Let’s Heed the Charge from Our Elders

(Ms. Shirley Christian, Dr. Rhonda Tsoi-A-Fatt, Ms. Laquita Brown, and Dr. Karla McCullough)

Author: Rhonda Tsoi-A-Fatt, 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.