By Sr. Carol De Angelo
The referral came through a family health agency. A 16-year-old pregnant mother had nowhere to live. Her mother had thrown her out of the house since she would be a bad influence on the other siblings. As Director of a New York Foundling teen parenting program in East Harlem, I was able to get Desiree into the pregnant mother’s live in program. After being discharged, Desiree returned to East Harlem and became part of our teen parenting program. I was her worker.
Though I journeyed with Desiree for a few years, I often wonder how / if I truly accompanied her. Desiree was a teenager and a caring mother with street smarts. I observed her love for her son, her care for his safety, health, and development. We had many conversations and she and her son regularly participated in many of the Center’s programs.
One home visit stands out after all these years. Desiree had very little furniture in her small apartment. No dining room table or chairs. She prepared a meal for her son, laid down a beautiful cloth on the bare floor, and gently sat him on the cloth encouraging him to eat. As I was looking at the bars on the windows, I asked why she stayed with the father of her son, even though he was in jail. Her words still grip me after all these years, “You, as a white woman, wouldn’t understand what it is like to be a young black mother living here in East Harlem. I don’t feel safe. Even though my boyfriend is in jail, they know him, and they won’t do anything to hurt me. I am protected because of him.”
Desiree was a mentor to me way back in the 1970’s when this incident occurred. She is still a mentor to me today. I thank her for her honesty. Her honesty opened my eyes to the fact that I am a white woman. My “whiteness” shapes my life experiences and perspective very differently than if I were black. My relationship with Desiree and other people of color help me on my journey to uncover racism, in my personal behaviors and attitudes, as well as in the systems, structures and practices that are part of our civic, social, and religious institutions.
Desiree, I often wonder where you are today. Though we may not be physically journeying together, be assured that we are accompanying each other in prayer and spirit. May a spirit of directness and honesty continue to be with us on our journey.