Homeless to Yale


Tiny - Posted on 24 May 2017

Author: 
Valerie Klokow

Homeless to Yale

 

And Then Back Again.

On purpose.

By Choice.

Because it Makes More Sense.

 

 

Read one woman’s story of why we all should be paying attention to Lisa Tiny Gray-Garcia and POOR Magazine.

 

Valerie Klokow

May 12, 2017

 

 

   I used to think that the worst thing

in life was to end up alone. It's not.

The worst thing in life is to end up with

people who make you feel alone.

   ~   Robin Williams  

 

I’m probably not going to be able to explain to anyone, including myself, how it is that being a member of a homeless community makes more sense than being an ivy league alumna (or a member of any other privileged group), but that doesn’t make it any less true. I thought about changing the last part of this title to “Because The People Are Nicer,” but that’s just being bitchy and it also doesn’t do justice to what Lisa Tiny Gray-Garcia and everyone at POOR Magazine stand for and are doing. I’ve lived at 2 extreme, opposite “ends” of American society and, while at first –  prior to having “made it” to the more privileged end – I wouldn’t have even attempted to explain how the other end made more sense, I’ve always experienced, felt andknown it to be true.

I dropped out of school in the 7thgrade, eventually spending some time homeless in California until, in my 30’s, I decided to “turn my life around.” I went, first, to a drug and alcohol treatment facility, and then to a community college where I graduated with a 4.0 and transferred, on scholarship, to Yale. I spent two years in New Haven, where I completed my undergraduate work in philosophy and then went on to earn a J.D. at the University of Connecticut School of Law. I worked for a few years in legal compliance for a large corporation and I’m currently writing grants for a nonprofit organization. I am making considerably less money today than I was when I worked in compliance and I didn’t need my law degree (or, really, even my college degree) to do the work that I’m doing. I have always loved to learn and am very grateful for every bit of my education, but the money really doesn’t matter to me; I am much happier writing grants than I was in compliance and I also have more time to spend with my son – not to mention being in a much better mood while I’m with him! My experience with POOR Magazine’s Stolen Land and Hoarded Wealth Tour has me looking… hard… though, at how I feel about participating even in this type of work. This nation was taken (stolen) by colonizers from the Indigenous peoples who lived here, and then built on the backs of enslaved and exploited people of color. Working in corporate law made me feel complicit –  because I was, contrary to what I’d believed upon having been hired to work in compliance– but the work that I’m doing now is just another cog in the same privilege-machine. The concept of charity… of nonprofit organizations and the infrastructure of this country that has created a “need” for them… isn’t something that I am happy to participate in without question.

symptom

[simp-tuh m]

noun

1. any phenomenon or circumstance accompanying something and serving as evidence of it.

2. a sign of indication of something.

3. Pathology. a phenomenon that arises from and accompanies a particular disease or disorder and serves as an indication of it.

 

It is my sincere hope that everyone in the United States is questioning a lot of things today. And I’m not just talking about the outcome of the last Presidential election. Donald Trump is not my President, and more importantly, he isn’t the problem. Donald Trump is a monster that we have created and focusing on him is a surefire way to feed the privilege-machine and keep it rolling but, again, he is not the problem. The fact that this particular individual was elected to hold this office is a festering, pus-filled symptom of the problems of savagery and greed that caused colonizers to believe that they had a right to 1) take the land that is today the United States of America; and 2) kill or displace all of the rightful owners of that land. Trump is an insignificant man who is an inevitable, later-stage symptom of the barbarity and inhumanity that plagued the privileged citizens of the newly colonized nation when they enslaved human beings and he is a blinking, flashing, neon-lit symptom of the arrogance, ignorance and apathy (I’m being kind with the use of this last word) that is causing privileged citizens of the United States of America to continue to believe – or, worse, to simply accept it, unquestioned, as being the way things areand thereby assume themselves to be in possession of rights that others don’t have.

In the past 6 months I’ve felt overwhelmed, inadequate, frustrated and depressed as I’ve tried to figure out how to make people who aren’t experiencing any problems take a look at systems of oppression that have been at work in their lives and their communities since before any of us were born. I still haven’t figured out how to get people to want (or even be willing) to learn more, but I do have a few ideas as to what they can do to get a better understanding, and one of them is to attend a PeopleSkool Decolonization / DegentriFUkation seminar, and to learn more about the Stolen Land Tour. The members of this tour are performing ceremonies of healing every time they offer a seminar or walk in a tour. These Poverty Skolaz are some of the nicest people that I have ever known, and my son said the same thing after we both met them a few weeks ago.

On Sunday, April 23, 2017, my 11-year-old son and I participated in the Connecticut leg (Pequot/Mohegan Territory) of POOR Magazine’s Stolen Land and Hoarded Wealth Tour. We first attended a PeopleSkool Decolonization / DegentriFUkation seminar at Wesleyan University from 1:00 – 3:30 PM and then, from 5:00 – 6:30 PM we walked with a group of Black, Brown, Indigenous, disabled and homeless youth and adults from POOR magazine, Sogorea Te Land Trust, Krip Hop Nation and Deecolonize Academy as they knocked on doors in a wealthy West Hartford neighborhood to share the medicine of redistribution and community reparations with the residents who live there. For these 5 ½ hours, for the first time in almost 20 years, I felt completely at home. I have not been homeless since 1996, and the hours that I spent with the members of this tour made me feel more at home than any of the houses and apartments that I’ve lived in ever did. There is a sense of community and a feeling of camaraderie amongst the members of the Stolen Land Tour, and within moments of being in their presence, I knew that they followed the same code of honor and respect that I followed (and valued) when I was on the street. Very naïve when I graduated from law school and got my first job, I was stunned when I encountered the very different schema of respect that is employed in corporate America. Working in a nonprofit and living on the outskirts of a suburb put me back into a more comfortable respect-zone, but I hadn’t realized how “not at home” I’ve felt until about halfway through the PeopleSkool seminar at Wesleyan. The social structure at play in that room and on their tour makes much more sense – and feels much better –to me than the capitalist society that we all live in.

I was introduced to the work that POOR Magazine is doing by Reverend Cathy Rion Starr, who is co-minister of the Unitarian Society of Hartford, where I am a member. Reverend Cathy had come to know POOR’s work when she lived in the San Francisco Bay Area, and she asked me if I’d be interested in this East Coast Tour by telling me “I don’t know exactly how to explain or describe it, but every time that I’ve seen the work that these people are doing, I think ‘Yes. This is good and right. This is something that we all should be doing.’”  After spending a day with them, I agreed wholeheartedly with Reverend Cathy’s “not sure how to explain…” comment and now, after doing some more reading of their materials, I also agree that their work is good, right, and something that we all should be doing.

The PeopleSkool’s Decolonization / DegentriFUkation seminar features a series of powerful live theatrical performances that audience members eventually come to understand are depictions of actual scenes from the actors’ lives. From a landlord’s eviction of an elderly tenant, resulting in her death a few days later… to a police officer’s forceful, physical separation of a mother and child based on their status as vendors who are living and working on the streets, these vignettes give spectators an uncensored, up-close view of people living in poverty. These scenes are “the rest of the story” of the homeless and poor people that every one of us “doesn’t see” on the streets every day. Attendees at a PeopleSkool seminar are not able to pretend that they don’t see. Anyone who sees these performances and participates in the seminar discussions will be forever changed, and I believe that this is precisely the change that is needed to meaningfully address the soul-sickness that is at the root of our nation’s problems of arrogance, ignorance and apathy- i.e. the sense of entitlement that allows some people to not understand how truly repugnant the act of hoarding wealth when others have nothing is.  

After the seminar at Wesleyan, my son and I participated in a Stolen Land / Hoarded Resources Tour in a wealthy neighborhood in our hometown, West Hartford, CT. The tour began and ended with sage and humble prayers to the Pequot/Mohegan ancestors of the land that we were walking on, and it felt very different than any protest marches that I’ve participated in. This tour feels like a ceremony, with participants bringing the gift of the richness that they have created in the community that they've built together and asking nothing in return but the opportunity to begin a dialogue on the idea of “community reparations” – of redistributing the stolen and hoarded wealth thatcame about on the backs of others and using it for community good. Leroy Moore, founder of Krip Hop Nation, columnist with POOR Magazine, and Stolen Land Tour co-leader, describes the tour as “…taking our request to the front doors of the most wealthy and powerful from Beverly Hills in LA to Park Avenue in NYC, not to blame and shame but to offer medicine to heal what capitalism teaches us – for example, that we need to cumulate wealth, like many houses, condos, summer homes, cars and such for oneself and at the same time walk past a family on the street and not only do nothing but feel nothing.” I feel very humbled to have been a welcomed participant on this tour; I was sad to drive away when it was over and I’ve thought about the experience and everyone involved every day since. My son has mentioned it, too. He wants to know when we’ll see them again. We live on opposite coasts; I told him that I really don’t know when we’ll see them again, but that I believe that we will.

The words of Aunti Frances Moore, one of the tour’s members, ring true for me:“Sad, exhausting, mind blowing, crucial and very important, connecting dots, getting the word and education not only to the rich but to the people, our people, is critical.”Yes. Getting this word and education out to the people (all of the people) is critical if we are ever going to have even a chance of stopping the privilege/entitlement machine. We are a nation split into two groups: those who are able to clearly see the problem (not the symptoms); and those who do not (and are not willing to) see the problem because they are products of (and benefit from) it. We all are capable of seeing the problem; we all, in fact, were able to see it very clearly when we were children. As soon as we began to communicate with adults, though, we learned that our “survival” (success) depended upon our no longer seeing it – or, for those who were not born into privilege, we learned that our survival depended upon our not speaking of it amongst anyone who is not like us.

So, what’s the problem? Here’s where we’d all like to think that it gets complicated, but that’s only because we’ve all been trained to not see or speak the truth about what’s going on in our society. The problem is privileged peoples’ sense of entitlement. The problem begins with the fact that the land that the United States of America sits on was stolen from Indigenous peoples, and then this leads to the fact that everything that exists today on that stolen land was built on the backs of enslaved people, and exploited people of color and poor people. All of the “success” that anyone in this country has enjoyed is a result of the systems of exploitation that grew out of these initial, barbarous acts of pillaging and savagery. The problem is that the descendants of the monstrous colonizers who annihilated everyone and everything in their path have inherited all of the spoils of their ancestors’ acts. These material spoils afforded the colonizers’ descendants with unearned power, and they used that power to write laws and develop political structures to ensure that they would maintain that power. Our nation is based on the morals and belief systems of brutal, ruthless conquerors who valued material wealth above all else. Anyone wishing to “survive” (succeed) in this nation has to agree to not acknowledge any of this; they have to agree to comply with the systems that are in place. Which brings us back to…

 

Homeless to Yale

And Then Back Again.

On Purpose.

By Choice.

Because it Makes More Sense.

 

I wasn’t born into poverty; I grew up in a predominately white, working class, factory town in the Midwest. My mother and her husband owned a small house and none of us ever went hungry. My neighbors, friends and family all believed in the American Dream, and everyone worked hard to try and give their kids a better life than they’d had. What I remember most about my childhood, though, is always wondering why no one’s actions ever matched what they said. As a little girl Ibought the whole "Sesame Street" thing about being kind, sharing and treating everyone fairly.

Come and play, everything’s A-OK…

I believed everything that Luis, Maria, Gordon and Susan said. I loved Mr. Hooper, Cookie Monster, Big Bird, and especially Oscar the Grouch. I traipsed through the first 3-4 years of my life trusting that, so long as I was kind and good, everything would be A-OK. By the time I got to kindergarten I’d learned that this is not the case. I watched adults mouthing the Sesame Street credos as they behaved in adversarial, self-interested ways. I especially hated watching when they acted like assholes to kids; I was sometimes completely unable to focus for the rest of the day (or year) in classrooms that were led by teachers who were mean to poor kids, kids of color, or kids who struggled to learn. I learned about the Bill of Rights on School House Rock and, until I was 9-10 years old I believed that all I had to do was get good grades, go to law school and then I’d be able to come back and make grown-ups act like the law said they were supposed to act.

I wasn’t a quiet or a shy child. I asked, first my mother and then the other adults in my world, to explain to me why no one ever actually acted like they said that we all should, and I got really unsatisfactory answers. I spent a lot of time being frustrated, but until I was 9 or 10 years old I held out hope that I would, indeed, “understand when I got older.” I’m 52 years old today and I still don’t understand any of it. I’ve come to know that our society is based on a lot of bullshit, but I don’t understand why we’ve all agreed to go along with it. I mean, I sort of get it on a surface level. We all have been raised in a culture that has instructed us to value material things above all else. We all have been programmed to agree that it is acceptable, on a daily basis, to walk past poor people and homeless people on the street... and pretend like we don't see them. I, for one, do not understand. I don't understand how we have gotten here. I don't agree. I don't and have not ever accepted this as being the way that any of us should be living. I rebelled as a young person; I walked away from the bullshit bases of power and privilege that I was being indoctrinated to build my life on.

The emperor is not and has not ever been wearing any clothes.

As a young child I realized that I didn't have any power; I knew that I couldn't change anything around me and I felt angry, confused and... increasingly... frantic in a world that didn’t make any sense to  me. As a pre-teen I discovered alcohol and other substances that made it less uncomfortable and painful to exist in the unacceptable reality that is our society. At 13 years old I struck out on my own because I couldn't stomach it any more. I couldn't "behave;" I absolutely was not willing to act the way that I was told that I was supposed to act – I refused to "be a good girl" and just be quiet. I rebelled and my rebellion damn near killed me, but it didn't. I am still alive. I am still here and I have opted to not base my life or my worth on material possessions. I spent one day a few weeks ago with Lisa Tiny Gray-Garcia and the members of the Stolen Land Tour; I did this on purpose and by choice because it makes sense. The research that these Poverty Skolaz have done on models of self-determined solutions to land use, homelessness, poverty and gentrification made possible through redistributed wealth and resources makes much more sense to me than capitalism ever has or will. The work that they are doing is something that I am paying attention to and it is something that I will be contributing to in any way that I can.

After my story was featured on a 2002 "Graduates Overcoming Obstacles" episode of the Oprah show, I received emails and other communications congratulating me. One that I will never forget said a lot of things about how horrible my life must have been prior to being accepted to Yale, and in conclusion, this email said "But thank heavens you got out! You made something of yourself and you got out."

No.

I was not nothing prior to attending Yale.

I was not nothing that needed to be made into something. I was not nothing and, despite other peoples' attitudes and behaviors, I was not even invisible. Prior to my attending Yale I was the same person that I am today. Please think about this the next time you don't see a homeless person on the street. Please think today about Lisa Tiny Gray-Garcia, POOR magazine, Sogorea Te Land Trust, Deecolonize Academy, and Krip Hop Nation. The work that they are doing is good and right. The work that they are doing is what we all should be doing to begin needed change in our nation today. Plus, they're really nice people whose message makes a lot of sense.

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