N’Zinga Shäni: Founder of OneWorld Progressive Institute

N’Zinga Shäni: Founder of OneWorld Progressive Institute

Image credit: Courtesy of N’Zinga Shäni

A Solo Mom and her son reflect on culture, racism, and their life together

N’Zinga Shäni’s vibrant personality is as captivating as her life story. She came from Jamaica to the United States with her seven-year-old son and soon-to-be ex-husband. The move was for his new job, and what they encountered is familiar to many immigrants who come to this country for new opportunities: racism.

Although prejudice and discrimination might be considered commonplace, it’s a scourge that simultaneously takes its toll on individuals and has the potential to inspire them toward action. Shäni chose such action and became one of the 22 statewide facilitators to manage the cooperative agreement process for the Connecticut State Department of Education that was created as a result of the Sheff v. O’Neill school desegregation case. She was also an educator and multicultural consultant, and was one of the first people to design a curriculum called “Teaching from a Multicultural Perspective.” She has also found her passion after taking a production class and has since added producer and television host to her list of accomplishments.

Shäni has dedicated her life to helping others become better informed and civically engaged in their communities. She founded the OneWorld Progressive Institute, whose mission is to “educate, inform and engage viewers on a range of issues critical to their lives. . . .” For more than 20 years, she has been inspiring those living in Danbury, Connecticut, with her self-produced television show, 21st Century Conversations, which you can watch on Comcast and YouTube. While Shäni enjoys creating the topics for her show around health care, civic engagement, and education, she mostly enjoys producing television programs with teenagers and sharing with them the importance of civic engagement.

Shäni is a force in her community, and she was unabashed in expressing how proud she is of being a Solo Mom to her son, Andrew Grant Thomas. Even though he is now in his 40s, Shäni’s impact on her son is seen in his cofounding of an online community called Embrace Race. ESME shares Shäni’s journey and Thomas’s perspective on how she made it work 30 years ago.

Q (to Shäni): Talk about your initial experience of being in this country.

A: When I came to this country, I was married, and my husband didn’t want me to work and earn money. At the time, I didn’t understand that was a part of how racism affected us. He was the first black engineer hired by AT&T in Connecticut. My husband spoke fluent German, Spanish, and English. He was dark-skinned and very much a dignified, aristocratic person. The racism he experienced devastated him. He couldn’t understand how he could be treated “less than.” Years later, we found out he was being paid the same as draftsmen when white engineers with less education than he had were getting paid more than he was. He became part of a class-action lawsuit, which was good, but he was devastated more by the fact that he wasn’t treated equally despite his skills and talent.

The learning curve is very deep for those of us who are black coming from other countries to this one. Part of the disappointment and anguish we go through is that black Americans attribute things to us that we aren’t even aware of. For example, they see us as acting “white” because they don’t know anything about our culture.

Q (to Shäni): What is the culture of Jamaica like with regard to race and bias?

A: In my country, prejudice is more centered in class—it’s a stratified society. I never saw myself as black; I saw myself as Jamaican. My mother was very, very fair-skinned, and my dad was very dark. We covered the spectrum in terms of skin color in our family. Culturally, it is all about education and social graces. When we came to look at an apartment upon arriving in this country, a white janitor slammed the door in our face when he realized that we were the people who had spoken with him about renting the apartment. Maybe he thought we were white when we spoke to him on the phone. I was more offended that the janitor of the building slammed the door, rather than him being a white man who slammed the door. It took me a while to get to the place where I appreciated what was happening around race.

Q (to Shäni): Did you notice how racism was affecting Andrew?

A: When we sent Andrew to school, he didn’t have a consciousness about black and white at all. When he was seven or eight, he was asked to participate in a storytelling event, and he was to play the central character: a black athlete who was a thief. Andrew came home and asked us, “Why is the black athlete a thief?” At that time, he didn’t identify with the fact that the athlete was black; he couldn’t understand why the character who was an athlete would also be a thief. That was something we had to sit down and have a conversation with him about.

He went to Hopkins, which was the third-oldest private school in Connecticut. It was a prestigious school that had very few black kids. The more his father and I became conscious about racism, we would scrutinize things in the curriculum, and we would challenge things with his teachers. We didn’t want Andrew to fall into the same trap we had; we wanted him to be fully aware that he was a black person in this country and that black people were treated differently.

Q (to Shäni): But your husband was strongly affected?

A: Yes. I realized that the stress of racism and living in this country made me the enemy of my husband because I was better able to cope with racism. I believe it showed up in strange ways, like him not wanting me to work. We never had any fights, no physical altercations, but he was cold and callous. He would slam doors. I got a license, and he wouldn’t let me use the car. I would try to reason with him, but he was often angry. It wasn’t a good environment. I didn’t want Andrew to be in a home where his parents didn’t speak to each other.

Q: (to Shäni): It sounds like you wanted to work. How did not working make you feel?

A: I couldn’t live like that. In my own mind, I was less than a person. He prevented me from going to medical school. My husband convinced me to come to this country when I was planning to go to medical school, and he told me I could choose from several medical schools in the United States. I was so naive when I came to this country, then found out that no medical school would accept me with a degree from the Royal Society of Arts. So I went back to school and got another undergraduate degree in science and social issues. Then when I was accepted to medical school, he said, “No, you’re not going.” He said that I was being selfish and that if I went to medical school, he’d send Andrew back to Jamaica to live with his mother.

At the time, I didn’t know how to navigate the system or find the resources. I knew I didn’t want anyone else raising my child, so I gave up the idea of going to medical school. I went to graduate school and received a master’s in health-care administration. I figured with that I could get a job where I would just come home every day to take care of Andrew. But, after I got my master’s degree, I realized I didn’t want to be married to a man who wanted to control my dreams and ambitions, so I filed for a legal separation, and when I did that, boy, it was war.

Q (to Thomas): Do you recall when your parents separated? Do you recall the difficulty?

A: My father was distant from me and probably emotionally abusive to her. I think I remember her telling me in an apologetic way that she was going to leave him. I remember her crying and being very upset. But I remember her being mostly apologetic, so much so that I felt that I needed to not only be a support for her but also encourage that move. I remember learning many years later that children of divorced parents often wonder if it is their fault, especially if they are very young. I was 12 years old, and I never felt that way. Never.

Q (to Shäni): Ater your divorce, you were a Solo Mom. How did you manage?

A: The biggest challenge I faced was going to work but being centered—being a good parent was very important to me. When I’m at work, I want my employees and employers to know that they have my full attention. I never wanted Andrew to feel that just because his father wasn’t in the house that he was valued less, if that makes sense. I really made sure I was involved. When he played tennis, I wanted to be there cheering on the sidelines. I had to be there for every report-card night and parent-teacher conference. I was committed. Most importantly, I wanted to have a core that [my ex-husband] couldn’t destroy. I wanted to be strong for my child, but I wanted to be strong for me.

Q (to Thomas): What do you take away from the time after your father was out of the house?

A: I can only share this perspective as an only child because it was just Mom and me. My mother and I had a strong relationship. It was a time when there wasn’t social media, and international phone calls were expensive, so it was hard for her to maintain a support system with her family in Jamaica. When I was 12 and he left, I thought, Fine. He was not good. But as I got older, I began to understand the practical loss of the relationship. I see how it was overall very, very difficult. I think she still grapples with guilt around the fact that I don’t have a relationship with my father.

I think we have such a romance around intact families in this country; to stay in it for the sake of the kids, I think that is ludicrous. A bad relationship between parents is a bad relationship for everybody. It would be hard to convince me that having him around longer or enforcing him to come to see me, which he didn’t do, would have made me better off today.

Q: (to Shäni): How do you and Andrew inspire each other?

A: Andrew was a remarkable child. The first job I got was a sales job, and they gave me a car to use but I didn’t know how to drive it. Andrew and I went into a big empty parking lot, and he would stand outside the car and direct me. He didn’t know how to drive, either, but he was there to help me.

As he got older, I would share appropriately with him about what was happening. I would let him know when I was feeling overwhelmed. He had to stay with friends when I traveled for work. I had to eventually give up that job because I wanted to be there for him. I would always try to help him with his homework if he needed, but I would let him know when I was feeling really tired and overwhelmed and needed quiet time to myself.

I am most proud of how he has turned out. I think he’s a wonderful, caring father and supportive husband. He’s academically successful, but I’m most proud of who he is as a human being. I think his wife has a wonderful husband and my grandchildren have a superb father.

Q: (to Thomas): Is there anything else you remember about that time and how your mother inspired you?

A: The best gift my mother gave me is a sense of understanding that she, as a parent, was healthy and well, with a healthy sense of self-reliance. She was able to cope. It would have been hard if I had to grow up and had to worry about her ability to take care of herself. I think what [Solo Moms] might lose perspective on is that your children also care and worry about you.

Q (to Shäni): What do you want Solo Moms to know from your experience?

A: I was able to connect with my family and use resources that I had in Jamaica, but many women don’t have the resources that I had available to me. I want to let them know that you are much stronger than you realize. Trust your instincts, and reach out to find help. Find someone who is older and wiser with more experience. Don’t be afraid to ask for advice or help. Write things down, and plan as much as possible because it’s easy to get distracted and overwhelmed.

Do you know an Everyday All-Star that ESME should profile? Reach out to contact.us@esme.com to tell us why that person’s story should be told. Thanks!

Tanisha Christie is an interdisciplinary performing artist and filmmaker. After years of working at the nexus of arts, media, social justice, and healing, she is currently finishing her master of social work (clinical specialization) at Hunter College in New York City. A child of a Solo Mom, she loves to ride her bike to the beach.

Please feel free to contact us with any comments or questions.

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