I can’t imagine growing up NOT in foster care. I feel like I have many families. I am able to find comfort wherever I am. I think that is a gift. I lived in three foster families. Two of the families were related. My families were white. Try as they might, they were unable to teach me things they did not know — like how to do my hair.
Until I was 14 I lived in the cities. I went to Jackson elementary, preparatory magnet school in St Paul. The students were primary Hmong, African American and White. I was always active in sports, dance classes, and especially community theater. I did Odyssey of the Mind at the Walker, and Black Nativity. I loved it.
At fourteen I moved to Inver Grove Heights to live with my final foster family. The teachers there struggled with my name — Shakiya. So I became Kiya. Prior to that no one ever called me Kiya.
In the Cities people had always told me what a great actress I was. In the suburbs I felt like I didn’t have a chance. There you paid to be a part of theater. It was elitist. Being one of the only kids of color I was type cast — given the sassy Black girl role. It made me uncomfortable. I am sassy, but not in that way. By senior year I decided to stop auditioning. I did make-up instead. If you don’t compete you can’t lose.
Coming out of high school I didn’t know what I wanted to be. I didn’t take the ACT or SAT. I took advanced classes, but no AP classes. They had prep tutorials for those courses, but you had to pay. I had nine other siblings and limited means. That wasn’t going to happen. My foster parents were not supportive of me going to college. Neither of them had ever gone. They wanted me to get a job. ‘Degrees are for snobby people.’ they said. ‘Work hard and you will move up.’
I got my first restaurant job at 16. As soon as I turned 18 I came back to St Paul. I decided to go beauty school. Aveda Institute off Central Avenue. They had one section for ‘highly textured hair’ and they would send all the African American women and others perceived to have highly textured hair to one section of the building so that all the students could have experience with our hair. As a result, even though I have a beauty degree I still don’t know how to take care of my own hair. It is embarrassing.
When you graduate from beauty school you don’t know anything — how to hold a pair of shears — that’s about it. I got a job at Body Works in Woodbury. It was more of a massage parlor. I was the only one doing hair. I lucked out in that people were happy with what I did. But business slowed. I was getting about one client a day. So I quit and went to work at Trade Secret at the Mall of America. I thought it would be great!
People don’t come to the Mall for a hair cut. If they get one they won’t be back. Especially those people who come from out of town. You never build up a clientele. They showed me a chair, a row of coloring products, and said “Good Luck!” I had some blunders there. One person who had black hair and wanted blond. I told her it was going to turn orange, but she made me do it, told me to keep that peroxide in. The customer is always right you know. It was blond, all right, but it was also a little burned. I hope she’s OK.
I didn’t feel comfortable, I didn’t feel knowledgeable enough. I wasn’t making money. So I went back to waiting tables.
At 22 I had a crisis. I had just gotten out of a really bad relationship. We were living together and I decided to let him keep the apartment. I didn’t know where to go. No job, no home. I went on Craig’s List to look for apartments, jobs and came across an ad for a nanny for two little girls. I thought ‘I have nine siblings— I know how to babysit.’
After that bad relationship I really didn’t know who I was. I had no idea of my value as a person. Being a nanny was rehabilitating to my soul and self. Those little girls — they gave me a reason to get up. I learned to love them more than myself. It was out in Burnsville – far enough so my friends didn’t come out and visit. I had a lot of time to think. I was working for a single mother who worked two jobs. I took the kids to pre K screenings, dental appointments, soccer games. I became like a soccer mom.
The woman I worked for was inspiring. She worked in construction and wanted to become a foreman. She was all about encouraging me to be strong as a women because people always told her she couldn’t. After a year and a half, even though she still really needed me, she said ‘What are you doing here?’
I said ‘I’m taking care of you and your family.’
“No, I mean, what have you always wanted to be? Think of something that has affected your whole life, the one thing that you can’t imagine your life being without.’
Well the answer to that was simple. Foster care. While it wasn’t all sunshine and roses, if it weren’t for foster care my life would have been very different… I still didn’t know what that meant in terms of a career. I enrolled at St. Paul College and let myself explore. I thought for a while I would be a nurse. Until I got into some of my courses and I realized I’d have to clean up poop and deal with needles.
I took a family policy class. I really liked the content. It focused on issues facing single mothers. I wanted to do something to change the cycle of teen pregnancy and the system that does not support single mothers. I thought ‘this is a no brainer — I need to be a social worker.’ After that classes became easier.
I transferred to Metro State. Ferguson happened around that time. My eyes were glued to the TV for days. I thought about this young individual who made a mistake – made a poor decision – but did not deserve the action that unfolded. Looking up on the screen, I realized that person could have of been me. I know when I was young I made stupid mistakes… For the first time in my life, I found out what some of the American population thought about me as an African American. While I had always heard those negative viewpoints, I never thought they were talking about me.
I went through a series of emotions. Feeling helpless, then angry, then feeling like I have to do something. I realized the same things were happening in the Twin Cities — like that individual who got rounded up in the skyway for sitting. I could no longer ignore it. I could no longer avoid it.
I decided to take as much course work; to get as close to policy as I could. I am now a graduate student in social work at the U of M. I want to work with/for children but I also want to change racist policies. I could go either way.
How will I be working for family rights?
I’ll be working for paid maternity leave, family leave. Right now I work full time and go to school full time and so does my partner. We never see each other. What if we threw children into that mix? Good Luck!
How will I work for racial equity?
First of all, I won’t have to go anywhere to do it. Minneapolis has the second greatest racial disparities in jobs and education in the nation. What to do? Honestly I’m not sure. I need to be more comfortable saying I just don’t know. There are so many interwoven issues. I don’t think there is a quick solution, but I think we need to do something! I don’t want people to feel like they got the job to fulfill a quota, but businesses must open up. On some level I’d also just be thankful to have a job.
It is difficult to be the only one. I know! As a worker who is the only person of color you feel like an outsider in the place where you have to go to make money. How is that fulfilling in anyway? How can you develop your full capacity in that situation? At the U of M, the students are mostly middle and upper class,and there are few students of color. I feel like a visitor in the place where I go to school.
I will be working at the Minnesota Office of Higher Education this summer, writing a report on all the programs put in place for low income students and documenting their outcomes. Most of these programs work — they are just not reaching very many students. I don’t know why we don’t implement them school-wide instead of having them as after-school programs for a few kids…
I was a vista volunteer at Pillsbury Elementary in Northeast, tutoring third grade Somali students who were English Language Learners. It was summer school so these kids were from different schools. My teacher was having a personal crisis so she left me alone. We had a rigid set of exercises geared toward the tests I was supposed to implement, but I was largely unsupervised. After week three, I decided to do my own thing. Every day at circle time I would have them draw a picture, label it in their language and then in English. They made a book out of all of the pictures and took them home at the end. The students loved it. I would do that again in a heart beat, but I’m not sure I could exist in the realm of public school. I am not a rigid format person.
Do I think of myself living in Minneapolis for the rest of my life? Like I said, I can find home anywhere, but I have always felt as though I belonged somewhere else. The way I approach life and social interactions. I am direct. I don’t have time for passive/ aggressive behavior. So when I think about living somewhere it is the people that make me want to go. And I hate winter.
But then I have a group of close friends I couldn’t imagine leaving. I am thankful for the amenities we have here — theaters, lakes, green spaces. We are starting to get more traffic, but nothing like the West or East coast. I was in LA two weeks ago. We planned to go to a park but never made it. Too much traffic. Here you could take your bike and be there in half an hour. I like being able to afford a house, a backyard. Here I can have experiences and be able to afford them.
There is a rivalry between Minneapolis and St Paul. I always argued that St Paul is better. But about three years ago we had some friends come visit and they said ‘maybe we should check out St Paul’ and I said ‘Oh No, You don’t need to check out St. Paul. We have it all here at home.’
That was the moment I declared Minneapolis home.
I interviewed Kiya on July 3. She gave me the green light to publish on July 10. In between those two days the world witnessed the brutal killings of Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge, Louisiana and Philando Castile in Falcon Heights, Minnesota. A lone gunman killed five policemen in Dallas during a Black Lives Matter protest. People all over the world took to the streets to protest police violence in the United States. The world followed what was happening in the Twin Cities.
Kiya participated in the Governor’s Mansion occupation in St Paul and wrote this on facebook:
There are no words that truly capture the emotions that have been stirring inside me in regards to these recent shootings of legally armed /cooperative African American men.
I feel sad, confused, angry, scared and afraid.
I feel sad because there’s a family who woke up this morning and will have to live forever without their father, husband, brother, uncle, cousin, friend… etc and it didn’t have to be that way; someone else got to determine when that life was going to end and one of the determining factors was likely the color of the man’s skin.
I’m confused about why this is still a problem and why some people refuse to believe the problem exists at all.
I’m angry because I don’t have a solution much different than the ones my community has already suggested and still have not gotten.
I feel scared because I don’t know how to stop these shootings. I feel scared because I will be out there marching and doing whatever I can to solve the issue…. but I fear it’s not enough…. I am not enough.
Lastly, I’m scared to admit that I’m afraid it could be me next and someone’s first reaction will be to ask: what did she do to deserve it?