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Embracing our interdependence is the only way towards peace

When I spoke at the Family Justice Center Gala last Wednesday, on the eve of the three-year anniversary of the tragic death of George Perry Floyd, I opened with a tribute to George Floyd and a slide emblazoned with an Audre Lorde quote: “There is no such thing as a single-issue struggle because we do not live single-issue lives.” I did this because in addition to being a victim of systemic racism and white supremacy, George Floyd was the son of a woman who was a victim of domestic violence—first at the hands of a man and later by a system that failed her, and by extension, her children.

Like many people who have witnessed or endured domestic violence in their childhood homes and the subsequent economic hardship that accompanies abandonment, George Floyd carried the burden of that childhood trauma into adulthood. He wanted to help his mother, who struggled to care for her children and his sister’s children without the infrastructure that an education or a sustained source of livable-wage income could offer, without a template to follow. To cope, he did what he had to do to get through. He self-medicated and developed an addiction that he fought his whole life to free himself from—until he breathed his last breath under the knee of a former-Minneapolis police officer. On that day, one of the final things he uttered before losing consciousness was a callout to his mama.

I reflected on this the night I took my children out for a soft serve ice cream cone at McDonald’s to reward them for their patience as they entertained themselves while I finished a story. As my kids sketched electronic pictures in the play area and leisurely enjoyed their frozen treats, they took note of an employee on break who was on facetime with her children as she offered instructions on finishing homework, packing lunches and getting to bed. It was sobering for all three of us because no matter how short I may fall in the face of a deadline, it felt like a privilege to be able to work in close quarters to my children on a timeline that allows me to largely be physically present, even if at times I feel scattered.

That type of struggle is something I sometimes hear about in the stories of my interviewees who’ve experienced incarceration or housing insecurity—the story of a single parent working multiple jobs to keep food on the table and a roof of some sort over the heads of children. While maybe the bare minimum survival needs are met, people are often left feeling depleted and are, by the necessity of the pressure to keep multiple jobs, physically not able to be present.

I remember the story of an individual, one of seven children, who recalls going and coming as he pleased because his mom worked multiple jobs after his dad died. He and his brothers dropped out of high school and his sisters became teen moms. He remembers his mom doing the best she could to keep the house functional, but being largely absent.

When I ask people to consider what it would look like if we, as a society, willingly supported moms like that one without strings attached, so she could care for her kids while completing her education to get herself and her family ahead, I’m often met with resistance. I’m asked questions like, “Where would the money come from? Who’s gonna pay for it?”

We are, but for those who are fiscally minded and those who believe that there truly is no such thing as a single-sided issue, the return on the investment is great. Currently, there are just shy of 200,000 incarcerated Californians and the cost is $106,000 per person annually. The cost of CalWorks benefits for a family of 7 is just over $2,000 a month or $24,000/year. This breaks down to an annual cost of about $3,500 per person. 

Of course, I’m not suggesting that the issue of mass incarceration is solely connected to the lack of infrastructure to support single caregivers. I am, however, suggesting that there is an interconnectedness to all issues, even issues as seemingly different as domestic violence, poverty, trauma, mental health and access or lack of access to resources. Our experiences of these issues are complicated further by our social location in relationship to race, educational access, generational wealth or poverty.

While at the George Floyd Rise and Remember Gala over the weekend, I talked at length with Brian Kelley, the father of Noah Kelley, a 21-year-old man who was shot dead by police after a standoff of sorts in a Minnesota liquor store on Nov. 28, 2021. The Noah that Kelley and his sister—who attended the Rise & Remember Gala along with him—knew was a gentle, hard-working soul who was proud to be a dad and worked several jobs to support his child and her mother.

Kelley wasn’t there the night his son’s life came to an end, some 18 months after George Floyd’s death and a few months after Daunte Wright’s. Kelley doesn’t doubt that his son was in a state of crisis on the night that he died, but what he says his son really needed the night that he died was a hug and some mental health resources.

The most trying thing Kelley described is that there are simple changes that could be implemented: jobs with adequate wages so that it would be possible to sustain a family with just one job, access to an education, affordable housing and sustained mental health care access. Kelley runs a program called “Young Builders and Designers” with the hope of empowering young people to find their way.

While the Rise and Remember Gala might have been slightly inaccessible to some due to the sticker tag of entry, the community festival was internationally inclusive and accessible, and met people exactly where they were at. Girl Scouts led girls and girl-identifying people in bag designing and floating-bubble creation as they signed up girls for free memberships and uniforms. The free-clothing stop in the middle of the venue was significantly more extensive than usual, and community collaborative art projects and free libraries were there to be enjoyed or contributed to. Black-owned pop-up businesses lined the streets and free food and water, along with a cooling station, were available, open and accessible to everyone.

A member of the band Brass for Solidarity spoke to me with his trombone in hand. When I asked him what made him, as a white man, join the struggle for justice, he shared only that he was a shower-upper and that when you can show up and create art or music in community, you can do anything. I also spoke to a 13-year-old girl, named innocence, who started a business selling snow cones because she wanted to find what she called a legitimate way to get ahead while meeting the needs of her community.

The day was an example of what happens when a community truly comes together to transform a tragedy into a utopian place of hope where a brighter, more inclusive future might be on the horizon; one that welcomes people to come as they are, as their full intersectional selves, and invites them to find the balance of “me” and “we” while working toward interdependence. It was what it looks like when a whole community takes to heart Audre Lorde’s quote: “There is no such thing as a single-issue struggle because we do not live single-issue lives.”

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