Thinking of My Mother and Our Broken Economy

by Chris Dasan Ahanu Massenburg | May 27, 2015 2:11 pm

When I was growing up, I was a “latch key” kid, a popular term for a child who has to come home and lock himself in after school because no one else is home. I was raised by a single mother who worked long hours at a convenience store in Apex, North Carolina. We stayed in a singlewide trailer on a small plot of land owned by our neighbor in the nearby town of Fuquay-Varina. My mother did what parents do – she tried hard to provide for her child.

She taught me that you have to work hard for what you need. By age 10, I was pumping gas at a local gas station to make extra money. At 14, I was working as a camp counselor during the summer. At 16, I got a job at Burger King. It was important to my mother that I understood what it was like to work to make money because we had so little of it.

While I was at Burger King, I met other employees, mostly women, who were working there to provide for their children. They too had latch key kids who were instructed to come home, have a snack, and work on homework until their mother came home. While the pay wasn’t that much, it was a job for them. And these mothers also subscribed to the notion that you have to work hard for what you need.

When I think of fixing our broken economy, I recall those mothers, my mother—women who work hard doing whatever they can to provide for their families. They work low paying jobs while also maintaining a household and planning for their own future and the future of their children. So when I attended the “Putting Families First: Good Jobs for All” campaign launch in Washington, D.C., I had these mothers on my mind.

“Making a major investment in areas of concentrated poverty, largely African-American and Latino communities, is necessary to create a level playing field after generations of deliberate disinvestment,” said Deepak Bhargava, Executive Director of the Center for Community Change. He opened the event by talking about the current state of our economy and stressing the need to ensure working people can support their families.

It’s been a long time since I lived in that trailer in Fuquay-Varina. Now I live in Durham where Black and Latino people in my community have long sought affordable housing and better jobs. So I understood when Gloria Walton, President and CEO of Strategic Concepts in Organizing & Policy Education (SCOPE) stated that a shift to “putting families first” meant “that everyone has an opportunity for a good-paying job, jobs that are safe and sustainable, with career paths that can support a family, particularly those that suffer from structural racism and discrimination.”

To achieve this goal, we must invest and empower the communities most impacted, while working one-on-one to get individuals involved in building a movement to change their lives and situations. Indeed, Walton noted, “The people most impacted – people struggling every day trying to make ends meet – have to be at the center of solutions, so local organizing and campaigns are at the heart of building larger movements and transformative victories.”

I remember when organizers I had learned from and fought beside in Durham joined with residents of Lincoln Apartments to fight eviction and bring attention to the lack of options for low-income families in our city. They canvassed residents to talk with them about their concerns, and then met with them individually to train them and support them as they stood up and spoke out at meetings with city officials. Those residents included mothers who worked in retail, at fast food restaurants, or as nursing assistants, making just above minimum wage.

I am thankful for my upbringing. My mother was a model of will and determination. She sometimes apologizes for the challenges we faced, but I let her know there is no reason to apologize. I am grateful for everything she did. She was the first person I called when I got back home because I wanted to let her know that there are people who are dedicated to fighting for change – fighting so that families across the country can be unapologetic in raising their children and living better lives.

Rasheen Aldridge, a young organizer with Missouri Jobs With Justice in St. Louis, spelled it out beautifully when he said our communities are facing “issues that cannot wait no longer. Issues that need to be acted on right now because these are lives that are at stake. These are families that need to be fed; these are people who are asking themselves if it is going to be heat, or electric, or is it going to be food?”

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