"Never go through your day without doing something about things that you see in the world that are wrong."
Photos by Megan Monday
Dorecia and AJ | Madison, WI
Dorecia: I found out that I was pregnant when I was 17 years old. I was scared, I didn't know what to do, and I hid the pregnancy for as long as I could.
No one knew for six or seven months. I was always a good student, I even skipped a grade and went to college early. I dropped out as a freshman…I was a baby having a baby, you know?
I had no idea how to be a mom, but I was always responsible. As soon as I had him, the summer I turned 18, I moved out. I wanted to get away from Chicago. It was feeling very dangerous and I knew I wanted a different life for my son. We moved to Madison.
This city wasn't new for me; when I was a kid we used to go back and forth from Madison to Chicago all the time. We had family here, and we always came to see them and to sing. My cousins had a record label and my brother would record here. I sang on all the tracks. When I was young there was singing all around me. My grandfather was a famous gospel singer, and my mother—she had the most beautiful voice.
When I first moved here, I used to call my mom and cry. I felt like I didn’t know how to do anything that she did for us, even super basic stuff like making the oatmeal the way she did. I always say I was spoiled by my mom, I leaned on her so much. I begged my mom to come up to help me, and she came. She was such a part of our lives that in the early days my son would call my mom ‘mama’ and call me by my first name.
Growing up, I always looked up to my mom. She raised me and my siblings to believe we could do whatever we wanted to do, period. There was no such thing as the word no. I still believe that, and that's how I live my life. I was a new mom, but I knew I wanted to work. So my mom asked me, "What do you want to do?" I had never had a job before."‘What type of job do you want?" I said, "Well, I think I want to be a waitress. I want to work at Denny's." She was like, "Well, okay. Then that's what you're going to do. Let's go." I didn't even apply for anything else. She's like, "You're going to go in there, tell them that you want to be a waitress, and you're going to work there." And that's what I did.
About five months into my job this guy, Durante, started showing up in my section all the time. Every day he’d have a seat and order a strawberry cheesecake and leave me a big tip.
At first I thought it was kind of annoying. I mean, every day? But one day he said, "Can I take you out?" And I was like, "No, I don't have time." "Well, what do you like to do?" And I told him, "I like to bowl sometimes," and he said, "Okay, let's go bowling." And I was like, "Well, I can't. My son can't be around smoke, he has asthma, so I don't go to bowling alleys anymore."
And he was like, "Well, let's just take him with us and find something else to do." I thought that was really sweet, that he wanted to include him. I didn't bring my son, but I did go out with him. We went downtown walking. Best date I’d ever been on.
Dorecia: My son AJ was two, I was dating Durante, I was getting used to Madison...and then the unimaginable happened. In 2004 my mom went home to visit Illinois for Thanksgiving and she was murdered. She never made it to Thanksgiving dinner. The police pretty much told us because of the neighborhood she was found in, they were not going to investigate her murder. At that time I was 19. I didn't know what to do.
Everything just went downhill. I was so distraught, I couldn’t work. Bills started to pile up. We were evicted. We became homeless. It was wintertime.
We were sleeping in our car at times, trying to talk hotel managers into letting us stay. My grandfather in Illinois, he sent financial help. He always tried to make sure that we were okay. We even went back to Illinois for a little while. But sometimes you have pride and you don't want to ask for help.
Moving around from place to place was a big part of AJ’s childhood. But despite all of that, he was always very happy kid. I don't know if he even knew that we were homeless when we were homeless. I think he used to believe that we were just moving around for fun, going new places. His presence was just so positive it's always been like, if I just looked at him it gave me the strength to say, "I've got to keep going. I've got to keep going."
Once my mom passed I knew I had to grow all the way up. I wanted to be as good a mom as she was. I had to get out of the baby mode. I always tell AJ that he and I...we grew up together.
Dorecia: It was so hard to find our next place to live. We had a fresh eviction on our record. No one wanted to rent to us.
But even with everything that happened, we found we had angels on Earth all around us. We found people who wanted to help us. These were people who did not place judgment on us. Amazing. We always say if we ever get to be rich, we're going to put so much money into the organizations that helped us. Joining Forces for Families and YWCA Madison. They're the ones who helped us get into another apartment, because they talked to landlords. They vouched for us, like, "Look, I know this family, they’re a wonderful family. Here is what happened to them." There was even one woman that we met through Joining Forces for Families, Kate, who let us stay in her own home for a while! We became great friends, she picked my kids up from school, she truly opened up her home to us.
It was rough, terrible at times, but we had support to get back on our feet. We got our own place, I started working again—in better, higher paying jobs, and Durante and I eventually started adding to our family.
I still thought about my mom all the time. Her case is unsolved, so I started an online movement to try to bring more attention it. I wanted to honor her somehow. I also kept thinking about whoever hurt her. How they were once someone's child. If we instill values in children at the very beginning, and give them the love and support they need, then they may not grow up to commit these terrible crimes. That was my thought process. I knew I wanted to honor her, and help kids if I could, but I didn't know exactly how to do it yet."
AJ: My great granddad was a big figure for me. He would talk to me about life, and I understood what he was saying even though I was young. I always think back to stuff he told me. His main message was: serve your community, do as much as you can to help out, and be a positive energy on this Earth before you pass. That's what he did, so that's just something I wanted to do always.
My great granddad was the kind of guy that would give anybody food if they needed it with no problem, or clothes, and different stuff like that. It wasn't even something he would think about, but with money he always wanted to make sure that that person knew what to do with it, you know. We talked a lot about homelessness and the importance of giving back to people.
I remember once we were riding in his car going to church, but we were going to stop at McDonald's first. He was like, "Oh I only got five dollars left. Make sure you look at the dollar menu." So we were pulling up and all of a sudden he just stopped for a second. He stopped talking, and it seemed like he was thinking for a long time. We were in the turning lane already. There's cars behind us so I was like, "Granddad you good? You probably got to turn right now."
He was like, "Yeah, I saw a man back there that I think needs this money more than we do," so he just pulled over, handed the man the bill, and was like, "God bless," and drove off. While we were driving away he told me, "Never go through your day without doing something about things that you see in the world that are wrong. You know—you see something, say something or do something. Do as much as you can to put something positive into the world."
We were on our way to church, and to me that made his message even more meaningful. The church is really the community coming together—not just as a Christian body, but as people helping people.
My granddad did and said a lot of things growing up that influenced me, and he gave me a lot of life lessons. Knowing him and being with him really shaped who I am.
AJ: Ever since I was five years old I wanted to be on TV. I would watch programs and be like, "Yeah, I should do that." My mom taught me that if you want something, you don't give up just because it might be too big. She was just like, "Okay, you're going to be on TV now." She gave me that faith, no question. Really my inspiration was my mom being like, "Yeah you can do it," and that was it.
I started doing a lot of different things: workshops and auditions, trainings. But we ran into a lot of scams because we didn't know what we were doing at first.
Me being a mom, and being hands-on, I just started learning more and more about that industry. It got to a point where we really knew what we were doing, how to navigate it.
AJ: I was getting different auditions for small roles, and it was pretty cool. It was a way to express a lot of the feelings I had.
Dorecia: He always wants other kids to be actors, everywhere we go. If he sees any type of shyness in them, or if they're dealing with things that they don't want to talk about he's always like, "They should get into acting." All the benefits of teaching them confidence and teaching them how to think on their toes, a good way to compete, and positivity.
So AJ was acting, but it wasn't here in Wisconsin. We always had to travel. Because there isn’t really an industry here, we ended up moving to Atlanta for a while, and I actually ended up getting a job at a wonderful big agency in Atlanta representing kid actors. After a while I decided to start my own agency. The early stages had a lot of trials that I faced with just being a black woman owner and, you know. He witnessed a lot of it. But I'm very grateful that I had actors that believed in me.
I still thought about my mom all the time, and doing something with kids. I represent kids in my agency, so I named my business after her, using her initials, which are YJB. It turned into a positive thing, because now I represent over 200 professional actors and they're always saying my mom's name, because that's the agency's name. Now her name is everywhere, and that’s how she stays alive with me.
AJ: I always think about what my grandma told my mom, and what my mom taught me—that anything's possible. And so when I started to do community work, I started with that belief. Anything's possible, and even one individual can make an impact. Even if you're not somebody who's at ‘the top’ you can still help with the things all around you.
Growing up we didn't always trust the police. There's a fear there. Of course, there are stories about the black youth being harassed by police, but also in my own and my family's own personal experiences, there was just fear there.
When Tony Robinson died here in Madison, it really affected me. There was so much negativity around it. People were online making statements like, "That's what he deserved." I felt like a lot of the news sites already had their opinion on it. You could feel it when you read their reports. It felt like they were only elevating that he was troubled, but they forgot that he was just a kid.
The next thing that hit me was, his mother’s right there having to take all this in. His grandmother's right there having to take all this on. It's a lot to lose a son, and then to receive these terrible comments from the community.
So I just drew a picture of him. I always liked drawing and writing poetry. I drew a picture of him and wrote a poem and sent it to his mom. I just wanted her to know that somebody was out there that cared, that somebody was out there that had her back, even though I didn't know her.
Next, I started thinking about the police, and what they were going through. I reached out to the Chief of Police in Madison, Chief Koval. I wanted to talk to him about all of the tension going on, and what to do to help the whole community come together.
I told him about how I felt as a black teenager, and how this was affecting me. While I was at that meeting I met Sergeant Kleinfeld, who's really cool. I decided to make this event for the Madison police and the Madison youth to connect. I just went and gave out fliers to try and bring the community to Warner Park, with the police and the fire department.
Obviously, there's a lot of tension, so I just wanted the young people and the community to just have a good time with them. Let them make relationships, and exchange numbers, things like that. To see the police outside of being in uniform and being somebody that you're scared to be around. So I planned a track and field event.
What’s wild is that day, it rained. It rained, but it was shifting. It would rain, sunlight immediately, and then rain.
In the end, it was really good. The police were dancing, which was so fun and funny to me. And now I feel like I've built relationships with some people in the police department. This situation, between black people and the police, it’s going to change. It's not like I'm hoping that it will. This is something that's got to. It's going to change. And I want to be part of making that change.
AJ: I believe that unity is really the only way to make things happen. I used to be kind of a tough person. Me and my cousins, if there was a problem we'd be like, "Let's fight!" But after a little while, I started thinking, "Why are we fighting each other when there's so much going on?" We could be coming together, taking away the hate in our environment. I learned about Malcolm and Tupac and Dr. King, of course. Just seeing how they impacted the world without violence, or with thinking outside of the box. I decided we shouldn’t be fighting anymore. So with everything I’ve ever done after fifth grade, whether it was related to world events or just personal situations, I always start from, "Okay, what are my actions, what are they going to cause, and what is this going to fix in the future? Am I being productive? Whatever I'm doing right now, is it a smart move?" I just started asking myself that all the time, and I still do.
I think really the only way to solve all these problems we have is peace, love, and hope. Obviously that's not felt in a lot of people, so it's hard to bring people together and make sure that we're on the same page. But hope for me is important. I had to have hope through hard situations since I was little. That's just always been an important thing to me.
And I know not everybody is fixed on the mindset of ‘don't fight’ or fixed on the mindset of being as positive as possible. I know there are kids that are not making the best choices, or are just on a negative track and didn’t know how to get off it. Sometimes you’re told you’re a troubled kid or a bad kid, and it just continues. I realized we really need positive roles models in our communities. We need to keep a positive mindset and then spread that to our peers.
My newest project is called Building Bosses. The idea is to match youth with mentors in entrepreneurship, with successful businessmen and women who can give the youth an idea of how to succeed, and really to give them hope. I want every young person that comes through the program to know their own self-worth. To know the power that they have.
Mentorship is so important. I’ve had two mentors in my life, and they’ve both instilled this positive feeling in me like I could do anything. The world was my oyster, like they say. I think that's what a lot of youth need to learn early on.
Dorecia: This is what he's always wanted to do. Connect with his peers and give a voice to the voiceless. He feels like young people are not taken seriously enough. People say they're just young. He feels that what they have to say is even more important, because they're the ones who have to grow up in the era of our decision-making. Do you know what I'm saying? We have the power to make the decisions, but they have to grow up with the decisions that we make. He wants to give them a voice. He wants them to eventually be their own leader, and then maybe pay that forward.
AJ: A big dream would be for the program to be successful, and later to look at some of the young people that came through and see them doing big things on their own, and end up changing the world as they get older. There’s this Tupac quote—he said, "I can't guarantee that I will change the world, but I know that I will spark the mind that will." So for me, even if I don't change things in my lifetime I’d like to be there to influence those kids who are.
Dorecia: I couldn't be more proud. My big dream is just that my children are happy. I want them to be able to look in the mirror and be happy with themselves. Not many adults can even look at themselves in the mirror and say, "I'm happy with who I am. I've done something to make this world better." One thing that my grandfather, his great grandfather, said before he passed, he said, "Have I done anything today? Have I helped some needed soul find their way?" Everyday I'm just asking myself, "What did we contribute? What did we put into the world?" That's what I want for my children. Their happiness and for them to be able to be content with what they've put out into the world.
-Dorecia and AJ | Madison, WI