As a Garden Spices Contributor, Dr. Joyce Brown has graced our pages with her many insights on caregiving, education, and affirming the beauty of life. However, nothing is more heart rendering than when she lets us peek into her family’s strength, revealing the foundation for how she became the vital counselor, author, pillar of care she is. The gate opens to discover more about Dr. Joyce Brown. -Victorine
As a child, Joyce Brown was part of her extended “Box” family that transplanted from rural Arkansas to Rockford, IL. They were a part of the Great Migration, in the ’40s, when black folks traveled north for job opportunities. They were a ‘village.’ “We all lived near each other and took care of each other,” Brown recounts. “There were at least 15 families.” With the farm industry declining in Arkansas, family members would go back to Arkansas to tell others of the booming job industry in Rockford. “We had one cousin who would leave on Friday to drive to Arkansas to spread the word about factory work and come back on Sunday, ready to work on Monday,” Brown recalled. The men worked hard, but everyone contributed to the support of the village.
Even though they were all new to the area, they had to adjust to the grocery shopping, laundry, cooking, and cleaning that was different from rural area where you grew most of your food and went to “town” weekly for things you had to purchase.. All the children had “chores and expectations,” including her family of five – her mother and three sisters. “My oldest sister was the best at cleaning,” quips Brown. “After she would clean, she would put us out and make us stay out until she was ready for us to come back in.” Beyond the household chores, families came together to strengthen each other. “Men and women stepped up,” recalls Brown. “We took care of each other. When my father left, others helped us.” Some women had to work, so other women would step in and give childcare assistance. “Discipline came from family, and rewards came from family.” Everyone went to church on Sundays and Brown recalls that many ended up at her mom’s table. They were fussed at for wrongdoings and fussed over for accomplishments. Children all had adults to go to who had various roles. For example, some were the disciplinarians; some had roles as confidantes.
Growing up Joyce
As a child, Brown was always “affirmed.” She was quiet, was an avid reader, and knew how to listen. “When I went to church, I was always tapped for reading and leading programs,” recounts Brown. She truly did not like to be in trouble. In the laws of the ‘village “anybody could spank you,” says Brown. “I preferred to do quiet things like play jacks or read – stay out of trouble.” However, Brown still found trouble. Brown recalls when they climbed a neighbor’s cherry tree and broke the tree. “The best cherries were at the top,” confessed Brown. With faces red, the girls returned home to their spankings. Then, there was the towel story. “Mom was active in church and washed the towels weekly. She was working, and we found the towels. We cut them up for the best doll dresses,” laughs Brown. Mom had to replace the towels, and she spanked the girls. Education was important in the Box household.
The Box girls walked to Rock River Elementary school with packed lunches. Because of the booming industry, there were many white and black families moving to Rockford; whites bought homes, and blacks rented. The “new” school was integrated, with all white teachers. The school had a dedicated library, and by fourth grade, Brown was a Library Assistant. She was studious, and her teachers took an interest in her.
They were taught at home to listen to adults and not to cause disciplinary problems. “We did not have a lot of money, but we wore clean and appropriate clothing,” remembers Brown. Also, “We knew we weren’t always treated fairly, but we didn’t understand racism.” There were differences like white kids being “picked first” or black kids being sent to the principal for little or no reason. Their ‘village’ told them, “Because you are black, (white people) are going to suspect you, and you have to be better than…work harder, be prepared,” recounts Brown. “We couldn’t come home and say, “They don’t care or like us,” said Brown. “They don’t have to like you; you have a family that loves you. You want what they have…put your best foot forward.”
In secondary school, Brown began to understand the nuances of racism. They saw the news with Walter Cronkite, heard about Dr. Martin Luther King and the Montgomery boycott. In 1963, Brown was old enough to understand the March on Washington. “We went to Arkansas each summer. We had to travel at night,” Brown indicated. “We figured out why we could not be let out of the car; why we had to have an adult with us to go to the bathroom.” As a teenager, Brown heard adults talk about transporting people from Arkansas to shelter them from harm.
In retrospect, Brown now understands why the family men drank. “They worked hard, got their checks, bathed, and were gone,” Brown recounted. “Some gambled.” Brown now realizes many were under a lot of stress and abuse at their places of work. The village mantra was, “We want you to have better…own your own home, have money in the bank.” It was never about “do well for yourself,” but rather, “look out for each other.
The other side of racism, Brown was an adult before she would learn that her grandparents were servants of an Arkansas family that willed land to them – 9 acres and a house. This land still belongs to family cousins that now buy “black belt” property to keep it in the hands of African Americans.
Brown experienced the duality of classism in Rockford. There were black professionals – teachers, doctors, lawyers, and dentists. Some blacks owned homes, and family members that attended Historically Black Colleges and Universities, (HBCUs). “I had a black dentist that asked me a question, and I shook my head, “No,” admits Brown. “He said, “Talk to me when I ask you a question.” Again, the village influence was apparent, an elder teaching her. Brown realized that some folks from Rockford “looked down on” those from Arkansas. “That made us strive even harder,” recounts Brown. “I lived long enough to have those folks witness our family members go through college and become professionals.”
Education was essential to the Box family. Mrs. Box went to boarding school and had a high school diploma. Three out of four of the Box girls received higher education. “My older sister died at 26. I was number two. My younger sister has a Ed.D., and she was boldly vocal about education. She was a Principal and activist and tirelessly worked for change.” Her younger sister received a Bachelors degree in Business Administration and retired from the University of Illinois at Chicago College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. Brown attended Bradley University for undergraduate and graduate school, 1971-1973 and Western Michigan University for her Ph.D., 1999.
After undergraduate school, Brown went home to Rockford, worked as a counselor, and got married. Two years later, she moved to Normal, Illinois and worked at Illinois State University. “I divorced in 1983 and was working for the Tri-County Urban League. In 1987, I was offered the position of Executive Director of the Urban League in Battle Creek, Michigan,” Brown indicated. The 11 years with the Urban League allowed Brown most of her growth experience.
As a program developer and administrator, Brown “made a difference” and learned about group dynamics. Implementing community building, “I learned to look beyond narrow terms – how to work with allies that have resources.” Brown shared how to forge alliances with allies, taught how to make an impact in the community. Brown also discerned that black folks didn’t always want the same thing, no meetings of the mind. “Expectations were sometimes futile,” Brown recounts. “I worked with some folks who were militant, some not. I had to learn and show how to listen, ask questions, and speak my truth, even if it was not the same truth of people who looked like me.”
Brown also worked for eight years with the WK Kellogg Foundation. “I worked with youth and community building,” Brown indicated. “Resources were plentiful.” They did funding in the South and Delta region for years. Brown helped perspective grant recipients understand that they needed to have a “vision” for the work they were doing. “Money is cyclical; it comes and goes,” indicates Brown. “I have seen people with no money but who have a vision, go on and on.” , Brown worked as a consultant for eleven years. Due to a life-altering illness, Brown stopped actively working, but pursued some grant writing and coaching. When Brown’s mother became ill, she moved to Chicago to care for her and to be closer to her remaining sister, Brown moved to Chicago in 2013.
Brown has two children, a 47 -year old son who is an elementary school principal, with a wife and a daughter and a 41- year old daughter, who is working on her Masters in Special Education and has a 17-year-old high school graduate who will be attending Wayne State University in the fall. Aside from working and parenting, Brown has always kept a journal, and when her sister, Chip, was diagnosed with cancer, she would write. “You should be writing,” Chip encouraged, and during her sister’s last year, Brown began to write. During her period of grief, Brown stopped, and then started writing again. “It was a way to work through my grief.”
Writing has been shelter for Brown. “It has been my comfort, peace, and a way to say what I need to say.” Brown has written eight books. It makes her feel “safe. “I have a brand new editor and a new manuscript, A Winter’s Lament,” says Brown. It touches upon the LBGTQ issues within the church. “I have been watching the debate over the years and folks building brick walls,” says Brown. “This is for our community. People don’t talk to each other. The words we say are God’s word, but often taken out of context and used to judge people about things we don’t understand.” Yesterday, Brown pushed the “send” button.
-Joyce A. Brown
Joyce Brown is a motivational speaker and author who uses her creative energy to give voice and meaning to the challenges women face in all walks of life. She grew up in Rockford, Illinois in a household of strong women. She graduated from Bradley University with a B.S. and M.A. Her professional career expanded her reach into Peoria, Illinois; and Battle Creek, Michigan. Joyce obtained a PhD from Western Michigan University.
She is a proud member of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc. and has served as a direct services worker, executive director, program director for a major foundation, and an entrepreneur. Joyce has experienced many uplifting moments as a professional and as a dedicated parent and strives to bring those events and lessons to life through her characters in the contemporary fiction novels she pens.