“I felt like I was triumphing over the pain (this woman had) caused me. I had been a victim, but after I told the story I began to feel victorious. Each time I tell the story, it loses its power over my life..” Brenda
Brenda is a tall, strong, beautiful woman whose smile and infectious laughter light up the circle where eight of us are seated in a Public Voice* storytelling workshop for women whose lives have been touched by homelessness. Brenda’s hair is pulled back into a tight bun, her clothes are functional, and she speaks in a bright yet quiet tone, often deferring politely to others. I would have guessed that she was in her early forties.
Over the course of our eight week workshop, I learn that Brenda moved to Boston from Alabama four years ago. She came precipitously to support her college daughter whose unplanned pregnancy threatened her finishing school. For a long while, I did not hear the story of how Brenda later came to be homeless. Each week she focused instead on the story of how she was trying to move her life forward; her new position as a security guard, her classes in Biology and Anatomy, and her applications to community colleges to fulfill her vision of becoming a Physical Therapy Assistant.
What I did know about Brenda was that she was challenging herself to be in this group. Her attendance and participation were consistent and thoughtful. She was determined to take advantage of any opportunity that might help her. I sensed that there were portions of her story that she was reluctant to tell, but the understanding of the group is that participants control what they are ready and willing to share. Her story was always in her hands.
Midway through the workshop, I received a request from a summer program to send ten storytellers whose lives have been touched by homelessness to meet with a group of 120 high school students studying social justice issues. Pressed for enough speakers to fulfill the request, I invited Brenda to join the group of more experienced storytellers to meet with the students. She hesitated and said she needed time to think about it. Shortly before the day of the event, Brenda reached out to let me know that she would participate.
The following week, I arrived early at the community center where our Public Voice group meets. I was eager to hear participants’ stories of their meeting with the high school students over the weekend. Waiting for group members to arrive, a beautiful woman with an elaborate hair weave, makeup and flattering dress approached me. I responded to the stranger with both politeness and curiosity, wondering why she had sought me out. Brenda began to laugh. “It’s me, Brenda!” I barely recognized her as the same woman who had been in the group just a week before. As she began to tell me about the transformation that had occurred for her since our last meeting, I begged her to stop and let me take down her words. Below is a condensed version of Brenda’s story of healing through sharing her story with others.
“I took a job in customer service here because I had worked in customer service at another lab in Alabama. I had just moved to Massachusetts and this job had a really nice salary. I was really excited. I thought that things would be different here; the racial relations and all, because this is Massachusetts. I came from Alabama where I had dealt with discrimination all my life. So I saw this as a fresh start, a new beginning. I was determined to do a really good job. This was such a great opportunity for me.
Then one Saturday, after a year and a half of working there, I had a date after work. I knew I couldn’t go home beforehand, so I went to work dressed for my date. I had done my hair really beautifully; it was long and flowing. I had my makeup on. I normally don’t go to work like this, but I was looking good. I had on a fitted dress..and I knew my manager was threatened by it.
I usually don’t work Saturdays, and there were different rules on the weekend, so I asked a question of another worker. The manager said to him, ‘Don’t answer her. Let her figure it out.’ I began to get tearful. I was humiliated. Here I am looking beautiful and feeling humiliated. That was in the morning. In the afternoon, I had just returned from lunch and told my coworker that I was feeling the ‘itis’, just meaning I was tired. My manager overheard me and told me not to use that word because ‘people will think I’m a lazy ‘n-word.’ I was so offended. I come from Alabama. I was really hurt and even traumatized by what she said. I left work tearful. I kept holding it in. I became quiet. I stopped interacting with others.
People began asking what happened. I shared with a higher level manager what my manager said and then the retaliation began. They started to say I had to get my numbers up. Get my numbers up…I went to HR and told them what happened. Their response was that I was over reacting. ‘If you don’t like your job here, look elsewhere.’
(It all) led me to feel that something was wrong with me; that I was crazy. And then my hair began to fall out. Stress. Elevated blood pressure. I felt trapped. My health began to fail. I went to the bathroom frequently for nervous stomach. The final straw was when my manager told me if I was going to be in the bathroom for more than ten minutes, I had to check in and ask permission. I couldn’t take the abuse anymore. I decided to quit. My manager harassed me up until my last day.
After all of that, I became afraid to do my hair because I was afraid I would be ridiculed again if I look pretty. I became afraid to be who I am. I kept it plain. In a bun. Low key. I didn’t want any attention because of the way I had been so hurt before. Just that one word, ‘n-word’, had a devastating effect on my life. It created a downward spiral that led me to lose everything. I lost my job. I lost my property in Alabama. I lost my apartment here. I lost my dignity.
(“So what happened when you told your story to the students last week?” I asked.)
“I wanted to cancel the engagement all the way up until I got into the church. I spoke with my therapist and said I don’t think I’m ready. She said, ‘Yes you are. You may be scared, but do it anyway. As long as you are afraid of your story, your story is controlling you.’ I was afraid that they would all judge me. I felt like I was reliving it in that moment.
But when I spoke to those students, it was like I was in the audience myself. I began to hear my own words. Oh wow, I did that? I could have made the decision to retaliate against her (my manager) verbally, but instead I handled it in a mature way, even though I was so hurt. Listening to my own story, I felt proud of myself. I actually heard my own story for the first time. It is one thing to write it down, but it felt different to say it out loud, to put it out there. When I said it out loud, that’s when healing began to take place.
Then hearing the teenagers’ response to it! They were encouraging. One young man spoke up and said that no one is above or beneath anyone else. Everyone is equal. Everybody deserves the same human rights. Listening to him gave me power. I thought they would be judgmental..but when they did talk, I felt proud of what I had said. Afterwards, the kids were coming up and saying thank you to me for sharing my story. They didn’t know the courage it took for me to tell what had happened. I am still in a lot of pain about what happened. There are still parts of that story that are impacting my life.
A couple of days after speaking I went out to the beauty supply store and got the bling bling hair. I feel comfortable now with this more glamorous look. I have to be who I am. If someone has a problem with me, that’s their problem. And I realize now that I can’t allow what that manager said to me to keep me from my skills and destiny. I can’t give her that power anymore. I’m going to step back out into a new job at the call center. I worked hard to get those skills. I’m going to get back out there. I’m still growing.
I realize now that telling my story was the first step in gaining back the things that I had lost. I didn’t know that I could do it. The second step was that I heard myself validated by people who listened to me. That gave me my dignity back. Maybe now I can change someone else’s mindset. Maybe my story can help someone else. That will make what I went through not be in vain; give some meaning and purpose to what happened to me.
* Through City Mission’s Public Voice, participants whose lives have been touched by homelessness are guided to find, develop and share the stories of their experience that can break down barriers and build understanding across groups, cultures and communities. In telling and listening to each other’s personal stories, all participants are encouraged to discover new insights and meaning within the stories they carry about themselves and each other. As they challenge their current meaning and expand their perspectives, participants are empowered to craft new and future stories that can better sustain them in their growing vision of who they choose to be. Should they seize the opportunity to share their stories with larger and more diverse audiences, there is possibility to impact and influence a wider array of listeners towards insight, empathy and social action. As previously unheard voices of people most impacted by homelessness, poverty, racism, mental illness or domestic violence share their stories in public forums, there is increased awareness, education and advocacy for change.