How We Get Free
How We Get Free: Discovering the tools of Connection, Healing & Our Collective Liberation
by C. Perry Dougherty and Monique Harris
There is a profound spiritual crisis at play in our society. It is a crisis of disconnection. As two women who have been young single mothers, our stories and experiences inform our understanding of and commitment to the work of bringing spiritual resources to bear on the current, ubiquitous crisis of disconnection in our world. Our lives have taught us the power of connecting with and across difference and not in spite of it.
We are motivated by the idea that disconnection will keep us from pursuing our collective liberation from the lies of White male supremacy. We all want to be free. Yet we live in a world where socially constructed judgments of who has value and who does not live within us and within our institutions, communities, and relationships. Division, discord, and disconnection within our inner lives and relationships keep such structures of domination alive.
So, how do we seek understanding, compassion, and connection that ensures our personal journeys toward freedom are not tied to the oppression, objectification, or silencing of another? It is based upon this question that we share our personal stories in this collaborative essay. Working with this question is not for us, and may not be for you, the feel-good work of a kumbaya-style connection. Responding to this question requires deep work with the internalized structures of power that live within each of us.
Just as we do in our workshops and groups, we invite you to read our stories, allowing yourself to notice your feelings and thoughts as you experience areas of resonance with and resistance. The ways stories of others both affirm and challenge us can serve as mirrors for our own self-understanding, growth, and transformation. Certainly this awareness has allowed us to find the words to describe our journeys here.
Our personal stories are not the same, nor are they exceptional, and understanding this is essential to connection. It has helped each of us in our own way embrace that difference itself is not disconnection unless it is tied to a system of power within or outside of us that seeks to erase otherness or celebrate oppressive forms of sameness.
Sojourner Truth, Phyllis Wheatley, Maya Angelou, Richard Wright, Langston Hughes, Nikki Giovanni, and the list goes on. Within their rhythms, rhymes, lines, and stanzas, are the voices that taught me what it is to be Black (and woman) in America.
I learned early in life that being a Black woman carried with it a certain burden. There was something in my woman-ness that would set me apart from other women. My woman-ness was not free to flow without constraints, as my Blackness would hem me in on one side and my woman-ness on the other. At a young age, I was conscious of the archetypes associated with my race and gender. I learned to constantly adjust myself to accommodate my environment; to accommodate the gaze that watched silently to make sure I stayed in my place; to accommodate the gaze that encouraged me to subvert my voice to other voices considered more valuable than mine.
Thankfully, there were those before me who were in possession of their voices and lent them to the unconstrained world of poetry, where they would communicate more than just their story—they would communicate life, wisdom, and hope. It is in these spaces, between the lines, where the grace to be and celebrate being Black and woman exists.
In high school, I felt most profoundly disconnected from my identity. Always the bookworm, I remember the young, Black student teacher who placed my first Toni Morrison book, Sula, into my hands. It was then that I understood that there were Black women creating art with words. I was mesmerized by the reflections of me bouncing off the page. The language that was mine rolling out of the mouths of characters who allowed me to devour them. From then on, I knew that there were Black women writing of my experiences, giving me words and vocabulary to say what I needed to say. It is in those pages that I began to see myself, though it would be years before I found myself.
“So, what do I do now?” That was my question to the nurse that informed me that I was indeed, pregnant. I was standing at a phone booth because I had been told the day before to call the doctor’s office after three o’clock to get my pregnancy test results. As the nurse gave me the news, my whole world shifted, and I was confused about what to do next, not just in literal terms. I was voicing an existential question that I would ask many, many times over in the years to come, “so what do I do now?”
At 22, I was probably as self-aware as anyone at that age. But I was pregnant and preparing to undergo a monumental life change before I had even established my own identity. I had no idea what motherhood meant in its totality, only that I would be responsible for the care and survival of a vulnerable life. There was indeed a great deal of unease as I moved into this new role of nurturer, caregiver, provider, and advocate. There was also something new: purpose.
Becoming a mother in and of itself was not a remarkable feat, nor do I believe it is the best or only road to self-actualization. I do know that for me, becoming a mother and the experience of single motherhood profoundly altered my way of thinking about the world. I only had a year and a half of college under my belt. I had no real aspirations other than finding a secure place to call home. At the time, I was living in a one-room hotel with my mother, her then-boyfriend, and my younger sister. I had no privacy. I had very little peace. What I did have was a high level of anxiety as it pertained to safety and security. I knew that I couldn’t raise a child in that environment, and yet I knew somehow I would be able to meet the challenge. That knowing certainly was not self-confidence. That knowing, I now like to call it God, is my divine intuition.
Shortly after confirming my pregnancy, my uncle died of complications related to AIDS. It was a sudden and devastating loss to my family, and I had not yet shared the news about my pregnancy with anyone when it happened. It was surreal: grappling with the tragic loss of my uncle, and the impending birth of my daughter. It was a stressful time, but beyond that, there was a deeper inner expansion unfolding as I grappled with the deep realities of life and death simultaneously. Although my family did not adhere to a formal faith tradition, my grandparent’s definitely held strong Christian roots. This faith was often expressed during the darkest of life’s circumstances. There wasn’t a great deal of fervency about faith in my family, but it was through the simple faith that was there that I learned the rudimentary lessons of depending on God.
Preparing my heart and mind to live for a purpose outside myself began to help me see the world more holistically, which meant I had to see myself more holistically. Yes, I would be a mother, but what else? Who else would I be? Despite all of the barriers and obstacles, what more would I be capable of birthing into the world?
Unsure as I was, I resolved to have the baby. In the summer of 1992, I gave birth to a tiny girl that weighed only six pounds, four ounces. I named her “Yaminah.” Her name is Arabic and it means “right and proper” or “blessed.” As I’ve been reflecting on my sojourn with her, I have been thinking a lot about the meaning of her name. I thought that naming her was more about what I wanted her to become. It has dawned on me that I gave her a name that was actually a message for me. Her name, every time I said it, was saying back to me, “everything is the way it is supposed to be.” Indeed, I have been blessed.
Until I became a mother, I was like an unmoored boat, drifting with no immediate destination. Suddenly, there were things to do: get healthcare, secure housing, tend to the necessities for the baby, and make an income to care for her. These pursuits took all of my time, energy, and resourcefulness. There was little time for much else. My family did not have the means to financially support me, but they supported my decision to have the baby. I was working part-time at a department store, but that income was insufficient. So, I worked more and tried to save as best I could, eventually landing a studio apartment soon after Yaminah was born.
Audre Lorde, in her essay “Poetry is Not a Luxury,” argues that poetry itself, as a vehicle to self-expression, is necessary to survival. She insists that in giving voice and shape and dimension to our inner lives, we birth the seeds of true revolution. We have to learn to trust the intuitive parts of ourselves as we arise and move toward words, which turn to ideas, and then to action. Poetry has often appeared in my life as a mirror. Words and phrases reflecting back to me what I could not, often dared not, say.
Langston Hughes wrote a poem, “Mother to Son,” that I have held closely during my time as a parent. It encapsulates so many of the challenges I faced as a single, young, Black woman on the verge of motherhood. There was so much I didn’t know that, for many years, I only imagined myself being on the receiving end of this talk. As I grew in knowledge and wisdom, I now can imagine myself the mother speaking to her son at the end of the poem:
So boy, don’t you turn back.
Don’t you set down on the steps
’Cause you finds it’s kinder hard.
Don’t you fall now—
For I’se still goin’, honey,
I’se still climbin’,
And life for me ain’t been no crystal
I see myself absorbing the wisdom and guidance this mother shares with her child while I also connect with the deep hope that this mother holds for the future. This conversation could be taking place between any mother and any child, any place in the world. It is at once encouragement and admonishment from mother to son. This is a stern reminder of the difficulties of the world. On the surface, nothing about this conversation is remarkable. The transformation comes through the identity of the speaker and the identity of listener. It is in the identity of mother and son where the nuances become deeper, the musical notes more complex.
Now, a simple conversation between mother and child becomes more than just casual talk—it morphs into a manual for surviving the danger and trauma of living in the world while Black. In those few lines, a mother transmits to her son everything that she believes he needs to survive in the world. For her, this is life. She digs into the deep well of her wisdom and gives life like milk from her breast.
Surely, “life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.” I struggled a lot with my identity and all that it encompasses. I struggled a lot with the box that society placed me in, feeling as though I was becoming a “statistic” in the most negative sense, and the impact of that on my psyche. I struggled a lot trying to overcome the archetype of being a “ghetto welfare queen” as internalized racism reared its ugly head. I did a lot of overcompensating to work against the many strikes against me that could have held me prisoner.
Life was indeed, many times over, a stairway filled with splinters, torn up boards, and bare places. I had to navigate it—some of it with little or no guidance. There were many issues I had to grapple with: a physically abusive relationship with Yaminah’s father, navigating social services , and dealing with the stigma of needing those services, filing for custody of my daughter, returning to college as a single mother, and on and on. My learning curve was steep, but that which Audre Lorde calls the “woman’s place of power within each of us” began to surface, and it grew stronger and more sure of itself within me. I began to understand that I was able to give my daughter the life she deserved. I understood that I had to steer myself to a space of self-acceptance to get there. I don’t know if I would have made it up the staircase without that little girl as my guide.
Within two years of Yaminah’s birth, I went back to school and graduated with my Bachelor’s degree two years later. I worked a number of jobs until I began substitute teaching and began my journey as a special educator, which opened my eyes to the plight of those living with disabilities. In that work, I realized how easy it is to move through life without considering the obstacles, challenges and systematic issues that others face. May work was an education in deep compassion and the expansion of how I could become a conduit of love and healing.
Through such experiences, I discerned my call to ministry and formally entered into the faith community seventeen years ago. Social justice work as part of that ministry has evolved as the result of my struggles, needs, and hopes. There were many times I wished for someone to hold space for me; many times I needed encouragement; many times where my emotional needs were cast aside for practicality’s sake. My desire as an educator, minister and spiritual companion is that no one has to ignore that essential part of themselves in order to survive. We all deserve wholeness. We all need help getting to the top of that rickety staircase. A lot happened getting from there to here—I still take it one step at a time, one day at a time.
I often reflect on how I found the light to traverse the dark, broken places that found myself in. It was a daily process. Some days were better than others. The common denominator every day was that there was someone who I had to show up for, whether I felt like it or not. Constantly having to tend to the needs of another was what made me get out bed everyday. There was not much in place in terms of self-care, spiritual practice, a loving community, or much else to spur me toward a “greater purpose.” I got up every day and attended to what was in front of me that day. I hate to say that it took an external force to help me to make necessary inward changes, but that was my journey.
By consistently showing up to tend to what was in front of me, I was able to better see and undo the tangled knots of internalized oppression. There were definitely archetypes that I battled. There were ways in which I tried to differentiate myself from the negative narrative of single Black mothers. I didn’t want to be seen as irresponsible, uneducated, or unmotivated. In many ways, I created my own archetype of a “respectable” Black woman, which meant I actually began to align myself with cultural norms that would seem more “acceptable” to others. I had to recognize my true self was tied up in identities that were not mine. I had to work on slowly undoing the identities steeped in anti-Blackness and patriarchy, the currency wielded by others in my oppression.
I experienced great joy watching a child grow and develop into an amazing human that I was privileged to have a hand in raising. It is in those years of raising Yaminah that, bit-by-bit, I found myself, my voice, my purpose, and ambitions. I was needed. I needed to be needed. I needed to be important, indispensable to someone. Isn’t that a yearning that we all have?
We all want to understand that our living is not in vain; that we have a purpose beyond ourselves that is essential, that connects us to one another in deep, unexplainable ways. However, we also want that process to be easy and painless, and it is not. Connection that is free from oppression requires work. It requires introspection. It requires humility. It requires an expansiveness of Spirit that calls us to examine ourselves and make restoration where we fall short. We have to face ourselves to fix ourselves. There is no collective liberation without this process.
I first came across Lorde’s writing in high school. Though I thought of myself as a feminist, perhaps even a radical one, I was blind to the ways a deep-rooted American cultural worldview lived inside of me. And perhaps because of that and my relative comforts in the White, wealthy suburbs of Boston, any understanding I had of Audre Lorde’s ideas was an academic one at best.
Despite the values I had developed, I still relied on a White patriarchal framework of how to show up in the world, of what success looked like, and of how I used my voice and didn’t: I can see it in the ways I used to define what academic and career success meant or the ways I learned to negotiate sex as something I was giving to a man or the ways I was able to be chameleon-like in aligning myself to people with traditional positional power or authority by keeping silent about the things I believed or issues I cared about.
Just before my 21st birthday, I remember telling a friend over a midday beer that my period was late. He asked, “What are you going to do if you’re pregnant?” And without really thinking I surprised myself in responding, “I think I’d have to go through with it.” I was studying and living in Santiago, Chile at the time, dating a guy I loved because he distracted me from my pain.
I was in fact pregnant.
Inwardly, my world had been collapsing—I was partying too much, masking something I didn’t fully understand at the time. I justified my actions within the classic narrative of how an American college student studying abroad “should” be enjoying herself. I was clinging to whatever privilege I could find to create an image of having it together, and being an American abroad granted me a tremendous amount of power in just about any room I walked into. I accepted it unchecked.
Numbing in this way served as a momentary relief from the pain of the unhealed and unspoken trauma of a sexual assault in my late teens. But I was hurting. I was self-silencing. And my whole being was festering with shame at the lies I was trying to maintain in order to live in closer alignment to some sense I had of what it meant to be an “acceptable” woman—a definition that no matter how it changed since Audre Lorde wrote was still strictly defined as something set by others’ approval of me.
I chose to leave Chile after a particularly painful fight with my soon-to-be son’s father in order to return to St. Louis to finish my junior year at Washington University. As my pregnant belly grew, it became one of the most honest outward communications of what was actually going on for me within that I’d ever experienced. It didn’t help with my pain, but there was no way of hiding that I was pregnant and being seen felt liberating. This was my first baby step of a long, winding road in figuring out how to stand (no matter how alone) in what is true and authentic for me.
In the six months following Diego’s birth, which happened in Boston where my parents lived, I moved my life to Chile and back again. I continued to find comfort in both big and small lies of omission. When I left Chile for good and returned to my parents’ home, I thought the lies would keep me safe. I thought they would insulate me from judgment—my own and that of others—as I navigated leaving my son’s emotionally abusive, drug-addled father. And to an extent, those lies did keep me safe at that time. “It just didn’t work out,” I’d say. I wouldn’t dare tell people about the Santiago police who had come not once but multiple times to our door in the middle of the night to bring Diego’s father home or the fights that had me running down the street in search of a pay phone because the phones in our house had all been tossed off our eighth floor balcony in rage.
To this day, I am uncomfortable owning this almost cliché story of being a young mom who finds herself leaving a terrible relationship. We have a cultural image of what it means to be “that woman” in our society. My race and class privilege kept me running from that story of mine for years. There was a chasm at the intersection of who I thought myself to be and what had unfolded in my life, and I did not know how to hold it all together.
This inner fragmentation kept me divided from other women. And worse than that, I was perpetuating the false narratives about who a single mom is and the false narratives about who is impacted by domestic violence. This, I have come to understand, is the anatomy of White male supremacy that lives within me: this internalized sense of superiority that told me what was happening was something other than my life. This false belief kept me disconnected from others, and also lay at the root of my own sense of unworthiness, fueling a similarly deep-rooted internalized sense of inferiority. The ping pong between these two poles in my inner life was exhausting and kept me running from authentic connection and trust with anyone, especially myself.
As we were preparing this essay together, Monique told me: “The truth of the matter is, if I didn’t have Yaminah, I probably wouldn’t have made it. I consider her to be the greatest gift that God has given me because she kept me from giving up on myself.”
Even as I type these words now, tears of connection well up in my eyes. I too have often said that having my son saved my life. Even in my darkest moments over the years, knowing each day that I need to show up for him and knowing that somehow I was worthy in his eyes has kept me rooted in some kind of faith that has been hard to describe. His basic aliveness has kept me from giving up on myself and importantly has forced me to learn that my identity need not be one rigid thing defined for me by the ways society has taught me to orient to others.
At one point, when Diego was about 18 months old, an employer rescinded a job offer because I disclosed that I had a son and needed family benefits. Going through this experience early on in my job search meant that in all subsequent job interviews, I would not disclose that I had a child until it was absolutely necessary. After years of working for the person who eventually hired me, she laughed as she told me and a group of people that I was on the job for three months before she knew that I had a child. Hearing her tell this story, I had two thoughts. One was that perhaps she simply did not see or hear me for the first few months so when she finally did, it was shocking to her. The other thought was that perhaps I had been hiding. The truth is that it was likely a combination of both. The story itself served as a wake up call for me. I had spent too many years trying to please everyone around me by not showing up whole, by not inviting people to know me fully.
I needed to learn how to take small risks to share who I was with the world—to stop hiding what mattered most to me in order to preserve an image of success that I learned from oppressive systems. Trying to please people and society by clinging to oppressive systems of power that gave me some false sense of security kept me out of connection with what really sustained me, and in that case, had kept me out of sharing the pride I had in my son and in myself as a mother. In years of therapy and eventually a regular meditation process, I learned to name this pattern for myself out loud in order to see it clearly.
Imagining seeing myself through my son’s eyes eventually made me unwilling to be defeated or co-opted by the destructive narratives of what makes a person right or wrong in the eyes of others. I know the subtle and overt violence perpetrated on women by men around the world. I know the suffering of the voicelessness that comes with wondering if anyone will believe me or care. I know the ways women hurt women as they seek to align to structures of power that privilege them in being more “acceptable” than others.
In accepting that these stories are mine among many others, I discovered a skill set rooted in trusting my own deepest experience—a skill set of awareness and discernment—a skill set that the gurus and the sages and the elders and the trees and the sun and the moon and the sky embody. My survival has since grown dependent on trusting in the wellspring of life that I hold within—it’s a spiritual call to live in wholeness with all the tensions and paradoxes that live within me and others. I have had the gift of a mirror as I developed these skills—my relationship with Diego is a reflection of my alignment or misalignment to that call to presence with all that is.
Motherhood—in its profound ordinariness—has connected me to the legacy of women’s survival, a legacy that teaches us how to radically show up day-after-day fierce and loving through whatever may come. This kind of showing up has become my spiritual practice. I believe we are all in desperate need for some kind of spiritual context like this for our existence.
I am no longer a single mother. In loving someone and choosing to live our lives together, I felt as if a big part of my identity slipped away, and not so slowly. There’s been a tentative insecurity in what that change means for me. As my son matures, I see him navigating what it means for him to be a future White man in the world, and I do my best to offer him space to locate himself within himself, because I believe that he too is deserving of that opportunity to use his inner knowing—his poetry and his nurturer—as a center of being that will allow him to show up present and whole.
In navigating this transition in my life and expanding my role as mother to include a step-son and a daughter, I have leaned on a recognition of all that I have been blessed with alongside a radical acceptance of my tremendous insecurity with change. I have offered gratitude for the people who have shown up in my life and continue to do so, stretching me into myself, into relationship, and into the world. And I have continued to practice showing up to and for myself and others.
The name Diego means supplanter. Diego’s presence in my life at the time he came forced me on a journey of recognition that both my lived experience of oppression as a woman and my privileged worldview as a White, upper-middle class, college-educated person exist within me all at once. My experience of being othered by single motherhood has helped me supplant the lies of White male supremacy with an understanding of the more life-giving truth that to be human together means being flawed and vulnerable and uncertain together and continuing to believe in the power of connection through the celebration of difference.
I have learned how to hold gratitude and fear at once, how to take responsibility and hold people accountable, how to forgive myself for the ways I have been shaped within cultures of domination and forgive others for the ways I have been hurt by them, how to cultivate my son’s growth alongside a pursuit of my own development. But perhaps most importantly, I have learned how to embrace difference and be in connection at once, which I have come to define as the holy ground of interdependence that relies on a making a commitment to being fully—courageously and authentically—present in relationship just as it is. Motherhood grounds me in the knowledge and experience of the power of such relationship. But it is not a way of being in relationship reserved only for the parent-child bond. It is, in my estimation, about cultivating loving kindness rooted in spirit, in our very existence, in our inherent dignity and worth, and in that ancient wisdom that is within and connected to us all.
Lorde challenges us to reexamine our orientation to difference in order to create common cause, solidarity, and connection: “I urge each one of us here to reach down into that deep place of knowledge inside herself and touch that terror and loathing of any difference that lives there. See whose face it wears. Then the personal as political can begin to illuminate all our choices.” It was not an easy journey that brought me to the realization that that it was indeed my face that feared difference—being different, connecting across difference, and seeing difference as something to be accepted and celebrated, not erased.
One could say that it is “poetic justice” that brings two women from divergent experiences into a shared experience of what it means to discover oneself fully. It is in the “otherness” of single motherhood that our two paths converge into the singular path of a justice ministry that embraces that the “other” is both within and outside of us.
Spiritual arts have too often been discounted in our culture, even within justice spaces. It is incumbent upon all of us to push toward an integrated and authentic existence that values mind and heart; that illuminates commonality and celebrates difference; that names disconnection in order to seek connection. These are the keys to our survival. This is how we get free together.
It would seem that nearly every spiritual tradition teaches a similar path—that our collective liberation is tethered to our ability to locate ourselves and the other in the eyes or in the presence or in the loving embrace of a higher power or universal truth. Such a spiritual container for our justice work holds us accountable to being on our own journeys and to doing the hard work to create common cause with one another. Such a spiritual container encourages us to point out where untruths are guiding us astray and lovingly call us into deeper connection with ourselves, others, and something greater than us all. Such a spiritual container has enough room to hold the paradox of what it takes to pursue connection as a path to justice.
Together, we call ourselves chaplains for social justice. We embed ourselves in justice-rooted communities and organizations to tend to the spiritual needs of leaders and teams. In practice this means that we offer one-on-one spiritual care conversations or group trainings, workshops, healing circles, or dialogues. Whether in our one-on-one sessions or in group work, we explore the complex and intersecting themes of our lives as people working for justice in an unjust world.
We bring the poetry, the nurturing, and the spiritual context of living connected to life as it is. We see this work as urgent in our social justice communities. Disconnection is accelerating burnout, causing people to lash out, and fueling suffering for too many people who want someway, somehow to make the world a better place. Social justice work is about restoring the sacred birthright of human dignity, respect, and interdependence. To do so, we must create more courageous spaces that invite people to show up wholly themselves and to open up to being transformed in the process. As we connect to ourselves and open up to being changed by connecting with the other, however we define that, we tap into a hope for and belief in the possibility that we together can upend oppression and change the world around us. It is possible if we show up. §
Monique Harris is a Senior Associate at Still Harbor and also serves as a facilitator, chaplain, and spiritual director. A special education teacher by profession, Monique has worked in public education for more than 15 years. She also served as an Itinerant Deacon in the African Methodist Episcopal Church for 13 years.
Perry Dougherty serves as a facilitator, spiritual director, chaplain, and writer in her role as Executive Director of Still Harbor. She has made a career working with non-profit social justice organizations. Perry tailors her programs, workshops, and efforts to the exploration of how spiritual practice, courage, and creativity can enrich leadership for social justice. Perry is an ordained Interspiritual Minister.