Voice of the Leader Dog Community: Leatrice Fulllerton

Leatrice walking down a sidewalk with her yellow lab Leader Dog

October 8 was the first day of our Voices of the Leader Dog Community series, where we feature stories and perspectives from LDB community members. Our first voice was Leatrice Fullerton, Leader Dog client and guide dog user. She has a master’s degree in social work, is a program manager with the Disability Network SW Michigan and is the mother of two. Leatrice received her first guide dog, Leader Dog Brewer, in July 2020.

There are two types of people who wear masks: the people who choose to do so out of convenience, and the people who have to do so in order to survive. I find myself in the latter of the two groups. Not only do I wear a mask to survive, I do so in order to protect others. I am a wife, a mother, and an advocate for different issues. I’ve always felt that it is very important for me to appear brave, confident, and strong at all times. Having the freedom and ability to expose myself for all the world to see is something that I’ve never been able to do. As long as I can remember, I’ve always hidden myself within the confines of my mask to keep my fears and vulnerabilities away from others. I was safe there. If I was wearing my mask, I thought no one could hurt me. My mask was my shield. June 2020 showed me that I was wrong for thinking this.

Leatrice holding her hands over her face.I proudly reside at the intersection of several marginalized groups. I am Black, I am a woman, and I am a person with a disability. Often, we as a society like to group others in one group or another. Intersectionality is when we look at the different identities people have in order to get a better understanding of the issues and/or discriminations they face from day to day. It considers every aspect of a person, not just the parts of them that we’d like to acknowledge. Let’s face it, systemic oppression is real. Marginalization is real. I once attended a training where the presenter said something that sticks with me even still. They said, “Either you’re at the table, or you’re on the menu.” So, I’ve made it my personal mission to find my seat at this table. I work and actively volunteer for area agencies where I am able to represent and advocate for others from these different groups who haven’t found their voices
yet. June 2020 had me asking myself, “Is that enough? Do I have more of myself to give? Am I doing all that I can for my people?” My people are still being oppressed. Am I truly making a difference?

I am the third oldest of six daughters who were raised by a single mother living in poverty. It wasn’t until I had children of my own that I was able to get an understanding of some of the challenges my mother dealt with. My mother, one of the strongest women I know, did what she had to do in order to make sure we had food on the table. Growing up, I didn’t know that we were poor. After all, we had a place to sleep, we had food, and most importantly, we had each other. We were raised to believe difference was just that, difference. It wasn’t good or bad, it just was difference. Unfortunately, some children are brought up with the belief that being different is either being superior or inferior. Here’s where discrimination begins. I truly believe that hate and oppression are things that are taught. If everyone was raised with the same values that my mom and other active participants in my “village” instilled in me, the world would be a much better place.

Leatrice standing outdoors, smiling at the camera. In the background is a festival or fair.Like many other people around the world, the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police had a huge impact on me. I couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t leave the house. I was hurting. My mask, my shield, my protection from everyone and everything was betraying me. I experienced feelings of hopelessness, fear, anger, confusion, and shock. The feeling that stuck out the most was loneliness. Perhaps the fact that I’d grown so accustomed to keeping my feelings to myself was the reason. I felt I couldn’t run the risk of looking weak. After all, I’ve people to represent. So, I still showed up to meetings where I was the minority, and I smiled and said I was fine when I was asked. I facilitated trainings feeling like something was pressing on my chest. Praying the whole time, “God please don’t let me break down in the middle of this Zoom training.” Like many others, simply showing up to work during the first couple weeks in June was very challenging for me. There were also days when I couldn’t do anything at all. I literally sat in the same spot for the majority of the day with a lump in my throat and tears in my eyes. Why does this keep happening to us? What have we done to deserve this?

I was never brave enough to watch the video of Mr. Floyd’s murder. That was something that I knew would’ve broken me. On one hand, I felt weak for not watching it, but on the other, I knew I was afraid to watch it. I have a 9-year-old Black son. Because the wrongful death of Blacks by police is history
repeating itself over and over again, would I literally be watching my son’s future? Many mothers of Black boys have had the strength to share their fears with the world. Although it hurts to read the different blogs and articles, it feels good to know I’m not alone in this. I’ve been talking to my husband
about my fears since Aaron was 2 years old. Asking him when he plans on talking to our baby about how to handle himself in interactions with police. This is ridiculous! Black fathers shouldn’t be charged with this task, but they are. It’s as natural a life lesson as how to tie a tie. My husband is able to keep me calm for the most part, but every time another story makes the news, I find myself in that same place. What happens when my baby isn’t “cute” anymore? What will I do? What can I do now?

Leatrice stands behind her son. Both are smiling and Leatrice has one hand on her son's shoulder and one on his head.As a result of Mr. Floyd’s murder, there has been a global outcry bringing attention to the Black Lives Matter movement. I’ve been shocked by some of the different things that I’ve seen, especially on social media. I’m at a place where if I want to be shocked, I get on Facebook. Like many of my friends,
I found myself explaining to people why saying, “All Lives Matter” in response to Black Lives Matter is wrong and offensive. I personally can attest to the fact that wealth gaps exist. I know and live intergenerational poverty. My family has been directly impacted by mass incarceration. My children have attended public schools with mostly Black students who needed assistance providing hats and gloves to students in need. If society believed that “All Lives Matter,” this wouldn’t be the reality of so many Black Americans. I’ve also seen different comments made by mutual friends describing the movement as one that is divisive and hateful. According to their official page, “Black Lives Matter Foundation, Inc. is a global organization in the US, UK, and Canada, whose mission is to eradicate white supremacy and build local power to intervene in violence inflicted on Black communities by the state and vigilantes.” So, it would seem that they exist to end hate and division.

The most disturbing message that I saw was posted by a friend who identifies as being Black. They posted they’re not in support of Black Lives Matter Inc. because they are here to encourage homosexuality and that goes against their religious beliefs. They also encouraged other friends in their network to take the same position. Another part of the Black Lives Matter Inc. mission reads, “We affirm the lives of Black queer and trans folks, disabled folks, undocumented folks, folks with records, women, and all Black lives along the gender spectrum. Our network centers those who have been marginalized within Black liberation movements.” I mentioned intersectionality above. Believe it or not, there are people who are Black and queer. Like me, there are people who are Black and disabled. Just because we come from different groups within the Black community, doesn’t mean our lives should matter any less. Unfortunately, everyone doesn’t see it this way.

Leatrice stands on a sidewalk with her son and daughter. All three of them are smiling at the camera. Leatrice is wearing a Black Lives Matter t-shirt and her son and daughter are wearing t-shirts in celebration of Juneteenth.Another disturbing thing that I’ve seen going around are statuses encouraging that if we expect Black lives to matter we have to stop “Black on Black crime.” Usually when people say this, they share news articles about violence in big cities. The most recent post that I have seen was about two young Black children who were shot here in town. I would never attempt to downplay the importance of these killings and injuries. I couldn’t begin to imagine the fear and anger that the mothers of the young children here in town felt when their babies were rushed to the hospital. However, we are talking about two different beasts. My oldest sister Tawana was killed when she was 35 years old. The shooter was a Black person. Should I feel that for this reason, institutional racism and police brutality should continue? That doesn’t add up to me. One could also argue that institutional racism is the cause of Black on Black crime. So, if we aren’t willing to examine the root of the problem, we cannot accurately examine the outcome. Yes, people should stop killing people. However, people in positions of power should stop oppressing people as well. Furthermore, it is very important for everyone to examine where the term “Black on Black crime” originated, how it evolved, and how it has impacted Blacks in the United States. Many people simply consider the term to be an inaccurate description. Black violence against other Blacks isn’t done based on the race of the victim, it’s simply a by-product of concentrated poverty and residential segregation. What is the cause of concentrated poverty and residential segregation amongst Blacks in the United States? Institutional racism. Again, we cannot address the problem without addressing the cause of the problem.

Leatrice and her son and daughter sit on a gray couch in a living room. All are smiling at the camera. Leatrice's daughter has her hand on a yellow lab that is sitting on the floor in front of them.My family and I watched the televised funeral of George Floyd together. I decided to honor him by writing during the eight minutes and forty-six second moment of silence. Here’s what I wrote that day. “Participating in a moment of silence for a man who can never speak again. I find it difficult to believe that so many don’t believe that Black Lives Matter. George Floyd is more than a memory. The countless lives that were wrongfully taken from us by the very folks who were supposed to protect us is saddening. I have a Black son. I have a Black daughter. Am I exempt from the threat of losing my babies? The fact that this community member, this father, this symbol of what Black is was taken. He was literally on the ground asking for a chance to breathe, for another opportunity to hold his baby, but as a result of the color of his skin, wasn’t given the chance. I hope that my children are able to make positive changes to this world. It is my goal in every encounter that I have with family, friends, strangers, agencies and politicians to share and show that Black lives do matter. I’m struggling with being able to find a place where I truly belong. If we were able to unite as a world and recognize the value of each and every human life, we can begin to undo some of the generational wrongs that exist among marginalized people. Black lives matter! Disabled lives matter! I am thinking of Michael Jackson’s song, ‘man in the mirror.’ If we want to change the world, we need to start within. What can I do? I can read more to learn about the challenges of the oppressed. I can volunteer at agencies that help the oppressed. I can donate funds to Black owned businesses. I am somebody! I matter! My children matter! George Floyd Matters! However, in order for all lives to somewhat matter, we have to recognize the plight of Black Americans. I just want to leave here knowing that I truly did my part to bring about positive change in this world. World peace doesn’t have to be a figment of our imagination, it can be our reality. Black lives have always mattered, unfortunately we as a society weren’t willing to acknowledge it!” This seemed like the longest eight minutes and forty-six seconds of my life!

Hopefully after writing and sharing my thoughts with the world, I’ll be comfortable with living in my truth, no longer having the need for a mask. I am Black. I know the feeling of walking around fearing the future of my children. I know what it’s like not knowing where my next meal would come from. I know the feeling of being discriminated against for a characteristic I was born with. I know the feeling of being “different.” However, I know that I am able to represent my people at every table I sit at. I know there is some good in the world. I know if I want to make this world an even better place, I can’t give up, I must persist. In Maya Angelou’s words from the poem “And Still I Rise,” “I am the dream and the hope of the slave.” Blacks from the past and from the future are depending on me to make change in the world. I know there’s still plenty of work to be done. The most important thing I know is that Black Lives Matter.

We were honored that Leatrice shared her story with all of us. We hope you’ll join us on social media on October 29 to hear the next voice of the Leader Dog community. You can find out more about our voices of the Leader Dog community here.

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