If you asked 10-year-old Sophia Bracy Harris what she wanted to be when she grew up, I might have told you that I wasn’t sure that I’d even get the chance.
As a little black girl who suffered with frequent bouts of serious illness living in 1950s Elmore County, Alabama, I grew up in an oppressive world of Jim Crow and poverty that could have easily crushed my dreams. My family’s home was firebombed in retaliation to the black families who enrolled in segregated schools after Brown v. Board decision; and no matter what I achieved I often struggled with the persistent question, “Am I good enough?”
Had it not been for the fierce determination of my mother Mittie Marie Bracy and the rural black mothers of my community who saw education as the only way to better their children’s lives and uplift the Black race, I might not have gone on to lead a statewide organization representing the interest of more than 300 childcare providers, traveled internationally to raise my voice on women’s equality, been named a MacArthur Genius, and earned the reputation of being among the fiercest advocates for children of color and those living in crippling poverty.
Reflecting on more than 50 plus years of community organizing and advocacy, I decided to write about my life’s work and the continuation of my journey of self-discovery in my soon-to-be released memoir, “Finding My Own Way: A Journey to Wholeness Against the Odds. The book is being published independently and is available at www.sophiabharris.com.
Breaking the cycle of inadequacy
My story is a journey to break the cycle of inadequacy that I first experienced as a young girl. Even on a simple trip into the neighboring town of Wetumpka, I could feel the sting of white racism. I already felt guilty because I was a sickly child whose illnesses, I was sure, had caused my family’s poverty. Racism and scarcity often made me feel empty and incomplete.
The cycle continued at the black school I attended. Doby High had a lot of love, but the teachers often struggled to fundraise to provide the basic things we needed to learn. Dilapidated textbooks, old desks and few resources were reserved for black students, while the all-white schools had labs, new books and good facilities. With my parent’s encouragement ( and warning), my sister and I were among a group of black students who helped to integrate the all-white high school in town. The racism and violence were relentless, and over time I slowly began internalizing the barrage of negative messages by the white students and authority figures: “You don’t belong,” “You can’t write,” “You don’t think well”, “You don’t deserve to be here.”
These hateful messages could have stunted my growth, or even swallowed me whole. But throughout my life, family and friends, and sometimes strangers, helped me gain confidence and grow. As a child, I had no idea as I tried to diaper my wriggling, three-year-old brother Ed, that I would one day spend much of my life advocating for and with black women who, like my mother, were determined that their children receive a good education. With a clear sense of what their children needed, these mothers worked against the odds to bring the best childcare centers into their communities. They wanted to dispel the messages children of color often receive almost from birth. They wanted their children to know that they were whole; they were complete.
By age 23 I was hired as executive director of the brand-new organization, the Federation of Community Controlled Centers of Alabama for Childcare or FOCAL. Though I was often viewed as a young girl, I was just as often looked to for direction on issues facing the black community in the care of children of color.
As a young leader I was often afraid of making a mistake and asked myself constantly, “Do I know enough?” Over the years, I received some distinguished awards, served on the boards of some of the nation’s leading women and child advocacy organizations, but self-doubt seemed to always be a few steps behind me. But I was never in doubt about the work, and I was deeply committed to FOCAL. I devoted the next 43 years of my life to supporting black women childcare providers. Two of my supporters in that effort were the Children’s Defense Fund and Community Change.
My leadership as a Black woman grows
In the 1980s, Pablo Eisenberg, then President of Community Change, known at that time as the Center for Community Change, introduced the Dutch foundation Van Leer to FOCAL child care providers and parents who were advocating for control of the education of their children. This association lead to the development of a curriculum guide called “More Is Caught Than Taught” which has been implemented in three countries.
During the 1990s, FOCAL often collaborated with Community Change to support its groundbreaking work in non-traditional employment opportunities for women, launching the Women’s Technical Assistance Program, which helped lift many poor women and women of color up and place them on a path of hope and success.
Community Change’s passion for working to dismantle those systems of racial, economic and gender inequality rivaled my own, and being a part of the important work of Community Change and others while I led FOCAL and after I retired and was named a Community Change 2016 Taconic Distinguished Fellow, helped me in immeasurable ways. I understood that my contributions and my life had worth in a way I hadn’t before. I further understood that part of my purpose was to make sure that the people in the communities that I served knew that they were worth it, too.
Of the many storms I’ve weathered in life, the most difficult one has been self-acceptance. I’ve always sided with the underdogs because I was one, too. As a young adult, I found myself giving to children the protection I’d wanted for myself as a child. That impulse to protect children has guided my life’s work and brought me face to face with things about myself that no one can fix, change, or improve for me. I’ve had to find my own way.
In many ways, my memoir is a thank you letter to the people in my life who have shaped the person that I am, and to champions such as Community Change, American Friends Service, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and newer organizations like Fair Fight, Black Voters Matter and Equal Justice Initiative. These groups and others are fighting for people everywhere who are considered “less than”, who are discounted, miseducated and often forgotten. Together we can break the cycle of inadequacy, and one of the things that my journey has taught me is that the fight for equality continues.