Honoring Our Ancestors, Honoring Ourselves
Fatima Cortez-Todd

Originally written for Family Health magazine in 2002 and updated/revised in 2010

When I was asked to write this article in honor of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King and Black History month, I was reminded of my mother's inspiration. I was in high school when my mother, who was active with Coretta Scott King in Women's Strike for Peace, became chair of Northwest NY CORE. I made the bus banners for the Riverdale chapter of CORE for the 1963 March on Washington. It was the first time that my Mom, Grandfather and I would be in the same place for the same reason at the same time. I came from a family of activists and one of my aunts used to host home cooked meals in Chicago for Dr. King and other members of SCLC.

In June of 1964, I had the privilege of going to Louisiana for the Voter Education project. Most of us who went where very idealistic and hopeful that our efforts were going to make a real difference. We thought that if we registered people to vote that they would then have the power base for making changes in their lives, in their various communities and ultimately in the nation, especially with the Presidential election choice of Johnson or Goldwater. Arriving in Baton Rouge, I was picked up at the airport by the CORE workers who were training others in Plaquemine, Iberville Parish. We immediately went to the airport cafi and ordered something to eat and drink. This was the beginning of my training in sit-in activity. The non-violent passive resistance training lasted several weeks and we were pushed to see how well we could stand- up to whatever might come our way. When we were assigned to our areas, I remember that I was too naive and excited to be afraid of anything. We were heading to the Presidential election as a goal and laying the groundwork to change the way things had been for generations. We were so full of purpose to make the world a better place and we were starting right here on Ivy Street in Plaquemine, Louisiana, an unincorporated area near Baton Rouge.

Every morning we heard "Soul Serenade" call us to breakfast and the beginning of our day. We were housed in a couple of homes nearby and could not even imagine the danger the people who housed us were in by our very existence. The KKK would ride through the area to frighten us and hope that we would all just go back where we came from. The local activists had nowhere to run to, so we all stood our ground. I know some of us were sometimes a pain in the butt because we saw things as what should just "be" without effort. Sometimes we forgot that the rest of the world had some steps to take before registering to vote. It was a humbling experience. Louisiana folks gave me the best education in humanity and unconditional love that I could ever have had. THIS WAS THE BEGINNING OF MY REAL EDUCATION.

The first place I was settled was in Lettsworth with the Caulfield family. Their daughter, Thelma went with us (two white women and myself) out in the community to enlist churches and people by going door to door to get people to register to vote. We had meetings and practices on filling out the voter registration forms, and spoke at church services. It was a long hot day walking the dust roads, but we were on a mission to beat Goldwater and that made us oblivious to any hardships. There was a family down the road that had an inside bathroom and let us take baths every night. The Russell family had horses and knew that I loved to ride so they would saddle up a horse for me and I could just ride their fields. This was sharing JOY and giving a great gift to a young woman on a mission. I think I was the youngest non-Louisiana task force worker and had so much to learn. The Caulfield men worked the oilrigs in Baton Rouge and New Orleans and had been politically active since the 50's. When they came home, the first thing one of the brothers did was teach me how to shoot a rifle. They understood the concept of non-violent passive resistance, AND the need for being prepared for SELF-DEFENCE. We didn't live the hardships of the people of Louisiana full time. We were very privileged. At great risk, all those people who housed and fed us and shared all that they had with these CORE folk.

What we did not realize or understand, at that time, was that voting was merely a small part of the mountain people had the climb over. Those who were sharecroppers and didn't own their land could potentially be evicted so everything that we were telling them about why was important to register, to learn how to read and write was a way down the bottom of the list for their survival. We grew in understanding of the full measure of needs in everyone's life on the spiritual and physical level. Before someone could register to vote they needed to know how to read so we had classes in literacy. In addition to that, people had to be well and healthy enough to actually get up and go to a voter registration office. Greatly inspired by my fellow task force workers and the community folk, when I later moved to Jonesboro and Monroe, I started the newsletter "Freedom News". Now this was the day of a mimeographed, two sided, folded, legal size sheet of paper of what CORE was doing in Northern and Southern Louisiana. I even ran literacy classes, which were called classes in Freedom.

Health care became another issue and beyond health care was housing. What difference did it make who got elected to office if the housing that one lived in was surrounded by a drainage ditch and no indoor plumbing. What difference did it make who the mayor, the Senator, or President was if one had no employment and all of these things held in the balance with each other.

One thing I remember about that summer was our ability to celebrate being alive. At night we partied hard and I had my first taste of Arkansas moonshine. I danced to the fast version of "All These Things" credited as written by Aaron Neville (also Art Neville and A. Neville who knows, it's all family) on the juke box at the Dew Drop Inn for a nickel a play and performed live by a group called "The Valentines" or something close. Played nickel slots for the first time. We made unauthorized trips to New Orleans where it was like another world, a safe haven. We talked and drank coffee at the Quorum on Elysian Fields and hid from the cops when we left there. We boldly ate in the "whites only" room at Dookey Chase's and slept in the open houses of whatever relative of somebody willing to house us. I now know that was just part of escaping the battlefield we lived in every day knowing that we were still able to leave any time we wanted.

I spent about two years in Louisiana working with the Congress of Racial Equality attempting to create a holistic view, although I didn't understand what holistic meant at that time, but working to pass on the tools for the people to make their whole lives better. One thing the people of Louisiana taught me was that I could make a difference in the world.

When I would return to New York, I went to work in the South Bronx for Lincoln Hospital's Mental Health Services and the South Bronx been not much unlike the lives of poor people in Louisiana. They had the same kinds of needs and voting was way down on the list in comparison to jobs, education, housing and medical care. Language problems of a predominantly Puerto Rican community would exacerbate the ability and access for this community as well. Spirit gave me the idea to create a music and art therapy program for so-called "bad boys" in the local elementary school and thus worked out a program where one afternoon a week I would have up to nine boys between the ages of 9 and 12 with in my care at the Mental Health Center or on a field trip to some where they had never been. I'm grateful for the fact that Spirit allowed the Board of Education and their parents see that this was an opportunity in their best interest and they trusted me to allow this to occur. Within one semester each of those boys had have improved their academic performance as well as their behavior.

In the art and music therapy program, which was the first of its kind under the Einstein College of Medicine Yeshiva University, I created an environment in which they could explore their artistic and musical talents. Their artistic talents began with doing self-portraits and pictures of the world around them. That grew in beauty culminating in a street fair art exhibit of their work attended by the school, parents and community What I came to understand more fully was the connection with their full (holistic) humanity. That understanding was certainly a gift from Spirit. I would ultimately go back to School at the University of Connecticut and studied Gestalt therapy at the Yggdrasil Center for Personal Growth still completing my internship at the University of Connecticut Office of Minority Affairs Summer Program by developing a peer counselor training program. The program concentrated on empathy and strengths of survivors. Peer counselors were encouraged to draw on their own experiences and acknowledgement of their own strengths. As a Gestalt therapist I was growing in my understanding of the issues of race, class and gender, coalition building, and internalized oppression and how traditional therapy was not a panacea.

This would develop into my work as a Community Training and Education Coordinator with survivors of adult and child sexual abuse under a project with the National Institute of Mental Health at Hartford's YWCA Sexual Assault Crisis Center. I would later became assistant coordinator of the Rape Crisis Program in NYC at Mount Sinai's Medical Center providing therapy and faculty instructor, teaching rape evidence collection, attitudes and treatment to medical students and the New York City Police Academy.

My further studies at the Institute for Social Therapy and Research would expand my understanding of a Spiritual base. Traditional therapy did not necessarily take into the account the American culture and its issues of racism, classism, heterosexism, ageism and all the other "isms" that confront people on a daily basis.

In 1982, I founded the Mariposa Center for Spiritual Healing and Education. Our motto has become "How does one become a butterfly? Well, one must want to fly so much that you willing to give up being a Caterpillar." Most of the work of the Center is in workshops on "Overcoming FEAR: Effects of Stress and the breakdown of the Immune System" Drawing on the lessons I first learned in Louisiana, this is sharing the tools of therapy for self and education to help others. It is a Spirit healing circle in which you address your issues first and then pass on your understanding to others. You become a spiritual ripple in a pond.

As Director of the Acting Out Teen Theater for New York Women Against Rape, I co-wrote and co-produced the rap rock music video "5 out of 5" by/for teens on sexual assault which was recommended by the American Library Association for young audiences and was internationally distributed with Women Make Movies for 14 years.

I was a Co-founder and first Executive Director of the Multicultural Alliance for Reproductive Freedom, Co-founder and twice national co- chair of the National Network of Women's Funds, and served as a Director for the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy CHD board, Mission Cultural Center in San Francisco, and Advisory Board for Southern California Women's Law Center.

An invited speaker on many issues, I was a speaker at the HWPC - Mobilization for Women's Lives at Rancho Park with Jesse Jackson and many Hollywood actors, gave the keynote at the 20th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, and the U.S.C. Law School Conference "Reconstructing Motherhood" (subsequently published in the first U.S.C. Review of Law and Women's studies).

As a cultural activist, I have performed nationally with the Rhode Island Feminist Theater and was a performing member with The Family Repertory Theatre. I have been a producer in theater, film festivals and co-produced the documentary "No Loans Today" which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival and ran on PBS POV series. As part of the "Voices of the Civil Rights Movement" national tour in New Orleans, I was honored in 1986 by the Smithsonian Institute as "living history" for the work I had done in the summer of '64 for Louisiana CORE (Congress of Racial Equality).

Ultimately, it is our understanding of neo-colonialism, institutional racism/classism/all -isms in the United States and the ensuing internalized oppression affecting our attitudes and exchanges. This festering attitude of looking for someone to blame keeps us from uniting as one human family. We must overcome the disease. We have been singing the song so be it.

I understand the gift that spirit has given me which I am compelled to continue the work for the well-being of the world in which I live. It is about unconditional love and in this manner that I honor Dr. King and all who have gone before me in the struggle.

Copyright © Fatima Cortez-Todd, 2010

Copyright © 2010
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