The Problem We All Live With

 

The image above is a painting by Norman Rockwell titled “The Problem We All Live With”. It’s a portrait of Ruby Bridges, a 6-year-old girl that had to be escorted by US Marshals into her newly desegregated elementary school in 1960. A white mob threw things at her and screamed threats and racial slurs. Today Ruby Bridges is 65-years-old. The same age as my father.

My father grew up poor, but he rarely describes his childhood that way. He grew up in a close-knit family and loving community. My dad excelled in both academics and athletics and received a football scholarship to Trenton State University. He was the first person in our family to go to college. He was not the first person in our family who was smart enough to go to college.

I start with this image and this juxtaposition of Ruby Bridges and my father because it represents my family’s story of striving against incredible obstacles. The obstacles weren’t just racism abstractly, but white people specifically and the government, structures and systems of oppression that white people created. It’s amazing that a 6-year-old girl was able to walk through a crowd of racists with head held high – but she never should have had to. I’m proud that my father was the first person in our family that had the opportunity to go to college; but there were others before him equally as intelligent who should have also had access to higher education. My grandfather should have received the GI Bill. My great-grandmother should have had more career options than scrubbing white people’s floors. My family should have never faced the economic exploitation of sharecropping and before that the crime against humanity that was slavery. All of this is a part of my economic story. White people still benefit today from the centuries of economic exploitation and exclusion that my family, and other Black Americans, experienced and continue to experience.

When I was in third grade, after my father retired from the army, my family moved to Columbia, MD. My parents chose Columbia because it has one of the best public school systems in the country. They instilled in my brother and I the value of education and hard work. We played sports and my father often coached our teams. I had the opportunity to go to summer camps and take family road trips – in many ways I had an idyllic childhood. Our stable, suburban life began to crumble around 8th grade. My father lost his job and eventually we lost our house. Then they re-possessed our car. This series of economic catastrophes shapes a lot of my views about money. I have experienced the loss of everything. I’ve experienced all of our belongings on the curb outside of our house. Today, as a financially stable adult, even stability feels precarious. I have a lot of fears about losing the things I’ve worked for, and that fear shapes all of my decisions.

I excelled academically, graduated from high school and attended Howard University. My brother dropped out of high school and ended up going to jail. I think a lot about how two people can grow up in the same house and have such vastly different life outcomes. I had a great academic and social experience at Howard. I deserved to be at Howard, I was smart enough to be at Howard, but I could not afford to be at Howard. My financial aid package didn’t cover my full tuition. I was never validated at the beginning of each semester. If you’re not validated it means you haven’t paid your full tuition, room and board – and if you didn’t pay by a certain date you would be dropped from all of your classes. Every semester, while other people were buying books and preparing for the first day, I would be in the financial aid office begging and pleading. My senior year, I did a letter writing campaign to raise money to pay for my final semester. A family member had to take out a personal loan to help me get to the finish line. We managed to pull it all together. I got my degree along with $60,000 in student loan debt. Thankfully, my masters degree was fully-funded.

Today I make a good salary. I own my home in Washington, DC. I have enough money to invest every month in my 401k and Roth IRA. In 2018, the year after I bought my house, my favorite aunt passed away. She worked until she retired and then she worked a part-time job at Kohl’s. When she passed she left me and three of my cousins an unexpected inheritance of $175,000 each. Although I am financially stable now, I still feel a great deal of economic anxiety. Half of my family is still poor. In some ways I am privileged. In some ways I am not.

I came into the cooperative movement through labor organizing. In Washington, DC there are so many Black people stuck in what seems like inescapable poverty. There is also a rich tradition of Black-led worker-owned cooperatives, food cooperatives and housing cooperatives. I view cooperatives not just as a way to create work and housing, but as a tool for economic autonomy and self-determination. I’m primarily invested in building alternatives.

I’m working to build a new economy that repairs the harms of the past, creates a real social safety net, and improves the quality of life for everyone. The future I want to build is a cooperative economy, a complete overhaul of our government and constitution, the de-commodification of housing, merit-based free universal college, universal healthcare, the restoration of our environment for future generations, and reparations for Black and indigenous Americans.

That vision may not seem viable, but our current system isn’t viable and some how here we are. I think there are ways that our current system pushes us to be pragmatic and think in terms of what is feasible. I think we should name the thing we really want and then create the conditions to make it possible.

Published by Jennifer Bryant

Jennifer is a global citizen currently living in DC. She loves the color yellow and strawberry cheesecake ice cream. She leads the DC Employee Ownership Initiative at the Washington Area Community Investment Fund, a Black-led CDFI.

11 thoughts on “The Problem We All Live With

  1. Jennifer – I really appreciate your opening up on the complicated reality of your economy. In surprising ways, it resonates for me. In other ways, your candid description helps me understand – just a little bit more – the ways that systemic inequity plays out.

    A few questions:

    – Where does your current work fit into the social movement ecology beyond building alternatives? Is there overlap with the other factors?
    – How does your work fit with your final excellent aspiration to create the conditions for the change we want? In your local ecosystem, what pieces are missing? What is yours to do and who else is better suited to do it?
    – What are the milestones toward reaching your vision? What role will you play along each of those milestones?
    – Where do you look in the co-op for inspiration? What historical examples have made the type of change you seek and at what scale?

    Thank you again for being generous. You have much to offer me and the other participants in this workshop.

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  2. Jen – thanks for pushing through the excruciating emotional labor and make this post.

    And thank you for describing your story so vividly.

    “Today, as a financially stable adult, even stability feels precarious.”

    “that fear shapes all of my decisions.”

    “I still feel a great deal of economic anxiety. Half of my family is still poor.”

    A couple questions:

    Imagine having a conversation with your favorite aunt about this workshop and the decisions in your life right now. What would that conversation be like? What might she offer you?

    Fast forward 35 years. What wisdom might Jennifer Bryant then, have for the Jennifer Bryant of today?

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  3. Thank you Jennifer, I appreciate the reflection of your family in the context of historical structures. Your motivations for this work are personal and powerful.

    I am struck by the “half of my family is still poor” comment. As someone who has financial obligations to family members, the guilt and obligation around money can be paralyzing at times. I wonder what feelings you might have around being the sibling who thrived and how that impacts you work and goals. I am also curious how you feel about money and finances at this point in your life and how that has evolved over time. Do you think the CDFI industry serves communities of color in an effective way? What could be different?

    Thanks so much, I read your post several times.

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  4. Jennifer, I so appreciate your honesty and vulnerability! I cannot imagine what it was like to experience such losses –the loss of your home, your family car and your brother to jail. I can only imagine how it may have impacted your Dad as well. I can see how the insecurity of wondering if you would pull together enough funding to cover each semester’s school bill could lead you to want to avoid anything like that experience now or in the future.
    It might be too far afield, but I had a few questions you may want to consider:
    ** I am curious how you navigate the current tension between your own situation (having a home and good income) with the pressure of your family’s needs.
    ** You mention the problem is a “system of oppression.” While I think of mortgage red-lining and some research I did on minority businesses for an econ master’s thesis, I would love to hear you spell what you mean in more detail.
    ** I am excited to hear how you elaborate on the alternatives to build out “a cooperative economy, a complete overhaul of our government and constitution, the de-commodification of housing, merit-based free universal college, universal healthcare, the restoration of our environment for future generations, and reparations for Black and indigenous Americans.”….I think we should name the thing we really want and then create the conditions to make it possible.” Are there specific areas that you would like to explore initially? How will you know the “best” place to focus?
    I’m look forward to the next installment of your story, Jennifer!
    Jon

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  5. Jennifer,
    I felt every word of your post. My family had its success stories and then the other side. Our privilege never ended in that my father never lost his job but my sister chose to have a child at 17, never finished college, was a lifetime chain smoker and died this year without a penny to her name.

    Thank you for sharing that deep part of yourself with us.

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  6. Hi Jennifer, thank you for this powerful, deeply personal post.
    You create a bright link between the individual and systemic comparing Ruby Bridges to your grandfather, and again your experience to your brother’s. From this foundation I look forward to seeing future projects explore how your new economy repairs the harms of the past, creates safety nets in the present and opportunities for the future. I am curious what historic healing looks like, in an economic sense? Creating safety nets and real equal opportunity almost seem easy compared to the task of healing intergenerational trauma..
    In your closing statement, you point out that these goals “may not seem viable”–I am curious who you feel is saying this future is not viable, not necessary? I hear you, and I hear that same whisper in my ear, that our visions are “not realistic” –I’m interested in exploring with you, where do those whispers come from, specifically? Who says it, why do they say it, how do we unravel that system of silencing?

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  7. Thanks for sharing Jennifer. It was brave of you to be so open and vulnerable on this post. I especially loved the ending. It’s a potent point : despite how unviable our current systems are for the majority of the world , these systems exist, so why shouldn’t systems and structures that make the world viable for the majority of people not exist.

    A question, I’ve often struggled with is envisioning what the systems that repair the harms of the past could look like. The harms of just the present, at times feel completely overwhelming.

    However, it’s a powerful framework that you identify: looking at alternative institution building as creating institutions that repair past harms and do present and future good.

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  8. I appreciate you, Jennifer! And I appreciate you sharing this and doing so with such vulnerability.

    If you’re up for it, I’d be very interested to hear more about the vision you describe (which I think is beautiful) – “cooperative economy, a complete overhaul of our government and constitution, the de-commodification of housing, merit-based free universal college, universal healthcare, the restoration of our environment for future generations, and reparations for Black and indigenous Americans.” The kinds of questions I am thinking of are: What kind of institutions do you think we can we build that are capable of achieving all of this? Who should control these institutions? What paths for beginning or continuing to build these institutions feel most promising?

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  9. Great post. Thanks for being so vulnerable in sharing your personal story. I like your list of change. One open question: Is there one there that deserves more focus than the others? Better yet, is there one initiative or change that could do more to help leverage other good things? I’ve been asking myself this question and curious if you have any thoughts or ideas.

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  10. Thank you.

    My dad was laid off from Pfizer’s warehouse in the early 90’s. That’s when I realized we were poor just like our neighbors.

    I remember going to class hoping I was still on the role because my tuition wasn’t covered. I hadn’t thought about that since. I had a visceral reaction to the memory of my 19yo self briefly succumbing to that hopeless feeling.

    You wrote, so well, the case for repair. How does direct repair look to you? Perhaps it is in your story?

    Like

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