By Rev. Nikia Smith Robert, Ph.D.
When fifteen years old, my mother conceived her firstborn in abject poverty, and by early adulthood, she gave birth to me. By the age of twelve, I received the first parcel my brother sent me while he was in prison. Hellbent on disrupting intergenerational struggle, my mother would go to any length, including bending rules and breaking laws, to desperately ensure that the encroaching economic destitution and looming darkness of a nefarious criminal system did not eclipse the future possibilities for her children’s survival and social thriving. She developed what ethicist Katie Geneva Cannon called “living an ethics under oppression.” My mother drew from a value system that inverted dominant standards so that her agentic survival practices were not dictated by negative social perceptions of deviance and an unjust legal system. Rather, her community and children appraised her self-directed actions as sources of salvation and moral integrity.
As I reflect upon the experiences of indigent Black mothers—like my own, who break laws to provide for their families—I consider the ways in which their unlawful survival strategies demonstrate a subversive style of leadership that is instructive for connecting unwavering faith in a liberating God with moral agency to overcome death-dealing circumstances fraught by social inequities, a pervasive carceral state, and the dismal reality that “we were never meant to survive.”1
Abolitionist Sanctuary is a nonpartisan nonprofit grassroots organization that emerges from my mother’s story and the lived experiences of other impoverished Black mothers who bend rules and break laws to survive and secure the quality of life for themselves and their families against unjust social conditions. We created a theology and ethic of abolition that reappraises Black mothers’ moral decision-making—not as vice but virtue, not as deviant but as a source of moral integrity, not as bad or criminal but as salvation. My mother saved our lives when she did whatever necessary to ensure there was food on the table, clothes on our back, and a roof over our head. Her agentic survival practices do not make her a bad person, but it reveals the atrocities of a broken system that makes it nearly impossible for some people to meet their basic needs in one of the wealthiest nations in the world.
Our organization begins with Black motherhood and continues to advocate for impoverished Black mothers by training Black-serving churches, civic organizations, and educational institutions to repair these harms, restore relationships, and rebuild more just and equitable systems for communal flourishing.