Hannah Hawkins, a Baptist who converted to Roman Catholicism, seems to relish breaking the mold and being difficult to pigeonhole. She started the Children of Mine Center for two reasons.
First, she worked for eight years as an advisory neighborhood commissioner for Washington, D.C. In the District of Columbia, there are 37 Advisory Neighborhood Commissions, each composed of nine members. The groups advise the city government on issues such as zoning, streets, recreation, education, social services, sanitation, planning, safety, and health. Hawkins’ ANC work brought her into intimate contact with the ills besetting her community. She saw how crack cocaine was affecting the young people–and their children. She saw many young men being sent off to be warehoused in prison. She saw many young women jailed. She saw the despair.
In addition, her three sons–she has five children and is a grandmother of four–all became crack addicts. (Today, they have recovered and hold jobs. One is a chef at a halfway house. Another is a landscaper. Her daughters work in the computer field for the federal government.) Struggling with a heartbreaking situation so close to home moved her to become an activist.
Hawkins, who worked for 30 years as an administrative aide in the D.C. school system, being forced to retire on disability due to dangerously high blood pressure, was elected vice president of a group called Concerned Mothers Against Alcohol and Drug Abuse. Through her work there, she came in touch with a stream of wives and mothers and caring relatives in anguish because their loved ones had fallen prey to “this scourge.”
“JFK once said that he could not have empathy but he could have sympathy,” Hawkins says. “Because he was born with a silver spoon in his mouth, he didn’t know how it felt to be poor. But he could sympathize. I have sympathy and empathy [on the drug issue] because it was in my household as well.”
Drug abuse, she says, is a problem not only of poor people but of the well-to-do. “Rich folk are able to camouflage it a little bit more,” she says. According to Hawkins, they can keep their problems under wraps inside their homes better than poor people can. But the problems are still there.
“Sin is sin,” she says. “Addiction is addiction, fallen families are fallen families, separated parents are separated parents.”
Her sons’ drug problems started with marijuana, and before long, they were addicted to crack. Hawkins derides those who favor a liberalized marijuana policy, saying that the drug gets users in the habit of getting “high,” which inexorably opens the door to other and far more dangerous forms of drug intoxication. “I told a group [many years ago],” she recalls, “that from little acorns big oaks grow.”
Two things that vex Hawkins are jailing drug addicts instead of treating them and taking the right to vote away from those convicted of a felony.
TREATING VS. JAILING ADDICTS
On the treatment issue, she notes that most people characterize drug addiction as a sickness. Therefore, “why would you incarcerate a sickness?” she demands. “If you have cancer, which they have equated with chemical abuse, you treat it, don’t you? This is what [suspended New York Yankees outfielder] Darryl Strawberry is saying: ‘Why incarcerate me? I’m no harm to nobody but myself.’
“Why is it that so many of our brothers are incarcerated?” she concludes. “They need more long-term treatment centers for our sisters and brothers.”
The prisons are also taking so many women–some of whose kids frequent Children of Mine. Hawkins is staggered by the number of mothers flowing into America’s penal institutions. Most of their convictions are for crimes like prostitution, grand larceny, and check fraud, all of which stem from a single root–addiction to crack cocaine.
The neighborhood activist insists that far better than dealing with drug-related street crime through a failed policy centering on the prison revolving door would be to provide full-scale addiction treatment, which has been shown to be more effective and less costly in the long term.
On the subject of withdrawing a person’s voting rights, Hawkins is explosive. She describes how on Election Day she walked the streets to turn out the vote, speaking to young men lounging about. They would say to her, “Yo!” or “Hi, Mama!” And she would reply, “Hey, did you go vote today?” Some said yes, and some said no. And to those who said no, she asked, “Why?” And many would say it was because of a felony conviction and an incarceration.
Hawkins sees this as a problem not just for the poor but for the rich, for what’s involved are notions of justice, fundamental human rights, and cruel and unusual punishment. After all, she says, taking away a person’s vote is something that goes on punishing him–whether he’s rich or poor–not just for the duration of his sentence but for the rest of his life.
“So you need to deal with it,” she says. “James Brown told us that years ago: ‘You got to deal with it, baby.’ You got to deal with it, because it affects all of us.”
MURDER OF HER HUSBAND
In addition to what Hawkins had to handle with the predicament of her sons was the brutal 1969 murder of her husband, who was beaten to death by a robber.
This tragedy profoundly shook her soul. She was in denial for years, she admits, and wouldn’t talk about it. For a long time, she wouldn’t even throw out her husband’s clothes. Hawkins’ husband always smoked cigars–and the smell lingered, stirring excruciating nostalgia in her heart.
She never remarried, because, she says, although she likes men, to remarry would be to surrender a considerable chunk of her independence and free time, both of which are precious commodities to the activist and social-service volunteer.
Her parents taught her to “never look down on a man, unless you’re picking him up.” Her father, though not so religious, was caring. But her mother was both.
“I didn’t have to look outside my family for my heroes,” she says proudly. “This, today, unfortunately, is not the case in many homes, because a lot of the children are home alone and on their own. Even those who come from wealthy families are latchkey. It’s so important that we as parents take time out with our children, with our youth.”
She has seven sisters and two deceased brothers.
Hawkins unwinds by reading popular novels, history books, and the Bible–and by listening to spiritual audiotapes. She also likes to dance, even with the children she cares for.
“At the center, we are African dancers,” she says with enthusiasm. “I like calypso music, because it’s so rejuvenating. God tells us to always keep moving.”
Unlike many people she knows who are getting on in years, she enjoys roller-skating, bicycling, and motorcycling. “I like the excitement, you know?” she chuckles. “I want to be rejuvenated.”
Her heroes include Eleanor Holmes Norton, the D.C. delegate to the U.S. House of Representatives, and first lady and New York senator-elect Hillary Clinton.
Of Norton, Hawkins says she “is one of those energetic, don’t mind telling it like it is persons. She reminds me a lot of myself. She believes in telling the truth and shaming the devil.”
Of Clinton, the activist says: “I like her spunk. She went into a state where they said she was a foreigner, didn’t belong, and through the grace of God, she won it, in spite of the odds. I admire people like that.”
Summing up her sometimes sorrowful, sometimes joyful–but always full– life, she says: “I’ll tell you, life may not be fair, but God is good. And that’s whom I hold on to.”