By the age of 30, Tenesha Grant had survived rough years growing up in a Hartford housing project, teen pregnancy, domestic violence and divorce.
Despite those challenges, she managed to get off welfare, work full time while earning a bachelor’s degree in psychology and a master’s in organizational psychology, and raise her six children as well as two of her sister’s children.
“Not going to school was not an option for me with all the kids I was raising,” Grant said recently. “I had eight kids that were depending on me to take care of them. I had to better our situation.”
Now director of the Community Renewal Team’s Women’s Empowerment Center in Hartford, Tenesha says her life experience gives her a greater understanding of the women who seek out the center for help with issues ranging from the difficulties of raising children, single parenting, education, employment, domestic violence, health and mental health.
During a recent interview with the CT Mirror, Grant shared her thoughts about her struggles, her success, and her work at the center, which opened in May.
Q: It sounds like your early life was very challenging. Could you tell us about that?
A: I was raised by my grandmother for the most part – until I was 10 or 12. That’s when I loved to be a kid. You’d just go to school, you come home, you go outside, play with your friends. You come inside have dinner, go to bed. You wake up the next day and do the same thing all over again.
My mother had me when she was 14. I thought she made me live with my grandparents, but didn’t realize at the time it was that my grandmother offered to help her out by taking me. That’s why I ended up with my grandmother and for the longest time, I want to say until I was in my early 30s, I kind of resented [my mother] for that.
I would visit my mother at Stowe Village [a public housing complex in Hartford] where she lived with her three other kids. My mother had four kids by the time she was 18. One day my stepfather hit me, so grandma called the cops and tried to have him arrested. Mom was like, she didn’t want him arrested and said as a matter of fact she’s [Tenesha] coming back home.
Q: So you had to move to Stowe Village? What was that like?
A: It was almost like a culture shock. There were a lot of things my grandmother sheltered me from. My grandparents both had jobs. My mother was on welfare and my stepfather was not a citizen and he abused drugs.
If you know anything about Stowe Village – that’s a pretty scary place for any kid to grow up in. I had never experienced people fighting or gunshots or seeing people get high in the hallways. That was a new experience to me but that’s where we had to live… I had to grow up fast.
Q: Did it affect your grades?
A: “No, I was in Project Concern. I went to Farmington High School. It didn’t affect my grades in school. I always loved to read. That was my outlet. Even to this day, reading is what gets me through.
Q: But then when you were 16 you became pregnant?
A: Yes, I had two children by the time I graduated. A 1-year-old and a 3-month-old. I got emancipated when I was 15. That’s how I ended up getting my own apartment. I got welfare benefits for me and my kids.
It was tough living at home with my mom. She herself was on welfare. She was struggling to take care of us. She actually told me when she found out I was pregnant, she told me I had to leave. At that time, we weren’t getting along – period.
Q: How did having children so young affect your education?
A: I would say it was difficult in the sense that I was supposed to graduate from high school when I was 16, but then I ended up getting pregnant again and I wasn’t able to take the classes I needed junior year. Instead I graduated when I was 17.
I’m not sure if you have any children, but it takes a lot out of you. So that didn’t happen the way I had intended on it happening.
Q: And what about college?
I went to [Manchester Community College] for a little bit and then my kids’ father – he was really abusive — would follow me to class and he would wait for me to get out of class. So I ended up [dropping out] of school for a little while because of that. Because that’s kind of embarrassing being in school and having somebody at the door waiting for you to get out class and walking you to your next class like you’re still in high school.
Q: You’ve said that the children’s father was verbally and physically abusive toward you. So what did you do?
A: That lasted for two or three years. Finally, I went to stay at a domestic violence shelter. I just waited until he fell asleep. I had already spoken to people at Interval House (a domestic violence shelter in Hartford). I made my way to the hospital with the kids, and then [Interval House] sent a cab for me. They don’t tell you the address of the place.
The police went to the apartment and they arrested him and then I could go back home.
Q: So then what happened?
A: He and I were done after that. I got a lot of counseling help, family support help. When he came by, they didn’t let him get around me. Once he realized I had family that actually cared, then he kind of backed off. It was mostly my grandmothers and my cousins.. When I was alone by myself, that’s when he had all the power. I ended up getting my associate’s [degree] in social service through the grace of God. I owe it all to him.
Q: What gave you the determination to go on and get your bachelor’s? It’s hard enough to get your associate’s. What were you thinking at that point?
A: Because at that time I had six kids. I had gone through a divorce. I was taking care of my six kids, two of my sister’s kids, and my brother and his family were staying with me. I had to do something to help with the situation. I went to my employer at the time and said I wanted to go back to school and he was not for it and then I was like, I’m going to quit. Not going to school was not an option for me with all the kids I was raising. I had eight kids that were depending on me to take care of them. I had to better my situation.
But I didn’t get a chance to quit. The human resources person told me to hold on to my resignation letter. He talked to my director, my supervisor, to tell him that this wasn’t going to work for him to do that. Well, that’s how I ended up staying there. .. So I would go to work, and then to school, and go back to work to make up whatever I missed. I spent a lot of time away from home doing that.
I was determined because five of those children were female and so I needed them to see that they can do stuff for themselves. Family is everything to me, education is everything to me and giving up is not an option for me or for my children, so if it doesn’t work one way we try another way ’til we get the answer we’re looking for.
Q: Do you feel as if you have a calling at the Women’s Empowerment Center?
A: I do. I like to listen to stories of women, it’s powerful, hearing their stories, what they’ve been through, just listening to them … because sometimes they don’t have anybody else to talk [to] about it, so my office is a safe space where they can come to let it out and feel okay to cry and say I’m tired of this crap, whatever it is. Other folks need referrals to different places, so being able to connect them with any services that can help them with whatever situation it is that they’re dealing with. I love doing that, to feel like I have actually helped them to get through whatever it is that they are going through, even if that help is just listening.
Q: Why do women need an empowerment center more than men?
A: Well, in terms of whether or not I think women need more support than men, I’m going to say that for the longest time, men have consistently been dominant over women, not only at home but at work. They get paid more than us even though they could be doing the same exact job that we’re doing, so inherently they’re already privileged. So the reason why we need to have an empowerment center is so that women can come and find their voice and be able to talk, speak up when they see something not going well for them, to be able to have the courage, to be able to say, no, this is not right, or no, you’re not going to get me to do this. You’re not going to continue to treat me in the way that you’re treating me. It’s very important that they find their voice. Also, 60 percent of the clients that we see at CRT are female, so it was paramount that we have this center for them. Thirty percent are single moms.
Q: What’s an example of a woman that you have helped recently?
A: Well, some of the women are in situations where they are struggling with housing or in situations that are unsafe. Like yesterday, I had a female in here from ten o’clock yesterday morning until about 4:30 in the afternoon to find a domestic violence shelter for her. Connecticut was full. Rhode Island was full. We ended up settling on a place in Suffolk County in New York for her to go to. I don’t know of a lot of programs that would be able to spend that much time or have the capacity to spend that much time with one individual. We do have the capacity to be able to spend that time.
Q: Does your life experience help you to relate to the women?
A: My life experience does help me be able to empathize with them and to be able to understand that this kind of stuff is not made-up stuff. This is real. This is actually going on. Sometimes you hear a story on TV and you’re like ‘no, that can’t be real.’ No, this is real-life stuff that women are going through and it’s difficult when you don’t have anyone that believes you or if you’re involved in DCF [Department of Children and Families] care or you have a parole officer or a probation officer who has their own agenda and they don’t have time to really listen to your story and get to know you.
They have their own mandates. Yeah, you’ve got to take care of your kids but you still have to go see a parole officer. You have to work to take care of your kids, but DCF says they’re coming to do a visit and you’ve got to be at home for that visit. They don’t care that you’re going to lose your job, so that’s real life stuff that happens to some people.
Being able to say well okay, how do we fix this? Or can we? How do we show you how to be able to advocate for yourself? How do you find your voice so that you can say no?
This interview has been edited for length.