Instead of “Leadership Development”

Ella Baker, community organizer and mother of SNCC

Ms. Juanita teaches three year-olds at the Head Start program downtown. She stays just a few doors down from us in Walltown, but I never see her in the morning. She catches a bus to work long before I come downstairs, put the kettle on for tea, and walk down to the sidewalk to get the newspaper. A room full of three year-olds is no walk in the park. (I know; mine usually wakes up before the tea is done.) But when Ms. Juanita sends the last kid home with her parents at the end of the day, she catches another bus to night school. She’s been keeping this schedule for over three years now.

Most nights after dinner is done and the dishes are washed–about the time we’re getting ready to start the bedtime routine with our kids–Ms. Juanita comes walking down from the bus stop. She’s tired, of course, which she’ll tell you. But she always has time to ask how our kids are doing, to tell a story from her day, to talk about the most recent neighborhood news. For the past couple of years, she and I have coached a 7-8 year-olds basketball team together. One night a week thru the winter, we head off for practice about this time in the evening. I’m always amazed that Ms. Juanita is still standing.

When we moved to Walltown ten years ago, we got to know Ms. Juanita’s kids. They’d come by our house in the afternoons and often stayed for dinner. They were middle school kids with sweet smiles. In their early twenties now, they both still live with mom. One is in school, the other has been in and out of jail for the past two years.

Ray, her son who just got out of jail a few weeks ago, was at the house the other day to talk about job possibilities. Like his mom, he has a strong spirit. He keeps his head up, laughs a lot, says he’ll keep trying. But Ray has to check the “convicted felon” box on every job application he puts in. Even at the places where he has a good connection, he doesn’t get called back. Ray’s glad to be home from jail–glad to have his life back. But when you have no way to make a living, it’s awfully hard to make a life.

A few weeks ago, Ms. Junaita called me late on a Friday night. She’d already walked down the block and settled in at home after a long week. But she called because nine police cars were outside her house, lights flashing. As I walked down the block, it looked like a crime scene.

But when I got close enough to see the officers behind the flashing lights, I could tell there was no emergency. They were mostly standing around, doing nothing. I talked to one I know too well, and he told me they were conducting a drug search. I told him, as I have before, that I would stay to observe.

His “search” went on for an hour. No drugs were found, no arrests made. I’m not sure what it costs to put nine officers and their vehicles on a scene for a full hour (with all the reports that follow), but I can tell you the price in our neighborhood.

A mother, scared to death, had to face the fear of losing her son once again. A kid from the block, who stood beside me watching, learned that he won’t be safe in his own neighborhood in just a few years, when he grows up to look like Ray and his friends. And a poor, African-American neighborhood was reminded that we are subject to occupation and military-style lockdown on a normal Friday evening.

Some days I find it hard to hold together School for Conversion’s work with neighborhood youth through the WAY, our work in prisons through Project TURN, and our community building efforts through radical education and grassroots organizing. But standing on my block that evening, I could see how good mothers like Ms. Juanita need a mentoring program for kids like Ray and our little neighbor who was standing beside me. I could see clearly how our criminal justice system and its policy of mass incarceration affects people I love. And I could see, more than anything, how this is a problem that we can only begin to address as a community.

North Carolina’s great community organizer, Ella Baker, used to say: “Strong people don’t need strong leaders.” What we’re doing here isn’t “leadership development”–it’s not about identifying a talented tenth or empowering an educated elite to save us from our troubles. No, it’s about learning from and walking with Ms. Juanita toward a new world where her hard work is every bit as precious as mine–where her kids and my kids might know how to pray and work together for the common good.


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