Feature Story: A mother's healing message of resilience during a season that can be both joyful and mournful

(December 21, 2017) BOSTON — Lola Alexander is frequently called mom on the streets of Dorchester, Boston’s largest neighborhood and a community that has served as her home for more than 50 years. And of all of the responsibilities and positions that she holds in her community, it’s that title of mother that she treasures most.

“Mothers carry some netting like a spider web,” she said recently during a volunteer shift at Mothers for Justice and Equality’s (MJE) Roxbury office, a warm place with walls covered in violet paint and framed pictures of parents working to transform their communities from the inside out. “Mothers just keep covered and hovered over their children. Mothers carry so much love and forgiveness. Mothers know how to separate hurt from pain and hurt from anger through the exhaustion.” 

To those who know her, Alexander is also the definition of grace. She has a warm smile, a knack for cooking Southern specialties including her signature seafood stuffing and macaroni and cheese (family recipes handed down during her childhood in Alabama), and a history of having to forgive and move forward. 

“Sometimes we go to bed at night, but that doesn’t mean we go to sleep because we’ve still got to fix and figure out — and we’re going to be tired the next day — but some way, we make it through,” she said with a passionate whisper. “We seem to have endurance power in us. A woman doesn’t care about race, color, creed, or whatever. Sometimes you need that hug. Sometimes you need encouragement. I don’t need to know your problems, but I know your spirit. I feel you.”

While Alexander, a breast cancer survivor, describes her life today as the strongest it’s ever been, she has faced dark days that would seem unimaginable to most.

The mother of six children — three girls and three boys — first lost a daughter to cancer, an illness that Alexander said had devastated her and the children who had remained gathered around their sister “at all times” through a brave battle. The family’s perseverance was severely tested again in 2001, a year when Alexander lost two of her beloved sons to street violence, the kind of senseless acts that happen all too often in Boston and throughout the country, according to Mothers for Justice staff.

Jamarr Alexander, a 19-year-old who had brought joy and laughter to community members of all ages, Lola Alexander said, was her first son, her “baby son,” to be deceased. Less than two months later, Alexander’s oldest son, Kenya Alexander, a young man she described as the protector of her entire family, passed away. 

“When they took his life, I felt like I would never survive again,” she said.

And yet she has. Alexander has managed to overcome her darkest days by making community service her life’s work. By sharing her journey with others, she hands over a gift of hope and an idea that if she can find joy again, then perhaps just about anyone else can too.

“I have endurance power because I listen to that sacred voice of the universe, which speaks to me and says, ‘Let go, be happy, be joyful,’” she said. “Everything will work out. Just persevere. Just continue to push forward in life. When I see my grandchildren, I have joy. When I speak to my children who are living, I have joy in my heart. When I see my neighbor’s children and hear the children talking to one another outside, that gives me joy. They’ve taken from me but I also give back. I know I’m not in this alone. There are so many of us who have lost. Grace has given me the endurance power to stand here and say that just to wake up in the morning and say hello to someone means so much.”

Alexander said that the journey toward forgiveness wasn't always such a clear and obvious path, and that letting herself move through a wide range of emotions — a phase that went on for years following the passing of three of her children — was the critical first step. The most pivotal transition from dark to light feelings had come in the form of an invitation to take a MJE “You Matter” course, she said.

“The weight — the load — that was on my shoulders was gone,” she said. “I knew how to express myself; where to find myself. All of my life came back. The ‘You Matter’ class is the most awesome thing that has ever happened to me in my life.”

These days, in addition to her volunteerism at MJE, where she is a liaison between the organization and the community members it serves, Alexander is part of a trauma response team for the Mattapan Community Health Center and a counselor of hope for the Boston Public Health Commission. In this month of December, her work carries a special message for all people who find themselves missing a loved one during the holidays.

“Just push through. Find something you enjoy doing. If it’s laughter; if it’s going to a movie; if it means going for a walk; if it means speaking to a friend,” she said. “It’s painful to lose, especially tragically, but unfortunately we can’t control everything. We have to be ready to surrender our lives. We have to be ready to reach our hands out to other people because we are all human.”

Since taking MJE’s “You Matter” course, doors have continued to open for Alexander, she said. In November, Alexander served as a panelist for MJE’s third annual national conference, a Boston-based gathering of parents from around the country that featured a keynote speech from Boston Mayor Marty Walsh, a supporter of the organization. This month, Alexander’s story is being told as part of a nonpartisan initiative called “The Good News Experiment.” The program was created by MJE’s Founder and President Monalisa Smith and writer Andrea Cale, author of The Corn Husk Experiment, a novel that carries a similar theme of emphasizing connections to one another — instead of differences — through five relatable characters who experience common ups and downs. 

As part of “The Good News Experiment,” Smith leverages her community connections to identify neighborhood innovators — the helpers — while Cale tells their stories. 

At the close of a year that has often emphasized division among people, Smith said “The Good News Experiment” is needed to focus instead on our likeness to one another and highlight the work of honorees like Alexander.

“So many times, stories like Lola’s are depicted as ‘another son lost,” said Smith, who lost her own nephew to Boston street violence. “The untold, bigger story is the amazing growth that comes from women after they lose something so precious. This is an international story. Through ‘The Good News Experiment,’ we start to show the faces.” 

And just last week — less than a mile away from MJE’s office — a triple shooting occurred near Tobin Community Center on Tremont Street in Roxbury Crossing after a game of basketball, leaving a 20-year-old dead and two more in critical condition. 

As MJE staff busily wrapped gifts for community children in an adjacent room, MJE Marketing Coordinator Sherly Veras asked Alexander what she would say to local mothers rocked by the most recent incidents of street violence.  

Alexander, who stands today as a loving grandmother and great-grandmother to more than two dozen children — including three who bear a likeness to their beloved late fathers Jamarr and Kenya — took in a deep breath before eloquently going to work.

“Let your feelings be your feelings for right now. Don’t try to control yourself. You have to let go and let your feelings come on through. Whether it’s anger, whatever. Know that there’s a change there, but we don’t have to stay there. Know that it’s painful, but pains are not going to stay there forever. Know that you’re loved. Know that your child that you lost is the love of your life because you gave birth to him. Know that you will continue to have those feelings once in a while, but you will begin to heal and you will begin to let go and begin to search this universe for help for yourself.” 

“We have to move,” she continued. “There’s no set time for you to move, but you know, you’ll get a wink in the eye when you’ve got to move in the morning and it’s time to wake up and it’s time to get up. Don’t let depression, oppression, sorrow, sadness keep you in that place. Don’t deny it, but don’t let it keep you in that dark place. Come out into the light. Search for help. If you come to MJE, you will get help. From the core, you will never be the same person that you were when you stepped through this door. I will say that from the bottom of my heart.”   

Written by Andrea Cale

For more information on Mothers for Justice and Equality’s services, please visit mothersforjusticeandequality.org 

Lola Alexander, The Good News Experiment's first neighborhood innovator honoree, is being recognized for her inspiring service to others after overcoming tragedy. Video montage is courtesy of Mothers for Justice and Equality.