Recently a brother in Toronto's West End was murdered. What was so significant about this brother's death was the amount of people affected (I am also one of those people indirectly affected). The brother was a father of two, a community leader, a dancer and someone who positively influenced a lot of young people.
My story begins at my day job as Men's Workshop Co-ordinator at Urban Alliance on Race Relations (U.A.R.R.). We did a workshop series called "Making Noise Media Project" that focused on gender violence. One of the agencies that we partnered with was the For Youth Initiative (FYI).
Gone Too Soon: Leonard Fullerton (aka 'Curlz')
It was there that I first met Leonard Fullerton, also known as "Curlz." What stood out to me about this brother was his optimism and positivity about the work that he was doing. He had a great attitude that the young men with whom he worked appreciated. A staff member at FYI and workshop co-facilitator introduced me to Curlz. Both Curlz and I are fathers committed to providing for our family. In short order, we entered into a spirited conversation about the state of funding in this city's public sector.
Our city's funding challenge:
Working in this sector is challenging on various levels. Some of us don't have the requisite training to do this work well. Conversely, one could argue that post-secondary institutions don't necessarily prepare one fully to do this work well. The fact is that there are numerous people doing social work in this city who didn't go to school for social work. Many of us simply fell into it (so to speak) and learned "on the job."
The obvious question arises: why don't these people go to school? Well, that is a complex and loaded question, which can give you an equally loaded answer. I am one of those individuals who didn't go to school for social work but I work in the social sector.
I went to school for something totally different, and when I think about going back to school as a father of three, I dismiss the thought because of the fact that I need to make money now and to be that provider that I, as a responsible father, am supposed to be. However, that doesn't change the fact that there are moments when I feel insecure about the work that I am doing or the advice that I am giving to participants.
What is it like working in this sector?
I went to a conference recently and they mentioned the idea that a lot of frontline workers see themselves as "ghetto superstars." The reality of working on the frontline is that the pay is rarely sufficient, so that means that you may have to work multiple jobs to get by.
But if you don't have the skill-set or educational level that is required, you may have to find other ways of supplementing your finances. And some of those choices may not be legal. The other challenge is that agencies are only hiring part-time up to 20 hours per week, which means that one is not eligible for health coverage or benefits.
What that could mean is that for me to obtain my prescriptions or adequate health care, I must use the same services that I refer my clients to. This can be a double-edged sword, because when you use some of these services you come to realize that they are not as effective as they are cracked up to be. As a result, I may not want to refer people to these services, but then that leaves a client feeling that you don't care.
Curlz mentioned that he lived in the community and that he served as a social worker in training. One of the difficulties faced by those who live and work in these marginalized communities is that they are affected by the same issues that plague the people they are serving, such as violence, marginalization, poverty, etc.
What does that mean if you have children working in this sector?
It means that you are working endless hours and not seeing your kids, and they end up falling through the cracks and end up going through the same stuff as the clients that you serve.
So now, this brother is dead. The sun will come up tomorrow, football will still play on Sunday. And people will go about their lives as usual.
What are our children to do?
And what happens to his children now? What are they supposed to do? Are they are now a statistic (and I say that with great hesitation, out of respect to the mother/s of these children)? Curlz worked hard to provide for and spend quality time with his children. However, the fact that he was murdered leaves his children a part of a very tragic class of children of murdered fathers.
And I know that class very well. I, too, am a child of a murdered father.
Curlz didn't want his children to become statistics and was an engaged father. But what happens to his children?
A reality in this sector:
We had to cut our six- part series short, due to funding cuts and FYI had to suspend some of their regular programming and lay off some frontline staff. I remember when the young men who were in the space found out that the two male staff whom they trusted and looked up to as big brothers were included in those layoffs. They were disgusted and asked a very important question:
"With this after school drop-in closed, what am I supposed to do now? Who am I to speak to when I am going through a hard time or need advice?"
The police report said:
"Fullerton was carrying marijuana, crack cocaine and money with him when he was killed, but it's unclear if these items were related to the shooting. Fullerton was also known to police and had affiliations with gangs but was not a 'card-carrying' member."
I have so many questions based on the report the police put out: how much drugs and money did he have on him? Was it for distribution or was it for personal use? What does a card-carrying member of a gang really mean?
The police also mentioned that no arrest has been made as yet, and I wonder sometimes if police mention drugs and other such information to cause the public to be less sympathetic and to lessen the pressure on themselves to find Curlz' killer. By no means am I saying that the police do not want to catch the murderer; however, what I am saying is that the police should be more responsible for what they do say to the public.
When I read the Toronto Star article, I immediately felt that they were making the victim seem guilty. My thoughts went to his children and the possibility that, one day, they might read the same article and wonder what kind of man their father was.
My challenge is that the information that the police do offer doesn't provide a complete picture of Curlz. Now, I understand that their job is to solve crime and create safer communities and that they are not in the business of public relations or image consulting. But as a card-carrying member of the black community living in Toronto, I find it very tiresome that these subtle messages of black men being no-good criminals are being repeated again and again.
What is the picture being painted of black men and black bodies in Toronto? Are we pawns to be shuffled and sacrificed on society's chessboard? Is there anything sacred about our existence? Are we only good for selling newspapers? Are our deaths to be used to get more funding for the police system?
I will say this: I refuse to play the position of the pimp, the drug dealer and/ or the deadbeat dad that you have laid out for me as choices. I must and will resist.
Curlz tried to resist, as many of your young men do; however, many of us quickly realize like with many marginalized communities there are a plethora of oppressive intersectionalities that don't make resistance easy.
What did this chain of events inspire me to do? Well, it confirmed that I will be pursuing post-secondary -- not only to serve my community better, but also to be a better father to my children (in hopes of having the flexibility to be more present). It's one thing to fight the battles with the system on the frontlines but it's quite another thing to fight from within the system itself.
We have to have policy change that will work to counteract the status quo. And in order to bring that into existence, we must fight.
I conclude with the prophetic words of martyred revolutionary, Thomas sankara: "What we need are (black) women and men who will fight because they know that without a fight the old order will not be destroyed and no new order will be built. We are not looking to organize what exists but to definitively destroy and replace it."
May you forever rest in peace, Brother Leonard Fullerton, aka Curlz.