The Bush Fellowship application challenges folks to think deeply about their leadership. I was approved after applying twice before and every time I applied I found myself growing as a leader. The application I submitted that was approved was framed around the historical trauma my family has experienced and how those events have motivated me to fight for the transformation of the criminal legal system. For new fellows, I would encourage you to think deeply about what you are fighting for, why you have taken on this fight and who has called you to do so. I have found that rooting my leadership journey in these questions has helped me to maximize this opportunity. Here is a quick update on how it is going.
My fellowship has three focus areas, exploring my family roots, completing my Masters in Advocacy and Political Leadership and developing a theory of transformation for the criminal legal system. In short, I am back in school and working to complete my masters at Metro State. Trista Harris is working with me to coach my leadership as it relates to my work at the Minnesota Justice Research Center and I have started a podcast focused on developing a theory of transformation by telling my own story and having conversations with leaders, activist and people directly impacted by the system focused on why and how we can transform the criminal legal system. All of this is great and I am learning and growing a lot from engaging in school, coaching and the podcast. But when my mom had a stroke last month, having the Bush accelerated my effort to learn more about my family's history.
My mom lives in San Antonio, Texas about two hours from the community where my family originated from. I had planned to interview my mom and family members who live in Texas and have knowledge of our family roots. So when my mom had a stroke I hopped on a flight to help with her recovery. I realized that the Bush Fellowship could pay for the flight if I took the opportunity to kick start the family history section of my fellowship. So while in Texas caring for my mom, I also connected with family and began to learn about our roots.
My uncle and I shared an Air B&B and after visiting hours with my mom, he told me stories about our family and his time as a Military Police Officer. We also connected with a cousin who offered to take me to the homestead we still own in the town where our family originated. He told me the story of how and why our family left our homestead. Growing up, I had heard a story about a lynching, but it turns out the story is much worse.
After slavery, nine brothers who were former slaves were given 300 acres of land outside of Austin, Texas. They were seen as capable and good farmers because of their physical build. This was a typical sharecropping community and white land owners benefited from my family working this land but we were able to build a church that doubled as a school and by all accounts my family thrived and had a good reputation. I don't yet know what changed, but years later, after my Grandmother was born, the KKK and mobs of white folks decided they wanted the land back and began a campaign to terrorize my family. People were killed, land was stolen and today, what was 300 acres, is now 29. We still have family living on the property and next week I am returning to Texas to check on my mom and visit and photograph the homestead.
This fellowship was right on time for me. With my mom's condition we have been able to grow closer in the past few months. I have been able to connect and reconnect with my family. But I have also learned more about who I am and where I come from and that is fuel for my leadership. It is no accident that I am fighting to transform the criminal legal system. My family has never received justice for what happened to us. Being scattered across the country meant a weakened support system. People were exposed to additional horrific traumatic experiences that created a pattern of toxic family dynamics that have lasted for generations. We were robbed of generational stability when our land was forcefully taken by racists and the poverty I grew up in is a direct decedent of that crime.
The more I learn, the more I am determined to get justice. But not just for my family. The reality is, our criminal legal system was built in a nondemocratic society. Until 1965, my family and Black folks in general didn't have the right to vote and clearly didn't have rights to their own land. That is not a democratic society. The criminal legal system protected the rights of white folks to terrorize my family and it has never reckoned with the radicalized harm it has facilitated. This reckoning is necessary. I am in the process of gathering the receipts of the harm caused to my people and my hope is that through learning and telling my story, investing in my leadership, engaging the community and systems folks, we can heal the harm that has been caused and re-imagine a system that is appropriate for multicultural, gender-affirming democratic society.
To new fellows, this opportunity is a chance to go deep. An opportunity to discover who you are and enhance and expand your leadership. In just a few months, I am already in a new place of clarity about why I do what I do and what I believe needs to be done and I am learning who I need to be in order to accomplish the mission. I hope the same for all fellows.
Pardon the shameless plug, but if you want to join a conversation on re-imagining justice, check out the Minnesota Justice Research Center's Re-Imagining Justice Conference on November 16th and 17th, it is virtual, keynotes include Keith Ellison and Danielle Sered the author of Until We Reckon. more details at https://www.mnjrc.org/re-imagining-justice