“My aunts believed me, but still nothing was done”
I wonder what I’d be like today if I’d been raised in a household where every single person did drugs. Routinely. All the time. I know a woman who did grow up in such a household and what she is like today is dynamite.
Like me, her family was poor but unlike me, they “celebrated” many Christmases without a single gift under the trees in their East or West Oakland homes.
Like me, Yema Lee liked school and did well there. Her home life, however, was quite unlike my own.
Youngest of three children, each of from a different father, Yema tells us, “I was raised by the women in my family – great aunts, older female second cousins and mom. They taught me almost everything I know about life, work ethic, communication and hygiene. Living taught me the rest. I went to school, went to work, sold drugs, and took care of home all at the same time.”
She says she looked up to her brothers, but they seemed to feel she “got away with murder. I didn’t see it that way,” she continues. “I was a nerd in grade school. I mostly got chased home from school. I could fight but I was such a goody two shoes, I got beat up a lot. In the sixth grade I graduated valedictorian! Got a trophy and everything.
“I wasn’t particularly close to anyone at this time in my life. I had some real trust issues. If I told what I was feeling or talked about what happened to me, I was told I was not telling the truth, that I just wanted attention. My aunts believed me, but still nothing was done.”
One of the happenings was using drugs and selling some for spending money, simply following up on the common practice in the family. “Mom let me smoke weed in the house because she felt it was safer than out on street corners. So I sold dope on the street corners.”
Another happening – encountering her best teacher in sixth grade. “Mrs. Soloman took an interest in me right off the bat and instilled the idea that maybe one day I could attain an academic career regardless of where I came from.”
Another happening – her stepfather molesting her repeatedly from age four until her mother divorced him when she was 12. Mom also put Yema out of her home when she was 12.
Looking back at those times, Yema muses, “One thing’s for sure, though: I wouldn’t change a day in my life; because of these things I am the person I am today.”
Where would this evicted child turn for help?
“I moved in with my brother’s best friend’s wife. We soon became lovers and I continued on with school. I got an inter-district permit from Oakland Public Schools and went to Berkeley High. I liked the school and my lover was a teacher’s assistant upstairs so I always had a date for lunch.”
Earlier, Yema had fallen in love with English. “I love our stolen language and am an avid reader. I took French in junior high but it wasn’t as fascinating as finding out how the romance languages come together to form English. You can say the same thing twice differently and get different meanings. And it just gets better with body language added.
“Also I fell in love with Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice. When I was younger I wanted to be a writer or English teacher. I got good grades in just about everything but algebra.
“I had a meeting with the Superintendent of Berkeley Public Schools in the beginning of my freshman year and after testing me he skipped me to the tenth grade.”
For this academic super-star, Life 101 remained beyond her reach for many years. Today she summarizes, “I’ve done different stints in prison. Most of my life has been spent in the revolving door. I go back on violations; I go back on misdemeanors, countless times, for three months, nine months, a year.”
Last year, this single parent found herself in a huge struggle with her 21-year-old son and his violent responses to his frustrations. “I was afraid of him. We had gotten to the point where I actually had called the police on him, and I did not want to be at odds with my son. I wanted to be able to sit down and have a conversation with him and have him tell me how he feels. And let him know that I understand how he feels. We weren’t able to reach that kind of connection with each other until he got involved in something that was going to be positive and help change him and help him to evolve into the man that he could be.”
And that “something” came through his struggling mom. After her latest release from prison in 2011, Yema learned of The Gamble Institute (TGI,) a volunteer center for parolees, run by parolees. Along with other wisdom and guidance, co-founder Pastor Grajeda pointed out the benefits of getting involved in something greater than herself.
When she heard BayNVC’s Safer Communities Project offers free classes in Compassionate Communication to prisoners, parolees, and prison guards, she was more than ready. Meganwind, one of my own favorite trainers, treks each week from Santa Rosa to TGI in Oakland to teach this dynamic communication process, also known as Nonviolent Communication (NVC.)
Yema loved learning to express herself in life-serving ways and to, as she puts it, “de-escalate my own fears and my own emotions to transmit what it is I am needing.” Soon she asked her son to attend with her.
“He thought it was a big joke,” she posted on BayNVC’s web site. “But he came and he listened. It sounded funny to him because he is young. But after maybe the third session it finally dawned on him. It’s about a way to communicate with other people when they can’t see past their ideas and stories. It was a big thing for him! Then he really liked the class and he continued to come… And since then, we haven’t had a really big blow out.
“I figure one of the greatest things that I learned from NVC is that everybody has a way they react when they are at a loss for something, when there is a need present that’s not being met. It’s changed my life.”
That life now includes classes in Human Services at Merrit College, helping other parolees with reintegration, and “growing within the role I play at TGI, learning people skills, taking on the task of Program Assistant and now working hand in hand with my co-worker Earthy Young teaching the next set of parolees how to use Microsoft Word and do Internet job searches.
“I am really pumped about the new class coming in. And can’t wait to give them all certificates. Also I’ll be further developing skills to get a closer connection with loved ones.
“I feel deep gratitude to BayNVC for the shifts in my life and that of my son.”
Read more at baynvc.org.