Living & Fighting for Control of Our Lives

This speech was written and given at a panel on Self-Determination for Youth League as part of the second year of summer collaborations. 70+ youth and staff of youth groups in Philadelphia participated. The panel and subsequent discussion representation young people from North, South, West Philly & Center City and across Puerto Rican, Black, South East Asian and Chinese communities.

Self-Determination: what does it mean in my community/to me and how do it show up in our work?

Last fall I sat down one weekend to recreate a family tree my mother spoke of when I was younger. I spent all day tracing family members through birth records and census data, following my mother’s family The Sudlers back into the mid-1800s. I met Austin and Ozella, Jacob and Clara and then Frank and Sarah until I was unable to find anyone else. All the records at this point only listed the sex and age of countless people, my relatives disappearing into what I found out to be the Sudler plantation register of Sudlersville, MD.

As I stared at the lists of enslaved peoples, any one of them potentially being my kin, I began to feel a mix of overwhelming anger and deep sadness. This nameless list had buried the identities of my people, buried their stories and lives, and left me only with legacy of their owners. The Sudler’s as plantation owners were readily searchable online; their town and homes still preserved til this day in rural Eastern shore, standing 40 minutes from the former plantation that had enslaved Harriet Tubman.

I chose to bring this story to you all today for numerous reasons:

The first being that on Friday, we sat down with our young people to have a quick brainstorm on what “Self-Determination” meant so that they could be prepared for this panel. They threw out their ideas: most of which consisted of perseverance or obtaining a goal. For most of them it was the first time they had even heard the term and it was a reminder to me that in this society we are always taught to think of ourselves as individuals so when we hear the words “Self” and “Determination” we automatically go to what it means to move ourselves forward. For me, and for many others, the political usage of this term is about the opposite — it’s about the collective. When I think about my life and the way that I move through the world it is tied to my connection to my people; both past and present. I hold my ancestors and all those who have come before me with me as a reminder that this work is bigger than me and my individual desires — that there are so many people who have come before me who have lived and fought for the dreams of what life could be. My dreams only add to that beautiful resilient pool.

Second, my folk’s inability to even be acknowledged by name in public record is only one form in which Black people’s lives in the US have never been their own. The fact that their lives have been obscured and are instead represented by the very people who kept them in bondage is at its essence the story of Black and Brown people around the world; one where our stories and decision-making power are ripped continuously from our communities and replaced with a White Western way of being. Today, I see this play out Kensington, the neighborhood where YUCs office is, as upper-class whites move into our primarily Puerto Rican neighborhood. They paint over our graffiti and remake the vacant landscape into dog sitting and axe-throwing businesses, bringing with them higher rents and police who criminalize our folk’s ways of existing. As more and more time passes, they covertly snatch away the ability for our community members to decide what their neighborhood is and looks like.

As our neighborhood gentrifies, our students go to local schools that now ask students to buy uniforms that cost hundreds of dollars to be more “professional”. Their families ability to pay not taken into account as prices are raised to make the school more palatable for the incoming class of people in Kensington. Students unable to pay are disregarded and transferred to another school; the decision about whether to leave or stay essentially having been made for them. In our experience students and their families often highlight this issue, uncovering the deep lack of decision making power they have in their communities to fit their needs.

Third, I am reminded of a scene that was said in an early episode of “Underground”, a tv series about enslaved Black folks plotting on their freedom and making it happen. In the episode, one of the characters who is considering running tells her mother that she has never set foot off the plantation and then asks if she ever dreamed of having a different life. I am reminded by our boss, Rapheal, that to envision a life or a system different than the one we know takes immense courage. For our ancestors, many of who had no idea what life was like beyond the bounds of their forced homes, to run it literally meant taking a chance that the unknown can hold much more liberatory ways of being than this life. This chance is one we are taking at YUC, and the creation of a collective vision for the future of our community is our work.

In our Kensington chapter, we have been organizing in local schools using a relatively harmless policy that mandates every school to have a school advisory council. We use these spaces which require input from parents, staff, and students as the training grounds for our people to practice collective decision making in their community. So instead of hundred-dollar uniforms or policies that allow students to be searched and held without parent notification after officers misplace their guns, we can implement policies that make sense for our communities. This summer, students are meeting with parents to move them to join these councils as a first step to achieving Community Control; or in it’s essence the ability to decide what happens in their community.

It is our hope that eventually after we build up enough collective power and practice making decisions, our community can engage in wide scale self-governance and visioning of the destiny of the neighborhood; one that exists wholly to support their well-being, one that accounts for their histories and cultures and one that sets up the continued ability to determine the future of their community. That alone is an immense task but a necessary one that will require not only the staff but the students, their parents, their peers, and community members to rise from being individual participants to the collective architects of their community’s dreams. For us, there is no community control campaign without the framework of Self-Determination; liberation of our peoples cannot happen without the exercising of collective decision-making power and dreaming of worlds where we can live dignified lives and be more than anything this system allows us to be.

Throughout history, Black and Brown people the world over have fought for the ability to determine their lives — whether it’s abolitionists and runaways during slavery, Black and White college students working hand in hand with rural Black Mississippians for the right to vote during the 60’s or our students and their families in Kensington fighting for control of their schools. All of it is connected to this concept of Self-Determination and in the words of one of our member, Sasha, “I live for the day when we get it”. Until then, YUC will be slowly and surely fighting for it.