In honor of denise brown (shown here with my daughter Carmen in 2001)
It was thirteen years ago today that I, and hundreds of other grieving people, attended the memorial service for Berkeley’s beloved educator and school administrator denise brown (she preferred her name to be written without capital letters). Not a day goes by that I don’t think about her; my cherished friend and poetry-writing mentor, my daughter Carmen’s teacher and spirit mom (a title they chose together to sanctify their deep bond), an artist, educator, and community leader who touched and transformed every person who came into her sphere. denise was the epitome of the word attraction, for every time I saw her, which was five days a week for several special years, she was surrounded by a swarm of people diverse in every way imaginable. Her soul was a powerful magnet, and people couldn’t stay away. She was literally followed wherever she went!
One of denise’s primary goals as a teacher was to help every child in her classroom see and honor their unique identity, and then to bring them together with all of their differences to form a respectful, fun community. She was firm with her kids, and she loved them deeply, which created a classroom environment that fostered learning and growing on every level.
denise was not just an educator in the classroom. In the early 2000s, she and I co-facilitated a girls group called the Girls Empowerment Movement (GEM). The acronym GEM described how we saw the girls we worked with—gems in the rough; young ones growing into their womanhood who benefited from mentoring, guidance, and a brave space in which to share their authentic selves. Every single one of us learned profound lessons from one another during our time together. Our commitment as leaders was to share personal stories in age-appropriate ways to show the girls that we also struggled with being human. No topics were off limits; we talked about changing bodies, shame, race, discrimination and privilege, drugs, friendship, and much more.
I recently attended a powerful workshop at a girls’ schools conference where the leader, Talia Busby Titus, asked the question, “Who deserves to teach Black girls?” My first thought was of denise, and what an incredible role model she was.
I ache to be sitting across the table from denise now, having a meal, and talking about all that is happening in the world to do the necessary work of dismantling white supremacy. And then moving on to the children, and an hours-long conversation about how we would revamp education systems to ensure equity and inclusion. And from there moving on to our other favorite topic, poetry. I miss you every day, denise. I thought we would have forever. In your honor and memory, I continue my education so I can do better at helping to create a more just and loving world.
Conversation for the soul
I sit across from my
though we appear nothing alike
Children come first
Intense is our love
A friendship born
out of mutual affection
for each other’s daughters
for creative expression
for justice and truth
Five hours pass
and seem like one
There is never enough
There is forever
5/16/03, The Vault Café, Oakland, CA
©2003, Connie Sobczak, All rights reserved.
How Long ‘Til Black Future Month?, N.K. Jemisin (science fiction, short stories)
me and white supremacy: Combat Racism, Change the World, and Become a Good Ancestor, Layla F. Saad (non-fiction, workbook)
Homegoing, Yaa Gyasi (fiction)
The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, Michelle Alexander (non-fiction)
The Hate U Give (fiction, book by Angie Thomas, film by George Tillman Jr.)
Radical Dharma: Talking Race, Love, and Liberation, Reverend angel Kyodo williams, Lama Rod Owens, with Jasmine Syedullah, PhD (non-fiction)