The Unconditional Love of Grantparents

At the close of the 2018 Safe & Peaceful Chicago grant cycle, we asked select grant recipients to offer words of reflection about their work and the larger mission of the Initiative.

Gloria Smith, executive director, The Black Star Project, used her 2018 grant funding to support financial literacy and wealth-building programs for teens this summer.

“The older I get the better I know that the secret of my going on, is when the reins are in the hands of the young who dare to run against the storm.”

“Ella’s Song,” Sweet Honey In the Rock

Every fall, we hand off our children to the brave men and women who work in our schools, and hope and pray that they will come home just a little bit smarter and a little more ready for life. But some of the greatest life lessons I ever learned were in the home, thanks to my grandparents.

My siblings and I grew up in the 1950s and 1960s, in a family of educators and activists. Our wonderful grandparents — Dock and Ella Lee Harris Freeney, or “Mama Freeney and Daddy Freeney” — taught us to be wise, witty and kind.

I remember my grandmother saying to me, “You’re the smartest child in the world.”  I really believed that…until I heard her telling my brother Phillip, sister Jean and cousin Rachel that they were the smartest in the world!

I now understand that a child becomes what he/she hears and believes.

I’ve spent the last 20 years directing two social justice nonprofits, working with many wonderful young people in Denver, Philadelphia, Chicago, and Brazil. When I lead workshops or teach classes, I use a model I learned from my aunt and uncle, Vincent and Rosemarie Freeney Harding, who were historians and activists in the 1960s southern freedom movement — I ask people to introduce themselves by telling a story about their grandmother, or about an elder who encouraged or mentored them like a grandmother might do. These introductions prompt wonderful conversations about the wisdom of grandmothers and explorations of family history.

My brother, Phillip Jackson, was also deeply influenced by the combination of education and activism in our family. He founded the Black Star Project here in Chicago to offer educational mentoring services as well as entrepreneurial and economic literacy programs to people of all ages, but especially to Black youth. The motto of his organization is “Educate or Die.”

Today, I am the mother of three sons and a daughter. I am the grandmother of 10 grandchildren and great-grandchildren; I am also grandmother to any child in need of encouragement. These are my life lessons:

First, even in today’s unsettling world, there is always hope.  I will never stop believing that a healthy, just, multiracial American democracy is possible, even in the face of racism, violence, poverty and family breakdown.

Second, peace and justice does not come easy. You have to work for it and nurture it every day. “Ella’s Song” reminds us of that: “We who believe in freedom cannot rest.” The song was written for Ms. Ella Baker, mother of the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC); in the face of brutality, they fought for equality, risking their lives but believing in their cause.

Third, there is no love greater than the love of family. Hold your children and grandchildren close, and let them know that your love will never fade. Our children don’t hear that enough — they get the opposite message from over-stressed parents, that love is conditional only if they behave.

In their wisdom, grandparents understand that true love is never conditional, but rather eternal.  This is one grandmother’s call for love to end the violence in our communities. Hug your children. Hug your grandchildren.

Finally, let us look to the next generation of young people in Chicago: my grandchildren and yours.  I believe that they will have the courage to succeed where we elders have failed and lead us through the storm.

It is their world now to make of it what they will; their hopes and dreams matter most. And my greatest hope is not only that they find a path forward to a rich and rewarding life in a more just and fair world, but that they live long enough to experience one of life’s greatest gifts: being a grandparent.