Originally from India, I have lived in the US since the 1980s. I am a new grandmother, a writer, and a retired techie. It was only after moving to the US that I became aware of the country’s horrifying history of slavery and the huge shadow that that particular history casts on the present. Deeply affected, I started supporting African American organizations such as the United Negro College Fund, the King Memorial, and the National Museum of African American History and Culture.
However, I wanted to do more than write (modest) checks. I wanted to be a helper through direct action. In 2016, after much searching, I found a program in which I could serve as a one-on-one mentor to individuals who were in the process of rebuilding their lives. The “life skills” curriculum included money management, emotion and relationship regulation, and setting and achieving simple short-term goals.
After completing a short orientation, I was assigned a mentee named Denice (not her real name). We were about the same age, late 50s, and had recently moved from the Northeast to our Southern city. During our first meeting, I was happy to learn the random fact that, like me, Denice liked History. But that’s where our similarities ended.
Denice had briefly attended college but had not graduated. She had served time on a drug charge; she had several grandchildren. Denice lived in an extended-stay hotel with her husband, who was a laborer. She worked as a front-desk clerk in a hotel.
Despite our differences, I found Denice friendly and easy to talk to. At our first meeting, I gave her a small gift that I had bought on a whim—a notebook with a matching pen, the kind schoolgirls use to doodle and write poetry. I told her I hoped it would be useful to her just as mine was to me—to jot my musings and create a record of my days.
Denice and I met each week for nine months over a shared buffet dinner. She gradually opened up to me. She had never learnt to drive and could not have afforded a car anyway. She had to take two buses to get to work—a distance of about five miles. When her shift ended at 11:00 p.m., with buses no longer running, she had to take a cab. It cost almost an hour’s wage.
Denice made ten dollars per hour in her job as the front desk clerk at a chain hotel. Not having a bank account, she had to pay fees to cash her paycheck and to pay bills by money order. Her job did not guarantee full-time hours. Neither did it offer paid time off or health insurance. She ate one meal each day at the hotel’s bar. When her food stamps benefit ended after a few months, she relied on food pantries to supplement what little she could afford with the money left over after paying rent.
As Denice’s mentor, one of my tasks was to review her finances. During the early weeks, she often failed to bring a completed worksheet or forgot to bring all her expense receipts. One week, even though she lived paycheck-to-paycheck, her expenses were higher than her income. “You are too young to understand,” her explanation was not much of one. Alarmed, I sought guidance from her social worker. Over time, I came to realize that I had to be like a mother who cannot quite understand the ways of her rebellious teen. I had to keep showing up.
Denice kept trying to improve her work situation. She took an online course and applied for a manager position when one opened up. She received a commendation from one of the hotel’s guests for her exemplary service.
Denice’s husband left her a few months into our collaboration. She was sure he had started using drugs again. Apart from the heartbreak of being summarily abandoned, the loss of half of the family’s income made her financial situation even more precarious. When he returned a few months later and asked to be taken back, she refused. “I love him but I am no longer in love with him,” she explained. “I want him to be safe, but I cannot risk getting entangled again.” “He must have many good qualities if the person whom he thoughtlessly abandoned does not wish him ill,” I thought to myself.
Several years earlier, Denice had lost her sister in a drive-by shooting. Distraught, she had succumbed to drugs that were, as she put it, “too easily available” in her neighborhood. This had led to her being incarcerated. But now, all that was behind her. One weekend, she took a ten hour bus ride to her hometown. Spending money she could ill afford and losing the income from days not worked, she surprised the twin daughters of her late sister on their birthday.
Although Denice sometimes felt depressed and overwhelmed, she refused her mental health provider’s offer of prescription medication. I could not find it in me to judge her for smoking cigarettes to handle her stress.
One Tuesday, I was telling Denice about Isabel Wilkerson’s book about the Great Migration, The Warmth of Other Suns. “That sounds like my father’s family,” she said. “When I was growing up, I used to go down to North Carolina to visit them. It was strange to use the outhouse.” I was shocked to learn that in living memory, households in the United States had lacked indoor plumbing. I gifted Denice a copy of the book. She read it and wrote a brief report as one of her three short-term goals required by the program.
Each week, we shared a hug as we took each other’s leave. “Drive home safe,” she would remind me. During the holidays, she gave me a coffee mug with a Santa Claus graphic. It is special to me because it is a gift from the heart from one who had very little to give.
The organization put on a beautiful graduation event. There were devotional songs and thoughtful speeches. Family members whooped and applauded as each graduate, decked out in a cap and gown, walked up to the stage to receive her diploma. As I watched Denice, I felt a catch in my throat. I felt proud of her for having prevailed despite the many obstacles she had faced. I hoped that the life skills she had learnt would help her weather future storms.
As an immigrant, I love America for its optimism and can-do spirit. As a citizen, I am disappointed, even ashamed, that those traits have not been deployed to serve the interests of many of my fellow citizens. Being neither White nor Black, it is virtually impossible to have my voice heard in the national conversations on race. Even so, having known Denice, I cannot remain silent. I have found the courage to speak up and pose challenging questions.
Why isn’t it considered modern-day slavery when a person is expected to live on $10 per hour?
Why is the business model of employers whose workers need public assistance not questioned?
Why are such employers not fined or billed for the support that taxpayers must provide their grossly underpaid employees?
How do people feed themselves after they use up their food stamps?
For how long will we Americans let a particular interpretation of the Second Amendment trump all other considerations? Surely we are more creative, innovative, compassionate, and sensible, than that?
Who is responsible for raising children rendered motherless by a drive-by shooting?
Why do we not have a Marshall Plan for tackling social and economic devastation right here in the homeland?
I could go on.
Martin Luther King, Jr. dreamt of a society which judges a person based on the content of her character and not on the color of her skin. Denice possessed grace, empathy, and a good work ethic. However, her life was so buffeted by forces beyond her control that, in essence, being judged by, and benefiting from, the content of her character were privileges beyond her reach.
For the sake of Denice and millions like her, it is high time that, as a nation, we prioritize the implementation of effective responses to questions like the ones I posed above. As citizens of a democracy, it is their birthright. It is also morally right.
On the other hand, it is not just about “them.” I, for one, want to live in a country that empowers all of its citizens, especially the ones who have been ignored for far too long, to achieve their goals and benefit from their full potential. Indeed, it is with this value in mind that I donate and volunteer. And, that is the kind of country in which I want my infant grandson to live when he grows up. I believe that most of my fellow citizens, on all sides of the political divide, also want the same for themselves and for their future generations.
Finally, it is important to remind ourselves that this is not a one-way street. The country can hold its head high in the community of nations when it does right by its most beleaguered citizens. Also, it stands to benefit from the character, talents, and skills of each one of its empowered citizens.
If Black lives are to truly matter, Black Life Matters—jobs that pay a living wage and eradication of guns and drugs—need to matter first. And they need to matter to each and every one of us. For, there is no Them. There is only US.
About Nandini Patwardhan
Nandini Patwardhan is the author of a deeply researched biography titled, Radical Spirits: India’s First Woman Doctor and Her American Champions. She is a winner of the 2020 San Francisco Press Club award. She lives in Oakland, CA.