Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Stella Taylor Died Last Week

The Woman Wouldn't Quit

Stella Taylor died last week, after a too-short lifetime of struggle. She was 56. To me, Stella is and was both the image and the summary of the six years I spent on the Ann Arbor City Council.

I suppose that when I met Stella, I thought of her as a victim. I never told her that and I don’t believe she wanted me to think so. I thought of her as a poor person who was afflicted two or three times over by racism and sexism. But she was never helpless in the face of the challenges life threw at her.

I met her during my first year on council when she called me about the inadequacies of the city recreation center in her neighborhood. By the time she called, she had already invested considerable energy trying to persuade the director of the center that the facility wasn’t doing a very good job serving neighborhood children.

The director of the rec center, Stella told me, “Had gotten on her last nerve.” He wasn’t serving children, she said. He was serving himself.

Stella insisted that I visit her and see for myself how little the city did for her neighborhood. The center was the only significant city government presence in the area and it was, she insisted, understaffed, passive and uncommitted.

Frankly, in six years of trying, I don’t think Stella and all her allies, mostly other neighborhood mothers and grandmothers and me, made much progress. I’m pretty sure she would have agreed with that assessment. But she would also have insisted, and did so, that we keep trying. Quitting, she believed, was the only real sign of failure

There was no quit in Stella. Her mother died when Stella was a young teenager, shot to death by someone who should have loved both Stella and her mother better. Dee Booker, one of the women whom I met through Stella, remembers Stella regularly visiting an aunt in the neighborhood, before her mother’s death. “She was so pretty,” Dee says. “She was always so neat and wore ribbons in her hair.”

But not long after her mother’s murder, Stella ended up homeless, on the streets of Detroit. She developed a drug habit and did whatever she had to do to get by.

Though I don’t know how she did it, Stella got herself straight by the time her first child, Putty, was born. Over the next 10 or so years, three kids followed, sons Corey and William and daughter Kamaria.

After Stella called me that first time, we took a walk around the neighborhood. It was the middle of the day. We stopped by the rec center. It was closed, locked up while the director, according to Stella, was off running personal errands on city time.

Stella was no tattletale. Everything she told me about the center and the director were things I later heard her tell directly to him, at meetings she demanded. At first, I was inclined to believe the director when he told me that the city didn’t have the resources to do what Stella wanted. I also believed that he was a professional who was doing his best.

Eventually, I came to think otherwise, to think that he was a gatekeeper who believed his responsibility was to “manage” the community and to discourage demands or, even, requests, for service. It was Stella who had a vision of how things should be. And it was Stella, who with her soft voice, made the most noise in the neighborhood.

I left Ann Arbor in 1990, a year after the end of my third term on Council, and I didn’t stay in close touch with Stella much after that. But we talked from time to time. One of her sons, William, in the same grade at Pioneer High with my son Nate, was also killed in a shooting. Corey, a great high school basketball player, struggled in junior college and didn’t finish. Kamaria ran into problems, too. But Stella never gave up, and has passed that quality on to her children who have learned from her that they, too, must persevere and insist on better for their own children.

The country is in a crisis of its own now. The economy has tanked, decent jobs are scarce, health care hard to come by, and housing grows increasingly unaffordable. If anything, times are objectively worse now for Stella’s children than they were for Stella. To compound the difficulties, the media seems fascinated with the problems of the once comfortable. The never comfortable have fallen off the radar.

I have some ideas of my own for what would help. Certainly universal health care would make a difference. School reform and vast new investment in public education (paid for by dramatic cuts in the military budget) would be a giant step toward real equity across the country. Enlightened regulation of the private sector, which has always functioned in the interests of a privileged few, could help fulfill some of the promises America has made to working people, but has never kept.

But what we need most of all, is more Stella Taylors. People who speak up and don’t quit. If we don’t have enough of them, then we need to raise more of them. We are poorer, by far for the loss of our one Stella Taylor, but we are rich with her memory and her example. As Mother Jones said, "Mourn the dead and fight like hell for the living."

1 comment:

  1. I'm surprised you would give a character assasination online given your family history.

    You were a city councilperson? Correct? Were you not one of the people in charge of how much money went into the community center? If correct (and I do believe so) then,
    you were at fault for the lack of programming at the Bryant Community Center. You also failed to state that the community director also was in charge of another community center at the opposite end of town. He had a secretary/receptionist at each sight and that was it. So, when you report he was out doing personal business on city time - I think you were mistaken. Perhaps, he was at the other center, city hall, or running errands for either center. Who do you think was out purchasing items for all the activities going on there? You? How pompous of you to declare one person's attack as the truth. Did you investigate?

    You also stated, the director was using this as a means to promote himself. And did you ever use your position on city council on your resume? Did you use the city as a means to get what you wanted?

    I see racism here plain and simple.
    You forgot to mention the director was a black male. You are a white male. Um, this is interesting. You are making accusations 20 years later --from across the country--perhaps you should look at your motives.

    PS-The director did move on--he worked for the county and brought in thousands of dollars worth of grants to use for the betterment of the citizens of this area. And you? How did you make life better for the folks here? And another PS-What new programming happened at the center when he left? You do not even hear of either center any more.