Two decades ago, Christine Smith of St. Paul was at a crossroads. The divorced mother of two in her early 20s felt she had to decide between being the mother she wanted to be and pursuing a career. Turns out, she didn't have to choose. Smith found the Jeremiah Program, a national nonprofit based in Minneapolis whose mission is helping single moms find success in the workplace and on the home front. The program has served 4,000 mothers and children since its founding in 1993, with seven campuses across the country. With her children now grown, healthy and happy, 42-year-old Smith is the health equity and tribal grants supervisor for the Minnesota Department of Health. She's also working on her second master's degree and is in the midst of a 12-month leadership program through the Jeremiah Program to help build a movement centered on supporting single moms experiencing poverty.
Q: Tell me about your background and your family.
A: That's an entire encyclopedia! I'm born and raised in St. Paul, grew up in the Rondo community. I'm a descendant of George Bonga, one of the first Africans in Minnesota — a Black Indian fur trader, and one of the first people of African descent born in the part of the Northwest Territory that later became the state of Minnesota. I'm a descendant of Red Lake Nation and White Earth Nation. I'm Ashkenazi Jewish. My mom was adopted by Norwegian folks. So I have a very multicultural background. We live in a very racialized world. I'm not all Black, I'm not all Native, and I'm not all white — I'm in-between all three. I've learned to accept that in myself.
Q: That must have been tough to navigate as a kid.
A: Super tough. I was bullied quite a bit, and I didn't understand why. I switched schools four times and dropped out when I was 16. My parents had divorced. In combination with dealing with bullying in every school I went to, I didn't have the capacity to focus in school. I met my husband when I was 20. I was 21 when I got pregnant with my first kid. We were married three years, and I was a stay-at-home mom. There was a lot of dysfunction in our relationship. He was 12 years older than me and recovering from drug addiction. He relapsed when my daughter was 18 months old and my son was 9 months old. He didn't come home for a week. I was terrified of being a single mom. I was terrified of being poor with my children. I tried to hang onto the marriage.
Q: Sounds like a terrible situation.
A: I knew I needed my education to get a better job. I'd been going to parenting classes and therapy, and they recommended I check out the Jeremiah Program (jeremiahprogram.org). I thought it was too good to be true. I was crashing with my kids on a blowup mattress on my mom's living room floor. That's not a livable long-term situation. And when I went through empowerment courses, I had an epiphany that I had to make choices to change my kids' lives so they didn't repeat the cycles I had in my life. So I divorced my husband and joined the Jeremiah Program.
Q: How did that decision affect you?
A: I experienced homelessness for a couple weeks before I could move in. But then I moved into a beautifully furnished three-bedroom apartment in downtown Minneapolis. I was on the top floor. My kids remember just sitting in the living room watching the sun set every night. I was met with so much generosity and love and kindness when I entered, it was just overwhelming. They had a basket of supplies for me, things I didn't know I needed. You're in crisis mode, and you don't think about mops and sponges and that stuff. I felt secure that I had a village to surround me and my children.
Q: That sounds life-changing.
A: It really was. I have faith. I believe in divine energy, that I'm protected and that things will be OK. But I believe the Jeremiah Program was one of those things brought into my life that helped me get to where I am today. In the four years I lived there, I was able to think about going to school, taking care of my kids, planning for the future, and not just thinking about surviving — which is what I'd felt my whole life. I didn't know what it felt like to feel safe in your own home. When you grow up in an alcoholic and domestic violence household, that's what you know.
Q: How's life today?
A: I'm living my dream. All the seeds that were planted in my life, from the Jeremiah Program and other organizations, all the cultivating I did to help grow those seeds, I have a harvest now. I have abundance. I have a job I love. I also do consulting work for systems addressing equity within organizations to eliminate disparities for Black and Native communities. And my kids are doing well. They're not following the traditional path, but I didn't follow the traditional path either.
Q: So you're paying it forward.
A: Absolutely. I'm open. I'm always a person where you take that step out there and you don't know what you don't know. In mentorship, if I can help encourage another woman or other women in their journey, that would be a wonderful outcome. You have a separate system that addresses education, and health, and services, etc. It's very siloed. But human lives aren't siloed. As a human, you need food, housing, safety, all these things, and that's what children need in order to thrive. I feel like the Jeremiah Program is the best approach for addressing this, whether it be long-term homelessness or educational disparities or poverty or even domestic violence. It's having that holistic approach. It's so important to have a village in raising our children.