VICE: Fixing The System (My personal reflection)

This morning I had a weird conversation with a priest about my role as a community organizer with PACT and whether our methods of organizing are effective. He feels that we are much like “false prophets,” functioning as societal agitators who soften legislation rather than fixing the real problem, the broken family. In that conversation he called out Black Lives Matter, Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton, etc… for not doing enough. He has visible anger about living in an area of Miami Gardens where he goes to bed hearing gun shots. Visible anger after a black man was gunned down near his church and nothing was mentioned on the news. Visible anger about the fate of black men in our country. However, much of it was directed at black men for killing each other. That is also a problem, a devastating problem that angers me. But our criminal justice system is corrupt, and black men are killed by police officers before they even get a chance to be “judged” and those who are judged find themselves facing a broken criminal justice system. Eric Holder told VICE that our system is broken, that the war on drugs failed. A former Sergeant said our system is broken, that the war on drugs failed. A federal judge said our system is broken, that the war on drugs failed. Our president said the system is broken. The conversation should not be about whether we are softening laws–these laws are broken, they are biased.

There needs to be real anger about our broken legislative system. There needs to be anger about the 1.1 million fathers who may have actually committed non-violent drug crimes but are now serving 30, 40 years or life in prison. There needs to be real anger about the fact that America houses more inmates than any other country. There needs to be real anger about the correlation between young black and latino males being suspended out of school and prison sentences.

We have to fix this broken Criminal Justice System. We have to break the cycle. Yes, we need to have serious conversation about how to repair cities like Chicago and Miami Gardens where a gun has taken the place of a compassionate conversation between two black men, but we MUST fix this broken system and its backwards legislation.

It’s more than just a popular trend

A few months ago, I had a heated text message exchange with my good friend Samantha Shaw about the insignificance of fashion. I, a young woman who doesn’t know the difference between Adidas and Balenciaga, made some bold generalizations because I view fashion through one lens. To me it is inaccessible, doesn’t care about humanity, and rather than creating space for equality it separates us. However, my Instagram newsfeed turned me into a hypocrite because I began to fall in love with Ivy “Coco” Maurice and how she does fashion.

“I want people to understand me and who I am because we all have a story. I don’t want to be seen as the girl who just takes cool pictures and wears cool clothes, I want people to understand that I tell a story. I sometimes feel that people need to hear or read something that can help or push them. Our style isn’t just the clothes we put on everyday, it is part of who we are and what we have experienced.” 

That is a quote from the recent Syracuse University graduate who now spends her days blogging, growing her brand, working on an eyelash extension company, modeling and will soon begin consulting at a fashion firm. So, she’s saying some interesting things there about using style to tell a story, to speak a message and that intrigues me.

Why does Coco care about speaking a message with her style? 

Coco was born in Los Angeles, California, where she was the “lightest” in her immediate family. However, that light complexion didn’t make her any less of an outcast at her predominantly white private school where she was often picked last in kickball because she was “the weak black girl.” With those experiences in mind and her own confusion about what being “mixed with exotic features” meant, Coco began to explore her heritage. Her mother is a Black American woman with Caribbean roots while her father has some French and Indian mixed in with his Blackness. As you’ll see on her blog, Coco embraces all aspects of her heritage, but she identifies as a “young Black woman.”

“My heart is deeply engrained within Black Culture. In college, I started talking about race openly with friends and I became comfortable with identifying as a young Black woman.”

Young Black woman, you say… well, what’s her relationship with her hair?

“My hair and I are very close, together we are always changing. I have always felt that I can do anything I want and I feel that my hair can do the same. If I want to wear it in its natural curly state, I can! If I want to straighten it, then I can! If I want to wear braids, I can! And if I want to wear a weave, I can! I do what makes me happy with my hair. I have learned to take care of myself and that includes my hair. My hair shapes me, it shapes my attitude, my face, and personality.

If you want to know why a Black woman’s relationship with her hair is so important, personal, as is the case here with Coco and many others, visit Ashley.

As I said earlier, Coco’s style intrigues me. The relationship she has with her hair is in part why I pay extra attention to her Instagram posts. She has gorgeous long curls, but I have also seen her with straight hair or a weave. In truth, the first time I saw her rock a weave I took a step back, I didn’t get it. Why? Well, society, that’s why. It has taught me that only a certain type of Black woman wears a weave, one who is unhappy with her natural beauty. Another close friend of mine, Ola Idowu wears weave and under that weave, she has what I think is gorgeous hair. And at first, I didn’t get it. However, I’ve grown to understand what being a young Black woman means, and Coco’s point about doing what she wants with her hair because she can is an important part of that identity.

Following Coco’s style blog and Instagram account will make it clear that #BlackGirlMagic cannot be contained in a box. That we have a story, and the tales we tell may be as a complex as we choose to make them, but we shouldn’t put each other in boxes. We shouldn’t put each other’s professions in boxes, and we certainly shouldn’t make assumptions. Along that line of encouragement, another important message that I get from following Coco is that there is enough sunshine for everyone.

I asked her whether she is motivated by competition and this is what she said…

“My mother always told me that someone will always be taller than me, smaller than me, prettier than me, and smarter than me, but no one will ever be me. I feel I was born to stand out, so why try so hard to fit in. Competing with others can make you lose sight of who you are and can set you off balance.”
Our peers are coming into adulthood with social media, and Coco sees that our generation can become obsessed with social media lifestyles, forgetting that we all have the power to be great if we keep ourselves balanced rather than attempting to mimic someone else’s life or trampling on them for the sake of competition. Her message to us is that, “life is all about creating ourselves and a journey of our own.”
Coco has followed her own advice. She is creating her own path independent of her famous mother and mimicry, and because of that she has shown me that fashion, style, is more than a diamond encrusted box where the wealthy disenfranchise the masses. That fashion can be a tool to help people grow into their own while expressing important parts of themselves like what it means to be a young Black woman living in today’s times.

Why are you taking money from poor people?

“Why are you taking money from poor people,” asks the woman defensively. My mouth becomes dry, I am put in a position to defend the organization that I have been working with for only four months. I kick into business mode, our budget pops into my head, and I start to speak.

Using words like “grants,” “ownership,” and concluding with phrases about community members needing to invest in the organization so we can become “self-sufficient.” Inside I feel lost and ashamed.

On the drive home from North Miami warm tears burn the sides of my face as my lips quiver, I repeat the question to myself over and over again, “why are you taking money from poor people?”

I can’t figure out if I’m so moved by that five-minute exchange simply because it was an awkward conversation about money, or if I in fact feel like I am taking away from poor people.

Let’s talk money 

If you were raised like me, talking about money or any personal family issue with others or in public was looked down upon. Just last week my mother sent me a text commanding that I delete my post about spending $20 on groceries, she insisted grocery shopping is a private matter. Using the restroom is a private matter, and even that I often do with the door open, so a list of items I consume for nourishment sure can’t be a closed-door thing.

Much like using the restroom, I was taught that talking about money and expenses should not be done publicly. Therefore, when PACT hired me and I learned that a big part of my job would include asking community leaders to invest in our organization, I cringed. And every time the conversation came up, I felt instantaneously tense.

So why was I so awkward about money? 

Because good work should not mean one has to spend or accept money. That’s my one sentence answer.

Has anyone ever told you that money is the root of all evil, so why the heck would someone choose to grow evil (unless you’re that one Satan worshiper that reads my blog, then carry-on). So to be good we should not ask for or want money.

Folks, money is not the root of all evil. If you go to church, you’ll often hear your Pastor say that the worship of money is evil, but not money. Although, I don’t always agree with everything religious leaders say, I endorse that message. Money is not evil, it is a value system–a means of exchanging goods and services. If you don’t feel sinful when you pay the cashier at the grocery store, you shouldn’t feel funky about asking friends, family or even strangers to invest in something that you believe in.

You’re not done yet, tell us why you were stealing from poor people

I’ll deflect that question to Cesar Chavez, because if there’s one thing I’ve learned from politics, it’s that uncomfortable subjects should be left to others.

Okay, I’ll answer a little bit. Millions (I actually don’t know if that number is accurate, but it makes my point sound better) of people invest in good causes, evil material possessions, and more evil material possessions. Out of those billions (when you don’t actually know the facts, keep adding to your falsity–that’s a Donald Trump quote), ten million of those people aren’t in the best financial situation, but it doesn’t stop them from investing in evil material possessions so it should not discourage a do-good organizer like me from approaching those not so rich people about investing in an organization that benefits them and their community.

With the same comfort that I approach the CEO of the biggest accounting firm in South Florida, I will approach someone who is “poor,” in the words of the woman who caused one of my many mental breakdowns while organizing. It is not up to me to make a decision for someone because I assume they are too poor to financially invest in an organization that has brought great change to Miami-Dade, their home.

I’ll leave you with an excerpt from Chavez’s The Ethics of Collecting Dues:

The statement, ‘they’re so poor they can’t afford to contribute to the group’ is a great cop-out. You don’t organize people by being afraid of them [or their situation]. You never have. You never will. You can be afraid of them in a variety of ways. But one of the main ways is to patronize them. You know the attitude: blacks or browns or farm workers are so poor they can’t afford to pay their own group…

If I could have spoken to crying-in-my-car-all-alone-while-listening-to-James-Blunt Flose four months ago, I would have told her that she does not take money away from poor people. Rather, she gives all members of her organization an opportunity to invest in their own organization, one that they are proud of. One that brings about material gain in the form of policy change that impacts at least 50,000 Miami-Dade residents, making their financial contributions an actual investment.

Am I a writer now?

“Bring yourself out of the chaos in your mind,” the voice floats on the clouds in the air. “Breathe in, slowly, now let it out,” it continues, “begin to think about all the pieces that make you who you are.” My feet start to tingle, I can feel them extend from the round neck of my folded Levi’s. Within seconds my arms start to reach down, they want to stop my feet from running away, but I’m distracted. “…Are you,” the beautiful vocal sounds return to me but I seem to have missed part of the conversation, I want to focus. It’s hard to listen to energy in the room when my limbs are becoming immanent. They have a greater purpose, there’s a weight that they are carrying, or maybe they are the weight. “…Who are you? Ask yourself, who are you?”

I don’t know how long I have been here. Distantly, I remember that I signed a contract for a two-week retreat. “Thursday, Friday, today must be,” my calculations are interrupted.

“Ask yourself…”

“It wants me to ask something.”

Someone else is present, “yes, it wants you to ask yourself.”

“Ask yourself, who are you.”

“I know some of you are distracted,” the foreigner seems to be talking to my heart. From where I’m laying down I can see it beating near a light, maybe that’s where my limbs are headed. “Listen.”

“Ask yourself, who are you. Ask yourself, who are you.” It all makes sense.

“Who are you?” I recognize these squawks, they are my own. “Who are you?”

You have just read the first chapter of a novel that I have been working on for almost a year. Wow, that’s almost 12 months–you must be nearing the last chapter. Wrong! I’m only about 30 pages into what I hope will someday be a book that is mass produced, available for many to read. It’s 1:42AM and as I struggle to piece together words, sentences, paragraphs… I’m beginning to wonder why this process is taking me so long. Why can’t I just bust out 217 pages like Beyonce does an album.

This isn’t my first writing project, but it’s my toughest. I’m trying to tell one structured story but I have so many tales to tell… I’m attempting to mod podge a series of life experiences, made-up characters, and shit that has been floating around in my mind for 23 years. I’m writing one novel but there are hundreds of stories dying to peel their way through the layers of my brain.

Writing has been my therapy, the reason I started piecing together poetry as early as third grade. Therefore, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that these 30 pages have been shaking me up. They are 30 pages of tears, trauma, relief, imagination, culture… but they are especially a process of discovery as I struggle to define where I fit creatively in the world of writers.