was. She geeked out on X-men comics, loved photography and would do anything to take care of me and my siblings.

My earliest memories of our life together were of falling asleep at the baby sitters house while waiting for her to pick us up late at night. She would work late and then taxi us home after our car had broken down for the umpteenth time. After dropping us off at school in the morning she would walk to work through the Mojave Desert where we lived at the time, to get to work. She did whatever was necessary to support us. Ultimately it proved to be unsuccessful as we were evicted from our apartment resulting in us moving half way across the country to Indiana.

In this period, she would work more and more; the words “overtime” becoming a staple in the house. She would take odd jobs such as delivering newspapers that we would spend our evenings rolling for her to deliver in the early mornings. When her schedule shifted to leaving before I got up and arriving at home after I was asleep, I would lay in her bed at night pretending to be asleep so she would have to wake me up and I would finally get to see her. Our lives became dominated by her work, often shifting and adapting our worlds, so much so that we stopped celebrating holidays for her to take more hours to make ends meet. As a single Black mother of 3 with only a high school diploma her only option was to sacrifice time with us to sustain us.

By the time I was 11, all her work still hadn’t been enough to maintain our living situation and I would come home after school, confronted with the late rent notices that piled up until we were evicted. Unable to find any apartment willing to take us we bounced from motel to motel on the outskirts of town. My mother began drinking heavily, fully isolated, hiding the information from all of our family. She would cry and apologize to me for her failure to keep us out of this situation, lamenting the fact that her life had turned out like this when she used to have dreams. The woman I had heard of, the one full of life, was gone and I had set myself on obtaining any fate but hers.

During this period, I would catch the bus back to our old apartment and walk to the library after school so no one would know what was happening. I would lay out in the architecture section pouring over house floorplan books, imagining what it would be like just to have our own space. In those 6 months at the library I would set my mind on becoming a designer, thinking that if we just had a home all my troubles would be alleviated. I set out to do anything I had to to get out, determined to have a better life than my mother.

We ultimately moved to Baltimore, MD where I would work impossibly hard throughout middle school to be rewarded a seat at the best school in the city. I fought to take the hardest classes in high school, giving up my lunch period to take more classes to be competitive for college. I took 20+ credits a semester in undergrad to finish early and won a full tuition scholarship to UPenn for grad school to study Architecture and Landscape Architecture. I was well on my way to this new life.

Unfortunately, I started graduate school to the murders of Eric Garner and Mike Brown in the summer of 2014. I was one of two Black students in the program, struggling to understand how nobody in the school could be speaking about what was happening outside. Surely, our work affected the very spaces that gave way to these moments? We had a responsibility to people, I thought. I had come here to design for the people who needed it most. However, with each class that downplayed community involvement or any type of consideration of people at all, I began to see that we actually had no power to really change things. The final blow came in the spring of 2015 as the Baltimore Uprising unfolded before my livestream. The silence of my classmates and professors became deafening while I watched my home transform and my friends in the street struggling. I left that year emotionally exhausted, feeling deeply isolated and as if my life and the lives of people like me didn’t matter. My entire world was shook because I had worked so hard to be here, I had done everything I was supposed to…. I was doing the work I dreamed of but felt empty. I felt cheated and I felt guilty for not being happy with just having the chance to have a different life I had dreamed of even if it meant swallowing the dehumanization I saw and felt daily.

The reality is no amount of work would have changed anything for me or my mother’s life. As I reflected on these moments I realized that what I had been witnessing and experiencing was the immense battle with the systems that made sure poor Black women would not survive unfolding before me. These battles were waging viciously and stealing the potential of my mother’s life and my own. The casualties came in every moment we had to stuff ourselves away to survive, every moment we felt the brunt of this system and felt we needed to be grateful because shit, at least we were still alive and had some relative opportunity. It came in every single moment we had to make choices that were never really ours to begin with…. We had been struggling and powerless to stop the onslaught, too small in the face of the beast despite doing all we had been told was necessary to appease it.

Stories like this aren’t unique. They are playing out in our oppressed communities throughout the country. One such community, known as Kensington, is a working-class Puerto Rican neighborhood in North Philly facing gentrification and the home of Youth United for Change. I began volunteering at YUC in Jan 2016 in search of a space that was doing the work to contend for real power. I began assisting our community control campaign which is geared towards gaining real decision making power in the neighborhood’s schools. We know that in our communities, schools become the direct target of policies aimed at disrupting generations of growth. They are the first places we begin to learn that we are not value beyond our productive capacity. We spend 12 years of being taught to shut yourself down to hopefully be granted a better life. In Philadelphia, we have the opportunity, due to the school district’s mandate that each school have councils of staff, students, parents, teachers and community members to make decisions within schools. This moment creates the leverage necessary to gain real power to change the conditions folks are experiencing.

However, providing the space alone will never be enough to truly lead to transformative practices within the school and neighborhood at large. The contradictions of the lives we lead must be brought to the surface and grappled with. At YUC we don’t tell our student’s they are oppressed and throw out a bunch of high level words to describe their condition. Instead we have simple conversations and ask questions about what they experience. Instances like my mother’s working nonstop but getting nowhere or students at one of our local schools in Kensington being forced into a lock down and frisked because an officer lost his personal weapon allow for us to examine particular ways oppression plays out and why. These conversations are the starting points that generate the conditions that prepare folks to struggle for power. At the precise moment that we realize the fucked-up things in our lives are not simply a fact of life we cannot change but carefully orchestrated systems we can begin to provide avenues to break the machine down. In YUC’s case, we spend many meetings with students discussing their experience in schools and how it makes them feel or taking them to meetings and asking what they saw, who seemed to be in power in the room and why.

Next, we recognize we cannot just leave our people at the cross roads these contradictions present. We must provide alternative visions that speak to the true transformation we seek. These visions are not just grandiose statements or a series of facts we throw at them but rather dreams that are so rooted in the grounds of our communities it only makes sense to move in that fashion. These alternatives speak to the desires our folks feel and addresses their immediate needs for the long term. They provide another route than the mainstream bootstrap idea I fell victim to. They are not geared towards alleviating urgent crisis’ but rather establishing new ways of being with one another. They are tools of hope in a world fraught with the notion that there is no alternative. Without these alternatives it is impossible to win or even sustain a long-term campaign with consistent members. For the community control campaign, we speak to the idea of students being able to learn culturally relevant curriculums, of having accountability in our schools, removing police and providing more support resources and a real stake in the budgeting process. All these demands are tangible items that address immediate conditions of students and the larger community and establish the basis for our folks to begin exercising power.

In the long term, we speak of self-governance in the community. We speak to the fact that the gentrification happening is yet another way our folks are unable to have real control over their lives and the future of their community. We interject the question of what it would mean for this largely working-class Puerto Rican community to have decision making power in the spaces they inhabit? We state firmly that we deserve to dream — to live our lives fully, in control and responsible for the collective future of the community. These declarations of Self-Determination aim straight at their hearts and speak to the deep lack of control we feel every single day. They are the questions I wish I had heard sooner and the same world I wish I could give to my mother. They are the dreams I had really been searching for and wanted nothing more than to commit myself to. As I watch parents of our students see their children speaking to these same dreams and standing in their power, fighting for their schools and communities I know they feel it too.

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