Tag Archives: community

An open letter to my Durham / NC community

Dear friends,

It’s hard to believe that I’ve spent the past five years building a home here in North Carolina. When I first moved here in 2012 to begin graduate school at UNC Chapel Hill, I thought, “2 years, and then I’m headed back to the west coast.” That’s not at all how things worked out. My decision to stay in North Carolina was originally one of practicality and convenience – lower cost of living, more professional connections with which to find my first job out of grad school. But now I believe that there was far more at play. I believe my ancestors were calling me home. “You have work to do here,” they said to me, “and we have work to do on you.”

Moving to North Carolina was the start of my (long overdue) politicization. It was here in North Carolina, and in Durham specifically, that I developed a political and social analysis that was able to deconstruct patterns of oppression. Moving to North Carolina also supported my continued racial identity development. Durham is where I learned that there are all kinds of ways to be Black, and that I have no reason to apologize for my particular flavor of (often bourgie) Blackness, to white folks, or folks of color. Durham is where I turned thirty, battled breast cancer, battled suicidality, grew into the person I am today.

Knowing all of this history, it is hard for me to believe that I am leaving Durham. Soon. At the start of September, my parents and my partner will help me load a U-Haul with all my possessions, and drive 8 hours to my new home in Montgomery, Alabama. I have accepted a job with URGE, Unite for Reproductive and Gender Equity, as their Alabama State Organizer. The short explanation is that I am moving to Alabama to be closer to my partner, who lives in Selma. The truer explanation is that I am moving to Alabama for myself. In moving, I am admitting that I desire and need and deserve romantic love, and that I can make choices to prioritize that need and desire, something I have rarely if ever done in my past. It has been an extreme paradigm shift for me, talking with B about building a life together, forming and growing a family together, integrating the communities that make up our constellations of support. Until our relationship began to reveal itself as “the real deal,” I had assumed that I would forge my way through life unpartnered, have a child unpartnered, do my best to live a full and gratifying life, unpartnered. Not that those who are unpartnered are less worthy or less whole or less adult than those who are. Spending 28+ years unpartnered showed me the ways in which our society treats single people as less than, as though they are waiting in some sort of purgatory. In my experience, people don’t know how to categorize or place you when you’re single.  I remind myself regularly that I am no more or less worthy, no more or less whole, no more or less alone, partnered to B than I was before he became a foundational presence in my life. Neither of us subscribe to the “partner as lover and best friend and primary/solitary source of support” mentality. And so in some ways, moving to Alabama is going to be hard work for me, as I seek to build a new community of support, and seek to maintain my ties and bonds to folks here in North Carolina.

In moving, I am also acknowledging my desire for growth and challenges (like, extreme challenges, apparently). For at least a year now,  I have claimed a commitment to the southeastern United States. This is where my people are from. This is where I want to be, and where I believe I belong, even in my areas of difference from the people around me. Within 30 seconds of hearing me talk, people know that I was not raised in the South. Strangers in barber shops have told me that I “look educated” without me even opening my mouth. Fears of being scene as “uppity” plague me in a variety of predominantly Black spaces. I am aware of the ways that I am “other,” even among people of color here in North Carolina. But I have gained a level of security in my sense of self to own it, and laugh it off, knowing who I am and what I’m about and what work I still have left to do.

I see now that my claim of commitment to the southeast was a somewhat shallow one. By southeast, I really meant North Carolina. I would throw a fit anytime I had to drive through South Carolina and actually exit my car, always looking around to make sure I saw at least one other Black person before deciding it was safe to make a stop for gas. This move is an opportunity for me to put my money (what money?) where my mouth is, and make good on my commitment to this region so rich in civil rights and social movement history, this region that has taught me so much about self-love as a Black woman, and what it means to fight for my own liberation, and the collective liberation of us all.

If you had told me five years ago that I would be accepting a job as an organizer, I would have called your bluff. I was very adamantly not an organizer. A facilitator, a trainer, a coordinator, yes, but never an organizer. I think I had it in my head that my introverted self was too reserved to do the work of mobilizing folk, that my bourgie self was too privileged to do the work of empowering marginalized folk without it being paternalistic, that as a young woman who didn’t realize she was Black until age 25 would never be sufficiently politicized or radicalized to take a leadership role in social movements. And yet here I am. I think my understanding of organizing has changed and matured, with much maturing left to do. I see organizing as another means of facilitation, facilitating communication between people who share areas of struggle, facilitating opportunities to build power, training folks as leaders and change agents in their own lives.

I am, in many ways, broken-hearted to leave Durham. In other ways, I am confident that the relationships, intimate and casual, and connections, close and loose, that have sustained me while I’m here in North Carolina will continue to sustain me as I move into this next chapter. What I’m saying is, I need you. Yes, you. To be available for in person visits and long distance phone calls and Skype sessions. To visit me and spend time with me and my partner as I build a new home. To remind me that I am good, that I’ve got this.

What I’m also saying is, I thank you. For all the ways you have invested in me and allowed me to learn from you, the ways in which we’ve learned together. From my process of politicization, to my process of racial identity development, to my expanded understanding of gender and sexuality, to my deep love for doing work with young people, to my process of battling physical and mental health crises, you’ve been there, and you’ve supported me, in large and small ways. I am forever grateful.

Now… let’s do all the fun things before September 2nd.

Much love and solidarity,


Thoughts on cheerleaders, the vortex, and the woman in the mirror

Community is so deeply engrained as one of my core values (and basic needs) that I don’t even think about it until it is disrupted. We cannot do life alone, or even in twos-ies or threes-ies, and also do it well. Even when it comes to the most introverted introverts (this girl), it takes a village to raise a healthy human being.

This week, as reality sets in, and I experience the physical absence of my community in San Diego, I am remembering one of the critical things it provided for me. Having healthy, supportive relationships in your life means you have a chorus of cheerleaders rooting for you. They are there to celebrate the wins with you. And in the seasons when you don’t feel like a winner, when the voice in your head that berates you for your faults crescendos, the chorus of your community is there to remind you that life is not all bad, you are not all bad, in fact you are pretty damn great, that’s why they choose to hangout with you.

I’ve had lots of time alone this past week, and the ‘burbs are slowly driving me insane. I’ve been using the downtime to plan for the next phase of the big move, which involves making decisions about housing. I take forever to make decisions. I dislike this about myself, never mind the fact that I don’t have forever. Generally, having time alone to think has a positive effect on my overall well-being, up to a critical point when said well-being plummets into what I call “the vortex.” I’d forgotten about the vortex. It is the place where rational thought, effective problem-solving and healthy emotional perspective dissolve into a mass of irrational self-criticism, anxiety and runny-nosed tears. Fear reigns supreme in the vortex, and typically I would be fortunate enough to have one of my cheerleaders pull me out, inviting me back to reality.

Things are a little different now.

There’s a little sticker right next to the spacebar of my keyboard, the kind you got on homework assignments in elementary school. It is shiny, bright blue, and it says “Great Job!” My friends Laurie and Jenny gave it to me. Whenever I look at it, I visualize the two of them, in the dorkiest cheerleading getup possible, raising their jazz hands high, and cheering me through my day. Or I conjure up the voice of my dear friend since freshman year, whose voice over the phone reminds me each week, “Mawi, you are doing a great job.” For some reason, when the people who love me — the people who will acknowledge that I am imperfect in a very human way, but will assure me there is not some sort of unforgivable deficit in my character — tell me that I am doing a good job, that I am good enough, I believe them.*

All of this is my doing, my own choice to pursue education a different state, I realize that. I am learning that a good decision, the right decision for the present season, can still be hard as hell. I’m losing the daily physical presence of my cheerleaders, and I suspect it’s going to force me to come to terms with what I’ve been aware of for some time: I’m not so great at being my own cheerleader. I have encouraging words for others, but rarely for myself.

We need community for sure, but at the end of the day, and the start of the next, the person staring back at me while I brush my teeth is me. I have to live with me — for the rest of my life in fact — so I better start being kind to myself, offering myself encouragement, reminding myself of what I did well today, and being patient with the areas where I still struggle.