A gift has tremendous power. Not only is the power of a gift conveyed in its value, but also through the sentiment with which it was given. A gift can evoke emotions of compassion and gratitude shared by the giver and the recipient. A gift is given without an expectation of reciprocity, compensation, or commendation. The giver is compelled to give by the innate needs to contribute value and feel valuable. I learned about the power of the gift incredibly early in my life and I am constantly reminded of this lesson even today.
My sister and I were raised by two strong women, our mother and grandmother. Our grandmother was one of the kindest, most giving souls you would ever meet and did so without hesitating or any need of acknowledgment. Our mother struggled to make ends meet, while managing health issues and pursuing a college degree. I always had a heightened awareness of how hard she worked to ensure we had what we needed and some of what we wanted. I also admired my grandmother for how selfless she was. These women shaped who I am today, and their lived experiences are central to the opinions of this essay.
The focus of this essay will be on the power of giving. I hope to challenge our definition of equity and present us with a more progressive paradigm shift in how we achieve true equity. Essentially, I invite us to see equity as being achieved when those perceived as having little power, resources or gifts can give of themselves in ways that are not only meaningful to someone else or community, but evokes a sense of pride, self-worth, and value in themselves. No one wants to be dependent upon others or seen as a “charity case.” Regardless of where we reside, our socio-economic status or the mistakes we have made, we all have value and something to contribute to the well-being of others and our community. Far too often, we are reserved to the definition of equity as the provision of additional resources for those without or in the greatest need. It is in this simplistic acceptance of the term that we find ourselves in a perpetual class system where those with assets maintain a higher hierarchical position over those perceived to have less. I challenge us to accept a more expansive definition of equity, one that is measured by the extent to which recipients are able and willing to give.
To make my case, I will reflect on lessons learned from my mother and grandmother. I will also share a story of how this has been realized in practice in my professional career. Let me begin with my grandmother, Louella. Some of the fondest memories of my childhood are of time spent with her. I can still hear her very distinct laugh that would ring throughout the house, after telling us an inappropriate joke or story. I remember watching soap operas with her and listening to her hum gospel tunes all day and night. Reflecting on her life, I never once thought that she struggled to make ends meet or that her life was hard. She cleaned houses, worked as a nanny and made very little money, but we never saw ourselves as poor while in her care. Without pausing, she would always make sure that we had what we needed and knew that she loved us. My grandmother gave of herself so freely, generously, and graciously, even though she had extraordinarily little to give. I honestly believe that her peace and happiness was predicated on her ability and willingness to give. She was always absolutely clear that she wanted nothing in return, and was insulted if you attempted to reciprocate the gesture. I also believe that as she got older, her ability to give became difficult and that challenged her core purpose, which was to be of value to others. In her latter days, she would say, “Damon, I feel so unnecessary.” She would say this frequently, but I now understand that being taken care of and no longer being able to do that for others tore her apart. Her purpose in life was to care for and support others. Her ability to give was what drove her, and it is her giving spirit that has guided me in my work today. She did not have much to give, but her passion for giving was a powerful force in her life.
For my mother, being the beneficiary of the generosity and resources of others was demoralizing and difficult to accept. I remember at a very young age, riding with my mother, Renee, to the social services office to pick up food stamps, peanut butter, dry milk and cheese. I can still see the frowned-up scowl on my mother’s face each time we stood in line and walked out with this government support. She despised the fact that she had to depend on the government to support her family and for me, it was the only time I felt less than someone else. Over time, I noticed that she began giving those food items to friends, extended family members and neighbors. She would tell me not to eat anything that we brought back from social services. I never asked why and eventually I understood what she was doing. She was using this season of dependency as motivation to not only work harder to move her family forward, but she was also recreating a sense of self-worth by giving those resources to others who needed them just as much if not more. Being able to give to others is a blessing, and she taught me that in doing so, we are in turn blessed tenfold. That blessing came in the form of her acceptance to college. Over the course of the next few years, my mother completed a degree in social work, ended her need for public assistance and began providing a valuable service to our community. She too, as was the case with my grandmother, is driven by a passion for giving, serving and supporting others.
Again, equity isn’t simply achieved by giving what’s needed to those without. Equity is achieved by ensuring that once we all have what we need, we are willing and able to contribute the best of who we are back into the world. Equity is achieved when regardless of our socio-economic status, we are invigorated by the power of giving and uplifting others. Giving should not perpetuate patronizing or patriarchal systems of power, but support the bringing forth of gifts that we all have, realized and unrealized. Early in my career, I was taught this lesson by parents of youth at the local Boys & Girls Club where I worked at the time. To this day, I am reminded of this in my role as Executive Director at Peter Paul. How do we serve or give in ways that empower the recipients to do the same? That question was answered for me by the Boys & Girls Club parents during our annual Thanksgiving dinner event.
Each year, the staff and volunteers from outside of the community would plan, sponsor, and host this event for our families. Each year, the event was well attended and afterwards, we all patted ourselves on the back for having carried out another event for our families. I always had a problem with such events but could not figure out exactly why I felt that something was missing or that we didn’t quite accomplish the impact I had envisioned. During that year’s dinner, a solution was presented by our parents. I had scheduled a guest speaker for the event and at the last minute, he had to cancel due to a family emergency. The staff and I were scrambling to figure out how to fill this space on the program, and were too flustered to figure out what to do. I stood at the podium and let the audience know that our guest speaker canceled and that we would be back on stage with a solution. Less than a minute later, one of our parents came on stage and picked up the microphone. She began by saying to the audience that she would be the guest speaker for the evening. I had no idea what was about to transpire, but I was so glad that it did. She went on to share how thankful she was for the Boys & Girls Club and what the staff meant to her children. She was then followed by parent after parent sharing their appreciation for the Club and for each other. This went on for approximately an hour and resulted in many hugs, tears, and even more laughter. This was the impact I was missing. During the dinner, we all talked about the next year’s event and how they would plan and host it themselves. They didn’t ask for a speaker, or for us to plan the event for them. What a disservice it was that we had not asked what they wanted or how they would like to contribute. That night, they asserted agency over their experiences and were designing how they would serve during the next event. They were just like my mother and grandmother, happy to contribute whatever meager means they could. They had given themselves the gift of self-worth and accomplishment. That is equity as I see it. Equity is when we walk alongside, not in front of or behind. Equity is when those who are always standing take a seat so that others who are persistently held down can finally stand with pride. Equity is the sharing of power, not the evidence of one’s capacity to assert it.
Our greatest gift is the ability to give. That gift should not be reserved for the most affluent but experienced by all who have the spirit to share. A true gift has no monetary value but moves us beyond measure. How can we serve as a gift to others and our community? How can we support the gifts in others so that they too can be gifts to our society? Our assets far outweigh our deficiencies, yet we dwell on what we lack instead of giving the gift of ourselves to the world.
Damon Jiggetts serves as Executive Director of Peter Paul Development Center, an outreach and community center serving Church Hill. Peter Paul’s core program is an intensive educational program, serving almost 400 students daily at the Center and East End elementary schools. Peter Paul’s promise is to surround the East End with a unified community of support so that children thrive and reach their full potential. The long-term goal is to end generational poverty, improve academic achievement and provide the community with an array of opportunities as made available in more affluent communities. One of Damon’s proudest accomplishments is the creation of the Ujima Legacy Fund. Damon along with co-founders, Reggie Gordon and Robert Dortch, established the Ujima Legacy fund in 2013, a philanthropic effort comprised of $1,100 gifts from African American men. Since its inception, the Brothers of Ujima have awarded approximately $300,000 to worthy educational initiatives and organizations in service to the region’s underserved youth.
This essay is part of the Richmond Racial Equity Essays series, exploring what racial equity looks like in Richmond, Virginia. It is reprinted here with permission. Check out the full project, the accompanying videos, and the podcast.