Posted on 28 March 2016 Return
“No matter what you like, start somewhere, get out there and do something remarkable.” Yvonne Pointer
Yvonne Pointer is a nationally known anti-violence activist, author, motivational speaker, philanthropist, and member of the Ohio Women's Hall of Fame. She is the founder of Positive Plus, a support group for women who have lost children through violence, and co-founder of Parents against Child Killing. In 1984, her daughter Gloria was raped and murdered by a man named Hernandez Warren as she made her way to school. Gloria was just 14. The Gloria Pointer Teen Movement Initiative, founded by Anthony Tay, a young Ghanaian whom Pointer helped gain an education, supports West African youth in obtaining an education and a healthy lifestyle. Yvonne Pointer lives in.
What was the first thing you did in terms of community activism and how hard was it to get a foothold and raise awareness and get things happening?
Well the very first thing I did was work with a local radio station, at that time it was WZAK. And they did a program called Stranger Danger, where we would enter schools and talk to young kids about being safe, because Gloria was murdered on her way to school, so my immediate concern were the children that were still walking to school. School was starting early and I was concerned about their safety, so that was the very first thing. And it wasn’t that difficult to start because the radio station was already concerned about kids and safety. So I just kind of partnered with them.
Were they aware of your daughter’s story?
Absolutely. At that time there was a tremendous media outcry. So they were fortunate that I was willing to lend my voice to their efforts.
What do you currently do that is at the community level in Cleveland?
In Cleveland I have a scholarship to the College Now program. It has been in existence since 1991. I provide $2,000 annually for the college education of a female from the inner city who’s interested in going to college. I speak to students in schools and serve as a mentor for them. We have my 30-year support group called Positive Plus. You can see that on my website [www.yvonnepointer.com]. We go to prisons and work with the inmates. We just had an event this past Saturday where some of the members from Positive Plus took young people into the prisons to work with a program called Dope is For Dopes, where the inmates work with the youths to try to prevent them from coming into prison.
And Parents Against Child Killing, which you co-founded, is that local or national?
That’s local. It’s tied in with Positive Plus. In the beginning it was separate. But now the people who come to Positive Plus are people who’ve been victimized by violence, including domestic violence relationships. Some of them are former inmates. Some have issues with drug addiction. So we try to help with restoring their lives.
Has the whole experience of leading an activist life made you look at activism and community service differently than before you were involved?
Yes, because I believe that one person can make a difference. But you have to be involved to do that. So a lot of times people think the problem might be too big and they can’t do anything about it. But if every one person did something, it wouldn’t be very much for any of us to do. If everybody just did something. You know how to eat an elephant, right? You eat it one bite at a time. Yes, it is too big if you look at it, but if you do it one bite at a time – if I took a bite, if you took a bite, if other people took a bite, we’d get the job done.
Do you think there’s a need to raise awareness amongst people that there’s so much to be done?
Well, I think if people stopped looking at people like myself as someone with superhuman abilities and start seeing that we are average people, ordinary people doing extraordinary things, then we could see how everyone could do something. So hopefully articles like this will spark people to get involved. When we look at the news and things that are happening, we’re past the point of shaking our heads and saying, “That’s too bad.” No, the question should be, “How can I help to eradicate this situation?” Whether it’s domestic violence, whether it’s hunger in Africa, whether it’s community violence…whatever it is, we should all feel empowered to do something.
On your website, you describe yourself as an anti-violence activist. What do you think are the keys to instilling an anti-violence attitude in other people?
Well, most of the time, unfortunately, you have to be personally impacted by it. Otherwise, you don’t feel the longevity of the blunt-force trauma. So I would rather not have anybody involved because that means that you haven’t been impacted. But it’s up to those of us who have been impacted to do something about it.
Does it help the cause speaking at schools and getting the message to kids while they’re younger?
Yes it does, because it seems to me that the generations are getting more violent at an earlier age. So that means we do have to start younger when you look at some of the young people who are just doing violent things. You wonder, “Well where did this come from at such a young age?” So I think as early as kindergarten – and probably before then – we need to start speaking to young people about staying away from violence.
I watched your biographical video on your website and you seem to have a very calm attitude towards your daughter’s killer, rather than just pure anger. Is compassion a necessity for people who struggle for their rights and those of others?
Let me say that, without the compassion and peace, there’d have been two victims in this case. So, by God’s grace, I was able to not be the second victim. And through love and forgiveness, that’s the only recourse for the road to freedom. Because if you remain bitter and angry, it’s almost like you’re drinking a vile of poison but expecting another person to die. That’s just what it’s like – if I’m going to hate you, in reality I’m doing more harm to myself. So the real punishment is love, if you want to know. It is.
You mentioned in your video that you would like to speak to the man who murdered your daughter. Did you ever get the chance to do that?
We are currently in the process of doing that. It should be any day now. *
I think that’s a brave and important thing to do.
And you know what? Let me just say: I have no intention of speaking to him regarding her homicide or the crime. I don’t want to know the details. What I think I need to express – and if you get a chance, Google my comments to him in the courtroom; there’s a lot of stuff out there. See, I didn’t even use my Victim’s Impact Statement to talk about what he did. My brother was really upset and ready to dance on his grave. But I said to him, just like in the book of Genesis, Joseph and his brothers, they meant it for evil, but God meant it for good. So what I need to speak to [my daughter’s killer] about are all the things that happened, not because she died, but because she lived. Because she existed. All of the programs that have come from that. He just sees her as a body at the bottom of a stairwell, but I need to tell him who she really is and was. That’s my point for talking.
That makes sense.
Right. And guess what. We’re in the process of writing a book about the journey. And there’s a German film producer already doing the screenplay. We could never understand why we couldn’t end the book – this is before he was arrested. So now we see that that is the ending. So the meeting will be the final chapter, the conclusion. So we wanted to video tape our meeting for accuracy. He has agreed to the meeting but not to the video. And I couldn’t understand why. So I’m going back and forth with the prison: “Why can’t we video this?” You know what [Hernandez Warren] said? “Because I’ve been working in the prison for 25 years, the prisoners love me. Miss Pointer, they love me.” So he’s fearful for his life. So if he does the video, that’s going to put his face in front of them. And I’d never thought about it like that. I said: “So you’re still concerned about yourself and your safety?” So he has agreed to the conversation, and we can take notes, but he did not agree to the video. I have personally spoken to some of the inmates and said that I would receive no satisfaction from them doing harm, so leave him alone.
You’ve won several awards and received quite a bit of recognition. But I know that you’ve also mentioned that, despite all of those things, at times it’s still hard for you to keep going. Would you comment on that?
Yes. This is something that you take to your grave; it does not go away. I was just in California last week and I spoke to a mother for over an hour who had two children murdered. And she just talked about how tired she was. And I told her to steady her pace because this is a lifelong journey. The longing for your child will never go away. You learn how to put one foot in front of the other, by God’s grace. And for me, service is what saved my life. My reason to get out of bed. To groom myself. So I say to people, “Pace yourself and then find something greater than yourself to get involved with, and that will help you to live.” Everybody doesn’t want to do service though, I have to tell you. And I have literally seen people die a second death. So you’ve got to say, “I shall not die but live!” What do I have to do to live. That’s the question. What do I have to do to live and move into acceptance that my child will never come back again, and died a violent death? Now, that thought alone can take you to your grave, I kid you not. I have a friend here who lost seven grandchildren and a daughter in a fire that was intentionally set. The person set the fire knowing the kids and everybody were in the house! So she’s had several nervous breakdowns and been committed. And I understand because it’s enough to make you lose your mind. But you say, “How do I live and not die?” When you look at the kid’s in Africa [the Gloria Pointer Teen Movement Initiative], when you look at all the work, they may feel that it’s benefiting them but in actuality I’m the one that’s being benefited. It’s helping me to live. You take that away and what do you have? Oh you have a car, you have a house, you have clothes… that stuff is irrelevant.
In terms of both skills you’ve gained and learning about people, what are some of the most important things you’ve learned doing your work as an activist?
I’ve learned that one person can make a difference. But you just have to find your place, your purpose, your passion, and get busy doing it. I didn’t know how to swim. I’m an adult – an older adult – and I wanted to learn how to swim. So I go to the recreation center, and it was so funny, I get in the water but I don’t want my face wet. Water got in my face and I grabbed a towel and dried my face off. And the instructor said, “What are you doing?” And I said, “I don’t want this water in my face.” And she said, “Well how are you going to learn to swim?” So finally, she said, “I need you to submerge your head under the water.” And I resisted. But finally, I said to myself, “You came here to learn how to swim. You cannot resist the process.” So I did it. And once I learned to get back and forth across the pool, I was done. I don’t need to swim the ocean, I just needed to use that to learn how not to resist the process. You know, life is a process. I was in California this week. I was at a forensic science conference. They had people from all around the world: DNA experts, biologists… Why did I have to do there? I was talking to them about process, and the impact of recovery. The importance of what they do, that’s their purpose, that’s their passion, and when you find your purpose, your passion, and then you can add to the world. If you’re a scientist, be a scientist. Whatever. Just find what it is and get busy doing it.
Do you have any tips for activists in terms of motivating people?
The only thing I can say to them is to be a light. You know, the world is dark. You become a light. And if they become a light, other people will follow. I think the reason people don’t do a lot of things is because it’s so dark. Why do people follow Yvonne Pointer? Because I’m lighting a path! “C’mon, look! Here’s a way over here!” And then people have to trust you.
Let’s imagine a young black person comes to you and they’ve seen the light. They want to devote part of their life to helping others. But it’s a very new idea to them and they don’t know how to start, they don’t know what to do. What would you say to them?
Well, without sounding like a cliché, you start by putting one foot in front of the other. Let’s say a local school, and someone sees the kids going to school every day, and they say, “Oh those bad kids stepped on my grass,” “Those bad kids put trash in my yard,” “Oh look at that dirty coat that that bad kid had on,” “I’m going to go up to that school!” Well, why don’t you say, I’m going to go up to that school and volunteer so-many hours a week. You don’t have to start big. I’ll tell you about one thing that I did. On my street there was a little boy who was always being bullied. And the bigger, rambunctious kids were always picking on him. So I would go to the library and get books. And then I would call this little boy that was being bullied, and we would sit on my porch and I would just read to him. And then, one time, I saw this beautiful racecar in a Goodwill and I brought it to my home and gave it to him. The other kids would tell him, “Ah, Miss Pointer’s spending all that time with you! Miss Pointer gave him something!” And I told him, “You’re special.” And you know he grew up and got into acting and writing plays… Now what did that cost me? It cost me absolutely nothing. So when people look at where to start in activism, again, don’t look at the elephant and the size of it. Just take one bite. So maybe it’s in your church, maybe it’s in your school, maybe it’s in your community…what is the need there? It doesn’t take intelligence, because if it did I wouldn’t be able to do it. I tell people I’m not the sharpest knife in the drawer. But you won’t find anybody more willing. Who builds a school in Africa? C’mon! When you think about it, all you see is the elephant, right? How is it possible? I live in Cleveland, I have a job, I’m not Oprah Winfrey-rich! I wish I was! When I look at it, all I can say is I’m willing. People just have to be willing. And once you are willing, I think, God, the universe, takes over. Just be willing to be used like a vessel. Is it domestic violence? What is it that when you hear about and it really disturbs you inside? Is it literacy? What is it? I just heard about all those kids in Kenya being murdered…and I’m ready to do something! My mother used to say, “You can’t leave your footprints in the sand because the water washes them out.” But then, I say to those young activists you’re talking about, at least make a footprint.
Would you have any other advice for minority activists?
I would just tell them: The world is waiting on you. You are the person who can make a difference. If you’re waiting on the knight in shining armor to come, just know that you are it.
Yvonne has since visited Hernandez Warren. She says: “There was no hatred there. None. He wanted people to know that he is not a monster. And I told him I’d make sure I said that. And then I asked if I could sing him a song, and so I did. He told me he thinks about Gloria every day. I told him, ‘I’m not here to talk about Gloria. I’m here to talk about how do we save children in the future.’ To the people who would say, ‘I can’t believe you’d even want to talk to him,’ I would say, kind of like Malcolm X used to say: ‘By any means necessary.’ I think if we start talking about solutions to crime and violence and destruction, we might have to do something different.”