Recently, Philanthropy Roundtable Adjunct Senior Fellow Patrice Onwuka 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.” Onwuka, director of the Center for Economic Opportunity at the Independent Women’s Forum, frequently speaks about the Roundtable’s True Diversity initiative, an equality-based, holistic framework for embracing diversity that values each person as a unique individual and empowers charitable organizations with the freedom and flexibility to advance their missions and help those in need.
In this discussion, Onwuka shared the story of her family’s journey to America, recounting the many sacrifices her parents made to ensure she and her brother had access to education and the American Dream. She also talked about the role private philanthropy played in her early life and how her parents’ work ethic and values continue to influence her to this day.
Below are excerpts from Onwuka’s story, featured on “Our American Stories”:
“My story starts back in the Caribbean. I was born on a tiny island called Montserrat. … And my parents, they were not connected. They were not wealthy. And they recognized that for us and their children, to be able to achieve greater things, it was not going to happen in this tiny parochial island of Montserrat. That’s why they decided to move to the United States where there would be so much more opportunity for them.
So they filed for us to come to this country and my parents went through the entire legal process. It was expensive. It was very long. It took years to get through. But they did it, and to do it they sold our home. They sold the cars, we had two cars at the time. And, you know, they left a pretty decent middle-class lifestyle.”
“This is in 1985, we moved to Boston. This was during the height of the drug epidemic and so it was like going from your coloring book page where it’s full of reds and greens and blues and purples and yellows, and you flip the page and it’s all gray. It’s all shades of gray and black and somber. The joy of familiarity has been replaced by the uncertainty of the unknown.”
”My father was a laborer. He worked for a construction company at the time, and he would leave in the wee dark hours of the morning and come back late into the evening. And he would be caked, caked in mud. And still my mom, who was, you know, an entry level accountant, she would come home exhausted, understandably, cook a fresh pot of dinner, usually rice and chicken, make sure my brother and I had done our schoolwork and our homework, put us to bed, and then head right to the bathroom where she would take my father’s jeans, his work clothes, and fill up the tub and start washing the caked mud out of his jeans. She’d be hunched over the tiny tub on her knees well into the dark night, scrubbing those jeans by hand. And so once in a while, … I would wake up just to use the bathroom and I would see her there. I remember those images and it’s like seared into my memory.”
“That is love. That is sacrifice. That is hard work, but as a parent and a spouse, you will do everything and anything to ensure that your family is taken care of and has what each member needs. And my dad needed clean clothes, and my mom would do that and then she’d go to bed and wake up early and start the process all over again. And, you know, that is part of the hardness of America. Because my parents came to this country thinking that the streets were paved with gold. I mean, that’s the mantra overseas. Everything is greater in America. When people come back home to visit, they come with money, they have their gold jewelry, they’re flashy, they talk about how great things are, and I’m sure things are better for them.
But they don’t always talk about the challenges, the hardness, the difficulties of assimilation, the difficulties of learning how to make your own way in a country that prides itself on individualism and community, certainly community, when it comes to the church, when it comes to philanthropy and charity. But there’s an element of just you figure it out on your own, and that was part of the hardness and the difficulty of transitioning. … Despite the challenges, the hardship, the difficulties of living in America, it was worth it.”
“It [school] was far and that meant that when there was a bus strike, I would have to take the public transport rather than the school bus to school. And that was nerve-racking for my mom because I was 8 years old, a little girl and my parents had to work. And so, two choices, Patrice stays at home for however long the school bus strike would be, and it ended up being for months on end, or Patrice learns to take the transit, public transit by herself. And that was a commute of two bus rides, about 15 to 20 minutes each, as well as a 30-minute train ride in between. A very long trip.
And my parents said, ‘You know what? Her education is too important.’ And so, the first day of the bus strike, my mom, she figured out the route. We took the bus, we took the train, we took another bus, we got off at my school stop and she said, ‘This is how you do it every day.’ And she would join me in the morning and then go to work, and in the afternoon, I was 100% on my own to do the same route going home. And even in my fourth grade, 8- or 9-year-old heart, I knew I could do it. I wasn’t scared one bit. It was nerve-racking, and I should have been scared considering some of the things that I saw.”
“I learned, at that age, that I had to be willing to make a sacrifice for my education and what was important. And I did it. … The sacrifices are worth it. And it taught me at an early level, an early age just to prize my education and to work hard. And there were blessings. I call them blessings, even in the midst of that.”
“Every afternoon when I got on at the first bus there would be $1 in my chair or $1 in the spot where I would usually sit, and I don’t know where that dollar came from. I would look around. There was no one there. So, I would just take that dollar up and put it in my little purse. And it happened one day, then it happened the next day, then it happened the next day. I truly believe that someone saw a little girl getting on the public transit bus every day to go home from school and said, ‘Boy, let me do something good for her.’ And I will never know who that person is, maybe you’re listening, I don’t know. Thank you if you are. It taught me a lot about private charity.”
“One of the things that we did very regularly is that my parents watched television programs at night, specifically PBS. They loved ’The McLaughlin Group.’ And over the years, even after we moved out of that apartment and moved into our first home, there was never a week that political commentary shows were not on our television screen, and I hated it. I will be honest. I thought they were boring. They were annoying. I wanted to watch cartoons, or I wanted to watch something where people were laughing. Instead, I would see people yelling back and forth, or talking about foreign policy, talking about the economy. Things that to me at a tender age were just as foreign as you know, speaking to someone from another country in another language.
The irony is that I would become one of those talking heads on television. And it hit me, that moment where you finally made it to a place you never thought you would be, when your mom calls you and says, ‘I was getting ready for church on a Sunday morning and I hear my daughter’s voice.’ And I live in Washington, D.C., and she’s in Boston. And she’s looking around, and next thing you know, she looks up and sees me on television on a PBS Sunday morning talking about policy. And she said, ‘I was overjoyed.’ I had not told her I was going to be on the show, in fact I’d forgotten.
You know, I started getting into the television commentary circuit on a regular basis and I very much am, but to me it was, it was not a big deal. But to her, to her it meant the world because the little girl who she thought wasn’t paying attention to ‘The McLaughlin Group’ or to all of the commentary shows that we would watch, and my parents would watch and debate politics, she never knew that I was taking notes and in my little heart a desire to be able to become one of those voices and be representative of the viewpoints that she holds. She never imagined that being part of my destiny. Only in America is something like that possible.
So, you know, here you are. Here I am. I’m a woman. I’m an immigrant. I’m a proud, naturalized American citizen. I believe in independence and freedom and autonomy. I am so many things wrapped up in one, one ball of passion and purpose and energy, and sometimes people don’t know what to do with me, when they assume that I’m going to think a certain way or view a particular issue from one viewpoint because of my gender or because of my ethnicity or because of my race. And I surprise them and I’m happy to do that. And my gender should not dictate how I view life. My race does not dictate my worldview. We should be treated as individuals who bring different perspectives, different backgrounds, different lived experiences to the table and treat it as such. When we start labeling people and limiting them based just on the superficial outward categories, we miss the richness, the texture, the uniqueness that makes every person an individual. That’s what True Diversity looks like.”
To listen to the full episode with Onwuka, please visit “Our American Stories.”