Derecka Purnell is an activist and 2nd year Harvard Law Student. The title of this piece is a quote (author unknown) that she shared the first time we met.
My time on Twitter encompasses seven years and thousands of tweets, so it’s almost impossible to recall when I “met” the people I follow…except for Derecka Purnell. I remember where I was standing and what the weather was like and exactly how I felt when I read her words on my timeline.
We were introduced in the most Twitter way possible when Michael Tubbs, a college classmate of my daughter’s in California, retweeted a few sermon excerpts Derecka shared. Between the pastor’s inspiring words and Derecka’s incisive commentary, I wanted to know more, checked her profile…and discovered that we lived 20 minutes apart. We met in person a few months later, two years before the IRL Project began and I remember feeling exactly as I do now–that no explanation could do her justice, that I hoped I would know her for the rest of my life, and that she is a daily reminder to me to do more and live better.
The next year she was teaching middle school math by day and applying to law school at night, and by the time we saw each other at a screening of “American Promise,” she was a few days away from giving birth to a son, Grandon Purnell II. Several prestigious law schools offered admission, but she said yes to Harvard amidst worries about leaving her students, motherhood as a 1L, and excruciating distance from home and family.
This is what we forget about our trailblazers – that they are like us except they keep walking when they are afraid.
One month before law school started, Michael Brown was killed in Ferguson, Missouri. Family members babysat between feedings so Derecka and her husband Grandon could attend protest marches and planning meetings where young activists were working round the clock to feed the crowds and build strategies for change. With her encouragement, my daughter and I showed up five days later, meeting at the burned out Quik Trip for a hug and quick conversation. Their departure was weighing on them already. You can see it in the photograph Mary Glen took – solemn faces and raised hands testifying to both sorrow and vision.
Their departure was weighing on them already. You can see it in the photograph Mary Glen took – solemn faces and raised hands testifying to both sorrow and vision.
Three months later on a Saturday night, the light from their cozy apartment is a beacon for my IRL Project arrival. I’ve accepted their offer to crash on the sofa under one condition—that they let me babysit and give them a night out, so I drop my stuff and start trying to make friends with Geuce (Grandon+Deuce), but he’s having none of it. Onyx the dog is another story and Grandon finally puts him in the cage because his determination to be BFFs is getting in the way of conversation.
“Are you doing it because I’m here?” I say, feeling guilty, “because it doesn’t bother me. “
“It bothers me,” hollers Derecka from the next room, which seals Onyx’s fate for the rest of my visit.
I do my best to give Geuce some space, but this baby’s resting face is “The Contemplation of the Universe” and he sees right through that plan. Derecka’s lap is his favorite spot, but right now even Onyx’s cage is more interesting than I am. As a mom of five, I usually do pretty well with the younger set, but my charm is in short supply here. And so I ask a question that makes me cringe as soon as it’s out of my mouth. “Do you think it’s because I’m white?”
Derecka throws her head back and laughs out loud.
“I don’t think so. He’s been around white people—we have white friends.”
I made a real effort to reach out to people who didn’t look like me and it seemed like a lot of the time they weren’t interested. I’m sure it could have been me or maybe different schedules or whatever…
I tell this story in hindsight with shame, but I tell it for a reason–in an era of massive change, my only hope is that life will be a classroom. Unfortunately, it’s one in which my wrong answers can cause pain for people who’ve already known more than their share.
Derecka’s reaction is beyond gracious, but she brings up my comment later.
“I was thinking about what you said and when I was at UMKC, I made a real effort to reach out to people who didn’t look like me and it seemed like a lot of the time they weren’t interested. I’m sure it could have been me or maybe different schedules or whatever…”
And in this moment I realize once again the grace she extends on a daily basis. What would it be like to constantly wonder, “Am I being ignored or rejected because I’m black or brown?”
Grandon returns from making dinner in the kitchen with a word of advice, “Geuce loves hands. Maybe if you put your hand out, he’ll warm up.”
I extend my left hand and within five minutes I’m playing patty-cake with the nine-month-old object of my affection. As Geuce’s primary caregiver, Grandon knows this baby well and is an incredible dad. Though he grew up as one of eight alpha male, football playing cousins, he’s put his own studies on the back burner to get Derecka through law school, his life a quiet example rather than a noisy proclamation of enlightenment. Observing the three of them over the next 24 hours, I’m amazed by the maturity of a partnership started at such a young age.
They met when Derecka was a senior in high school. She was involved with her church. She was on the dance team. She was applying to colleges and winning national scholarships and when the University of Missouri, Kansas City offered a full ride, she took it because she would be only four hours away from home when they needed her. When she needed them.
She married Grandon Purnell when they were still in college and more than once her siblings lived with them for extended periods of time. She was teaching, mentoring, volunteering in her community. She was a newlywed and sometimes she was a parent.
Over dinner I ask what feels like a simple question, “When did you start dating?” having no idea I was opening a hilarious Pandora’s box of conversation that was so much fun I listened to it twice. These are serious people who carry the weight of struggle with them on a daily basis. But if I see anything this weekend, it’s that their joy and love are equal to the task.
“December 22,” says Grandon without hesitation.
“Ok, Grandon you know you stole a couple of dates though.”
“Kate, ok, let me ask you this—what do you consider a date?”
I give the standard old person answer – Ask in advance. Pick them up. Go somewhere together.
You are being such a lawyer right now.
“Right?” Derecka says in a voice that lets me imagine the 17 year old (with a boyfriend) she was when 19 year-old Grandon met her, “What would you think if someone just came by your house and asked if you wanted to run an errand to Walmart with them? You wouldn’t think that was a date would you? Especially if they had a Walmart right by their house and they still drove across town to get you?”
“You are being such a lawyer right now,” Grandon says, which is maybe the best way ever, to end such a great story.
We discuss the news of a St. Louis judge taking payoffs to send boys to juvenile detention, and Derecka shares the knife edge on which she often lives, “Sometimes I think I’m paranoid about the justice system, like surely it can’t be that bad and then you stand back and see everything that happens and you realize, I’m not paranoid—it’s just really messed up.”
This, she says, is the haunting reality of those who work for criminal justice reform.
“You can have the greatest heart and fight for the greatest change and it just takes one guy like that, or five guys you’ve never heard of, to derail the work. People are surprised that there are small towns making deals with prosecutors because they have 140 beds in their prison and if they don’t want to lay people off, then they need to put people in those beds.”
You can have the greatest heart and fight for the greatest change and it just takes one guy like that, or five guys you’ve never heard, of to derail the work.
There were decades when I would have said that paranoia was misplaced, when I ignored (now documented) stories like CIA operatives distributing cocaine in the inner city and funneling profits to the Contra rebels. I could afford not to believe, because my family wasn’t living in a community devastated by drug violence. Derecka didn’t have that luxury. She grew up in St. Louis, the oldest of six children, her studious work ethic running parallel to periods of housing insecurity, financial stress and challenges the likes of which I’ve never known. Her senior year was spent living with relatives in Ferguson, Missouri, a hardship that felt like divine appointment six years later.
In this country we want to hear inspiring tales of those who “pulled themselves up by their bootstraps” because if those folks can do it, then everyone can, right? We praise successful people who emerge from struggle rather than acknowledging their right to be furious with a system that allowed housing discrimination, education inequality, and hungry families to begin with. Derecka’s ability to hold anger with the system in one hand and hope for change in the other is an extraordinary quality. If you’re uninformed and rewriting history, she will check you. But you’ll leave feeling like it was because she cared, rather than assuming you weren’t big enough to change. Hearing her describe law school makes me wish I could be a fly on the wall.
“Most conversations in class are about the law, but every now and again, there’s a gender or race related discussion, so you hear people say things like, ‘If we increase benefits, they’ll just use them to buy drugs,’ at which point I can raise my hand and say, ‘Umm wait a minute here.’ In a class on sexual assault and battery the professor asked how we know whether someone wants to be touched and there was actually a conversation about whether you could tell based on how a woman was dressed.”
I’m still speechless at the thought that anyone at Harvard Law School would make such a claim, but Derecka adds another layer to the story.
“Students with perfect LSAT scores are viewed as ideal law school applicants, regardless their views about women or people of color. This is what makes me upset about affirmative action debates – logic is very important and you do need it for law school, but the people who are likely getting admitted as affirmative action candidates have an incredible wealth of actual experience that they bring to the classroom.”
In a separate discussion about the criminal justice system, a student asserted there was no reason not to trust the police because they work in the best interests of citizens. Since I know that Derecka once got tailed by a police officer for two miles and then pulled over in her own neighborhood and asked “what she was doing,” I’m curious about how she responded.
The hurt comes when you see that people are willing to just move on and look past those who don’t have the same privilege.
“Sometimes it’s really frustrating that people have lived in a bubble and aren’t open to other perspectives. But for many of them, they’re absolutely right! When they say that they can trust the police in class during policy debates, they can totally trust the police, so it’s easy to assume that anyone pulled over must be doing something wrong. The hurt comes when you see that people are willing to just move on and look past those who don’t have the same privilege.”
I’ve seen that hurt in the faces of friends and it is heartbreaking. But even here, she moves into new territory.
“Listen, it’s important for people to have a safe space. One of the ways I think I’ve changed is in not judging a whole person based on views I disagree with. I’ve realized that many of the people I disagree with are good people… and they could be running the world some day so I’m grateful to voice different perspectives and hope they’ll consider them when they move on to whatever their next life is.”
Geuce goes to bed before they head out to meet friends, but when he wakes up two hours later, he’s more than dismayed to learn I am his only option. We read books and sing songs and he’ll lay on my chest and doze, but mostly he fights sleep in a way that causes me to tweet a picture with the hashtag #staywoke, a state of mind I’m learning about incrementally, and one which people of color must be in at all times. I love the time to cuddle this baby though, to tell him how everything is going to be ok, by which I mean his parents will be home soon. If only it were all so simple.
We hear a key in the lock and within ten minutes Geuce is asleep. There’s a quick discussion about what time church starts, “It’s 10:30 Derecka, we just get there at 10:45,” says Grandon, which tells me we’re all using the same clock, and then it’s lights out.
The next morning, it’s plenty cold outside, but the church building is toasty. It’s the third Sunday in a row that I’ve attended church and I’m curious to see where the Purnells have found a home. Grandon’s dad is a pastor and they’re both church kids, albeit ones who have moved beyond pat answers and formulaic rules, and this congregation is a beautiful mix of humanity. The music is a reminder of the many years I spent among people of faith on Sunday mornings, but the most spiritual moment I have is when Geuce lets me hold him, as if the previous night’s trauma was in fact a bonding experience for us.
When it’s over I feel grateful all over again. We brave the cold and head out for lunch, our youngest member once again a champ about the disruption to his schedule. A song plays over the sound system and Derecka says, “I almost put this on my playlist. Have you listened to it yet?”
I haven’t. My policy has been to listen after I leave but her delight over the process makes her song choices even more fun on the drive home.
“I said to Grandon, what do I love? Name my top five songs.”
“So I just started naming them.”
“But I had to send you like 15!”
For the record, it was 14. Grandon said that he thought you could know someone if you listen to the music they love and I agree. His wife’s songs range from worship music to Nelly and Florence and the Machine to Lauryn Hill’s beautiful anthem to her son. This last selection especially speaks to the many worlds in which Derecka has lived, the way everything in her life is holy.
Share my letters with these other people. Copy them down and pass them out. No tweeting.
With a sleeping Geuce in her lap, Derecka asks about the project, my hopes for it and how I imagine a finished product will look. We talk about the joys and drawbacks of social media and she laughingly imagines trying to build a global community with the tools of the early church, “Share my letters with these other people. Copy them down and pass them out. No tweeting.”
She would do it though, copy letters, endure persecution, or travel perilous seas to share a word of freedom, because, in the words of the writer of Hebrews, “People who say these things show they are looking for a country of their own, not thinking about the country they had come from, but wanting a better country. And so God is not ashamed to be called their God. He has made a city for them.”
A new heaven and a new earth, not later but right now. That’s the dream. It’s up to us to supply the hustle.