When I was a small child, and the world was brand new, there was so much potential for me. I did not know what hate was, what racism was, or what pain was. That quickly changed. I recall my first major beating at 3 or 4. It was Christmas and I had a magnificent doll house that Santa had brought me. I was sitting playing with it. Some Aunts, my father, my mother were all at the table eating. I recall repeating some bad words that my father had said when he was building the doll house earlier in the day. I recall being picked up and tossed across the room by my neck. I recall the red in his face, the vein popping at his temple, the gritted teeth, and the angry words. I recall being tossed down a flight of stairs at 5 for coloring with markers on my hands. I recall just before Kindergarten started having my hand placed on a hot burner on our electric stove because I repeatedly asked if it was still hot when the red lights went out. I was burned by cigarettes multiple times, not sure if it was intentional or just repeated accidents. One thing I did learn was that I did not matter and I did not have a voice. I say this because my father would ask me a question and when I would try to answer it, he would beat me again for talking back. If I didn’t answer the question, he would beat me again, for being disrespectful.
I watched him destroy my mother and her spirit, so many times, I saw my mother bleed. I lied to police officers for him, that my mother just fell down the stairs again or that she was off her meds and must have passed out. I carry a lot of guilt for that. I was a child. I was living in fear and pain. I was doing nothing more than trying to survive.
I had no voice and as I got older, more and more things, horrible things happened to me over and over. Each time I became a little weaker and my voice began to disappear more and more.
When did I find my voice again? I am an activist and an advocate. If you follow me on Facebook or Twitter you know I post often about Indigenous issues, Domestic Violence, Rape, Child Abuse, etc…
How? Why? Where did my voice come from?
We are going to go back a few decades into the 1990’s. I only had two children at that point, both beautiful little girls. It was my main objective to raise them to be outspoken young women, with opinions, and minds of their own. With that said, from day one, I gave them choices and tried to empower them in every possible way. I wanted them to be the woman I was not. The woman I could never see me being.
When my oldest was 5, she entered Kindergarten in New Jersey. We had recently gotten this cool new gadget called a WebTV. Anyone remember those? I am not sure where or how, but I became friends with this man named Jim Toren He was an advocate for Leonard Peltier and Environmental issues. I enjoyed reading his posts and learning more and more about different issues. I questioned him and his friends a lot. Most people would probably get frustrated, but Jim and his friends were patient with me. I continued to be meek, to be me. Yes, meek was me. Can you imagine?
At Thanksgiving, I was told there is this amazing festival that the school does every year. The second graders reenact the first Thanksgiving! I was uneasy. I had now been taught the true story of the first Thanksgiving. I had read “Lies My Teacher Told Me” by James W. Loewen.
I meekly, asked don’t you know that is wrong? I was dismissed, so I wrote a letter to the Principal, and I pointed out the historical inaccuracies, the eagle feather being a sacred item and the stereo-typing. I said I did not want my child participating in this and that she would be kept home. Later that night I went to a PTA meeting. I never missed the PTA meetings. I was on multiple committees, but the Principal did not know my name, nor did he care. He stood up and spoke in front of at least 50, maybe 75 other parents and teachers. He read my letter and joked about how parents that complain never come to these meetings.
My girlfriends were on either side of me. They both gripped my hands as I began to shake. I was embarrassed and I started to cry. I felt like I was bullied and victimized again for speaking out. It took every ounce of strength I had, but I stood up. Tears rolling down my cheeks and my voice cracking, I interrupted him and said, “I am the woman that wrote that letter. I wrote it because I care about my child and I will not have her taught to hate. I will not allow her to think this acceptable.” I walked out as everyone stared at me. No one said a word, mouths were literally hung open.
I wrote a letter to the school district, explaining the principal’s inappropriate behavior, my frustrations, and the issues with the headdress. Their reply returned with a basic get over it kind of reply. I thought no, not this time. I made a few phone calls and went before the State Board of Education. Over the next couple of years I spoke before the State Board of Education multiple times. We went through 3 principals at that school in 2 years. Yes, the first one, was reassigned a desk job at the district office.
As I became stronger and more outspoken I was asked to speak before President Clinton’s Initiative on Race relations in New Jersey. My little girls stood each on one side of me. I was asked to sit on the Cultural Heritage Commission for our Community by the Mayor of the city. I was asked to run for Congress on the Green Party ticket, which I turned down.
I spoke more and more and became louder and louder. I never realized how much my little girls were absorbing. We went on the Run For Freedom. An event that was organized by the friend I mentioned earlier, Jim Toren. We walked and ran from Kentucky to Thunder Bay, Canada. My little girls were with me the whole time. They met people from Australia, Japan, and multiple Native American Indian nations. They listened to their stories. They learned about their cultures the similarities and the differences. They learned about Leonard Peltier and other political prisoners throughout the world. The biggest lesson they learned was respect.
Second grade came around for Lexi and her poor teacher had no idea what she was in for. When the students were studying Christopher Columbus, the teacher asked, “Can anyone tell me anything about Christopher Columbus?” Lexi eagerly raised her hand. “Yes, he killed everyone.” The teacher quickly dismissed her and did not address her statement and said, “Anyone else?” Lexi replied out of turn, “He killed everybody. He cut off their hands and gave them diseases.”
I was called into the Principal’s office. I tried not to smile as they told me what she had said. I just nodded a lot and brought her home.
As we approached Thanksgiving, I went with Lexi and expressed our concern and wish to not participate in the event. I offered to keep her home that day, I was asked not to. Lexi was assigned a project in place of making the headdresses. She was to write a 5 to 10 sentence report on a different Native Nation every two days and read it before the class. While most kids would say nah, I’ll just do the art project; Lexi was all about the report. She did as she was told.
When the day came for the students to make the headdresses, Lexi was told that she would have to go sit in the first grade room with the little kids after recess. I was told; Lexi slammed her fist on the teacher’s desk and screamed loudly, “THAT’S SEGREGATION!”
Now how she knew that word, I don’t know. I can only assume she heard it at a rally, or one of my speaking engagements, but she used the word correctly, and I was quite proud.
There were 4 classes of 25 students each in the second grade participating in this Thanksgiving event. All of the second graders had recess at the same time. Lexi rallied all 100 of these students during recess to sit with their arms folded and refuse to make the headdresses. The teachers did not know what do. The teachers had piles of precut feathers, so they decided to let the kids all be turkeys. Yes, I was once again summoned to the principal’s office.
Lexi’s teacher wrote a letter to the local newspaper, which had covered this atrocity. She accused me of being a trouble maker and trying to launch my “political future” or some nonsense and she stated she had taught this way for years and had no intention of changing it. I had no intention ever of going into politics. I had already turned down a nomination to run for Congress.
Below is a copy of a Press Release I sent out in January of 2000.
On the afternoon of January 19, 2000, seven year old Alexis Brown will stand before the State Board of Education and speak to them about the harm of racial stereo-typing in public school classrooms. During her speech, she will ask the State Board of Education “to make a rule, which children not be allowed to wear or make headdresses on school grounds”(this includes mascots).
After Alexis’s speech, The State Board of Education will be informed that a complaint has been filed with the United States Department of Justice against the State Board of Education. They have created a racially intolerant learning environment one harmful to my child’s learning process. After two years of attempting to educate the State Board of Education, and local educators on the significance of the Eagle Feather, Separation of Church and State, what happens when racial stereotyping is taught to both Indian and non-Indian children, statistics, etc I have had to pull my child out of the public school system. I will not have Alexis taught to be blind to hurts inflicted upon other students, their ancestors, or their sacred items.
I went beyond the responsibilities as a parent to educate the educators. I went to the State Board of Education when the local school would not listen in 1997. I continued repeatedly to attempt open communication with the State Board of Education. I went as far as to find educated speakers willing to work with the State Board of Education in New Jersey rewriting policies and curriculum. These speakers were willing to come and work in teacher training workshops for the state. The State Board of Education turned a deaf ear they chose to ignore my pleas and the pleas of others in the state. They chose to either ignore the significance of the Eagle Feather or they have chosen to not treat every student equally by not permitting construction paper crucifixes in public school classrooms. Either way a hostile learning environment exists in New Jersey public schools, a complaint has been filed with The United States Department of Justice, Educational Opportunities Litigation, Civil rights Division,
Multiple speakers and supporters showed up that day. I walked out those doors and never returned back.
Somewhere in all of this I found my voice; I found my strength; I found my gift; I discovered my purpose.
Children are born a blank slate. They do not know fear, hatred, racism and intolerance. These things are taught not only by parents, but by those we surrender our children over to day after day. Do we look at what they are learning or do we turn a blind eye and assume that the educators know what they are doing? It’s been done for years. Question, question everyone and anyone that spends time with your children. What are they teaching? What are their beliefs? What values will be absorbed by your children?
For more information on the yearly Run For Freedom please go to http://footprintsforpeace.footprintsforpeace.net/?page_id=53