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Loving Engagment as Educators, Service Providers and Survivors by Erica Cardwell


Loving Engagement: Embodying and practicing peace, justice, and liberation in our engagement with one another.

Queer Affirming: Freeing ourselves from the tight grip of heteronormative thinking to create a queer-affirming network

Most mornings, I walk with a quick pace. My feet rarely make it to a stroll, because I’m usually a tad behind schedule. But no matter the time or the place I’m going, I need to give myself a moment to get myself together. “Get myself together” for handling haphazard train delays, back to back student meetings, and just how much grading I could put off. But, in the transitional years after I left my full-time job as a youth worker, to become a part-time English adjunct and full time graduate student, my predictable mornings were traded for three sweaty transfers, before depositing my nervous wreck on a train toward Yonkers.

For the better part of my career, I’ve worked in spaces of predominantly black and brown staff members and adults. When I decided to go back to school, to art school, it was inevitable that this space was not only going to be filled with white people, but with the absence of diversity, the kind of absence that is deeper than inclusive syllabi. I always taught myself that “the work” would never be done, but what held a different meaning, was knowing that my staff of black warriors would only come once in a lifetime. Throughout our time together, I was consistently floored and deeply humbled by their commitment to the wholeness and actualization of our self-same young people. Their work held space for the youth’s triumphs, fears, heartache, and challenges. But from that time, what I found the staff to prioritize overall was the unique imaginations of our young people. It was then that I understood just how precious my own damn mind could be. So, when it was time to leave that space and move on, when the work needed to be done differently, the “get myself together” part was key. More than a pep talk, I had to teach myself to hold the same space for my black woman morning meditation, my black imagination.

On this particular morning, the trains were held in the station for nearly half an hour, causing me to miss two Metro North trains. My eyes bulged white, and a light foam gathered inside my mouth. I was late, after leaving early, and this lateness was getting in the way of brief moments of quiet.

The blue vinyl train seat received my collapse. Hunching over, I tried to scrub a coffee stain away off the front of my shirt with a white paper napkin. Just chill, I kept telling myself. Just chill. It doesn’t matter if they like you. I slumped further in my seat. The lights on the tracks to the left of me brightened, expecting another train. On the other side, passengers jogged past the window seeking a seat at the front of the car. Focus on the people who are interested in getting to know you.

The napkin left a white papery patch on the front of my button down. With my thumbnail, I scratched my shirt’s surface. From this angle, I could see the floor, and on it were pairs of scuffed sneakers and boots moving past my seat–one by roaming one. When I looked up, I realized that these were young black girls. And these young black girls were parading down the aisles of the train. They trudged toward me, flowing in one door and out the other. Each one was muted: patrolling the train inside blinders, head forward. All were silent, wearing plastic cuffs, wrists resting against their backs. These girls were being watched. Followed. Supervised. I watched, too, because something in me wouldn’t look away. Something in me didn’t want them to walk alone.

And then, there was Pearl. The last one to come through– shoulders paused in a shrug, she hesitated with a mouthful of “Hello, Miss Erica,” remembering that she shouldn’t draw attention to herself. I stood– papers and napkins fell to my feet and yelped her name. Her presence told me that I hadn’t been late, that I was exactly where I was supposed to be. Pearl needed to see me. My tongue glued to the roof of my mouth stricken suddenly with the fear of getting her in trouble. I melted down in my seat. The folks around me continued staring out the window, head low, savoring their own quiet space.

Where was she going? Why was she cuffed?

The doors closed and Pearl shuffled out of my sightline. The train eased away from the platform, seeking the romantic morning light. I didn’t want to leave. I walked to the window and waved frantically. Pearl pressed her lips together and opened her eyes widely. The edges of her eyes were full, and her neck appeared slightly hollow. She was exhausted.  The train slid away, abandoning Pearl.

What happened to Pearl?

It is a question that I will never have the answer to. And it is a question that I would dare say is irrelevant to where she was going.

Who is Pearl?

Pearl had braces and wore her long, natural waves in a ponytail that trailed down her back. She always wore a fitted Yankees cap perched on the top of her head. Her laughter was contagious; people usually giggled by association, even when they were only walking past, unsure of what she was laughing at. She was very smart and could have been a good student, but her challenges at home interrupted her high school career and she never finished. Getting her HSE diploma was her number one priority.

But above all things, Pearl was always, always always in love.

“Naw Miss Erica, I don’t have a girl. That’s my wife.”

“Oh right.”

“See you in Lez Lounge.”

Lez Lounge happened on Fridays. It was a group created for lesbian, bisexual, queer, gender nonconforming youth where they could call the shots and be themselves. We would sit around with granola bars and cups of juice and enjoy one another’s company, grateful for Friday. We would read the journal entries of Lorraine Hansberry and love letters between Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West. Sometimes we’d prepare for a community event and put together safe sex packets with dental dams and finger cots, elements lesbians and queers often refer to as “good,” but with air quotes.

Lesbians and queer women on staff regarded the Lez Lounge with hallowed protection. Some would peek in, hanging out in the doorway as if they were stealing time, or reluctant with the feeling that they couldn’t stay too long, as if they were sampling a dessert that they weren’t allowed to enjoy. Some staff would jump join youth in conversations about healthy relationship and safe tactics when confronted by the police. Often, I was cornered for maxi pads from the pantry. And, there was so much flirting going on among the group members. Lez Lounge was a nurturing and intimate space where our black, queer, mixed, Latinx, bisexual, Trans imaginations could pause, breathe, and just let it out.

My favorite part of the week quickly became about choosing the queerest, strangest, gayest, MOST AFFIRMING poem or story to bring to the group. We vented and cried when Trayvon was murdered and we vented and cried when someone got dumped. Lez Lounge proved that the lushness of our heart and the wealthiness of our dreams could be enough. The most significant unspoken rule was that there was nothing too hard for Lez Lounge because Lez Lounge was about feelings. And some Fridays we just talked.

Naturally, there was also tons of rightful rage. At times, that rage amounted to bullying or violent conflict out of pain. Because those of us in pain release it by creating more pain. But when the fights happened, they were relegated outside. There was something about that space that kept the youth in it moderately civil, in subconscious agreement to protect what little was ours. And on my darkest and most discouraged days, when a grant report was incorrectly done, or when the racist, patriarchal nonprofit industrial complex had officially done me in, the youth never backed down from demanding that we open the Lounge. We all needed that space.

Pearl was a long time member of my Lez Lounge. She wrote poems about depression and passion in our zines. She made sure that folks behaved most of the time. Pearl was a fixture who would one day disappear, in the same way that so many others did. And if they returned, they would ask for juice, sit down, to pick up where we left off.

Just three days after Christmas 2017, four black lesbians were murdered in very separate incidents, but all in cases that would never receive widespread attention.

When I think of Kerrice Lewis…

When I think of Brandi Mells…

When I think of Shanta Myers…

When I think of Kaladaa Crowell…

I hope that Pearl isn’t alone.

On Saturday, January 20th, 2018, I marched with the Revolting Lesbians at the Women’s March in New York City. I had no plans of attending the march. As a feminist, as a black woman, as a queer person– I didn’t feel that the women’s march has ever been a place for me. But on the Saturday of the march, I shouted the names of Kerrice Lewis, Brandi Mells, Shanta Myers and Kaladaa Crowell. Say Her Name. The crowds of people stared at us, growing uncomfortable with the presence of the dykes, lesbians, and queer elders announcing the names of the dead, in grave display. We shouted because their lives could not be ignored. They don’t know who these women are. Shouting will never open their hearts. They didn’t know who we were honoring. Because to remember someone is to find their life important. But they heard their names. Is that enough?

When I wonder about who Pearl is, how she found herself in cadence on the Metro North that morning, or who she will become, I stop myself, remembering that I do know a little bit about who Pearl may be. And so does she.

Do you?


Blake Brockington portrait by Chitra Ganesh

Erica Cardwell is a writer and radical educator for CUNY.


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