The Work


“What does it feel like to tell the whole truth? What lessons are you learning from your discomfort? Which parts of you do you need to reclaim to be in your full power?” Ebb Brown

“At this time we are asking you to leave. You are being terminated effective immediately. This is not a negotiation”. I could feel my breath slow all the way down. In that moment, I wasn’t angry. I was curious. I was curious around rationale. There was paperwork? Can I see this paperwork? I was curious about due process and what this would mean for relationships, some newly formed and those older ones that would surely not survive the words floating in the air around my head. I was curious what people would think and what would be next for me.

Protected Class

A group of people with a common characteristic who are legally protected from employment discrimination on the basis of that characteristic. Protected classes are created by both federal and state law.

Federal protected classes include:

Religion or creed.
National origin or ancestry.
Physical or mental disability.
Veteran status.
Genetic information.

I got angry, then I got scared. What in the holy hell? What the hell am I going to do now, do next? What happens when you a Black, Southern, single mom over 50 and you were asked to leave? Aren’t we always being asked to leave after we’ve done the heavy lifting, the caretaking, the nurturing, the cleaning up, the emotional labor? Aren’t we always being told to sit down, be quiet, control your emotions-mouth-eyes-breath? Shit. What am I going to tell the boys? Hell, what am I going to tell the bank? I needed to call my therapist. I have so much identity attached to the work. I have people reach out to me from across the state and country because of my identity related to the work. I had developed a skill set, tools, tricks, rituals, amulets and a reputation because of the work. We live in a country that centers whiteness, youthfulness, maleness, thinness and anything else that reinforces white supremacy, patriarchy and misogyny. I had found sanctuary in campaigns, actions, protest, trainings, meeting after meeting after meeting after meeting and built my movement home there for over 24 years. For the first time in my movement life, I was being asked to leave and it hurt. Am I fucked?

I sat waiting in the office suite of the Bull City Market Place. It was 1995. I must have been early because no one was there. I sat on a couch that had obviously seen better days. My fingers would periodically check my newly barbered caesar cut and brushed the imaginary lint of my black dress pants from The Limited and my cream thrift store blouse. Where is everybody? Did I get the date wrong? This is the late 20th century, so my cell phone usage was limited and well, I didn’t have my new E.D.’s cell phone number. I had left higher ed and my pipe dreams of being a college administrator to take a job with this new non-profit focused on leadership development of young people in the non profit sector. I remember Darryl saying “Billie, this is you! You already doing the work. Apply, I got you sis!” Jason arrived in a gust, wrinkled suit jacket and a dress shirt with blood on the collar from where he must have nicked himself shaving. He looked at me with confusion and then an “oh shit”. I was on time. He forgot. He welcomed me to the team and we walked into the office suite full will donated cubicles, chairs and big ass couch (What is up with the couches?). There were AmeriCorps , Public Allies/City Year signs (Lithos Black–BOLD) and political art on the walls. There was also a makeshift snack areas with tea, honey, coffee and raw sugar. What the hell is raw sugar? It was a beautiful mess and it would change the way I saw myself in the world. It was a portal that my ancestors had been holding until I was ready. Holding until Che came through me making me a mom and my mom was sick. Holding until my little sister lost herself along the way and found solace small rocks that looked like broken pieces of cheese. Holding until I started to let go of the persona of respectability that I had carefully curated since the mid 80s. I had let go of more than just the creamy crack I used to process my hair. I had started interrogating my beliefs, friendships, lovers, future…oh hello there Saturn return. So there I was, 28, about to take a leap of faith into a space would teach me new language, put new tools in my eager hands, and push me in ways that made me curse out loud LOUD. This space would gift me new friends who were raging against the machine while falling in and out of love, smoking weed, buying a bag of clothes for a dollar and breaking pavement to make our mark in this world we had inherited. We became more than co-workers, collaborators, and partners. We became comrades, friends, lovers, family….Tribe.

Every night before we go to bed, Taj and I say our prayers. Every night Taj thanks God for this good life, his family, my friends, his dad’s friends, his friends, the farm workers, the homeless people, the immigrants…. it’s a long beautiful earnest prayer. This good life. His prayer reminds me that I am more than what has ever happened to me. His words, fingers clasped, closed eyed conversation with God is the sweetest model of gratitude and a wee bit of magic. Taj’s prayer reminds me that I am in a divine protected class. I am Mary’s baby, Che and Taj’s mama, I am Mary Ann, Michelle, Charlie Jr., Fred (Ibaiye) and Georgette’s sister. I am Osunfunke Ojebunmi Abeni….Iya Agan. My ancestors had been holding this portal too. Holding it until I was ready to rebirth myself. Holding it until I believed in the tools, language, ritual, amulets and reputation I have cultivated for almost 25 year. Holding it until I had shapeshifted enough times to know that this new shape wasn’t a fluke. I really can heal myself. Hurts like hell, but I can do it, again, but this time my leap of faith will center joy. My joy.

“You are not a troubled guest on this earth,
you are not an accident amidst other accidents
you were invited from another and greater
night than the one from which you have just emerged…..”

David Whyte