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Transforming Defeats Into Butterflies:

A Conversation with Community Activist Latosha Jenkins  

 

I pondered for weeks to write my introduction of Mrs. Latosha Jenkins Flood after our conversation on a beautiful Sunday afternoon. As I contemplated, I started to think about our history together in high school. We were so young and inexperienced, looking for validation to give us that stamp of approval to live our lives. It's been years since Latosha and I had verbal communication with one another, but thanks to our connection on Social Media, we had a way to keep up with what was happening in each other's lives. As a Community Storyteller, I am always excited to see people pouring into their communities, taking action, and delivering change to better the people. Through the years, Latosha's social media post never wavered from Community Activism, and her mission to help educate the youth about African American Hero's originated in our communities. As you will witness from Latosha's POWERFUL story of overcoming trauma, becoming a young mother and overcoming low-self-esteem, she always remained passionate about giving her time to volunteering with various South Carolina programs. She also shares about her special connection with the Florence Crittenton Program for Single Mothers in Charleston. I hope you are inspired by her testimony and fortitude while embracing her words. Latosha is a woman that has woven her defeats into a silky cocoon and transformed them into colorful butterflies.

RJ:

I am excited about the opportunity to have a conversation with Mrs. Latosha Jenkins. Latosha is a Community Leader, Motivator, and woman who is bridging the gap in communities by mentoring youth and lifting others by eliminating the "crabs in the barrel" mentality, which seems to divide many of our communities. She is overall an amazing woman. Latosha, can you start by telling me more about yourself? Where you are from, and what do you do for a living?

 LJ

Thank you. My name is Latasha Jenkins. I am a mother, wife, sister, and daughter. I am a community activist, volunteer, and mentor. I'm a little bit of everything!  I am a native New Yorker. I was born and raised in Harlem, NY. When I was in second grade, I came to Charleston. S.C., because my grandparents were from Charleston, and I spent maybe two years in Charleston, then I went back to live in New York until my 10th-grade year in high school, where I finished all of my formal studies in Charleston. Although I'm a native New Yorker, I consider myself a “Charleston girl” because I was fortunate to get the best of both worlds. I'm married, and we have three sons. My oldest son is a senior at Clemson University and majoring in Architecture. He will soon be twenty-two-years-old. My middle son is eighteen years old and graduating high school this Spring. And I have a nine-year-old who is in the third grade.

I have two girl dogs, Zoe and Abby -- Yeah, I love my girl dogs because biologically, I did not birth any girls, so I had to get them from somewhere, right? [Laughs] So I got two of them. And at this present time, I'm doing two things. I'm a part-time student at the University of South Carolina in the social work program, where I will be graduating with my master's degree this August. And I'm employed with the Department of Social Services as a program coordinator. I help non-custodial parents arrange visitation with their children and set up an amicable agreement between the custodial and non-custodial parent with the family court. Outside of my duties of being a mom, wife, student, and employee, I'm a volunteer with several local nonprofits here in Charleston. In my spare time, I like to hang out with friends, watch documentaries and read books.

RJ

Thank you so much for that introduction of yourself. Let's begin our conversation with you growing up between New York and Charleston.  Being from New York, I would imagine the North and the South having two different cultures and lifestyles. Did you face challenges trying to adapt from the north to the South, and how did you overcome those challenges?

LJ

Thank you for this question. It is a good one. Living in New York and being a Native New Yorker is an exciting and different experience when living in New York. Living in New York, you have to think on your feet and think fast. You must be aware of your surroundings all the time. Things change continuously, and its fast pace. So, you have no choice but to keep up, or unfortunately, you might get left behind. I was living in New York during the era when crack hit the City hard. So, unfortunately, a lot of my peers and I were surrounded by poverty. Some of our parents got addicted to drugs. One day, I might be walking to school with some of my friends, and the next day they dropped out of school to start selling drugs because their parents, unfortunately, may have become addicted to drugs and now, they had to take over as the adult in the home because their parents were unable to do so because of their addiction.

Despite all those flaws, New York is a lovely place. The culture, diversity, and the different things I experienced as a New Yorker helped build my character. It taught me how to think forward and be resourceful. It taught me how to value the resources I have in my community. And it also gave me that hustle and ambition to become a better person because of my constant surroundings of people who aspired to do better.

What I liked about Harlem, especially my mother and father being from the South, we had a lot of people from Charleston who lived in Harlem, believe it. So, in some way, I would always meet up with somebody whose grandmother, mother or father was from Charleston. We would talk about all the things that sometimes Charlestonians take for granted, like the Gullah Geechee culture, the sausage links, and rice pudding. Or coming down south for summers and eating chilly bears, and how the summers in the South are different because you get to have better tasting Southern Cuisine.

 It was the right balance because I got what I needed from New York, but when I came to Charleston, I could be a kid. I was able to enjoy my childhood. I could stay at my grandmother's house, and her screen door would remain open all night. Whereas, in New York, we could never leave our front door open all night because we would be concerned or scared someone might rob us. When I was a child, I didn't appreciate it because I was so gung-ho about New York. But now that I'm a mom and I have my own family; I appreciate so much the beautiful things that Charleston has offered. And I believe all children should experience this type of living.

 

RJ

I understand that you do a lot of work in the community, but you have a very close connection with the Florence Crittenton program in Charleston. Tell me, what made you interested in providing your time and service to that program?

 

LJ

It's a couple of things. First, I got pregnant with my oldest son when I was 19, going on 20. I had my son two weeks before my twenty-first birthday. Because my parents and my grandparents had such big dreams and aspirations for me, they were disappointed that I got pregnant because, in their minds, I was continuing that generational cycle of having a baby out of wedlock. My grandmother was the first, my mom was the second, and I was the third, and so they were disappointed that I was having a baby so young because they wanted me to do something different with my life.

 It was pretty continuous with my mom and me because they were not handling the pregnancy thing well. They thought I would go off to college and make something of myself after graduating high school. And now that I got pregnant, they did not say that I can't do it, but it's going to be more challenging because now I have to care for a child.

So, while pregnant, I continued to work and attend my classes at Trident Technical College. I found out about Florence Crittenton, believe it or not, through a good friend of ours. She had not too long had her son. One day, she visited my son and me, and we were playing with each other's babies while talking and catching up. In conversations, she asked if I ever heard of the Florence Crittenton Program and recommended that I look into it.  She provided me the name of a caseworker and suggested that I call. At that time, to get accepted into the program, a caseworker came to your home for an interview. They asked about my short- and long-term goals, plans as a mom, what type of resources or additional help I might need. Finally, after a panel interview, the caseworker will call and let you know their decision.

I received a call maybe a week or two later informing me that I was accepted. At that time, the program had residential houses at 21 Nunan Street and a partnership with the City of Charleston. They had a specific number of apartments set aside for single mothers because they understood single mothers needed affordable housing and needed access to public transportation.

I moved into my first apartment when my son was one month old. I didn't have anything. I think I had a twin bed. My grandmother felt sorry for me and gave me a 13-inch color TV. And my oldest brother told me he was proud of me and gave me twenty dollars to go to Family Dollar and get some stuff for my apartment. So, I went to Family Dollar and got myself a plastic shower curtain and enough things for my son and me. But most importantly, I had peace of mind.

Those years being in that program taught me a lot about myself. It taught me how to be resilient and resourceful. It taught me that my number one focus is my son because he did not ask to be here. So, I dedicated my time outside of working and going to school to my son's development. Unfortunately, it didn't work out with his dad and me, and that's not something that I would have hoped. But despite all of that, I know I still had a responsibility to my son, and I knew I had to keep going.

I used my time at Florence Crittenton to learn about budgeting, finish my education, save money to become debt-free, and develop a long-term plan. At that time, we could only stay in a residential home for maybe two years. At the end of the program, we were responsible for finding another apartment and paying fair market rent. So, I took advantage of all the resources they offered. One of the things I loved about the program is, they stressed the importance of learning how our kids develop and what was developmentally appropriate for them. Sometimes, when you are mom, and you are working in the hustle and bustle, those are not things that we usually give much attention to. But I could learn what it was like to be a new mom and learn many important things about my son.

Florence Crittenton had such a profound impact on my life. Even when I got pregnant with my second son and I was out of Florence Crittenton, they were still there to help me. They never judged me. They were like my biggest cheerleaders. I remember I could talk to the staff at the program about things I couldn't even speak to my own family about without judgment. So, I will be forever indebted to them. Any woman who is fortunate enough to get into the program will not be disappointed and headed in the right direction.

RJ

Thank you for educating us about the Florence Crittenton Program. I never knew how impactful they are to the community.

Tell me, with your leadership and community activism, do you believe mentorship is vital to communities and why?

 

LJ

Mentorship is critical, and I don't think that we do enough mentoring, to be honest with you. One of my first mentors, believe it or not, was my white eighth-grade teacher in New York. I lived in the hood, and she lived in a beautiful neighborhood downtown where all the fine restaurants and buildings were, which was not too far from Trump Towers. With my mom's permission on the weekends, my teacher would come uptown to pick me up and take me downtown. She would expose me to a different side of the City. I knew the hood side with the stench in the elevators and people outside shooting and smoked crack. But she exposed me to the parts of New York that I never saw because I went to a neighborhood school, and my mom didn't let us stray too far for safety reasons.

So, when I went downtown with an escort, I got to see the luxurious parts of New York. The area where people didn't always look like me and indeed a difference in diversity and culture. My teacher served as my mentor and always believed in me. She always told me that I was smart and can do anything I wanted to do. She encouraged me.  She invested in my development as a young girl of color because she wanted me to win. But it was different because she didn't look like me, which I believe was the beauty of it. And, the beauty of it was, somebody that didn't look like me could see what I didn't necessarily see in myself, and I was privileged and blessed enough to have her pour into me.

After her, I had several mentors, and some of them were men, some were women, and some were of color, and others were not, but my relationship with my teacher kind of set the tone. And it always made me feel like I have a responsibility to give back to my community. I have a responsibility to go back and share the knowledge and help others grow. In New York, we had a program called “Each One, Teach One,” and that is the mantra I live by every day. Once you learn something, reach out and teach others so they can continue up the ladder.

RJ

Do you see yourself as a community leader?

 

LJ

I see myself as a community leader, but I've never been a person who is into big titles, to be honest with you. The way I was taught, if you see somebody who needs help or in need, you help them. I know that we live in a social media world now, where we popularize all the stuff we are doing. Social media has its respective places and its benefits because it helps get the word out about you and what you have to offer the community, but I have a lot of old-school thinking because my grandmother raised me. My grandmother taught me to do things so God can see me because when God sees you, whoever else is supposed to see the Lord will make sure that they see you.

So, I do many things in the community that goes unnoticed and undiscussed. It is literally between me, God, and that person because I always want God to see me. And I know some people might say that's weird, but as odd as it is, it's the truth. Like, I've never been a person who's big with the cameras because I believe when the camera stops flashing, is the work going to stop or keep going?

Now, have God put me in positions to be a blessing to others? Absolutely. Have I advocated for families? Absolutely. Have I helped families stay together? Have I helped men and women just coming home from prison? Yes, but those are not things that I tend to publicize because I want it to be between God and me. Do I talk to people about the importance of voting? Yes.

And, if my neighbor, who's elderly, needs a ride to the grocery store because her grandkids can't come at the time? Yes. If somebody needs to borrow a couple of dollars, no one will ever hear about it. Those are things my parents and my grandparents instilled in me as a child. As you become an adult, those are things that you do not forget.

RJ

Absolutely.  I agree. Tell me what motivates you. 

 LJ

 

What motivates me to be honest with you is that I grew up in a two-parent home where my mom was a stay-at-home parent because my dad didn't want her to work, and my dad went to work. He had an outstanding job in New York. My dad used to come to our PTA meetings. We sat down as a family every day and ate dinner at the table. My dad instilled discipline in us, like we got spankings if we did things that were not right. But my father was fair. He loved us. I was the only girl, and my dad taught me practical stuff like you don't sit on a man's lap because you are a young lady. Do not wear things that are too short or, you know, just stuff that you don't hear anymore or something that people no longer consider valuable -- like the importance of keeping a clean house, making up your bed every day, etc.

So, my family was beautiful. Unfortunately, my father got on drugs. Some of his friends he grew up with in South Carolina came to New York and introduced him to heroin. And, once he got introduced to heroin, our whole lives changed drastically. It was horrible.

My siblings and I, along with my mom, endured a lot of trauma. I never judged my mom because she did the best that she could. But she had to choose between the safety of her children and herself. Instead of staying in a marriage that was no longer good for us because of my father's addiction, she decided to separate from him so that she could get herself together for the sake of her children.

It's funny, because, remember, he was the breadwinner. She was a stay-at-home mom. So, my brother and I ended up coming to stay with my grandmother in South Carolina while my mother remained in New York. Even though my father had his struggles with his addictions, he still came to South Carolina to see us because he's from South Carolina. He always will come during school time, showing up with a pack of pencils and paper. He never came empty-handed. Even when he will come to my grandmother's house to visit us, he would not stay there for free or do anything. He would paint the porch and do other things around the house to help. He was willing to pay his way because of how my grandmother raised him, with a lot of pride and a strong work ethic.

So, being raised with values and integrity motivates me. As mentioned, my parents and grandmother taught me to treat everyone with respect and manners, despite who they are or their struggles.

RJ

Tell me how you define success.

 

LJ

When I was young, my definition of success was, having a big house in a fancy neighborhood, a six-figure job, wearing designer clothes, and my children going to the best schools. But, guess what? As I got older, I realized none of those things matter. Yes, those things are essential, but they don't define you as a person.

I didn't always have a strong relationship with God the way I do now, and I still have room for improvement. I was not as grateful as I needed to be because I had the mindset that God owed me something. Once I realized that it is because of God that I wake up every morning in my right mind, and my body is functioning to the point that I do not need anyone to help me get out of bed and assist me to the bathroom, and I can take care of all my personal needs, I am blessed. Because there was a time when I could not do anything for myself when I was pregnant.  I was literally on bed rest and I needed a nurse to come to my house and take care of me because I was so sick. Once you have experienced something like that, you find gratitude in the little things. So, my definition of success completely changed because now my success is finding ways to help people. How can I give back to my community, and how can I share and testify about how good God is and can supply all your needs? When I leave here, I want God to say I'm pleased with you, Tosha.

 

RJ

Why is it vital for you to follow your passion and walk in your purpose?

 

LJ

It's important to follow your passion and walk on to your purpose because we are all unique. We are all on earth for different assignments.  We have a goal and a mission that we must complete. And my mission might not look like yours, and yours might not look like mine, but we can still come together and complement each other.

And for you to walk in your purpose, you must know who you are. You must know your identity. You must be strong in who you are. Often, people talk to me, and they're like, oh, my God, you have such great self-esteem. You know how to engage people.  But, you know, I didn't always feel like that about myself. I used to have low self-esteem, mostly when we were in high school. There were times when I felt rejected. I felt like I never was good enough. I felt like everything I did was performance-based, and I had to get the applause of people.  I wasn't cool enough or hung with the cool enough people. When I gave my life to God for real, I learned that my identity came from Him and within. Honestly, he empowered me to be bold enough to say what I say because you must be brave enough to tell people how you feel. You've got to be bold enough to challenge a system for disenfranchised homeless people. You've got to be brave enough to go before a judge and tell the judge why a parent should be able to see their kids. These reasons are why I feel it is important to walk and live in your purpose.

 

RJ:

Tell me, what's next for you, your dreams, your goals for the future.  

 

LJ

Well, first, I will be graduating from USC in August.  After graduation, I'm going to get my mentoring group up and running. I like to do things well, and I don't want to start something and not give it 100 percent. So, I plan on starting my nonprofit. I plan to get my licensors because I want to go into private practice to help people address their trauma and negative cognition like I had when I was a girl.

I want to give back to young ladies and teach them the importance of it's okay not to be sexually active if they are not ready.  Also, it is okay to be okay with your body. Growing up, people would "body shame" me because I was flat up and down, and they made me feel weird. But, as I got older and started appreciating and loving myself, I realized that I don't have to compare my body to another person's body to feel beautiful.

I want to continue to give back to my community. I'm passionate about helping the homeless. So, it would be ideal for getting a homeless shelter here in North Charleston and provide them with many resources. One of them is mental health services. I want to continue to teach my children the importance of generational wealth and pass down something to them where they can pass down to their children. And lastly, one of my goals is to do TED Talk. I want to use this platform to educate and uplift young women across the globe.

There is so much I want to do, and I'm just praying for God to order my steps. I want to make sure I'm prepared so that when God gives me that platform, I can run off with it, you know?

RJ  

Yes, I believe you are ordained to do all you said you want to do. I am excited to see what God has planned next for you.  I want to thank you for allowing me the opportunity to have this conversation with you. I can say that I am very inspired. Thank you for pouring back into the community and lifting our youth. You have taken things that we see as flaws and made them into beautiful butterflies.

LJ

Thank you.