Wilma Liverpool has lived in Durham all her life. The Durham Freeway cuts through the site of one of her childhood homes, and she has watched the Bull City go bust, boom and expand in sometimes unforgiving ways.
But Liverpool, who is 65, says that some things haven't changed in her community. Educational inequality, violence and poverty persist, but so too does Liverpool. She says she knows what it is like to lack the bootstraps needed to pull oneself up.
"What I know is what I have lived," she says. She wants to make a difference one relationship at a time, by tutoring children, improving financial literacy in her community and by just being there for those who suffer.
Health issues ended her career as a birth coach, but you can find Liverpool bearing witness at homicide funerals, vigils and other demonstrations around Durham.
Liverpool wrote the following account of one child she helped bring into the world. —Justin Cook
In 1981 I gave birth to my son. The delivery was relatively uneventful except there was no doctor. I was chewing gum and watching television during labor. The doctors said I had used what they call self-hypnosis to control my pains.
After my son's birth, I was put on a path of helping others in a very special way: I was to be a birth-coaching partner. In 1995, I became the birth partner for a woman named Mary and in April she gave birth to a son named Kaaylon William Pamplin.
Kaaylon was one of the only babies I coached who seemed determined not to enter this world. I walked with Mary for hours to get him into the birthing position. Maybe he knew what this world had to offer and wanted no part of it.
Mary, Kaaylon and his sister Ariel continued to live in the neighborhood for a few years. After they moved away I only saw them on an irregular basis.
But on Monday, Oct. 8, 2012, while in art class I caught bits of a conversation about someone who had been shot the previous Saturday. I heard that he had been taken off life support, but assumed it was because he was recovering.
When I arrived home that afternoon my phone was ringing and I almost did not answer it. The caller, my neighbor, asked, "Has Mary contacted you yet?" I wasn't sure which Mary she meant. My neighbor told me she was referring to Kaaylon's mom.
She asked me if I was aware of the shooting in the neighborhood over the weekend. I said, "Please don't tell me Kaaylon shot someone!"
Another long pause, then she told me Kaaylon was the one who had been shot. "But he is all right, even though life support was stopped, right?"
One more deafening pause. "No. Kaaylon didn't make it."
I shed angry, bitter tears when I saw Kaaylon in his casket. Here was another African-American child, 17, snatched away from my community by murder. He was taken away much too soon and I wasn't able to stop any of it.
I can't claim I know how a mother really feels when she has lost a child to murder. I do try to help them through the grieving process in much the same way I would do with the birthing process: by just being there for people.
Mary gave me permission to speak at Kaaylon's funeral. My heart was torn into millions of pieces as I watched his family and friends say a final goodbye. This should never happen to anyone.
Kaaylon, as you left this world, pieces of my heart also went missing!!!
MUCH LOVE ALWAYS, Wilma
This article appeared in print with the headline "Pieces of my heart went missing"