“Mama?” you asked, “Did the water come into their house?” You were three years old and nestled in my arms. I watched your eyes scan the walls of your room and I knew you were imagining water flooding into our home. It was our first conversation about climate change.
We were laying on your bed preparing for sleep after spending the evening talking about Hurricane Sandy, which had landed in New York City just a few days before. A lot of our family and friends live there, so you, my curious lover of the world, paid close attention as conversations about the super storm swirled around you.
“Where did the families go when the water came?” you asked as I fumbled my way through a conversation I wasn’t expecting and certainly hadn’t prepared for. You were concerned about what might happen here and I was scared by the thought of it, too. I asked you, as I often do, what my top job is and with a breath of relief you responded, “To keep me safe.” And I do.
My top job is to keep you safe and that takes on so many forms. It is why there are solar panels on the roof, an electric car in the driveway, and fresh food in the fridge. It’s also why I do what I do each and every day to build the 100% campaign at The Solutions Project. There was a moment when the very idea of 100% renewable energy for 100% of people got me laughed out of rooms. But I did not lose heart because you, my daughter — whose name means healer — encouraged me to see what was true.
“The earth is our home, we must protect it,” and “People must care for each other,” you say. And, in my head, I can hear versions of these words spoken by millions of children in so many different circumstances around the world. I vaguely remember speaking them myself as a child. With fresh eyes, we can still see the world we want.
It isn’t meaningless that the first black President is the only one you know. You came home once from a restaurant, exasperated and waving around one of those paper placemats with all the Presidents on it. “Mama, mama, where are the girls?! Can we not be Presidents?” You ran up to me and presented the placemat as evidence of the injustice you just learned. “They are all old, white haired, white men. 43 out of 44 of them!” As I gave some shorthanded acknowledgement that we have a lot of work to do to change the world, you made your point and said with conviction, “We all have something special to give!” And as you continued to rant, I realized how powerful and simple it is for everyone to have a chance to lead. It is your clarity and your outrage that reminds me that we can still choose a different path. We can bring about a better tomorrow with the love we have today.
You’ve grown so much in the last few years. You’re now a big sister and I hear you telling Willa your top job is to keep her safe even as your knowing of the dangers deepens. “Why did those police hold down that girl in her swimsuit?” you asked when you caught sight of one of the images from the Texas pool party. “Why couldn’t her mother keep her safe?” you asked, as tears filled your eyes. I held you tight and let my heart break with you.
Years after that conversation in your bedroom about Hurricane Sandy, my work to keep you safe took me thousands of miles away from you to a church in Harlem. I sat in a pew listening to a mother tell the story of keeping her child safe in the storm. She fled her home in the middle of the night when the hurricane brought so much rain that the roof collapsed. Her family lost all of their belongings, moved into a shelter and continues to struggle. When it rains, her daughter cries out with fright. And I know her mother does everything in her power to keep her safe.
Hearing this mother’s story, I think of the mother of 14-year-old Dajerria Becton, the mother of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, the mother of 12-year-old Tamir Rice, and all the mothers who do everything in their power to keep their children safe and cannot. I am reminded yet again that your generation will inherit not only a changed climate, but a fractured people. I promise to help you heal the two.
My work “to keep you safe” isn’t just about clean air and fresh water and healthy food for you and your sister, it is about making sure there is room at the table. That everyone has access to those things that nurture a good life. My work to keep you safe is sometimes about looking straight ahead at the darkest side of humanity — the soul and bone crushing violence, the poisoning of our air and water — and saying “no”. My work to keep you safe is about championing, affirming and taking action with integrity to my deepest held value that every life is sacred.
Althea, you give me unbound courage to face the pain and absolute optimism in hot pursuit of the possibilities. I can imagine what it will be like when, as you say, “all the different people have a chance to be the boss,” doing what is theirs to do in the world. That’s the world I work for.
When I think about your future — the world that I want you and your sister to live in — it is built on these declarations you made as a kid: “We all have something special to give!” So here I am, one person, giving my all for you, for your sister, for 100%.
About this Letter
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