Earlier this week the Caribbean nation of Jamaica celebrated the 56th anniversary of its independence, an event marked in Paterson by a ceremonial flag raising at Paterson City Hall and a two-day carnival at Eastside Park.
We are honored that Coleen P. Stevens Porcher, who also serves as Chief Executive Officer of 4CS of Passaic County, shared her address from Friday’s event, and we are proud to publish excerpts of it with our readers:
I am fifth or sixth generation Kingstonian on my maternal side with people from Hanover and Westmoreland on my father’s side of the family.
I meditate almost every day and I have one guided meditation that asks me to think about a favorite happy place. For me, that is Hellshire Beach in St. Catherine, near my aunt and cousins. The salty smell of the sea, the warm sun, the warm water, the music of Marcia Griffiths, Judy Mowatt, Rita Marley, Peter Tosh, Gregory Isaacs, and, of course, Bob Marley … I could never stand the cold of the Atlantic Ocean, so when I think of happy, I think of warm, joyful places. I think Hellshire, the fish, the festival, the bammie (ground cassava or yucca to my Latin and Latinx compadres who are here today).
We were poor and so sometimes we were hungry. The most remarkable thing was that despite material poverty there was an abundance of generosity, resilience, spirit, and joy.
My great grandmother “Goddy Puncy,” raised me. She was so named because she took in many unwed, pregnant young girls or women whose family had tossed them out for getting in the family way. Although, we did not have much ourselves, she made sure those young women had good nutrition and counseling, being first-time mothers. Many of those young women made her the godmother of their children, and the pet name Goddy stuck. By the time we came along as great grandchildren, everyone called her that. I share her story because her story is also my story. Everything about who I am today, my civic and political engagement, my passion for social justice, my championing of the rights of women and girls and children, I learned from watching her. She set an example by how she lived, being a source of love, of light, and joy.
Goddy used to have rallies in her back yard in the Olympic Gardens, but before that back in her heyday, she had some means and she would tell stories of carriage rides, the theatre, pantomimes, and running around with the country with Norman Washington Manley advocating for universal primary education. This was when downtown Kingston was the place to be.
She lost her home and wealth later on in her life to a man she often called a thiefing lawyer …
Children are very impressionable, so I remembered that at age 22 when law school was one of the possible post-graduate options the Vassar College career development office offered for history majors, I gave a strong, “No thanks!” I ended getting a master’s degree in public policy and nonprofit management at New York University.
As a child, I remember the rallies and meetings in the backyard and when election time came, the senior leaders of the People’s National Party making sure that Michael Manley was sure to stop and visit, even if to shake her hand because of her long history with the party and with pushing for education of all children. I did not know that then, but it was really a nice thing that they made an effort to tell her that they did not forget her. I was just over 7 years old, and my great grandmother was about 77, but this kind of making the human connection, showing people they mattered had an impression on me at that time. We were a split party family because all the great grandchildren that followed me were still politically and civically involved but with the Jamaica Labour Party.
Her granddaughter, my mother Flo, and other adolescents and youngsters, worked with the Roman Catholic Church to help build St. Patrick’s primary school, so that local children would have a nearby school to attend. Years later, Flo’s eight children, my seven siblings and I would attend that same school for which she helped to raise resources. Isn’t that something?
A few things stood out, such as I grew up believing I was human, not black, brown or any other reductive noun. Though materially poor, I was told and believed that I could accomplish anything in the world. Education was highly valued and considered a helpful equalizer. Goddy and her common-law-husband invested a lot of time in teaching me letters, words, colors, life. As such, I learned to read early and showed a facility and comfort in communicating with adults being around two wise elderly people most of the time. In the late 1970s, there was a big movement to promote literacy, I read the newspaper aloud to some of our neighbors who were struggling to read or who could not read. I felt a sense of responsibility, pride, and awe at their gratitude. They in turn would pour their gratitude and love into me and offer food when we were hungry.
I share that story and the others to tell of the power of unconditional love. The power of love full stop. The power of a kind word. The power of sharing and connecting, seeing the whole person, being with the whole person, being present, stepping into the gap and filling it … I am because they were, to paraphrase the South African concept of Ubuntu.
Every child needs that … Every child needs just one person. It is why I ended up in the nonprofit sector so I could help to strengthen communities and make our world more just.
In 1991, I became a United States citizen, and I encourage you to become a citizen yourself. Why? So that you can have a say here. You do that by voting. When I called the cousins who are part of the Jamaican diaspora, whether they are in the United Kingdom, Canada, or on the island itself, they express utter disbelief at what is going on here at the federal level. For me, and many of my immigrant brothers and sisters of all nationalities, we have not felt so welcome here recently. Indeed, there is talk of rescinding citizenship, and talk of putting a citizenship question on the census.
So, we have to be in the process. One way is voting, and there is an election every year and local elections matter as much as presidential elections.
Don’t complain or be complacent. Get involved. There are many ways to involved and make a difference. One example: The 2020 Census is coming up and there will be lots of opportunity to volunteer or work to make sure every Patersonian is counted.
This has huge implications for an urban city that is cash strapped.
Work with all of us who are trying to get the citizenship question eliminated. Don’t just wait for opportunities to come to you. Seek them out.
At 4CS, one of biggest challenges is getting good, reliable volunteers to serve on our committees or as serve trustees, but we keep pushing. A big part of what we do is help families that are at least 200% of the federal poverty level get financial assistance to pay for child care.
Although we have been around since 1972, we are just scratching the surface in terms of the numbers of children on the program. More than 28,000 children in Passaic County are at 100% of the federal poverty level, and we are serving about 10,000, which represents almost 5,000 families. Our stretch goal was to get 11,000 children on the program, but the national anti-immigrant fervor initially had a chilling effect in the community. Families whose children were eligible were afraid to come in. I am grateful for the help of the school boards in all the municipalities and particularly the Mayors of Paterson, Passaic, and Clifton, cities with the highest need, in getting the word out to the community.
Because of our collaborative efforts an individual family with two children, let’s say an infant and a toddler or school age child, can get up to $13,000 per family of childcare subsidy to pay for child care, before-, and after-care and summer camp --- and there is no waiting list (there used to be!). That $13,000 can help them pay for housing, put good food on the table, and cover other family expenses. When you are poor or living on the margins, that can make a huge difference.
This is a critical anti-poverty program. Take a look a census data … Families with children have a higher poverty rate.
In addition to the 10,000 children and families who benefit, 500 center-based and home providers and their employees can make a living. Our agency causes more almost $30 million to be bought into the region. We hire almost 60 employees and 75% of them are from Paterson.
The data on early childhood is clear ….
The human brain develops rapidly during the first 5 years
Environmental influences produce huge gaps in development:
Children from professional families speak 50% more words than children from working-class families and more than twice as many words as children from low-income families. For example:
- A child on welfare hears and average of 616 words per hour (wph)
- A working-class child hears 1,251 (wph)
- A child in a professional family hears 2,153 (wph)
ROI on investment in high quality child care and early childhood education
- Disadvantaged children who were placed in early intervention programs boosted their earnings in adulthood by 25%, putting them on par with middle-class children
- For every dollar spent on early childhood education, Nobel prize economist James Heckman says there is a more than $7 ROI. There are evidence-based studies that show better outcomes in education, health, sociability, economic productivity and reduced crime
People are born into families and circumstances and are never given a choice. The novelist and poet, Herman Melville made a keen observation, and I quote: “Of all the preposterous assumptions of humanity over humanity, nothing exceeds most of the criticisms made on the habits of the poor by the well-housed, well-warmed, and well-fed.”
We have to get children in high quality programs and the earlier the better. We are doing it in a more challenging context nationally, but I am grateful that we have a governor and county freeholders who are exceedingly supportive.
In my own life, it was government policy, faith-based schools and programs, and other community groups, and people who did not judge, but that had compassion, and put love into action. It enabled me to have a brighter future. So I pay it forward today, as we all must.
Before I leave, I want to appeal to you to help me bridge this gap. Help a family with children make ends meet. Tell them about 4CS and how we can help them … there is a child care resource and referral agency, like ours, in every county.
I implore you, especially those of you who do not yet or don’t have children, or who have empty nests. Volunteer! Make a donation to my organization and to the many worthy nonprofits that are part of this great City. We could thrive and be stronger with more community-based financial support from generous individuals like you. As Jamaicans, many of us send money back home, but see if you can make an investment here too.
I know that it feels as if we are living in crazy times, but we have faced great odds before and we have overcome.
So in closing, I would like to leave you with the words of the poet Claude McKay, a Jamaican who is also claimed by the Harlem Renaissance.
As a people at home and abroad, we have faced and overcome much. In this hemisphere, it started with the middle passage more than 400 years ago, and we owe it to our ancestors, those who paved the path, like my great grandmother to be the voices for the voiceless and to encourage them to find their voice … to be a source of power for those who feel disempowered. We have to work together to resist the forces that demonize the materially poor and those who are different.
There are many ways to fight these new battles with our minds, with our hearts, by taking civic action, so as you listen to his words, Claude McKay’s words, make them relevant for our time:
IF WE MUST DIE
If we must die, let it not be like hogs
Hunted and penned in an inglorious spot,
While round us bark the mad and hungry dogs,
Making their mock at our accursèd lot.
If we must die, O let us nobly die,
So that our precious blood may not be shed in vain;
Then even the monsters we defy shall be constrained to honor us though dead!
O kinsmen! We must meet the common foe!
Though far outnumbered let us show us brave,
And for their thousand blows deal one death-blow!
What though before us lies the open grave?
Like men, we’ll face the murderous, cowardly pack,
Pressed to the wall, dying, but fighting back!