When the girls in the room discovered that Roberta Hoskie had been a homeless child and a teen mom who now files tax returns on a seven-figure income, the questions started to fly.
That was why Hoskie and other prominent New Haven “sisters” came to the Hall of Records Tuesday: To tell their stories, hear what the next generation had to say, then compare notes.
Growing up in public housing, Hoskie told a room full of teenage and pre-teen girls at the day-long “Sisters of Today & Tomorrow” leadership conference, she once lived in a two-bedroom apartment with her four brothers, two parents, an aunt and cousin.
As a teenager she didn’t get along with her mother. She found herself kicked out of her home and living at the Douglas House homeless shelter.
“When I was 14, 15, 16, those years. There was a lot of conflict,” she said. “But if it had not happened, I would have never seen something different.”
That something different came by way of her godparents, who up until that point had not been active in her life. They checked her out of the Douglas House. She moved into their home in Bethany.
“I had never seen a single-family house before, let alone a house with a walk-in closet or a room with its own bathroom,” she said. “They had a backyard and deer.”
She credited her experience of being homeless, and becoming a mother at 17, with giving her the drive to want something different for her life. She also acknowledged that having help from godparents started her on the road to success.
And that’s the kind of help she offered to the participants of the “Sisters” conference, which brought 30 girls to the Hall of Records to rub elbows with some of the most successful black women in the city including Hoskie, who is the CEO of Outreach Realty, Mayor Toni Harp and New Haven District state Superior Court Judge Robin Wilson.
Hoskie encouraged the girls to use her and all the women they met Tuesday as resources to help achieve their goals.
The girls in turn peppered her with questions.
“Was it hard being a teenage mother?”
“You better believe it was very hard,” she said. “I was on welfare, trying to take care of not just me but this other life on $417 a month, which is nothing.”
“Did you always know that you wanted to own a business?”
“When I was younger I used to draw my mother pictures of houses, blueprints really,” said Hoskie, who started her real estate empire after buying a house for her and her son and selling it for a big profit. “But not initially.”
“Do you have a big house?”
She did once, but decided to downsize because it was “a little scary” and “didn’t make financial sense.” Her current house has four bedrooms, two full bathrooms and two half-bathrooms.
One of her walk-in closets—“You have more than one walk-in closet!” one girl exclaimed—is filled with shoes. “When I was in middle school, I was very smart and I often made the paper, and there is one picture of me on the cover of the New Haven Register with a big hole in my shoe. The kids got on me so bad about that,” and she vowed to never wear raggedy shoes again.
Black Women’s Lives Matter
Not every story the girls heard during the course of the day-long conference was a rags-to-riches tale like Hoskie’s. But they all carried a message designed to remind the girls that the dreams that they’d talked about—dreams of going to college, owning businesses, acting, being doctors, lawyers and social workers—were all possible with a lot of hard work, determination and a little help from their newly expanded sister circle.
Judge Wilson, a native of New Haven (pictured speaking, next to the New Haven Register’s Angela Carter), told the girls that they are continuing the legacy of women like her who had come before them.
“You young ladies are continuing our democracy,” said Wilson, who has presided over criminal and juvenile courts, and now over civil cases. “By mentoring you, we are empowering you to continue our legacy and one day you will be in the mayor’s office. One day ... you will be in my office.”
During the last activity of the day, the girls and the women participated in an inter-generational discussion that touched on the national conversation about police brutality and the wider question of whether black lives matter.
“Can you say that life is unfair?” one girl asked.
West Haven Police Commissioner Deborah Busch-Wright (pictured) responded, “You can say life is unfair, but it’s not about what happens to you. It’s about what you do,” with what happens to you.
Busch-Wright told the girls that this year she was diagnosed with chronic kidney disease. On top of that, it is at stage five.
“I could do one of two things,” she said. “I could absolutely throw myself the best pity party in the world, or I can do whatever is necessary to live. I chose life.”
Tanya Poole-Hughes, executive director of the State Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities, said life doesn’t stop being unfair when you become an adult. “But what you can control is how you respond,” she said. “What I tell my children all the time is be the best you, you can be.”
The images of black women on the front lines as mothers, wives, sisters and daughters of the black men whose names and last words have become synonymous with the Black Lives Matters movement have been broadcast around the world. But the recognition of black women as being among those who too have been killed at the hands of the police has been less visible.
The girls got to hear from New Haven Police Officer Jillian Knox. Knox has been on the job for 13 years; she heads up the Victim Services Unit. She reminded the girls that cops are human too. “We have good days and bad days,” she said.
“I can’t say in my 13 years that I have never had an attitude,” Knox said. But the New Haven native said she recognizes people’s concerns. She said what makes the difference for her is that she is a cop from the community. “I treat people the way I would want my family to be treated,” she said. On the flip side of that, she said, people have an obligation to caution the people in their lives to follow the law.
When asked why her life matters, one participant said, “It matters because no one has ever told me that it didn’t.”
Inner City News Editor Babz Rawls-Ivy (at right in photo) said that the day is coming when the messaging and the images that the girls consume will tell them, “You’re not good enough. You’re not white enough. You’re not tall enough. You’re not pretty enough. You’re not skinny enough.” She said when that happens, they have a responsibility to validate their own lives and their choices.
“It’s not my job to like you.” she said. “It’s your job to like yourself. Surround yourself with good people, go your own way. Hold your own self sacred.”
Hamden Middle School eighth-grader Ashleigh Genece said she came to the conference to learn about how to prepare to become the CEO of a fashion company. She left with some ideas about how to be a better leader and knowledge about the importance of community service and being active at school.
“I think I will make an effort to talk more and lead more,” said the 13-year-old, who is captain of her cheerleading squad and a student ambassador.
That’s the kind of remark that Sisters of Today & Tomorrow founder and New Haven native Carla Morrison (pictured) liked to hear. This is the second time that Morrison, who now lives in Atlanta, has brought the conference to New Haven. The conference will come back again December 2015, but the girls who participated in this year’s conference will get to be part of the online mentoring program that will launch February 2015, and the national conference in July 2015.
“I want the girls to leave here empowered and exposed to opportunities,” she said. “But most of all I want them to act on these opportunities. They now have all these amazing women in their lives and I want them to take advantage of these connections.”