Denisha Allen (Merriweather) on Our American Stories: “Education Saved My Life” 

Recently, Denisha Allen (Merriweather), founder of Black Minds Matter (BMM), sat down with radio veteran Lee Habeeb for an episode of “Our American Stories,” a syndicated radio program and podcast that highlights “ordinary Americans who do extraordinary things.” Allen, an American Federation for Children senior fellow and True Diversity advocate, credits education for saving her life and shares her inspiring story of how a family friend intervened and gave her the support and opportunity she needed to excel at school. 

Allen attributes a scholarship she received to attend a private school and mentors there who pushed her to success and led her to found BMM, a “national movement to celebrate Black minds, support excellence and promote the development of high-quality school options for Black students.” Through BMM, she hopes to help provide access to an excellent education for every Black student. 

Below are excerpts from Allen’s story, featured on “Our American Stories”: 

“Well, my mom had me at (age) 16. She obviously had friends, and she still wanted to party so she could go and kind of reclaim her childhood. So she left me with one of her friend’s mom. And so that’s how I became in the realm of this miraculous woman who I call my godmother.”   

… 

“And it wasn’t until I was about one my godmother told my biological mom, ‘Listen, just leave her here, go out and have your life. Go out and do what you want. But coming in at three in the morning to pick her up, this in and out is not gonna work. So just leave her here, come back when you’re ready to get her, and we’ll go from there.’ And she did, and she didn’t show back up until like maybe a few years later, wanting to take me back. They went to court. They had joint custody of me. So I was going back and forth between my godmother’s house and my biological mother’s house, back and forth, back and forth, back and forth. I remember crying all the time because I did not want to go back to my mom’s house.” 

… 

“At my godmother’s house. I was pretty much the only child. Her kids were grown, 
her kids were off in the military and college, and I had everything. I was spoiled. It was fantastic, I went to church, had stability, just she had a set of goals. She held me to her standard. She had a parenting skill. She was a mother.”  

… 

“But my favorite aunt, … was pretty much the orchestrator of getting me into my godmother’s home and helping out with the courts. She was a security guard at the courtroom and she knew everyone there, and so she was pretty much the behind the scenes advocate for me, and I didn’t know that. When I was 13, she told me, ‘You know, you don’t have to stay with her, you can leave.’… I looked at my biological mother like right in the eye. She made me so upset one day and I told her I am not coming back. I am not coming back here. I do not wanna stay with you anymore. And she cursed me out and she told me to leave, … And it was the best thing that could have ever happened. I felt so liberated. This is at 13.”  

… 

“We didn’t really go to school. If my mom was tired, she didn’t take us to the bus stop and we would just sleep in. If it was raining outside, we didn’t go to school. If it was too hot, we didn’t go to school. So we weren’t really in school a lot. I remember my mom she went to jail a couple times because we weren’t going to school.”  

… 

“The standard was very low for me to do well, and I didn’t do well. I was very behind. I remember that. I remember getting picked on. I remember trying to read and having kids laugh at me. … So by the third grade, there’s the test, third grade tests that you have to take in order to pass to the next grade in Florida. And I failed the test, and so that meant I had to either do summer school or repeat the third grade. 
 
To do summer school, all that was required was for my guardian, my mother, to sign a piece of paper. … She didn’t sign papers, just didn’t sign. So I failed third grade. That next year I failed 
again from the same thing. Just didn’t get a piece of paper signed.” 

… 

“I told my mom that I did not wanna stay with her anymore. Things at home had just gotten so terrible and I could live with my godmother. And my godmother was, she’s just my heart. She wanted to find a good place for me all the way around. That year was probably the 
best time of my life. She wanted me to go to the church’s school. 

By that time, … my childhood church, the church that we had been attending (and) I’d come to with her on the weekends, they built a school and she wanted me to go to that school. 
 
Of course, she didn’t have no way to pay for that school. We got a scholarship, and the summer before I started, I had to take a test to see what level I was on. I was very low, needless 
to say. One of my teachers agreed to meet with me. I was low in math. I didn’t know my times tables. She met with me one on one. … But we’d studied and I learned my times tables. I was reading. She did not let up.” 
 
… 

“I was kind of used to going to a new school, though I knew the parade. How things were gonna play out. The teachers were gonna act like they were so happy to be there, and they would smile, greet us. The classrooms would be so beautiful with the freshest, you know, decorations, 
but it would wear off. That was just how it went. Sure enough, on my first day of school, the teachers were there greeting us with big smiles, hugging everybody. … And I was like, yeah, I know this song very well, and the song is gonna end. The song never ended. Literally every day until I graduated, teachers were doing the same thing.”  

… 

“I was in a class with students, of course, who were all younger than me, and I had my guard up because I knew what was gonna come. I remember my teacher calling on me to read, and I was still stumbling. Nobody laughed. I looked around and was waiting, like waiting to cut someone, you know, with my eyes and like. … Nobody laughed at me. Even a couple students, they would voluntarily try to help me.”  

… 

“But this one time I was in in-school suspension. The guy who was over it this time, he was also part of the church. He was a fireman and I think he was in the reserves or something. But this was this big Black guy. He was in the military and a firefighter. … And I just knew he was big, and tall, just towered over me. He came to me and he said, ‘Denisha, when is this gonna stop? When are you gonna change this? When are you gonna stop acting like this? Do you wanna be in jail?’”  

… 

“And I started crying. … I didn’t see the meaning at 13. My life was just very meaningless. … I had no control. And in that statement. … He was asking me, ‘Do you want to be in jail because of how you’re acting?’ And I think that was like the first time that I realized that my actions … can determine my outcome, not because of everybody else. … ‘No, I don’t wanna go to jail.’” 
 
“And that’s when I decided to lay off the crap and to take ownership of my behavior. To 
do better. And I tried really hard. I tried to do better. I would listen to my teachers. I would get help, and by the first nine weeks, my grades had risen. I went from making D’s and F’s consistently, maybe a C here and there, just like that. That year, my seventh grade year, when I was supposed to be going into the eighth grade, I did not go to the eighth grade class. I went into the ninth grade class. I skipped the eighth grade, and that ultimately led to me graduating from high school.”  

… 

“Education literally saved my life. I became the first in my family to graduate from high school. I got a college degree, I went away to college, and then I moved to D.C. to work at the U.S. 
Department of Education. I lived a fairy-tale life compared to other members in my family, and it would not have been possible if I didn’t receive people who were really invested in my life and in my education.”  
 

To listen to the full episode with Allen, please visit  “Our American Stories.”   

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