When you meet Ashley, you notice immediately how effortless her charisma seems. She is invitingly confident and has the sort of laughter that shakes a room.
The first time I met her, I almost wanted to turn to the heavens and say, “I’ll have what she’s having.”
Speak to her for five minutes, and you soon realize how deliberate she has been in developing a world for herself where she has the support to confront any barrier, the grace to celebrate life as it comes, and the ingenuity to cultivate that sense of well-being for the people she serves.
Then, it’s no surprise that she defines her “people” as anyone who is in a helping profession: teachers, counselors, therapists, or social workers like herself.
Even as the presence of social workers becomes increasingly ubiquitous in the public and private sectors, there is still a stigma around the title “social worker”; I immediately wanted to know why Ashley chose the field. For her, the concept of working with children and families – the thought which turns many away from the field – is what drew her. As a child, the social worker from Catholic Social Services in a yellow VW bug who brought her brother into her family became a model for her of what she wanted to spend the rest of her life doing.
“i thought, i have to have a volkswagen, be a social worker, and save the world.”
She may not have gotten the Volkswagen she wanted, but the Cochran family has been supportive of Ashley’s goals from the start.
Despite being born in Selma and spending her early childhood in Germany, Millbrook, Alabama is where Ashley was raised, and more importantly, where she calls home. Millbrook is a quiet suburb that sits north of Montgomery, but Ashley had more than her fair share of activities to be involved in: Girl Scouts, JROTC, cheerleading, marching band, dance team, and Upward Bound.
After graduating from high school, Ashley enrolled into the Social Work program at Alabama State University, a historically black institution where she found a sense of community that differed from the town she called home. “Growing up in Millbrook, the schools are predominantly white, so when there were black students taking advanced classes, there were only a few. At Alabama State, where everyone is black – you’re in a classroom where everyone’s advanced. It was a family atmosphere, not competitive. Everyone tried to help everybody so that we all got to the end.” After graduating with her BSW degree, Ashley went to the University of Connecticut where she received her Master of Social Work and immediately began her career.
“when i go into people’s homes, i bring a lot of information. i don’t have money, i don’t have healthcare, i don’t have food. i don’t have the tangible things that people need. and they’re afraid, you know? and i’m afraid.”
As a social worker, Ashley has an opportunity to see varieties and shades of life that many of us overlook. When I ask her what concerns her most in the world around her, she answers, “After the recent election, I’m concerned, not about myself personally, or my taxes, or the things we worry about when we elect officials – I’m just concerned about the welfare and wellbeing of people who are in need.” She lists the social services that people rely on to lead healthy lives: food stamps, Medicaid, the Affordable Care Act. “When I go into people’s homes, I bring a lot of information. I don’t have money, I don’t have healthcare, I don’t have food. I don’t have the tangible things that people need. And they’re afraid, you know? And I’m afraid.”
Societies are hurting in the midst of punitive policies that have the most impact on those who are vulnerable. In Alabama, the state faces a budget crisis that looms over the legislature nearly every year since 2012. In some ways, Ashley sees the direct impact of how the state’s deficits hurt the people in need most.
It’s clear that Ashley has a head for policy development and macro level issues, but when she begins to talk about working directly with clients, I can tell that’s where her heart lies. She tells me she has worked with children and families, in foster care, and with the homeless. Her favorite work has been with people who are homeless; she describes the work as “raw” and laughs when she reflects on the clients who “lay it all out there.” Above all, her clients taught her not to judge – she has met people in dire straits who were doctors and lawyers, and describes the heartbreaking ways that people struggle with drug use and mental illness when they don’t have access to care.
Now, Ashley is a parent educator at a Montgomery non-profit, The Gift of Life Foundation. She works with expectant parents and parents who have infants from birth until 2 years old by visiting them in their homes and discussing theories of child development, developmental milestones, and encouraging healthy bonds between parents and their children that will have a lifetime impact. But for her, none of that is important if a client’s most basic needs are not being met. “I provide a lot of information. You can’t get information through to people when they have immediate needs. We can figure out how you’re going to eat tonight, and then we can talk about how your child is doing great with crawling.”
The whole interview, there’s been a grinning child in the room, mardi gras beads hanging from every limb, racing in circles and filling the space with laughter. That’s Jarah, Ashley’s two year old, or her twin, depending on who you ask. I ask Ashley what she hopes the world looks like for her daughter when she is an adult. We both glance over at Jarah, who has a mouth full of beads and is dancing by herself. Ashley takes a second to laugh, roll her eyes, and doesn’t hesitate to answer eloquently: “I hope there’s a world of endless possibilities. When I was growing up, my dad would always say, ‘When you grow up, we’re going to have flying cars.’ So I always believed I could do anything I wanted to. and I still believe that, but I believe it to a certain extent. And so I hope when Jarah is my age, there’s no ‘extent.’ She can just do whatever she wants to do, there’s no boundaries in being a woman, in being black, in having an ethnic name, or a country dialect. I just hope when she’s my age she believes she can do anything and there’s no buts about it.”
"and so i hope when jarah is my age, there’s no ‘extent.’ she can just do whatever she wants to do, there’s no boundaries in being a woman, in being black, in having an ethnic name, or a country dialect. i just hope when she’s my age she believes she can do anything and there’s no buts about it.”
With a toddler, Ashley explains that the support of others has become more important than ever. She believes that everyone should build a support system, and hers is comprised of her parents, her siblings, and her friends, old and new. This stalwart team helps her through the barriers she faces everyday. “I don’t feel that I’ve overcome any barriers; I’m divorced, I’m a single mother, and I’m a black woman. Those are current barriers and they affect my life every day.” In the moment, Ashley acknowledges that she pushes back against her obstacles by standing up for herself, knowing her worth, and never quitting what she starts.
On an off day, you could find Ashley centering herself in Shakespeare Park, a 77 acre park in Montgomery, Alabama that houses the Shakespeare Festival and the Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts. It’s one of her favorite places to visit in the South to meditate, and it’s where we finish our interview. In the shade of the trees, I ask Ashley what her number one hope for our society, and she simply says,
“At this point, love. I hope that there’s more love in our communities -- not for only other people, but for ourselves. When you don’t love yourself, it’s very hard to love someone else. If we loved each other, I feel like we could move forward as a community.”
We still wait for the love Ashley seeks to manifest itself on an institutional level. Until then, Ashley will continue her work, showing her clients compassion and care in the small moments, modeling what it looks like to move forward.