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International Women's Day: Vivian Onano

Today is International Women's Day and the only thing that's stopping me from writing about all the women I love and admire is the issue of time. There is not enough of it. In the past few years I have changed from a mom who happens to blog to an educator who uses her platform to a change agent in the space I'm allowed. There was a time when I kept trying to fit in but it was in the form of a round peg into a square hole. What I thought I knew about being a woman and what I was discovering about women that I look up to were far apart and that paradigm shift for me was monumental.

Women have saved me, they have surrounded me, and they have been the most powerful forces to help me see myself and where I want to be. I wish I could recall, at this moment, the true quote I am about to butcher in an attempt to explain myself, but I can't. It had something to do with knowing what people would say about you after you died and to then begin living like you want to be remembered. Something in me tells me it was probably something I read by Erma Bombeck, but since I can't source it that's the best I can do.

I do know she said this:

“Written on her tombstone: "I told you I was sick.” 

This sums up some powerful feelings I have about being a mother and a woman and mostly because we don't always allow ourselves things. At least, I don't. 

A few short weeks ago I spent time in Washington, DC with the ONE Summit and I flew in on Sunday. Naturally, Bono made a surprise visit on Saturday so I missed him. As I scrolled through the #ONESummit hashtag on Twitter I found a woman with a photo that had her sitting on stage next to Bono. 


Photo credit to Carthage College from their Twitter account, Ralph Alswang

Who is that? I wondered. Not for long, though, because following the clues I found out that her name is Vivian Onano and that she's a college student in Wisconsin. As luck would have it, I found her Twitter handle and immediately followed. She seemed delightful from the photo and she was an ardent supporter of ONE so it was a no-brainer. 


As I left the auditorium a few minutes later I spotted Vivian herself sitting in the back row with her laptop open to Twitter. I tapped her on the shoulder and said, "You know those moments when people follow you on Twitter and you wonder who in the world they are? Well, I just followed you and since I'm here in the flesh I thought I would say hi. Hi."

Vivian squealed with delight (honestly, she's an adorable squealer) and declared, "Yes! I know! This is you. I just saw you. THIS IS YOU." and she scrolled through her screen to show me my picture. 

After that, any time our paths crossed at the Summit we smiled and said we should talk. Just before going to a ONE Moms board meeting she ran after me and grabbed me to see if I had time to talk. I didn't. But, of course, I did it anyway. Surely, they would understand. 

I knew, immediately, that we were kindred spirits, that I found another member of my Karass. Vivian and I held hands as we exchanged life stories and the work we each do with ONE and how she was lucky enough to be plucked from all the students to interview Bono. She is from Kenya and has lived with a host family since coming to the United States and she is the first in her family to receive a formal education. She will graduate with a bachelor's degree soon and wants to work to ensure that girls get equal opportunities for skills and education and also that they engage in effective leadership. Her hope, through her own writing, is that she is brave enough to take risks for other girls, including her own family members

Why wouldn't I want to honor her on a day like this? She is a woman after my own heart. She is the very epitome of international in her visible work for ONE, a foundation she sought after learning about their work for the extremely impoverished and their desire to eradicate preventable diseases. 

She is a light and she burns brightly. Just holding her hand and looking into her eyes as she spoke about her life made me see that. Everyone who is lucky enough to meet her will see it, too. While interviewing Bono, Vivian learned one of his own mantras that “it takes social movements to change things". I can think of nothing better for my own tombstone or eulogy someday than to be known for that. Vivian helped remind me of it.


15 and Pregnant: A Cautionary Tale with Hope

Last month I read a piece in the New York Times that put the spotlight on the MTV show 16 and Pregnant which was not so much an article about the sensationalistic view of having children while still in your teens so much as it was a way to view mothers and their (very similar) problems to older mothers. I've been vocal about my distaste for the show because of how exploited I feel some of those stories are. What I haven't spoken out on enough is how little hope there is for these girls. 

Let's not forget that the focus is on the girls. If we see the fathers it is usually with regard to how these young mothers still forge relationships with them. Sometimes, we see the dads get custody because of the behavior these young women display. Those are the sensational ones that seem to garner more air time. 

The article, titled MTV's '16 and Pregnant', Derided by Some, May Resonate as a Cautionary Tale, talks a lot about the decline in teen pregnancy in areas where that show was watched. Hence, the title of this post (with a correction in my age, of course). Along with the clucking, finger-wagging, shame-blaming that comes with being a pregnant teenager, there are few who truly want to know what it was like. In the years since I started writing about it I have managed to show a different side of the story that isn't often highlighted: one of hope.


Of all the questions I get asked about it, lo these 29 years later, the number one question is always this: How did you do it? It comes with a sincere request for me to talk about that. Even when I got a call from a producer at the Oprah show for her Life Class on single mothers, that was the question. I had to back out of the show for a few reasons including the fact that I'm not a current single, struggling mother with no partner help and, as I understand it, the focus would be on how to help those who are navigating those waters right now. Seeing as I'm on the other side of the struggle, I gave up my spot and decided to go to Washington, D.C. to lobby for the ONE Campaign.

I'm trying not to have regret about it since I feel like I do have a lot of advice to offer. Especially since reading this quote from the NYTimes story:

“I did get two awesome blessings,” said Ms. Lowry, now 21 and married with a second child. “But I still haven’t gotten my bachelor’s degree, because, one, day care is so expensive and, two, how do you balance studying and having little ones at home?”

 These were the same problems I faced at 18 years old but by this time my daughter was a toddler who had just turned 3. So, while toddlers still demand quite a bit of time from you, I found it easier than trying to wrap a baby up with a diaper bag and trying to get to classes.

It still begs the question: how does one do this?

While I do not have all the answers I do have my own experience from which people can draw, especially currently pregnant teens. There is no 'easy' in any of it, much like there is no 'easy' in simply being a parent.

First of all, I lived very modestly in an apartment the size of my current office. It didn't even have a full kitchen but rather a kitchenette with a tiny fridge and mini stove. Much of what I see on scandalous television, however, shows many of these mothers who still want so many things for themselves. It must be difficult to give up a cell phone or purchase a cheaper plan when you're used to having those things and I don't judge them for that, but it is a choice. Of course, I didn't have to grapple with that. But I did have to let things go that were, after getting pregnant, a luxury. I believe that there is grounded into the pathology of our society that we can't wait for things anymore and that is a horrible by-product of living in poverty and not wanting anyone to know that you're poor.

Day care is, indeed expensive, and was for me at the time, too. So, when I met other single mothers we formed a sort of tribe where we traded days of classes for watching one another's children. If I took a MWF class then my friend, Demaris, would watch Mallory. She took TR classes and I watched her twins. Yes, she came to college the same time I did but she did it with twins. 

We also did plenty of potluck meals to spread our grocery dollars and agreed to sharing food weekly. We ate dinner together with our three children quite often and that meant we were able to feed them better with healthy choices of vegetables and fruit. Meat was, however, a luxury item that ate sparingly. Knowing that my daughter was getting nutritious choices helped me feel better as a mother because we all know, from having children, that there is a giant G scarlet letter pinned to us for guilty since we feel so inadequate most of the time. As an older woman, I know this to be true now but I didn't feel much solidarity with other moms because of my status: teen mother. It was as if people thought I didn't have the same complex feelings of motherhood or even post-partum depression. This is simply an unfair assessment of those mothers and I offer my struggling stories to young mothers to this day to show them that they are worthy in their roles and not discounted simply because of their age.

I taught my daughter the alphabet and sang her songs and kept her involved in activities that would benefit her just like mothers, not of the teen persuasion, did. My dreams for her were no different that any mother would have for her child. 

But it was a feeling of support and tribe and solidarity that got me through. It was other mothers, some teens and some older, who pushed me and helped me get through college with not one but two degrees. If I could urge any teen or single mother in her struggle it would be with that advice:

Find your tribe

No, it wasn't easy, but I wasn't doomed to failure, either. There was much hope and hard times and tears of frustration that I was DOING IT ALL WRONG, but my tribe of mothers gave me better than what we offer girls with reality television and seeking to sensationalize the difficulty. I am not minimizing how hard it will be, but I sincerely hope that someone out there is giving those young ladies a boost and helping them realize their potential and dreams. A shorter reply to the question How did you do it? would be, With a lot of help. 

I leave you with a bit of advice I got from my assistant principal at the time when she found out I was pregnant:

You can either view this as a stumbling block or a stepping stone. The good news is that you get to decide.

photo credit: Jack Fussell via photopin cc


Black History Month 2014: Arna Bontemps

Arna Bontemps was born in Alexandria, Louisiana in 1902. His father, a man of Creole descent, was a bricklayer whose life was threatened by 2 white men who were drunk so the family, in fearing for their safety, moved to Los Angeles. Bontemps' mother was a schoolteacher and the family decided to send their son to a boarding school, the San Fernando Academy, with explicit instructions no to "go up there acting colored". Understandably, young Arna grew up resentful of such instructions that would later make him realize how much of his culture he would end up denying.

Bontemp would later become a teacher himself and, upon a move to Harlem, befriend many of the Harlem Renaissance poets and writers who would influence his work. By 1924 Bontemps would begin publishing his works, stories and poems and a novel, and he also started to win awards for his work. Literary magazines The Crisis and Opportunity would publish his works as they supported the work of African American writers of the period. The Crisis: A Record of the Darker Races was the official magazine of the NAACP and was founded by W.E.B. DuBois and other editors who saw a need for such a publication. An archive of The Crisis can be found here.


One of the best decisions I have personally ever made was to study African American history in college. Part-way through my sophomore year I realized this was an option when I continued to take elective English courses that featured Black writers and poets. Since I had already taken enough to be close to earning a minor degree in it, I continued on to learn more about music, culture, art, and history. In my studies, Arna Bontemps continued to come up so I continued to read him. It is interesting that I also earned a teaching degree along with my English studies (my major) but that when I began searching for a job that would allow me to use my minor I was told, "That's a useless minor. Employers will only see that as a hobby." Little did they know I would incorporate every available piece of text into the existing curriculum wherever I taught. 

Bontemps work always made it into my classroom when we studied the craft of the short story. But I would learn, early on, that building background knowledge into my lessons would be paramount to students no matter what text we deconstructed. 

By far, my favorite story from Arna Bontemps is "A Summer Tragedy", a story an elderly Black couple who have lost 5 children in the space of a year and whose vernacular must be read aloud to students. Bontemps finished a library science degree at the University of Chicago and became a librarian at Fisk University, an HBCU in Nashville, Tennessee. For some time, I considered that route (of being a librarian) due in part to having Bontemps as a prominent figure in my undergrad work. To be honest, this was helped along with a love affair with the poems of Nikki Giovanni, another graduate of Fisk whose no-nonsense activist life is right up there with my beloved heroines of this century. I mean, have you seen the tattoo she has? It's an homage to Tupac FOR CRYING OUT LOUD. 

You don't get much doper than that.

I don't see history, most especially American Black History, as living in a silo to be separated out from the other history we study. However, I do see the importance of sharing posts this month and have been contacted by several teachers who are book marking these to use themselves. The constrained version of public education that reformers would have us use to test the heck out of children doesn't lend itself to expanding the Canon so it's imperative the keep writers from the Harlem Renaissance in the forefront. It's equally as important to read and use contemporary writers of color. At least, it is to me. (Also, to my own school whose 8th graders study the Harlem Renaissance during the entire 4th quarter of the school year.)

Arna Bontemps is a piece of our history, our collective history, that shaped a lot of how I've come to understand the work my teachers do and that we all do in educating children. 

You can read "A Summer Tragedy" online here

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