Kelly Underwood, 39
Hometown: Detroit, Michigan
Lives in: San Francisco, California
Nominated by: Sedia Bayard
She grew up surrounded by her sisters, aunts, uncles and cousins and as a teen became interested in how she might be able to help others, beyond the family fold. A love of education and a chance encounter in Paris led her to Africa in her 30s, and it’s there where she began to understand a new idea of family; something just as inclusive as her own, but not at all (as most good things go) what she had imagined.
Tell me about your life right now. What’s driving you at the moment?
A lot of different things are driving me at the moment: being a mum, being a wife, being part of a family and continuing my work as a teacher. At the moment I teach a group of ladies three mornings a week, anything from 15-20 women from different countries. I’m teaching them English as a second language as well as computer skills. Most of them are all mums from the elementary school where I teach, so the women drop their kids off and then they come into their own classroom at the school. They learn while their kids are at school.
What a great setup!
Yeah, it’s really neat and they’re a great group of women.
I imagine they learn so much from you. What do you think you learn from them?
Oh, I learn so much about perseverance, strength and courage. Having lived in Africa I know how hard it is to learn another language and then another culture. On a daily basis you’re facing the unknown. A lot of them came to America on their own as young women and they met their spouses here and their journey here was very dangerous. Just knowing that they were courageous enough to take that journey and then to have the courage to start a new life…I have a lot of respect for them.
And they’re very happy ladies. It’s a constant reminder to me of how little we need in life to be happy.
Where do you think that comes from? What do you think they find the most satisfaction in?
I’d say it’s their family. They feel like they’re giving their children good opportunities for school and jobs in the future. Often they come from larger families and they’re just really warm. I thought thirteen was a big family until one of my students came from a family of eighteen! So it’s part of their upbringing, but it’s also giving their kids a bright future.
You know, that feeling of counting on your family feels a bit neglected in Australia and maybe the States, to me at least. Why do you think that is?
Part of me thinks that we’re not that way because of the way that our economy has evolved. We just don’t need our family as much. If there’s a problem we have a foster care system that takes care of kids. If we have a medical problem, most of us have insurance and we’re looked after by a hospital.
Family is the social safety net in that culture. That really hit home to me.
From what I experienced in Uganda they don’t have those social safety nets. I remember our landlady in Uganda, she was always going to funerals and weddings all over the country for family members and distant relatives.
I would ask, ‘Madame Sekidde, why do you do this?’ and she would say, ‘You know what, when I get old (and she’s seventy!) my family is going to take care of me and if I am not involved in their lives right now then I can’t count on them taking care of me later.’ So, really, family is the social safety net in that culture. That really hit home to me.
So what’s family for you today?
I think I’m still very much tied to that very traditional idea of family. I grew up surrounded by my aunts and uncles and cousins and grandparents, so that’s very important for me.
I was talking to a friend and saying, ‘How can I relate the way that I feel about my son’s biological mother?’
I also see my own little family having such a different experience of family. My son is an only child, his cousins live five hours away and the last time we saw them was a year ago, so he’s not growing up with the same sense of family. And he’s not our biological son, he’s a different colour. I didn’t grow up with anyone in my family who was adopted.
Then we have my son’s biological family. We also feel like they’re our family. I was talking to a friend and saying, ‘How can I relate the way that I feel about my son’s biological mother?’ It’s kind of like a sister, maybe more like a sister-in-law or something, but there’s a very strong connection with his mother and his biological siblings. We went back to visit in August and really the primary purpose of our visit was for him to see every member of his biological family.
I’d love to hear the story of how Amulen came into your lives. Can you tell me where it all began?
So we lived in a town called Jinja, the second largest city in Uganda. I was teaching at an elementary school and Steve was working more for the financial sustainability of the school. We’d walk to the school and back and we soon noticed that there were a lot of street kids. Amulen was about five when we first met him on the street and he was always running around with these two little guys who were his about his size. They stood out because they were so little.
As the weeks went on I noticed he was getting sick and so I said to Steve that we’ve got to help this little guy. The people who ran the school we were at told us about an organisation in town, a group of social workers, who knew all about the street kids. We went to them and they said,’Oh yeah we know this little guy. He has a mum but his situation is such that he’s on the streets begging. He goes home once or twice a week to check in on his mum and if he doesn’t then she comes to us to see where he is.’
He was so well known they called him the mayor!
At that point we said, ‘Well what can we do to make sure he’s safe and healthy and maybe even starting school?’ I brought up the fact that the school where I worked was a boarding school. He’d have a place to sleep, an education and I could keep an eye on him. The social workers agreed because it wouldn’t take him out of the community, just a mile from his mum.
It was a little shaky in the beginning because Amulen had had quite a fun life in some respects. He was very free to do whatever he wanted and everybody on the street loved him. He was so well known they called him the mayor!
When we met with the social workers [fifteen months later] they felt that the situation with his mother was still very unstable and there was a lot of physical abuse in the home so they decided not to put Amulen back with her. The option was for Amulen to be put in a foster home or be adopted by us. To us it was a no brainer. We applied to the courts and he came and lived with us and during that time we got to know his mother and siblings and father. We got to know Amulen’s community really well and they got to know us.
I know you eventually moved back to the States because of your own health and work. What was the transition like?
I think I was so focused on him transitioning back that I didn’t really think about myself. Our son did a lot better at transitioning than we did! He did so well and he’s still doing well. Part of that was because he lived with us for two years before we came back to the States. He was bicultural before he left. That made the transition smoother for him, not that it was completely easy.
One of the biggest lessons I’ve learned in going to Uganda was to always come back to the importance of taking care of myself and that service will flow out of that.
I was really focused on helping him and I decided not to work for a year and a half. In the meantime, I didn’t realise I was neglecting myself and my marriage. I found myself falling apart because I had neglected my inner life: my emotional life, my spiritual life, my intellectual life. It’s just now that I feel like I’m getting back on my feet emotionally and spiritually.
Probably one of the biggest lessons I’ve learned in going to Uganda and achieving what I’ve always dreamed was to always come back to the importance of taking care of myself and that service will flow out of that. When I’m happy and healthy I’m much more able to serve my community, which is something I love to do.
And when you were saying that you’ve realised this dream, where did it come from and what was the dream?
Well, I think it started when I was in high school. I grew up in a very religious family, and before my last year of high school I travelled to France with this Christian organisation with teens from all over the US. We stayed at a student hostel and I met these young students from West Africa that had come to Paris to study. I really enjoyed being around them and hearing their stories. There was a teenage boy on the trip, an American who grew up in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and he talked to me about what his life was like growing up in Africa. I was drawn there after that.
I decided to go into education and my goal was to be an elementary school teacher in West Africa because they speak French in West Africa and I also speak French. When I met my husband he also wanted to go to Africa and that’s when we decided to go back to school together to get our graduate degrees. So we ended up in East Africa, and there I was teaching elementary school. It was wonderful.
I think our mind is playing the denial game, but our body is not. I wanted to stay in Uganda but my body was telling me that it wasn’t a healthy place or me.
What was the most surprising thing about going to Africa after having imagined it for so long?
How hard it was to live in a different culture that is so vastly different to your own. It was difficult and exciting at the same time. I think the hardest thing was the corruption and the lack of feeling physically safe. When you don’t have a basic sense of safety it just causes so much stress in your body. I think that’s why I got so sick. Our mind is playing the denial game, but our body is not. I wanted to stay in Uganda but my body was telling me that it wasn’t a healthy place or me.
And if teaching in Africa has always been something you’d planned to do, what has been the most unexpected thing to happen in your life?
Probably adopting our son and adopting a child who has a biological family. That would have never entered my mind!
I actually meant to ask earlier, what was your family’s reaction?
Oh, everybody was so loving and embraced him. They’d heard about Amulen for several years and seen pictures. But it was interesting for my parents, they were insta-grandparents; all of a sudden they had a nine-year-old grandson. His personality is such that he warms his way into peoples’ hearts very quickly. Like he did ours!
Who have you gone to for advice along the way? Or what philosophies do you come back to?
Definitely my parents, they’re very wise, also my younger sister and my older sister, who passed away**. I look at how she lived, and how she suffered and that also really guides me. I think part of that is to really believe in myself and to listen to that inner guide.
**Kelly’s sister sadly passed away from a drug and alcohol addiction when Kelly was only a teenager.
If I don’t agree with that particular rule I’m not going to worry about it.
How has your faith changed, if at all, as you’ve gotten older?
It’s definitely changed. My sister’s death was a big catalyst for change in my spiritual life. Up to that point our family had been very much involved with the Christian church and there were a lot of dos and don’ts. There’s a term they use called legalism. You know, you’re following the letter of the law. And after my sister’s death I realised that that is very unimportant. For me, it was taking more of the messages that Jesus preached about love, helping the vulnerable, those were the messages that I took to heart more. I said to myself that if I don’t agree with that particular rule I’m not going to worry about it.
So looking ahead, what are you most looking forward to now?
Just continuing to be a part of my community and making a positive impact. And seeing my son grow up. We also hope to have another child, whether it’s a biological child or an adopted child.
Do you feel like you’re kinder to yourself now? Or do you think it’s something you can’t shut off?
I do feel like I’ve become kinder to myself. It’s been a process, to consider my needs and desires when I’m making decisions. I still have a way to go!
The other question that’s on my mind is why do you think we forget to take care of ourselves?
I think it’s biological and cultural. Our biology is such that we’re the ones that cook the little baby for nine months. We’re caretakers by biology and then culturally we’re trained that mums are the ones that stay at home for the family.
Because there’s a plus and a minus to it, isn’t there? The plus is that you have the ability to forge these amazing relationships because you’re the caregiver, but then the flip side is that you forget to replenish your energy stores.
Yeah. One of my best friends has four kids and they range from one-year-old to nine-years-old. She was telling me the other day, ‘I wish I could just go to the bathroom by myself!’ But she’s good that way. She’ll tell her husband she needs to go away and will take off for the weekend with her girlfriends.
I would love to see white people address racism. Things like where does it come from? Is it inside of me, and why is it inside of me? Not being ashamed if it is.
What do you think we should talk more about in the world?
Racism. I would love to see white people address racism. Things like where does it come from? Is it inside of me, and why is it inside of me? Not being ashamed if it is. I think there’s so much shame around it and it’s an uncomfortable topic, especially in America because of our past with slavery.
Have you seen anyone tackle it in a productive way?
Very seldom. It’s very difficult to address it in a calm, non-defensive way. I think our egos, whether we’re black or white, come front and centre and that’s where the judgement and the walls come up. Places where I have seen it happen are where people are conscious of those walls.
And where have those places been for you?
At grad school I had one class in particular that was called ‘The Way of Council’. It was all about learning to listen to another person. Truly listen. And in that circle I thought that it was a safe place and people had the awareness when their egos were jumping up and getting in the way of communication. It was through the grad school that Sedia and I met. It was a very special place. I think it drew people who wanted to learn about other viewpoints.
If there was just thing from that experience that you carry with you now and could share with others, what would it be?
It would really be the importance of listening to someone else’s experience. Trying to understand someone not based on our perceptions of them but by listening to their stories and getting to know them that way.
Thank you, Kelly!
Things I Love
To live in isolation is no life at all.
A spiritual life
I need to be connected to the Spirit that gives life to us all.
Self-love and self-acceptance are the foundation for living a healthy life.