Humanity encompasses a wide array of experiences, feelings, and interactions, all of which are intrinsically woven together by perspectives and values. The recalling of our humanity is our story. Each of us has one. Our stories are similar in the fact that we are all experiencing humanity, yet deeply different in the actual experiences themselves. Poetic, isn’t it? That we’re all experiencing living together, yet no one can live exactly the way you do.
As I sat down with Erin Hutchins on an unsurprisingly warm February Saturday in Auburn, Alabama, this sentiment echoed in my head. As a black woman and Alabama native whose number one priority is loving others, she has quite a story. A story that, thankfully for the rest of the world, is far from over.
”Growing up in the south was… I guess you could say was a ‘two-ness.’ There are times when things are hard, and then you also have this positive feeling toward it. So you take the good with the bad.”
Erin grew up in Anniston, Alabama with supportive parents who sometimes double as her closest friends. Each day she grows more thankful for them and her close relationship with them. “They’re my best friends, honestly. I love them that much.” Growing up, she recalled often being the only black person in her classes as she attended private Christian schools. This shaped a perspective of the South that can only be described as, in her words, a “two-ness.” Erin expresses a sense that the South is her home and her comfort zone, but it’s complicated by the problems facing this region. There’s the comfort of Southern hospitality and delicious food but there’s also regressive governments and social expectations. A true “two-ness” indeed. “One thing that was hard growing up in the South—but that I actually found to be an American thing, not unique to here—was always having to defend my blackness.” From dealing with classmates who often teamed up against those who, as she said, were not the ‘norm’ in her schools all the way to supporting another black friend who had a racist slur keyed into his car, Erin recalled the hardest part of growing up in Alabama: racism. Erin had many situations in school that demanded her to prove herself to her white peers, even when she knew she was more informed or more talented than they were. “I knew I was smarter than most of my classmates, but still I was having to prove myself to them often. It was a little exhausting.” She also found herself fighting racism in the classroom as teachers used scripture to describe interracial marriages and biracial children as having “come from sin” as a biracial student was sitting in the classroom—a situation that actually caused her to leave a class in the ninth grade. “I couldn’t believe they were saying that, with my biracial classmate sitting right there! I knew I couldn’t do it anymore.”
When Erin moved to Albany, Georgia, after college at the age of 24, she had absolutely no idea what she was getting into, but she knew that the experience was going be worth it. “It was my first job and I just kind of took a leap into it. I decided to just take it head on,” she recalled. First, she served as an Americorps VISTA for a year before accepting a new position for an afterschool program. As a 21st Century Learning Center grant coordinator, she ran an afterschool extended learning program for students facing poverty and poor school performance--and she managed the program on her own. These grants are allocated from the U.S. Department of Education to states, then to school systems to be used for the creation of “learning centers that provide academic enrichment opportunities during non-school hours for children, particularly students who attend high-poverty and low-performing schools,” according to the U.S. Department of Education website. These centers essentially attempt to combat the effects of poverty and low school performance for children within the program. Erin never took this large responsibility for granted.
Though much younger than the other staff, she quickly caught onto the learning curve that was both managing a full program with staff as well as federal grant reporting—here’s a hint: it was a lot of paperwork. The program nearly tripled during her tenure, and she couldn’t have been prouder of her efforts.
Erin’s face lit up when she talked about this experience specifically. As you hear her talk about the kids in Albany during her years there, you know a piece of her heart still resides there. She recalled this job to be the first time she ever understood truly how lucky she was. Poverty was not something Erin faced growing up, so this experience was particularly shocking--and it transformed her world view. “I realized that my upbringing and the parents I have made all the difference for me.”
She recalled a specific instance in which a student took some money from a teacher. She knew, however, that this student wasn’t just taking the money to take it. He actually took the money and bought necessities from the local grocery store like soap and food for his family. “I knew he was the oldest kid in the family, and that he was taking the money so that he could take care of his brothers and sisters.” Erin’s smile faded a bit as she told this story. She remembered how difficult that situation was, telling the student, “I know it’s not fair and I know you need it really badly, but you can’t take others’ money.”
This was the reaction Erin always had towards her students: understanding and compassion. She expected her staff to do the same. Poverty is an all encompassing life situation--those that worked for her as teachers and staff had to understand that too. She told her staff often that they had to come into this job being ‘whole’ and she always led by example for them, even when it was hard. And she meant it.
”I was never really that whole. I faked it a lot of the time, but mostly because I needed people to understand...To be whole is really just to keep yourself centered, and keep your eyes focused on what it really is we’re doing here. This is not anything light that we’re doing here. These are lives that we have in our hands. What you do matters. So… that’s why you need to be whole.”
Though Erin deeply loved her job, she often felt that her impact wasn’t enough. She recalled this time in her life as touched by depression. “I was, I don’t know… I guess I was depressed during this time now that I look back at it. It was a really hard time, even though I loved the kids. It was hard to leave the work at work.” She had thoughts that the intersecting issues of race, poverty, and education were too wide-scale to fix. The knowledge that she could only serve a couple hundred students for only a couple of hours a day was overwhelming. “I couldn’t help but think that this was only one city, one school district. There were millions more students like this—even more students in Albany who weren’t getting the help. How do you even begin to fix that?”
Nevertheless, Erin showed up to work every day, did her best to be the best for her students and staff, and no doubt made a difference in their lives. Even when it meant faking “wholeness.” When it was time to move on from that job, Erin came away with an even stronger, more resilient spirit. Erin believes wholeheartedly in others—even when faced with overwhelming adversity. That experience met her with the hardest choices she ever had to make, and she grew from them. “I could talk about this job all day, honestly. So much of me is still there.”
Now, Erin is in a different position, but still facing many of the same themes she’s seen in the past: racism, adversity, working to improve a system, and more. As a black woman working for diversity within an institution, Erin now finds herself fighting the same fight she was in Albany—just in a different space. Though it can be particularly frustrating being a black woman in a majority white space working for diversity, the job is important to her. She often finds herself wishing that others would do more to educate themselves when met with uncomfortable situations.
“Use your discomfort to grow and learn. Educate yourself on cultures and issues that you’re not familiar with. Get to know others. That’s what I wish for others.”
Despite the frustration, she’s still optimistic. Though it will take some time, she believes that institutions can become more welcoming and diverse for all who inhabit them—a ”sanctuary for all.” With her dedication and optimism, Erin exemplifies what it will take to make it happen.
On a more personal level, Erin is always laughing and having fun. She chooses to always be completely authentic and honest with others, even when met with pushback. Coined “Crunk Juice” during her undergrad career, Erin knows how to liven up a room by just being in it. Though she does note that there are ‘up days’ and ‘down days’—and wishes that others understood that as well. Smiling isn’t always a necessity in her life, and that’s what makes her human.
She knows the future has a lot in store and she takes it day by day, with her number one driving force being loving and understanding others.
Erin is just one face of Foreword South and this is her story… So far.