Celebrating the Black Women Who Guided Me to a Life of Service

As part of our celebration of Black History Month, we’re sharing stories from some of the No Kid Hungry campaign’s Black staff members about their own experiences with childhood hunger and why the work of feeding kids matters to them. Today’s blog post is by Elliott Gaskins who serves as managing director of development at No Kid Hungry's parent organization, Share Our Strength.

The first person I ever laid my eyes on was a Black woman.

At the age of 22, my mother gave birth to me and - despite extraordinary hardship and pain - raised my sister, brother and me to be successful adults. But it didn’t start there – it was my grandmother, Thelma Reid, who was our revered matriarch. The most compassionate woman I’ve ever known, Grandma helped to cultivate the greatest thing you can give to a child – belief in yourself. 

Old picture of older black woman with white dress and glasses

Elliott's grandmother

My grandmother was a domestic worker. She endured racism, low pay and difficult work. But despite her struggles, she instilled in me the idea that no matter how tough you have it there are always others you can help. The idea that no matter what work you do you can and should be able to do it with dignity. Little did I know at that time that the impact she had on me would lay the foundation for my career in community service and cultivate my commitment to kids. The middle name of one of my sons is Reid - given to him in her honor.

My mother was the first person to read to me, taught me how to shop on a budget and showed me how to treat everyone with respect - and expect the same in return. We watched her hold several jobs just to keep food on the table, go back to school and get her college degree and educate scores of children herself in her decades as a school teacher. So much of what she gave to us was unsaid – but profoundly understood.  

One of the toughest moments of our lives was when my sister Nichole was significantly injured in a random act of gun violence. Nichole endured gallantly for several years after the incident but succumbed to complications from her spinal cord injury in 2014. The pain for all of us was profound - but watching my mother lose her baby daughter was almost unbearable. Her ability to climb out of that moment and plead for us to use Nichole’s life as an inspiration fills me up to this day - and will forever motivate me no matter how tough the circumstance. 

But what I’m describing is just a small sample of the power and indomitable spirit of Black women. Make no mistake about it, carrying this burden, being superhuman - as many Black women have done - takes an enormous toll and is a reminder that throughout history they have never received the recognition, grace, support, honor and respect they deserve.  

One of the most moving moments in recent memory was when Halle Berry won the Oscar for Best Actress in 2002. Watch the first 2:30 seconds of her acceptance remarks and you’ll understand what I mean. Finally, a Black performer receiving the recognition (as Best Actress) that so many had been deserving of before. She said “This award is for every nameless, faceless woman of color that now has a chance because a door tonight has been opened.”

So many doors still to be opened but as we reflect on the importance of this month, let’s especially remember all of those Black women; who raised and nurtured the babies of slave masters - as well as their own. Who held up their

Black men when not a single person on earth would. Who have dealt with harassment, abuse and pain without having someone to say "Me Too" to.  

Let’s remember this month that there would be no Martin without Coretta, no Malcolm without Betty, no Medger without Myrlie-Evers and certainly no Barack without Michelle. Let’s remember them and the countless women we will never know who have and still lift up this country.   

When I was in middle school I was in a play and I had to memorize the great Langston Hughes’ poem Mother to Son. My mother, probably painfully for her - walked me through each line several times. The poem speaks of the toil, pain and difficulties Black women have had to endure. But at the same time it instills a hope and determination in the next generation. Langston writes, “Life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.” …. but “I’se still climbin”

It’s far past time to give Black women their due. 

Rest in peace dear Grandma and love you Mom! 

Wedding picture of man and woman accompanied by other two family members (another man and women)

From left to right: Elliott's mom, Elliott, Nichole, and Elliott's Brother, Donovan.