People seem excited for me when I tell them that I am working on a Phd. “In what?” - they inevitably ask. “In Criminal Justice…”
And then I get the confused face, as if to say : Why Criminal Justice??
This is how it happened…
During the fall of 2009, I was happily directing the women center in Trenton and working towards a goal of bringing the issues faced by incarcerated women to the forefront of public conscience. Jessie (Soul Friend) was working on this also and she’d made some amazing connections along the way. One day she suggested that we go see a woman in Newark.
“She’s done a lot of research on women and federal drug laws; she’s concentrated on Black women and crack cocaine in particular. She is the director of an Urban Policy think-tank that’s affiliated with Rutgers, The Cornwall Center. I think we should meet her.”
I was happy to meet anyone who cared about the same things we did, and Soul Friend had a history of introducing me to people who made prints on my life; so taking these into consideration, I agreed to go.
We found the Cornwall Center welcoming and warm; it was not what I was expecting. We were treated with hospitality and kindness. This was important to me because in the work that we were doing at the women center we’d also put a premium on hospitality; desiring to make each client feel welcomed and wanted. As visitors at Cornwall, they were treating us the same way.
We sat in a conference room for a few moments, when the director entered and greeted us : Dr. Stephanie Bush-Baskette. She had style. her salt and pepper hair was cut a-symmetrically and she was wearing a Misook suit; she was sharp. She was also friendly and warm. And she was smart and accomplished.
During that first meeting, we talked about our work and hers. We talked about the potential of collaboration; perhaps the Cornwall Center would do an evaluation of our work one day… And we talked about the larger issues of the criminal justice system in the United States. It was a nice meeting. And as soon as Jessie and I walked out of the door, Soul Friend looked at me with a knowing face. She knew what I was feeling: that this was more than a meeting to me, I’d just had an encounter with my future.
Here was a woman who’d taken a road less traveled; who’d entered a field where Black women are few yet Black issues are many. She’d taken it by storm, bringing attention to issues of inequality around Black women and federal crack laws… and she’d done it with style. She was an attorney, she’d served in the state legislature in NJ, and as commissioner of the Department of Community Affairs. And after all of that, she’d gone back to Rutgers to get her PhD in Criminal Justice and she was now the director of The Cornwall Center.
She was bad… and I wanted to be just like her.
Having been completely inspired by that one meeting, I began work on a PhD application to Rutgers School of Criminal Justice. Our Women Center was state funded, so the transition made sense to me; Rutgers University has a history of doing the type of research that shapes state policies in New Jersey. I’d been thinking for a long time that the language that defined what our program was supposed to do for women was too narrow. The state wanted us to find women jobs, but it seemed to ignore the myriad of other socio-emotional issues faced by poor women in our community. I convinced myself that if I got this degree then I would be credentialed to join policy-shaping conversations in a meaningful way.
So I opened an application to Rutgers that Fall…
And then I let it sit there.
During the winter months I lost momentum around going back to school. I was comfortable where I was and totally committed to The Women Center. Every once and a while I would think about the application that I’d left sitting on-line, but then I would talk myself out of completing it. That is, until one fateful day in March..
It was mid-March when I was sitting in a meeting at the Department of Community Affairs with the directors of all of the Urban and Hispanic Women Centers across the state of New Jersey. It was the regularly scheduled monthly meeting for this group, but this time we were hit with an unexpected announcement. The Director of the Division on Women entered the room and told us that she’d just learned that our budgets had been zeroed out for 2011. Governor Christie cut 29 billion from the New Jersey State Budget that year, and we were part of the fall. Unless we secured additional funding before June 30th, our centers would have to close.
I immediately went into crisis-action mode, calling Mara for help to develop a “Save the Center Strategy.” And I also secured a back-up plan for myself: I completed my application to Rutgers.
Six weeks later I learned that I had been admitted. Kesner was more excited than I was. “My Sexy Little Doctor,” he called me. He definitely thought I should go, but at the time I was still focused on trying to save my little community program. I lodged it in the back of my mind, at least I had a back-up plan if all else failed. But I didn’t have funding; I’d applied at the absolute last minute and I’d missed all of the funding opportunities, they’d been made months prior.
I also didn’t have anywhere to live. My apartment lease was going to expire at the end of July and If we weren’t able to save the center, I would be out of a job. Plus I couldn’t work full time AND be a full time PhD student. Would I have to live in a dorm? Dorm living never worked well for me.
Plus, I didn’t really feel like going back to school…
But then on June 9th, Kesner died. That morning Dr. Stephanie Bush-Baskette had invited me to be a morning panelist at a day-long conference at Rutgers on women in the Criminal Justice System. I was wearing my orange protest Tee-shirt – “9-5 Beats 10-Life.”
It was a good morning. And when I arrived at Kesner’s house around 4PM that afternoon I found his dead body…
And you know the rest.
I shut down. I couldn’t do another thing. I wouldn’t do another thing. I was pissed. Heart broken. And nothing that I cared about seemed to matter anymore…
I came home to Ohio with the thought that I might stay home forever. I would restart my life in Cleveland with my mom and my family. This is what I thought…
Until one fateful day in Bethany Beach when God made it CLEAR that I was to go to Rutgers. The unanswered questions about funding and housing would be answered. And all I would have to do is muster up all my courage and strength and step out on faith…
All I had to do was just show up. God would do the rest.
So why Criminal Justice?? …..Because God said so.
Trust me – one day it’ll all make sense..
© Copyright Thank You Very Sweet, 2012