“Leaving behind nights of terror and fear
Into a daybreak that’s wondrously clear
—Maya Angelou, “Still I Rise”
Like millions around the world, I am mourning the passage of the incomparable Dr. Maya Angelou. Hers was an extraordinary journey from mute child to one of the most eloquent orators of our time. A remarkable Renaissance woman, she shared her legendary wisdom and life lessons with such poetic clarity and easy familiarity that we thought she was speaking directly to each one of us. And she was—many of us recite her words as mantras to give us the courage to take risks, to create art, or to open our fragile hearts; or to love ourselves as women, as African-American women, or as single mothers.
Dr. Angelou’s stirring words from the poem “Still I Rise” (quoted above), spoke directly and personally to survivors of domestic violence. They also inspired the staff and families of Safe Passage, where I was executive director (1999-2004) as we dared to imagine a new future for our agency. Back in 2002, we were working in cramped offices and supporting families who survived domestic violence in our run-down, crowded shelter. Summoning pride and courage, we envisioned being able to offer families an abundance of resources and the full support of our community as they strove to create safer futures. “Still I Rise” was our capital campaign theme, and we were able to raise $1.2 million to purchase and renovate office space and the art-filled, fully accessible shelter called Safe Passage House.
Dr. Angelou’s generosity of spirit went far beyond the printed page. We approached a number of public figures to design rooms in Safe Passage House. “Snug, pretty, and safe” were the first words that she used to describe the bedroom for a single woman that she designed and furnished in the new shelter. The lilac and ivory room has a fluffy down comforter and throw pillows on the bed. A large double dresser with a matching mirror rests along one wall. A bright yellow easy chair fills a corner, and framed prints of Dr. Angelou’s poems are hanging on the walls. I have no doubt that her personal involvement contributed greatly to the success of our campaign.
To celebrate the opening of the beautiful Safe Passage House, Dr. Angelou came all the way to Western Massachusetts to speak to the survivors and to our community. The evening was magical as her strong voice rang out and more than 400 people hung on her every word. Afterward, she asked compelling questions about our work and listened deeply. She was genuinely impressed with how well we supported survivors with so few resources. She was astonished that our advocates work in collaboration with police officers who respond to domestic violence calls, and she vowed to tell other programs about that strategy.
That night, we gave her a letter that was written by a resident of Safe Passage House. It read in part, “I feel very fortunate to have had the chance to sleep in this lovely famous room. It makes me feel powerful and gives me strength. It is women like you who help women like me to be strong and have faith in ourselves. Thank you, thank you, thank you.”
[Me with Dr. Maya Angelou at the Women on the Rise benefit for Safe Passage,
I draw inspiration from my memories of Maya Angelou often. When we posed together for a photo that night, she commanded, “Throw your shoulders back. And always, always hold your head high.” More words to live by. Rest in peace.
In awe and gratitude,