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.