This installment of What’s in Your Bag features someone new to C-U. Mary Catherine Roberson is passionate about a lot of things, but she’s very invested in preventing the growing threat of violence, particularly gun violence, in the communities that she cares about. An educator and activist at heart, until recently she was the program coordinator for Project Success of Vermilion County, an after-school program providing enriching and empowering experience for youth and their families. Her experiences there brought into greater focus the issue facing her hometown of Danville. “Seeing the uptick in violence, the things that were happening in the schools with bullying, a growing concern for my students and the community at large, that led me into being an activist.” Now, as the as the new Community Relations Specialist for the City of Champaign, she has the opportunity to continue that work with added resources and connections with community leaders working towards similar goals. As she told the interview team when asked why she should be hired for the position, “this is what I do.”
Roberson has jumped in with more than just both feet in her short time here as a part of the Community Coalition, holding her first “call-in” as project manager of Fresh Start. It’s heavy work, but she brings serious energy to it, it’s like she can’t not do it. She’s fueled by “seeing people empowered to stand up and speak their stories,” like mothers who have lost children to gun violence speaking in front of city councils, and having the ability to use her platform to share resources with those who may not even know what’s available to them. The most difficult part of the work is being “in a crisis right now, and trying to figure it out as we are in it. Shootings are happening in real time as we’re trying to figure out how to stop the shootings.”
As a single mom of three she doesn’t get a ton of time to decompress, but tries to separate the work from the time with her kids. “There’s a switch that has to be turned off. We do homework, we eat, we play, we take walks…just trying to kick it with them.”
On a lighter note, as food is important to us here at Smile Politely, I was curious about Roberson’s thoughts on our restaurant scene, now that she works in downtown Champaign. So what is her favorite C-U restaurant, so far? “I have discovered Neil Street Blues. I have discovered Wing Wednesday. I went there after a council meeting recently and I will say their margaritas are very good also.”
Now, onto the bag:
1. Dry cleaning receipt: (Laughs) I don’t have my winter coat right now.
2. Bracelets: My friend Latasha Hobbs, she’s a member of Moms Demand Action in Jacksonville, Florida, her son Maurice Hobbs was murdered. She’s really led the charge to find justice not only for him, but for other people in Jacksonsville who have been murdered. She gave one of these to me and one to each of my girls, so we keep these close and wear them to represent for Maurice. When I think of him I think of so many of my friends in Danville and Champaign that we’ve lost to gun violence also.
This was from the Youth Selfie Conference, it’s just talking about diversity and being inclusive, and that’s a huge part of what I do.
3. Hair ties: This grows as the day goes on (motions to her hair).
4. Phone and charger (obviously a necessity).
5 (and 12). Illini Skateland: We had my daughter’s birthday at Illini Skateland last weekend.
6. Socks: My girls go to mom’s house every day after school, and a lot of times they leave their socks which is probably one of the most frustrating things…you don’t realize how much socks cost until you have to buy them over and over again. Yesterday my mom said “hey the girls left their socks and I washed them, take them home.”
8. Shopping list: Pretty self-explanatory.
9. Wallet: This has all of my cards.
10. Wizard of Oz postcard: My daughter is the Munchkin Mayor this weekend in The Wizard of Oz. Our mayor of Danville, I’ve already let him know: “Mayor Williams, are you planning on coming to show and can I get a picture of you with Malia one night.” He pushed out on the mayor’s official page that he couldn’t wait to see the show and to meet the Munchkin Mayor Malia Roberson and her face just lit up when she saw that.
11. Teen Reach calendar: Teen Reach is the high school version of Project Success. In November their themes are all things having to do with the criminal justice system and prison, so she invited me to come and talk about my work with the community and also my work here and how we work with law enforcement and the legal system. It’ll be an opportunity to try to stir up some students to get involved and do some on the ground work.
12. (See #5)
13. Project Success pen
14. Harriet Tubman stamp: There was a push that the treasury was going to replace Andrew Jackson with Harriet Tubman so when the current administration said that wasn’t going to happen, on Etsy there were people selling these where you could stamp Harriet Tubman’s face over Andrew Jackson’s. I bought it with the explicit purpose to do that, and I’m like “Man, if I do it and they don’t take it I’ve wasted $20…is Harriet worth a $20 risk?” I’ve had it in my purse for like a month.
15. Sours: I’m trying to not snack all day, so I keep sours or gum or something. I like to eat so it makes me feel like I’m eating something.
16. Comb: My daughters have braids, so when I take them down I can use the edge comb to peel them apart at the bottom. In case you can’t tell, this comb is not for my hair (laughs).
17. My friend Sharon Risher, her mother was killed in the Charleston shooting, with Dylann Roof, and we’ve connected through Moms Demand Action. I bought this book from her this summer and I’m just reading her story and her mom’s story; it’s a tale of forgiveness and being able to carry on. In my bag I’ve got these two things representing these two women who’ve just lost so much, and their ability to perservere and uplift others and fight a movement…it helps to empower me. How can I not feel strong enough to take on the work that we do.
Photos by Kwamé Thomas