Slam Anderson and Lillie Lee-Williams on the Seen and Heard Podcast

Episode 1

WHAT IF WE DIDN’T HAVE TO WAIT UNTIL BAD ENOUGH

How 14 years of separation stems from seeing this family for their circumstances instead of for their love.

Spoken word poet, Slam Anderson, and her mom, Lillie Lee-Williams, talk about their family’s experience with the child welfare system, including a 14-year separation.

00:56:00

Meet Slam Anderson, spoken word poet.

01:08:00

Slam recites the first segment of her original poem “My Need for Change.”

02:50:00

Slam shares insight on life growing up and how her mom poured into Slam and her siblings lives while struggling to make ends meet.

05:00:00

Meet Lillie Lee-Williams, Slam’s mom.

06:55:00

What would’ve helped Lillie’s family? Hear from Slam and Lillie.

1. Financial support
2. Housing resources
3. Counseling
4. Security and safety

“My mom raised five kids on her own. We had the regular food stamps and things like that. She worked, too. You see some of the housing resources available today and we didn’t have that back then, or maybe it was available, and we just didn’t know about it,” says Slam.

“But I didn’t have what they call a village. We were our village. I didn’t have a whole lot of outside help. Especially during the time that the children weren’t at school age yet. I think those were some of my hardest times,” says Lillie.

08:26:00

What does it feel like to go through a system that isn’t designed to truly listen to what families need? Listen to Lillie’s experience when she asked for help.

09:40:00

What happened to Slam when she and her siblings were separated from their mother, Lillie? Slam reveals her story and shares the second segment of her poem “My Need for Change.”

16:00:00

How does Slam find her love for poetry?

17:54:00

After 14 years, Slam and Lillie share how reconnecting was emotional and exhilarating.

20:05:00

The third and final segment of Slam’s spoken word poem “My Need for Change.”

21:20:00

Matt asks Lillie, “What do you want us to know? What do you want us to do?”

23:00:00

Matt shares final thoughts.

Episode 1 Master Transcript

[00:00:00] Matt: Hey everybody, this is your host, Matt Anderson, and you’re listening to the first episode of the Seen and Heard podcast. And I just want to thank you for joining us. You know, we launched this podcast because I’ve been working in the child welfare field for almost 20 years now. And I see lots of opportunities for how we can build a better future where kids and families have really what they need to thrive. And I think that starts, actually with listening to people’s experiences, to listening to their stories, learning from their expertise, and finding ways to work together, to create a better opportunity for kids and families.

And so that’s what we’re going to do with this podcast. We’re going to bring stories and conversations to you that can help you learn about new ways to build a better future for kids and families. And to kick off our first episode, I’m excited to introduce you to slam.

[00:00:56] Slam: Hello. My name is Sam Anderson. I’m a spoken word poet. I’m also a outreach director for a nonprofit organization in the field of child welfare, social work, things like that.

[Slam Anderson recites the first segment of her poem, “My Need for Change.”]

[00:02:50] Matt: Every time, it gets better every time.

Slam: Thank you.

Matt: I also hear this poem as like an anthem. I see it as, you know, there’s this movement happening in the child welfare field right now. And it’s a movement from removing kids from their families to investing in the wellbeing of families and communities. And I think you ask the most important question in your poem.

What if we didn’t have to wait for bad enough? Why didn’t they just help my mama? Let’s go back to the origin story of what happened back at the beginning, right before foster care became part of your reality before the experience of, as you say, throughout the poem being taken away.

[00:03:28] Slam: My mom, she worked a lot, but she always spent time with us. I don’t know how she managed to spend as much time with us as she did, but she did when it was just us meeting my siblings and my mom, which would be six of us. It was great. I mean, I love it. Cause she had that big kid personality as well. She always knew how to make things fun. Like even laundry days were fun because we would spend forever at laundry mats. I mean, it’s six of us, kids, and so a lot of laundry, so it would be boring, but she knew how to make it fun. I was like, eight or nine.

[00:04:03] Matt: Yeah. I love the line in the poem. Something about, she showed us how to make paper dolls. Cause she couldn’t afford the cabbage patch or the Barbies, which, I mean, I just remember as a kid, how big cabbage patch was, and you had to have that.

Right. So she understood that, but know couldn’t afford those things, but still took the time. To make sure you had what you needed to have. Those experiences have a good time as a kid have fun. Like she was pouring into you as, as a little kid, it seems like

[00:04:32] Slam: She was. That’s always felt like I didn’t miss out on a lot of the stuff that other kids had because my mom’s down here, we’re in coloring books, we’re making up games.

We play UNO, Twister. We had game nights, like literally board games. We were always just playing games. As I, as a kid, I didn’t know we were struggling. 

[00:04:52] Lillie: It was just the way mommy did things, and mommy always made it fun.

[00:04:56] Matt: This is slams mom, Lillie.

[00:04:59] Lillie: I made riding the city bus an adventure for the children. I made going to McDonald’s something special. We really earned this. This is the most exciting thing mommy has taken us to McDonald’s; I didn’t have the money for certain things. I would decide what I was going to do for that month. And I did everything I could possibly do to get the money together.

[00:05:32] Matt: What I know from you in Slam as well, that there was a lot of playfulness happening at home, too, right? And so slam talks about the creativity in the house and you as a very creative person, making handkerchiefs for people in the church, and you would make paper dolls with the kids.

[00:05:51] Lillie: The thing with the handkerchief more was my meditation and my state of mind, time to just have some downtime. To be able to try to figure out certain things.

I had this little sewing room. That’s where I would come up with my different ideas and things for the kids, along with expanding my spiritual growth because that was the time I would fast. I would pray, and my hands would stay busy all at the same time. 

And whenever I came out of that little room, not only did I have about twenty-five to fifty beautiful designed hand-sewn handkerchiefs. I also had ideas and things to do with the children to keep them from thinking, okay, you know, things are really bad. Or my friends have that and we don’t have that. I had to make it seem like they thought we had money, but we really didn’t.

[00:06:56] Matt: Your mom was there. There’s a lot of love in the family, but you also said that she didn’t always have what she needed, and maybe there was something that could have been done to help her. What were some of the things that she really actually needed to be able to keep the family together?

[00:07:13] Slam: Well, definitely financial support. I mean, she was doing five kids on her own. We didn’t get no help. I mean, we had the regular, you know, food stamps, things like that. And like I said, she worked, but I even see some of the housing resources they have now that they didn’t have, or maybe they had it, and we just didn’t know about it. She was still pushing and working and still able to give a lot of love. But even counseling, even her counseling, you know, things like that I think would have helped her and security safety was one of our issues.

[00:07:48] Matt: Slam has four siblings, and as you can probably imagine her mom, Lillie, was dealing with a lot.

[00:07:56] Slam: I’m not saying my mom was perfect. I’m not saying she didn’t make mistakes; what I’m saying was, I think it could have been another option besides just removing us because we were the thing, pushing her to fight. We were that thing, that resource, that lifeline, you know, so you don’t take the lifeline. All my mama needed was help. Like that’s how I saw it, you know what I mean? Getting us from school, cause it was five of us. She just needed some help. You know, I didn’t feel like we had to be removed. Why can’t nobody help her?

[00:08:26] Lillie: I was young too. And so I was learning as I went along, but I didn’t have what they call a village. We were our village. I didn’t have a whole lot of outside help, especially during the time that the children weren’t school age yet. I think those were some of my hardest times. When you admit that you need help, instead of them asking you, well, okay, you said you need help. What kind of help do you need? What can I do for, you know? They do what they think you need or what they think is important, and that’s all they do, but then you still don’t get any help because what you really need is never addressed.

[00:09:12] Matt: So why were Lillie’s children removed and put into foster care? How exactly did they get caught up in the system? I can tell you that there were safety concerns, but the truth is that the specific reasons for separating Lillie from her children are both complicated and all too common. And for me, the specific circumstances are really not the point. I want to revisit this question about how we could meet the needs of families a little later on, but for now, I want to stay focused on what happened to Slam when she was separated and put into foster care.

[00:10:04] [Slam Anderson recites the second segment of her poem, “My Need for Change.”]

[00:11:09] Matt: When you say you were taken, you mean child protective services comes in and takes all of the kids from your mom, and then you’re all in foster care at that point?

[00:11:21] Slam: We were taken like three times altogether before they permanently removed us. We were doing the visitations for a while, and then I don’t really remember how it all happened, but they’re like, you’re not going to be able to see your mom again.

I don’t remember where we were. I don’t remember the exact words. I just know I was told that I wasn’t allowed to see my mom again. I wasn’t going to be able to see my mom again, the part where I say, “I didn’t turn around until I saw her head go completely underwater, because it was easier to pretend that she was dead.”

And at that moment I did, at that moment I was like, well, my mother gotta be dead. Because there is no other reason for me that I can’t be with my mother or my siblings unless my mother is dead. And so it was for a while, where I completely erased foster care and everything, it was kind of like a shade, just kind of went over me like foster care, never existed.

“I was never in foster care. My mother’s dead, I don’t have any other siblings, but the ones here, that’s it. And whoever you are in here is who you are now.” And it took a while for me to break out of that trance.

[00:12:36] Matt: Wow. That’s pretty heavy, but honestly, you know, it makes sense. I mean, as a kid who doesn’t really know what’s going on around you, you have no control over what’s happening to you. A lot of people you don’t know are making decisions about your life and the best way to sort of survive through that situation is my mom’s dad. I’m not in foster care. I don’t have other siblings. And here I am. 

[00:13:02] Slam: Yeah. I’m just… this is where I am now.

[00:13:05] Matt: So at that, at that time now, where are your siblings and are, were you having contact with them? Are you ever seeing them? Were you ever having visits with your mom?

[00:13:15] Slam: So my mother pleaded with them to allow me to go stay with my godmother, who I knew growing up, her and my mom were best friends. She wasn’t a blood relative. She was a godparent. I think they call that kinship care. I didn’t have any contact with him. It was, it was different episodes where. My siblings would sneak to see me. I remember like going outside and seeing my mom and my two sisters in this car and going up and saying, hey, to them, but they weren’t supposed to be there. They came when my godparents wasn’t home. And so they weren’t posted to be there. 

[00:13:50] Matt: Those family bonds last through all of us, right. So they were kind of checking up on you.

[00:13:55] Slam: I didn’t know, my mom was keeping up with me. She’s definitely keeping track me. I remember eighth-grade graduation, and I’m gonna cry when I say this.

I’m trying not to, but I remember standing in a line or getting ready to go inside. It’s all the little eighth-graders, we’re all, we’re in the cafeteria, and then they lined us all up. And I remember my mom. Seeing her like, oh my God. And she comes up to me and she gives me this gift, it’s a little necklace. And she’s like this for you.

[00:14:28] Lillie: I said, I made this for you for your graduation, and just know that mommy will always love you. No matter where I am, I always say. I had to be really, really strong. It took a lot to, not to cry or break down in any way, because even before those incidents, people were telling me that any time I showed sad emotions, that it would cause the children to act out, but I didn’t want to act like I didn’t care. My daughter needed to know that I loved her. And then I was watching her.

[00:15:04] Slam: And I had no idea that she knew. I was like, oh my God, how is mom here. It’s just, I’m happy and shock. And of course, no one else knows why I’m feeling like this because no one knows who this lady is. I didn’t tell him when I was in foster care. I didn’t tell anyone and never did. No one else knows what’s going on. But then my brother comes to me and he hugs me. He’s like this, your little nephew. I’m like, oh my goodness. And he goes, he hugs [00:15:30] me. And he whispers in my ear. He said, “I promise you we gonna be back together. I promise you. I promise you.” I had no idea they even knew I was graduating, and they were like, and every time we saw each other, it wasn’t small talk on where you been all of this. It was hug. I love you. I love you. I love you. And I remember at the end, I wanted to spend some time with them. I wouldn’t do so much.

[00:15:58] Matt: The way Slam describes it. During her teenage years, she was a little bit disconnected from her reality, but she was a fundamentally creative person. And when she went off to college, she discovered her skill as a poet.

[00:16:12] Slam: I went to the poetry organization for the first time with a friend of mine. And I remember, you know, the lady came up to me when I got there. She’s like, oh, so what do you do? We do. I was like, oh, you know, I do slam poetry. And she was like, okay, well, what’s your name, what’s your stage name? And I said, “ah, I haven’t got that.” She was like, okay, don’t worry, I got you. I got you. So she calls me up as Slam the poet or the slam poet. So then I go up there very nervous. First time ever performing in front of people like this. And back then I was performing with my eyes closed. So when I used to perform, then I close my eyes as soon as I start and I don’t open them until I end.

That’s how I used to perform them because I couldn’t, if I looked at the crowd, I couldn’t do it. And so I did the poem open my eyes, and everyone was just staring quiet. It was silent for like a few seconds. I look over at my friends. She has tears in her eyes and then everyone literally runs up to me, and just, oh my God, that was amazing, they’re hugging me clapping.

 My friend is like, oh my God, where did that come from? Who are you? She was like, you wouldn’t even the same person anymore. She’s like, you didn’t sound the same. You didn’t look the same. It’s like you, turn into a totally different person. Then this was my tough friend. So she was stuck and she had tears in her eyes. She’s like, I never heard you or anything. That was amazing. Like you were not yourself.

[00:17:46] Matt: It’s such an incredible story, especially hearing it in context of this whole childhood experience of being in foster care with your godparents, not knowing where your siblings are not knowing where your mom is, having these interactions with your mom and your siblings, and like all along, having to kind of hide yourself and shut yourself down and pretend like that whole world doesn’t exist.

And then all of a sudden you’re on this stage. And like what I’m hearing, it’s giving me goosebumps. Cause it’s like all of a sudden you just appeared, you just let part of that go, you know, you kind of let the walls down to an extent, right? Because now all of a sudden you’re letting people in because you’re talking about your story in a way that you hadn’t done. Tell me the experience of how you reconnected with your mom.

[00:18:33] Slam: She came and she spent a week with me. And so when I first saw her, I cried and we just kinda hugged for a long time, and then we just talked and we just talk and she told me, ask me whatever you want to ask me, you know, she definitely wasn’t hesitant.

She definitely wasn’t trying to hold back. She definitely came to me like, look, you can ask me what you want to ask me. I’m not going to hold anything back. If you angry, be angry. If you want to hit me, hit me. She said that. She’s like, you want to cuss me out, cussing me out. I don’t care.

[00:19:06] Lillie: And it was scary for me because her brothers and sisters are older brother and sister planned it. I don’t think that they let her know that I was going to be coming. They stayed secretive about a lot of things that was going on and I’m like, well, is she mad at me? What is she saying? I mean, it’s just all kind of stuff. Like, I don’t know y’all I don’t know. It’s like mama, she really want to see you. She just as scared as you are. I’m like, but, I don’t know yall. And like, mama, come on, come on. This is our surprise to her. And when I got there, it’s like, I didn’t see this 21 year old. I still saw my baby is he remembered me. She remembered me.

It was 21 years old, and I didn’t really know her. All I knew was my baby.

[00:20:11] [Slam Anderson recites the third and final segment of her poem, “My Need for Change.”]

[00:21:57] Matt: I want to ask you one last question, just kind of looking out into the future. And there are a lot of families that are going through similar kinds of experiences that you went through years ago. And for those of us who are in this work and working with families, what do you want us to know? What do you want us to do?

[00:22:14] Lillie: I understand the children are vulnerable. But I would like the system to not be so quick to turn the parents into monsters because anything can happen to a child in a foster home in three weeks and three days and three months; you don’t just take away everything that they know over a phone call or an accusation. Find a way to come in and help the family as a whole first and observe and see.

[00:22:59] Matt: I want to say thank you again to Slam and Lillie for making time to tell their story on our show. Their story is a complicated one, but it’s also a common one. And rather than getting into the details of what happened to them, I think what’s most important as a takeaway from this story is actually what was missed.

What did we miss when we engaged with Lillie and her family for the first time, did we see the love that this mother had for her children? Did we see how connected her children were to her? And do we do the right things to really help Lillie and help her family stay together? Or did we see the circumstances of a mom, single mom raising her kids, living in poverty?

And instead of supporting her, we separated her from the most important thing in her life. 14 years later, she came back together with her daughter and they found that they still remembered each other. They still loved each other. And here they are today showing us what’s possible. When we see and hear families for who they truly.

[00:24:10] Isaiah: Hey everyone, thank you guys so much for listening to today’s episode, we would love to see and hear from you. So go to SeenandHeardPodcast.com for videos, articles, and additional clips about our guests and topics that we discussed on the show. 

We also want to know how these stories are influencing your work. So be sure to rate us and leave a review. I’m Isaiah Strozier, and I’m a part of the creative team here at Seen and Heard, but I’m not by myself. We have Executive Producer, Michael Osborne, Editorial Assistance from Paige Williams, Mixing and Mastering Sound Design, all by Morgan Honaker and our Composer is Christian Haigis.

Thank you guys so much for listening to this week’s episode, and I hope to see you next week.

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