One of my earliest memories of New Orleans, at age six, was political canvassing with my grandfather when he was running for the city council. Holding my hand, he would let me knock on the door. When they opened, I would smile big with my pigtails and hot pink shirt saying, “Vote for Melvin Jones, Sr.!” I was too young to remember exactly what he said, but I know that he wanted to help people in the community. This followed what I knew about him as a deacon in the Roman Catholic Church. He and my grandmother, Helena, facilitated support groups for children and adults at the church. Finally, every morning when he drove me to school, we would say the Lord’s Prayer, Hail Mary, and when we got to school, instead of a typical “Have a good day.” He told me, “Go do something good.”
I have a hobby of ancestry tracing. My immediate families originated from New Orleans, and I’ve tracked our trajectory from France, West Bengal India, Mississippi, and Indigenous persons from Florida. But we have been a part of New Orleans since its inception in the Louisiana Purchase. We are mostly ethnically Creoles. However, the South leaves no question of your Blackness using “the one-drop rule” of African blood to avoid the white racial category. In NOLA in particular, there are mulattos, quadroons, octoroons, all kinds of words to say, “That person right there? They still Black.”
I grew up aware of some basic truths in life. One of which was my identity. My Blackness defines me. I’ve heard the stories from my grandparents about Jim Crow and my parents of post-Jim Crow desegregation. They described the anger of being out with their children and unable to find a “colored only” bathroom to use. How embarrassing it was to walk into stores and be treated as less than human. I remember my father talking about participating in the “race riots” in high school because of resistance to integration.
Even simple pleasures were racialized, such as Mardi Gras float riders targeting white children to toss the beloved doubloons, necklace beads, and favors while ignoring Black families, leaving them to scrounge what was left on the street. To assure some rewards for us, my dad sometimes hid next to white families, waiting for the toss and intercept the trinkets that would never be thrown to his kid, me.
Fighting for justice
Most of my childhood was centered in the South and was acutely aware of the injustice and differential treatment of Black folks. My family fought. They fought through economic means. A family of small business owners who believed equity for them meant the ability to create their own trajectory. Even after Hurricane Katrina, my grandfather was so focused on getting back to New Orleans because he couldn’t be away from his business he fought hard to keep from going under.
My father fought through protests and writing. He has been active as long as I remember. Pushing limits and making points that people didn’t want him to make. When I lived in Madison during a couple of years in high school, my dad had us out canvassing for Ada Deer. He was protesting as a graduate student at UW-Madison. I still run across pictures of him in archives of African American groups at the UW. He was one of the co-developers of Project Ujima with Charlene Benford and Patricia (can’t recall her last name). Project Ujima was the first Black culturally specific mental health program in Madison based in the Black community. After school, I would go to the building behind Mt. Zion Baptist Church to hang out with the kids in the program, or to visit the Beske home. The Beskes became my second family with diversity abounding in their house. I learned early that you work to center your clientele and your culture. And, that family grew beyond the people in your house.
One of the other large influences in my life has been religion. While I don’t have a lot of positive associations with the current religious community, there were three impressions from my religious life. First, the ritual of Roman Catholicism sticks to me. To this day, I collect relics, antique Bibles, and rosaries/crucifixes. I incorporate them into my daily personal rituals. I also forever have respect for Reverend Alex Gee. He was the first Black preacher I met when he came to our church and gave guest sermons. I felt he understood me as a Black kid, and I knew he was just a good person. And, most importantly, I love me some Jesus. I paid close attention to his teachings: How he said his work was meant for those most marginalized, his unequivocal love for each person, and his message to treat others as one wants to be treated. That was defining for my family and me.
YWCA Second Chance program
When I moved back to Madison as an adult, my path was not very clear. I got married young, and I started working instead of going to school. My first professional job was working in housing. In that job, I started to expand where I saw inequities. I saw Black mothers and children not being able to obtain or maintain housing due to racism, low employment, poor childcare options, and financial inequities. I worked with my mentor, Kevin Senke, and the YWCA to form the Second Chance program. It was a collaboration between housing providers and social services to create a learning opportunity for residents to learn about financial literacy, their rights as tenants, and our responsibilities to them as housing providers. At the end of the program, they were offered housing where I worked. As the years went on, the program grew beyond what we were doing, received city funding, and became a better program that helped people for years.
It was during this time I decided to pursue my degree. I started at MATC and then transferred to UW. It was a great time and I was working and learning so much. By then, I had divorced. My father had moved to be the first Black tenure-track professor to earn tenure at the University of Oklahoma’s School of Social Work. My mother had resettled in one of the cities of my youth, Las Vegas. My world of what was next changed with a friend of mine fleeing New York with her two children due to a domestic violence situation. She and her kids stayed with me until we could get her settled. We connected with the Domestic Abuse Intervention Services (DAIS), and I quickly learned about how domestic violence affects survivors. I decided to leave college and focus on them. We relied on DAIS all the time, and I always said that one day I would repay them for all the help they gave us to keep all of us safe. Life became very different from that point forward. I put off going back to school and worked on creating my own family built with my friends, and, eventually, my wonderful son.
My son, my turning point
My son was the turning point for my whole life. All the experience advocating for others became practice for him when he was diagnosed on the autism spectrum at about age 2. It began with my need to be a better person for him, by dealing with my mental health more productively. I went from being suicidally depressed, anxiety-ridden, and avoiding dealing with my previous trauma to working hard with several therapists to manage my post-traumatic stress disorder and depression. I had so many new things to learn about autism, beginning with unlearning my own ableism to get the best care for my son.
Back in 2006, services for autism were not covered by insurance. My son’s father and I were facing $50,000.00 in bills for a year and a half of only part-time therapeutic services. I connected with other mothers and allies in the community, and we all fought hard for an insurance mandate that was passed in 2009. Since then, my son has also been a part of my activism. From being a part of the protest in 2011 to working political campaigns with me, I’ve given my son the gift of knowing the world does not center around him. I gave him the gift of fighting for himself and the people around him without his advantages. Every day, as I watch him grow, I’m proud of who he is becoming as a young Black man.
One of the ways I regained myself during this time was through artistic outlets. In 2001, on a whim with a friend, I auditioned for a play at the Broom Street Theater. I was cast in my first play, starting an almost 20-year journey of my artistic pursuits. Beforehand, I had done commercial modeling, ending up in a couple of national magazine print ads and several local ads. I was a “bikini model” and even won a state pageant in WI. (For fun, ask me the story of how I lost hilariously at the National Pageant in FL.) But, acting was the place where I could add my own artistic voice. As I grew and learned under so many talented people, I noticed the lack of Black actors, plays, and artistic positions. Over the years I have been able to partner with local groups to bring plays and roles about Black culture not rooted in anti-Blackness. It’s something I am still passionate about and work toward. I look forward every day to the moment I can work with T. Banks again and have us all bring Madison its first Black Theater Festival. Celebrating our voices and our art with Black people in all the major positions on stage and backstage. My arts experience was quite a positive influence, and I continue to focus on equity in the arts.
Burlesque and reclamation
During my artistic pursuits, one of my best friends, Jessica Jane Witham, started a Caburlesque group, “Foxy Veronica’s Peach Pies.” She asked me to be involved as a producer and performer. I was trepidatious. I had a young kid. I grew up in a religious background. My body did not look like the women traditionally performing burlesque—or even much like the women who were in the group. As a survivor of sexual assault, my sexuality was very much defined by trauma, religious fervor over a woman’s place, and how other people viewed me. I remember my first time on stage, taking control of my narrative. I cried afterward. I did not tell my family what I was doing. I did not tell anyone at work. I had to work through my own shame and body image issues. I have been doing burlesque since 2007. In those 13 years as a burlesque performer, I have reclaimed my body, my sexuality, my power, my bisexuality, and most importantly myself. Our shows have always been well attended by women, with their faces looking up at us with pride. There is not a show where I did not have several women come up to me to tell me how empowered they felt and how our example gave them a point of security and learning for themselves.
Finding my place professionally
Professionally, I had run my course through corporate work. Though I was on the Board of Directors for Domestic Abuse Intervention Services, I was unhappy and felt trapped until I started to work at Porchlight making life better for persons experiencing homelessness. I felt all of my work had meaning again. I was working with people whose voices were unheard and marginalized. I was able to work to transform the housing program to one that was kinder and easier to get through. One where all of us worked together to try to make a better situation for everyone. Everyone I worked with at Porchlight was committed and wanted to make the company better. But, even in that job, I still was unsatisfied. I had to make choices that took people out of housing. I had to fight battles I was never comfortable taking on. After almost eight years, I felt that I was in the wrong place to be able to focus solely on the needs and solutions for those most marginalized.
Then, I was given the opportunity to work at the Rape Crisis Center. It is here that I feel that I’m firmly in place. My work centers around survivors and their needs. My advocacy work to improve systems for victims of sexual assault is imperative. I work with an amazing team who are supportive and committed to our mission. We are doing transformative work which actively helps people every day. Working on ourselves to support a mission of anti-oppression, I am proud to be the co-executive director and look forward to the future.
This is what Black leadership looks like
Through it all, I’m actively subverting ideas of what Black leadership looks like, talks like, and dresses like. I am being myself in all aspects of my life now, and it’s a damn good feeling. I know I’m looking forward to what the next half of my life brings. Forty-five is a great number for me. It’s the age where I finally feel in place.