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Essays on Civic Engagement

This Is Your Democracy

I Know What Sisyphus was Going Through

Trina Steed Springfield

When I first signed up for the Clemente course on “Civic engagement”, I googled “Civic Engagement.” When I read the definition, I was still confused, but now I know it means changing things for the better. I try to think of my story and whether I’m part of making things better.

I am a single mom who had children at a very young age, when I was still growing up myself. I had my first baby at fourteen after a relationship with a family friend.  Before my pregnancy started to show, l left my school and my tenth-grade classmates.  I went to an alternative school that had parenting courses along with regular classes. I lost my friends, because their mothers didn’t want their daughters hanging around a pregnant girl. 

At first, my baby and I lived with my mom and my sister, but my mother was drinking at the time. So I moved in with friends, and then I got lucky when I was sixteen and pregnant with my second child because I was able to move into a transitional housing shelter. 

Because I still needed to take care of my kids, I needed to hurry up and get a job.  I should have just waited and finished high school, but instead I left the eleventh grade and took my GED. Even though I went to business school, it wasn’t enough to get a job because the employers expected experience.  I decided to try temp jobs and although I was only seventeen, the people at the medical supplier where I temped liked me and kept me employed for a few years.

Fortunately, I finally found a place of my own to live when I was eighteen, right down the street from the YMCA.  I would get up early, give my kids breakfast, and walk them to the Y.  They could go to programs, and I could go to work. 

Because I was young and now had three children to support, I didn’t have much time for civic engagement.  But I hoped that if I worked hard and paid the bills, my children would grow into strong successful adults. I showed them the importance of hard work and I talked about the importance of education so they could have different lives than I do.  I took out a lot of loans to eventually send my youngest child to a private university in Virginia that she had her heart set on, and when I drove her to school that was the farthest I’d ever driven. But after nearly making it all the way through, my daughter left just before her final year. I worry about what’s going to happen to her.  

I showed them the importance of hard work and I talked about the importance of education so they could have different lives than I do. 

When I see any of them struggling, I worry that maybe if I’d known more when they were growing up, they wouldn’t be having any problems now.  I look back at my life and think that if I’d made different decisions, things would be better. Maybe I should have taken my kids to church more. And I wish I’d spent more time with them, but I had to work to make sure they were fed. 

The only thing I can do now is try to help other people who are going through what I went through: trying to raise kids the right way without enough money or support. As a counselor at WIC, I take calls from struggling families: women trying to breastfeed or having a hard time feeding children under five.  One day I picked up the phone and a dad said that his child’s mother had passed away. It was an accident.  The baby was only a couple of weeks old.  It was a hard call, but I made sure to provide all the WIC services really quickly so the man wouldn’t have to be on his own with the baby.  

If I can get people services, they get good nutrition for the mother and the children: whole wheat bread and tortillas and cereal, yogurt, vegetables.  They don’t have to buy food for their kids out of their own pockets.  And the nutritionists help parents, so, for example, if a baby is underweight, the parents will learn how to feed the infant nourishing food.

In addition to working, I am finally continuing my studies. When I heard about Clemente I thought, “This is a start!”  In classes, I met great professors and students from different backgrounds, so when we got into discussions we heard all kinds of points of view. 

All the readings were good, even works written by the ancient Greeks hundreds of years ago. We studied how the gods doomed Sisyphus to spend his entire life rolling a boulder up a mountain. Poor guy—I know what he was going through.

But mostly I am inspired by the words of my fellow students. It was wonderful to read about activists like John Lewis, Rosa Parks, and others who have fought for everyone’s rights, but the civic engagement of my classmates makes me realize that there are many people alive today still willing to do the same, and that feels great!

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