Mainly, though, my mother was concerned with poverty, both here in the United States and around the world. She was and continues to be a big supporter of RESULTS, an extraordinary NGO* that lobbies the U.S. government to allocate more resources for poor countries and supports other groups that work directly for the poor. As a teenager, I remember going with her to lots of RESULTS fundraisers and advocacy events, where I learned more about how to effect change for the world's poor, lessons that I use today in my work with orphaned and vulnerable children in South Africa.
These days, my mother lives in Washington, DC, where she continues to come up with innovative ways to raise money and awareness for the causes most important to her. She's still working on behalf of hunger issues both in the United States and abroad, showing special concern for food pantries, which have become a mainstay not only for the poor but also for many middle-class people who've fallen on hard times and don't have any kind of safety net to rely on due to our tough economic climate. As when I was growing up, my mother is still part of a vital network of friends who share her interests, and she hangs out at DC spots like the bookstore café Busboys and Poets, where she can talk to her heart's content about issues affecting our world, like the war in the Middle East, the genocide in Darfur, the economy, and how to help those who are hurting because of the mortgage crisis. Times and topics have changed since I was a child growing up in the liberal and very active cultures of Oakland and Berkeley, but one important constant has remained: If you have an opportunity to help, then you must help.
On my father's side, I come from a long line of educators with a close connection to Howard University, the historically black institution of higher learning in Washington, DC, established in 1867, two years after the end of the Civil War and the abolishment of slavery. My father's uncle was for many years the head of Howard's political science department. When it came time for me to go to college, Howard University was my first choice. Not only did I want to attend a school with a rich and illustrious legacy in terms of educating freed slaves, I was also aware of Howard's prominent alumni, including such politicians and activists as David Dinkins, Vernon Jordan, and Andrew Young; author Toni Morrison; Supreme Court judge Thurgood Marshall; physician and medical pioneer Dr. LaSalle D. Leffall Jr.; and entertainers (and sisters) Debbie Allen and Phylicia Rashad. In fact, Howard University graduates more African- American doctors, lawyers, and other professionals than any other HBCU (Historically Black Colleges and Universities) institution in the United States.
* "NGO" stands for "nongovernmental organization." The term is used in service work to distinguish between private groups and government agencies.