Wednesday, November 5, 2014

The Sex-Trafficking Investigation That Took Me Home

Sitting next to DeKalb County Sergeant Torrey Kennedy in his huge black SUV, I wondered why we were getting off the highway at Panola Road. This was the exit near the neighborhood where I spent the last few formative years of my childhood in Lithonia, Georgia, a suburb of Atlanta.

I'd soon learn that nearly every night - and I think this was a Tuesday - 30-40 young women are being sold for sex in a handful of low-grade motels that dot this exit. To say I was alarmed is an understatement.

"I don't know you. I'm not your pimp. I'm not your friend. I'm not a family member. I'm not using you. I don't want anything from you. My sole purpose, every day I wake up and put this gun and badge on is to help young ladies like you."

I was scribbling Sgt. Kennedy's words in my notebook as fast as I could. As usual I was recording with my iPhone and iPad, but I still don't trust technology 100%. And I certainly wasn't going to rely solely on any digital device as I reported my first investigative piece - especially when I recognized that the heart of the story I was there to get was happening right in front of me.

Sgt. Kennedy, an officer in DeKalb County's Internet Crimes Against Children unit, was trying to get a young woman sitting on a bed in handcuffs to trust him. She was being arrested on suspicion of prostitution and he was offering her the opportunity to enter into a program that could save her life. There were so many reasons she wouldn't even give him her name, and neither would her pimp who was also being arrested right outside the door of that seedy motel.

As I write in the piece published in the November 2014 issue of Ebony Magazine, all of this happened numerous times until about 3:00 a.m. The night I spent on this sting changed my life. There were upwards of 150 police officers from a dozen agencies making a concerted effort to catch as many people involved in sex trafficking as they could right down the street from where I grew up.

Nearly 30 years earlier, my family left our split-level ranch style home a few exits closer to Atlanta in Decatur, Georgia, to be among the first African-American middle class folks to move into this Lithonia community. I can remember there only being a gas station on the exit during this time when my junior high thoughts of a career in journalism were beginning to intensify. Since then I've written hundreds, maybe thousands, of articles and now there is a Walmart, Publix, Lowes, Ruby Tuesdays, and a nearly a dozen fast food joints in this neighborhood.  A few years ago, just two exits down, a sprawling mall sprung up that is frequented by a plethora of upwardly mobile Black residents - judges, doctors, celebrities and those who aspire to similar status.

I wonder if these professional African Americans know what is going on adjacent to their neighborhoods; that there are Black girls - many underage - who are being trafficked nightly. I was certainly blind to the fact.

But not anymore. My eyes were opened wide during this investigation that lasted several months. I learned that the issue is complex, I have a lot more to learn, and the people who are in this fight to stem the tide of sex trafficking in Atlanta - the epicenter of the epidemic in this country - are motivated by their belief that the lives of these girls matter.

Here's what I was up to circa 1988 at 17 years old - a few years older than the average girl that's being trafficked (age 12-14 in Georgia). Who could have known that 25 years later - just a short drive from the living room where these lovely memories were made - a hub would develop where Black girls are victimized nightly by predators?

So I'm in this thing now, too. Because once you've been where I've been, seen what I've seen, learned what I've learned, you just can't step back. There's too much work to do. And everybody has to be involved. Everybody.

I'll be having this conversation periodically on this blog, via social media and through other opportunities. I'd love for you to join the discussion and get in the fight. Please share your thoughts on the article, what you know about sex trafficking, Black girls and sex trafficking, what you're doing to prevent girls from being trafficked, or how you're helping them out of these situations. Your stories are empowering. Your knowledge of resources to help girls is invaluable. So please share.

And stay encouraged. We can stop sex trafficking. We can save lives. Even if it's just through one action at a time.

#DoSomething #StopSexTraffickingNow #BlackGirlsLivesMatter

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Remembering Myself: How Sheila E. and King Drove Me Home

I am totally in love with a new opportunity I've recently accepted. I knew something was coming, but not in the way it showed up. This new thing feeds some of my most basic needs; those that never fail to stimulate me. I'm constantly challenged, learning at an accelerated pace, digesting tons of information, and being forced to make whip-fast decisions based on my experience and instinct about topics of which I will forever be passionate.

But right now I'm transitioning into the fullness of this bright, shiny new penny - and I've allowed this temporary ambiguous place to frustrate me to no end. I mean sometimes I'm so angry at the seemingly slow development of this new blessing that I find it hard to allow the things that usually soothe me to work. Trying to stay in a state of gratitude these days often takes concentrated effort.

I just wish the transition was over, it was six months from now and everything was all worked out. But soon come. My left-brain knows that. Yet somehow my Capricorn patience is nowhere to be found.

Listening to two interviews on NPR tonight with a new group called King and the incomparable Sheila Escovedo (Sheila E.) discussing her book chronicling her 40 years as an artist, a thought started bubbling into my consciousness. Hearing them discuss their creative process was just beautiful and stress relieving. I was inspired. To write.

Maybe this is it, I thought. I need to write. Not for my gig. Not for a magazine. But for me. I realized that I had not written a piece on this blog since April. And I've been blogging regularly in some way, shape or form for at least 10 years. And before that I was scribbling for decades in tons and tons of journals.

As I realized that I needed to get back to exercising this muscle outside of external deadlines, other revelations began to unfold. I have always been drawn to the newest thing in my life - sometimes to the point of near obsession. That's why I like social media, e-mail and even snail mail. Every post or open mailbox is an opportunity for something new (the holy grail for an information junkie). This new opportunity is no different. It's been frenetic days, late nights and lots of weekend work for several months now. And that's cool sometimes because I tend to thrive in those spaces.

But there are other dreams and priorities in my life for which I'd worked hard about a year ago to examine, distill and create activation plans. Some I'd began working on. While those ambitions are not new, I still love and want to pursue them.

During this transition and even when the ambiguity lessens with my new opportunity, I need to revisit my other important dreams - and reengage with those plans. The first step though is writing. Reconnecting with my first love is like going home, but there is a difference. Usually I'm so particular about Enjoyceinglife - taking time to get the right photos, videos, links, words, etc. I keep forgetting this is a space I created to challenge myself to write differently than I do professionally.

So this post started out stream of consciousness. And it remains that way - mostly. I mean I am still me, so I did spell check and add in a little extra here and there. But I just can't spend hours blogging these days. However, I do need to write for myself more often. Like Sheila E said about playing her drums, it's nourishment, like a plant being watered every day.

And I've been thirsty for months.

Keep on Enjoyceinglife. It's so rewarding.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Thank You Tananarive Due For Your Time at Spelman College

Celebrated author, filmmaker and Spelman College professor Tananarive Due has done it again with the Octavia E. Butler Celebration of Arts & Activism! And it's all going down today - on the campus of Spelman College. But if you can't make it, the 5:00 pm panel will be LIVE STREAMED via this link. The full schedule also includes a Black Science Fiction Short Film Showcase and Tales of the Conjure Woman, a reading with Tananarive and  Nnedi Okorafor, and a social justice talk back with Adrienne Maree Brown

The 5:00 p.m. panel includes award-winning authors Junot DíazNnedi OkoraforDream HamptonAdrienne Maree BrownJohn Jennings and Bree Newsome. Several of these authors participated in a virtual speculative fiction writing workshop earlier. Here is a video of the workshop. 

And on a personal note, I have had the pleasure of covering most of Tananarive's fantastic events in the two years she's been the William and Camille Cosby Endowed Professor in the Humanities at Spelman. I've also had numerous conversations with her about everything from parenting, politics and natural hair to her incredible creative output in various mediums and the development of my own process around storytelling. 

I am beyond grateful for the time she spent with the Spelman community and with me. I will really miss her as she moves on to higher heights. 

So, if you missed any of her events over the last two years, here are some recaps below, most of which I'm proud to say I had a hand in producing. I'll add a few more through the end of the year to this space. Keep following Tananarive everywhere - Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Website - because she's gifted and giving - a powerful combination! 

And I hope you're Enjoyceinglife because it's dazzling. 

Sunday, April 13, 2014

True Story: Back in the Mid-90s, Talib Kweli Gave Me a Mixed Tape....

True Story: In the mid-90s, I lived in Brooklyn, right around the corner from Nkiru Books, where a pre-BlackStar Talib Kweli used to work. I'm sure I bought books, magazines, incense and jewelry from him, since I regularly patronized what was once the oldest African American-owned bookstore in Brooklyn.

On one of my visits, he gave me a mixed cassette tape and told me to check out he and his boy Mos Def. He asked me to let him know how I liked their flow. 

I never listened. 

In 2000, several years after they released their classic "Mos Def and Talib Kweli are BlackStar," they bought Nkiru and turned it into a nonprofit organization and center to promote literacy and cultural awareness for people of color. 

#MissedOpportunity #NeverFoundCassette #YouNeverKnowWhoIsInYourSphere


Here are some of my faves from these talented artists. Please share yours and keep Enjoyceinglife. It's dope.

Friday, February 28, 2014

The Magnificent Michelles: Two Powerful Women Making History

My daughter and her one of her besties made me proud as "The Michelles" in a Black History Month play at her school. Her friend portrayed First Lady Michelle Obama, who has been key to the nation's heightened awareness of good nutrition and wellness practices especially as it relates to childhood obesity through her Let's Move initiative. And she just made history unveiling new federal standards for food marketing to children that she played a role in bringing to fruition.

During the performance, my baby slayed with a firm salute to the audience as United States Navy Vice Admiral Michelle Howard, who has a slew of firsts under her belt:

Vice Admiral Howard was the first African-American woman to achieve three star rank in the U.S. Armed Forces and the first African-American woman to command a U.S. Navy ship, the USS Rushmore. In 2006, she was selected for the rank of rear admiral (lower half), making her the first admiral selected from the U.S. Naval Academy class of 1982 and the first female graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy selected for admiral. On December 13, 2013, she was nominated to become the U.S. Navy's first female four-star admiral and the first female to be nominated for the position of Vice Chief of Naval Operations.

The show, informed by Tom Joyner's Little Known Black History Facts, included everyone from early 19th century African military genius Shaka Zulu to Claudette Colvin, the first person arrested for resisting bus segregation in Montgomery several months before Rosa Parks.

Learn more little known Black history facts and keep in Enjoyceinglife!

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Facebook Made a Movie of Me. And I Like It!

If you're one of the 1.23 billion Facebook users, the social media titan has a personalized gift for you to celebrate their 10th anniversary: It's a movie. All about you. And I really liked mine - so much that I felt I needed to post it on my blog, which I've had two years longer than my 6-year-old Facebook account. Please check out my movie (all 62 seconds) and let me what you think:

Okay, I wish I could have just posted the video, and not the entire Facebook post. But such is social media. Some things you just have accept - until they change them. Regardless, digital storytelling matters. So if you get a Facebook video, please feel free to share the link in the comments. I'd love to see your Facebook story!

Enjoy a cool slideshow ^^ of the many faces of Facebook (I came in around Slide 4 / 2007) and keep Enjoyceinglife! It sure is social.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Black History is All Around You

On this first day of Black History Month, Feb. 1, 2014, I had nothing special planned to celebrate. Sure there are lots of activities and events all over Atlanta that we'll definitely be taking advantage of throughout the month. 

My daughter's after school program started early by assigning parts in January for a February play based on Tom Joyner's Little Known Black History Facts segment. I'm certainly proud that my second grader will be portraying Michelle J. Howard, the first African American woman to achieve three star rank in the U.S. Armed Services. She's also the first African American woman to command a U.S. Navy ship, the USS Rushmore, who just become the Navy's first four start general in December 2013.

So we're definitely prepped for celebrating the amazing legacy of people of African descent, but I didn't necessarily get up this morning with a lets-kick-off-Black History Month plan, partly because it's #365Black around here. But then I saw this Google doodle on Facebook and, of course, I had to share:

Slowly but surely it crept into my consciousness that I really wanted to be intentional about celebrating Black history today. But honestly, it's Saturday and despite working from home for several days this week (while entertaining my precocious cabin-fevered 7-year-old, who accompanied me to work on her third snow day), I was exhausted from strain and competing deadlines. I just didn't have it in me to go all out finding a Black History Month event today.

Blessedly the ancestors came to my rescue. After several hours of letting my big girl play on the iPad, I whipped open her math workbook and this is the first page I landed on:

So by learning about Selma Burke, we got our Black history in - with important relevance - as well as 45 minutes of money lessons, too. Every time my daughter sees a dime now, there will be an element of pride in her spirit. She was so inspired by Burke that she ran upstairs remembering she had a stack of Publix Black History Cards, like this one below: 

Of course, my daughter has no idea that I interned during the summers of 1990 and 1991 at The Atlanta Daily World, which at the time was the oldest Black daily newspaper in existence. That's a good lesson for her another day this month. By the time she returned with the cards, I'd stumbled across these notebooks I hadn't seen in years:

I gave her a brief history of literary legend Zora Neale Hurston and pioneer George Washington Carver. As soon as I mentioned the word peanut regarding Carver, she regaled me with her own knowledge of the inventor, making her mother - the child of two Tuskegee Institute (now university) alumni extremely proud. We'll have a great reading project later in the month with the notebooks' detailed biographies of Washington and Hurston. I look forward to telling my child that I share Hurston's history as a Howard University alumna and former editor at HU's school newspaper, the Hilltop).

An hour later, we were in the midst of one of our frequent our neighborhood walks and we stopped by this marker, which we'd seen before. But today, after reading about the historic Rose Hill African American community, we took the time to have an important discussion about the effects segregation and racism on neighborhoods. 

We ended the evening watching a recent edition to the annals of Black history through "The Gabby Douglas Story" on Lifetime. Douglas is the first American gymnast to ever win gold medals for both the individual all around and the team competitions during the same Olympic Games. I was thoroughly impressed by the age appropriateness of the TV movie and even more by the observant comments made by my smart girl. Posted a few:

I'm kind of glad I had no plan when I woke up this morning. Some of the best days happen when you let the Divine lead the way. Stay engaged and enriched this Black History Month. And keep Enjoyceinglife. It's precious.

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Got Any Historical Fiction Recommendations?

I'm on the hunt for well-written historical fiction. If you have suggestions, please share them. A couple I've read that I really enjoyed and learned a great deal from are both written by the talented Jewel Parker Rhodes: I was captivated by Rhodes' deft writing style in "Douglass' Women" and how she was able to draw me into the complex relationship between Frederick Douglass, his wife, and his mistress by moving the story forward through each chapter being told from one of their viewpoints. Their disappointment in each other - and themselves - was palpable. I felt their pain. 

"Voodoo Dreams," Rhodes' imaginative version of the legendary voodoo queen Marie Laveau, transported me to 1800s New Orleans with incredibly rich descriptions. I'd like to work on setting such scenes where the reader feels they're living during the same time with the characters. Another author who I think sets great scenes - but with a very different style - is J. California Cooper. It amazes me how I get the perfect visual of the setting of her short stories through her sparse descriptions. I'm not sure how my scene setting style will develop.

Next up, I'll be reading Tananarive Due's "The Black Rose." Researched and outlined by Alex Haley, and spun into what reviewers call "accomplished" and "tremendous storytelling" "enlivened by rich characterizations," the novel is the sweeping fictionalized narrative of the life of Madam C.J. Walker. 

"Born to former slaves on a Louisiana plantation in 1867, Madam C.J. Walker rose from poverty and indignity to become one of America's first black female tycoons," according to Due's website. She was "the head of a hugely successful company, and a leading philanthropist in African American causes."

Obviously this will be an exciting and informative read for me, as I continue my journey into my historical fiction project. Speaking of Haley, I did read "Roots" back when I was in elementary school, maybe fifth grade or so (yes, I was ambitious). Needless to say, I'll be revisiting this American classic. 

So, if you have any recommendations for great historical fiction - particularly if they are about the Civil Rights Movement - I would appreciate you sharing them. I received some fantastic advice recently from a wise and accomplished author to not avoid reading examples that are as close as possible to what you'd like to write. I'm taking that advice because I truly believe that only I can write the story that's in me. So, please share! Thanks - and keep Enjoyceinglife!

Monday, January 20, 2014

Even a 3-Year-Old Can Learn the Legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

What a rewarding day! If you don't think your children - even the primary age ones - are listening, check out what my 3-year-old niece knew about Martin Luther King Jr. On the way to our MLK Jr. Day of Service activity, my 7-year-old daughter gave an impromptu Civil Rights Movement quiz to my niece. Both had me beaming with pride. 

Me: "So we're going to help clean up a community garden today to celebrate Dr. King's birthday. He helped people, so to celebrate his national holiday, we're going to help people.

3 YO: "If we're going to help people that means we're volunteers. I learned that on Sesame Street."

Hooray for smart children and for Sesame Street!!!!

7 YO: "I've got a pop quiz for you. What award did Martin Luther King win?"

3 YO: "The Nobel Peace Prize!"

Astonished, my daughter and I screamed as my niece explained that she learned about the Nobel Prize creating a collage in her preschool class. She even gave an accurate definition of the word collage when my daughter incorporated that question into her quiz.

7 YO: "Okay, okay, here's another Martin Luther King Pop Quiz. Did the man that shot Martin Luther King go to jail?"

Me: "Uh, lets not talk about that. Lets keep it positive. Do another question."

Self-check: Remember there is a big difference in maturity and knowledge between 7 and 3.

7 YO: "Okay. Here's another pop quiz: Did Rosa Parks go to jail for sitting in the front of the bus?"

3 YO: "Yes!"

My daughter goes on to explain in detail how Dr. King taught people - especially those who didn't look alike - to be kind and fair to each other. She even related examples from the Movement like blacks and whites not being able to use the same facilities to her multicultural collection of friends at her school today. I'm elated as we pull up to the Attwood Community Gardens and Urban Farm, where we spend the next 90 minutes raking and hauling leaves, cleaning up the grounds of this valuable neighborhood resource.

I hope you did something fantastic to celebrate Dr. King today even if it was just meditating on his message and legacy. We don't always make it out to an activity on the holiday, but today we did - and we were more blessed than those we helped.

A moving soundtrack elevated our whole day: There was great programming on all of the airwaves from independent to mainstream. After hearing Dr. King's speeches, remembrances of Movement activists, and reflections of others, we were still singing Stevie Wonder's "Happy Birthday" anthem to Dr. King as we walked into the garden.

Even if you don't think your children are listening to you, keep teaching them through conversation and experiential learning. They are paying attention to those important lessons - and they're passing them on.

Keep on Enjoyceinglife. Sometimes it's quite amazing.



Wednesday, January 8, 2014

When Your Disadvantage is Your Advantage

So I'd been avoiding for at least a year, and was considering succumbing to checking it out when, recently, I ran across several news items about Internet trends that included the increase in long form journalism. And then someone whose opinion I greatly respect basically gave me the final push - on Facebook, of course. So last night, I listened to my first episode, an interview with Joe Sexton, senior editor at ProPublica and a former reporter and editor at the New York Times. I was riveted and immediately hooked.

I don't know if I'm on some kind of faddish tear or if Longform will become part of my regular life. I mean I've only listened to one of the hour-long podcast interviews with incredibly thoughtful and talented magazine writers about their process and experience. But I did peruse at least 30 descriptions of episodes, so I know the great storytelling and insight that awaits me if I decide to go down this rabbit hole.

Honestly I have the same feeling I do when I watch an episode of a promising TV series: If I was in a different place in my life, I'd make sure I was in the same place at the same time each week to catch it. Or I'd record it and make time to watch it. I've watched one episode each of Downton Abby, Homeland, Newsroom, Scandal and others just for this reason. I feel like I just can't get caught up because of other things I'm prioritizing in my life.

It's so late that I can't even access the words to describe how stimulated and satisfied I feel listening to - and considering how the lessons I'm hearing apply to my creative approach.

Now I'm listening to the Longform interview with author and New Yorker staff writer Malcolm Gladwell, and I feel like a disrespecting distracted spouse even writing this blog post while it's playing. The real reason for this post is because I wanted to figure out a way to capture the Longform episodes I really dig and those that can be extremely helpful. I considered posting them to Facebook, Twitter, my Tumblr account and even on Linked In. But I realized that the most enduring and personal social media space I'm most committed to maintaining is this blog.

I created Enjoyceinglife to assist, or even better, to challenge myself creatively. And I rarely use it for that purpose. But as Gladwell says, I'm reconsidering my disadvantage to be an advantage.

You know how it is in the beginning of the year. I'm going to do this. I'm going to do that. Well I am. And is part of my brave doing. For me.

Be good to yourselves folks. And keep Enjoyceinglife.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Zora & Ida: 2014 Inspiration

I was pleasantly surprised today to see Google honor the iconic writer Zora Neale Hurston with a Google "doodle" on what would have been her 123rd birthday. Inspirations to me since I was in high school, Hurston and Ida B. Wells-Barnett, another incredibly talented, journalistically-driven writer, have been on my mind lately as I encourage myself to pursue my own creative destiny. 

I'm always bursting with pride when I remember that Hurston was the co-founder of "The Hilltop," Howard University's award-winning student newspaper, where I cut my teeth as a budding young journalist. It's wild to think that I was writing and editing at such an important historical organ, which she created. That's some kind of responsibility. Even more, it is motivating to know that at one time, we were in the same place in our careers.

The other day a friend reminded me that nearly a decade ago we had quite an adventure traveling to the Zora Neale Hurston Festival in Eatonville, Fla. I got a chance to speak to legendary sculpture Elizabeth Catlett and I met the incredible artist Carrie Mae Weems. For the last 18 months, I've been editing articles about and video interviewing lecturers in Spelman College's Ida B. Wells Barnett Lecture Series. I've even blogged on Enjoyceinglife about the impact series lecturers like Melissa Harris Perry had on me.

I'll spend more time this year studying the journeys of Hurston and Wells-Barnett, who are like my historical mentors. I marvel at their research prowess, bravery, tenacity, and especially their commitment to life-changing work. Learn more about Hurston and Wells-Barnett. Happy 123rd Ms. Hurston! Your work is enduring.

Keep Enjoyceinglife in 2014. This is our year!

Thursday, September 19, 2013

When Your Mother Quotes Shel Silverstein....

Sometimes I blind copy my mother on emails to my daughter's teachers. Or I share details with her about the politics at work. Not all the time. But sometimes. After all she's been through all this and her insight - when I want it and she wants to give it - is invaluable.

This week has been insane - you know the kind you have all the time when everything is on 10 and you feel like you're making decisions by the seat of your pants. You have to trust your gut in every situation that comes your way because you don't have time to research the countless hair-on-fire emergencies that are obviously being pitched at you by a major league devil intent on stealing your joy. 

When I call my momma during these times, she can hear it in my voice and we normally don't stay on the phone long. Cause I'm in the thick of it. Trying to make it to the breather that must be on the horizon. 

Well today, after being blind copied on several emails about a situation at my child's school, my mother responded with these sage words of wisdom:

"Yes, for all your parenting consistency. Now, for me:  I learned a poem last night.  Wanna hear it?  OK----
All the coulda, shoulda, wouldas
Laying in the sun
Talkin bout the things
They coulda, shoulda, woulda done
Ran away and hid
From the ones that did

------Shel Silverstein

That's my brain sustaining lesson."

Yes, that is my mother who sat my one-year-old daughter on the desk of the Governor of Georgia 
during this formal commendation. And which Friend of the Georgia Libraries had the nerve 
to literally help Gov. Sonny Perdue sign this commendation? You're right again. My child. 
She has no choice but to love reading, now does she? 

I love Shel Silverstein. Always have. I bet my momma, who spent decades volunteering in libraries and even serving on county and state boards for years, introduced me to his genius. Yep, he's a bit morbid. But he is mad creative and wicked witty. He's like a freaky scientist in his laboratory of boundless imagination. I love the freedom I feel he allowed himself in his work. My daughter, who's nickname should be Princess Boundary Pusher, digs Silverstein, too. Of, course.

My momma - the psychiatric social worker-attorney, who long ago retired her make-it-happen parenting role and is now happily settled into I-can't-take-on-your-project-cause-I'm-enjoying-my-grandchildren role - is still parenting. And I'm so appreciative. Thank you, Momma. So glad you still know what I need - and how to give it to me. 

Keep on Enjoyceinglife - with your loved ones. They're priceless.

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