First, a word for those who dread Mother’s Day.
It’s my first Mother’s Day without mine. She died last June. I’ve been bracing for this holiday all week, and, OK, it’s not bringing out the best in me. I feel envious: Why do other people still have their moms but not me? Why doesn’t she get to go to my son’s fifth-grade graduation or preschooler’s T-ball game? I feel sorry for myself: My husband keeps asking what I want to do on Sunday, and I kind of want to curl up and watch “Law & Order.”
I have to keep reminding myself that I’m a mom, too. I don’t think you truly feel like an adult until one of your parents dies. At any rate, if you’re missing your mom this weekend, I hope you feel seen. I hope you’re comfortable doing or not doing whatever pleases you. I hope you let those ugly, petty emotions wash through you and remember that they’re temporary. (They are, right?) I hope you don’t feel the need to be “on” or to pretend to be perky, just because social media or a Hallmark card says so.
Now, for something happier: This week I talked to a really inspiring mother of three, Eleanor Forbes, who is changing lives at Boston Uncornered in Dorchester as director of mental health support. The organization steers ex-gang members from violence and incarceration to college and jobs — basically, it directs them away from street corners, hence the name. Program members, called college readiness advisers, in turn return to the streets and recruit other gang-involved peers to the group.
Forbes joined Boston Uncornered at the height of COVID-19 in 2020. She focuses on emotional wellness in a trauma-prone population, where too often it’s overlooked.
“Like everyone in the urban and poverty community, they don’t want to think that they have a problem. It’s such a stigma,” she says. “The whole social-emotional piece for them is absent.”
Forbes grew up with an absent dad and a mom involved in drugs. Her husband also spent time in prison. Together, they were determined not to let their three kids get involved in crime and violence. They’re now successful adults.
What’s your take on the recent violence in Downtown Crossing? Those kids are so young.
My take is a number of things. One, I think that the pandemic plays a huge part in children being isolated. What some of us are missing is that mental health or just trauma with children — if you have isolation, you’ve got to think about how many children we locked away in this pandemic with their abuser, with their perpetrator. No food, no parenting, with traumatic situations, and they had to face them every single day with no help and no outlet, right?
Now people are out, and all of this anger and rage and everything that they could not communicate is coming out. The hardest part is we don’t have a lot of mental health providers to really service everyone who needs help. A lot of families are looking for mental health providers who look like them. They feel like, if you look like me, if you talk like me, then they feel like you understand where they come from. That’s been a really big barrier and challenge for a lot of people in the mental health world.
How do you think that mental health affects people who are vulnerable to violence, or vulnerable to poverty, differently?
Especially for the work that I do working with ex-gang members, and some who are still involved in the gang life, you’re sworn to secrecy: Whatever happens here stays here. If you don’t have food, you can’t go out and tell people, “There’s no food in my house,” because you have this fear. A lot of these things are built around fear: “I can’t tell, because if I tell someone I don’t have any food, somebody’s going to come and take me from home.”
So many things [center around] fear, vulnerability, and emotions that are way different from having normal anxiety. You take all of these things happening in a world, seeing someone get shot, seeing someone get stabbed, even these 11- and 12-year-olds, when they’re out there stomping these people and robbing these people, they’re going to sleep having flashbacks. But they can only think about what’s in their mind because their frontal cortex is not fully developed. They’re just thinking about what was happening in that moment. What was their need, and did it get accomplished? They’re not really emotionally attached to see if they hurt someone.
What’s your background?
I have a really violent drug background. My mom was addicted to substances. I had an absent father as well. I grew up around a lot of drugs and violence my whole life. Me and my siblings were removed from my mom and were in DCF custody. And so, again, I have a huge history around it. I was just trying to navigate life without having the skills I needed, especially social-emotional skills and social thinking skills. I was taking things too personally, when I had to realize that things could have some shades of gray, and not just black and white.
I wound up marrying my husband, who was my high school sweetheart. Again, he comes from trauma. He’s an ex-gang member and served time as well. When we had kids, we had to think a lot about: How do we not have our kids deal with our trauma? We really focused on being resilient. At the time, because I was in the mental health field, I was able to really [understand] men of color who really need patience and really need help to understand vulnerability, really need help to work on anger and rage to be better for their family and to know your mistakes are not going to be your family’s mistakes and your children’s mistakes.
Our children haven’t been incarcerated. They’re 29, 31, and 23. They’ve all been successful: two college graduates, and one is in the culinary industry. I always say that we’re a testament to what change can happen in this community if we continue to give back and work within the community.
As a mother, what do you credit for breaking the cycle? It could have gone another way for you.
My thing is, I was involved in my children’s lives, all of them. Every day, everyone got up, and we didn’t have just cold cereal. We had hot breakfasts in the morning. Every weekend, starting on Friday, we would take time to process our week and say: ‘How was your week? What happened?’ On Sundays, we say, ‘What’s the plan for this week?’ Every weekend, we went out as a family. We got up, and we did chores, and then we all went to the movies and did some activity. We all didn’t have to see the same movie, but we all went to the movies together and then had dinner. I just made sure that I was always present for them.
I’m getting ready to cry over here! You don’t have all the skills when you grow up in violence and in poverty. You don’t have anyone telling you what to do, how to navigate. When you become a parent, you don’t want to be so overbearing that your kids are running out. And I really firmly believe: Just share with your children. We didn’t hide anything from them. We were transparent about our life and what we did and why we were protecting them and why we wanted them to do the right thing. We told them: ‘We just want to give you all the skills that we didn’t get.’
What do you wish more people understood about gang violence and mental health?
I really would love for people to just be open, to be vulnerable. I think the biggest thing is: Do not be afraid to ask for help. It’s not about people finding out about you or being in your business. There’s places where people can get food. There’s places where people can get help who have substance [problems]. Lack of supervision? There’s resources for your kids if you want them to go places and do things — but, if you don’t ask, you’re never going to have them. It’s just going to keep happening because we don’t want to ask. I really would like parents to understand that.
My biggest thing is just hugs. Kids just want to be heard and loved. That’s it. Kids just want to know: ‘You see me.’ Just make the time to spend time with your kids and your family.