Meet JP Alumni Fellow Brittany Block
Brittany Block, a 2014 graduate of Jeremiah Program’s St. Paul Campus and a mother of one son, discusses becoming a member of the first cohort of JP Fellows and opening her own business.
Describe your experience with Jeremiah Program.
I was at the Jeremiah Program for about 18 months. I started out with the plan to get my associates degree, mostly because I needed housing and it was the first program I found that looked like something I could do. The housing looked nice and safe. The location was really appealing to me.
School actually wasn’t on my radar, but because it was part of the Jeremiah Program, I was like, “Maybe I can do this.” So, I went and got my associates degree. During my first semester, I found a professor who put me in contact with another person that was in charge of an ASAP program (Adult Success through Accelerated Pathways). It’s a program that’s supposed to help adult learners get through college quicker. Through that program, I was able to get my associate’s degree and my bachelor’s degree in two years. And I was able to do it for about the same price, because I was able to take prior learning assessments. It was a really efficient way to use all the work experience I had and not force me to pay for it again.
It empowered me to efficiently use my time, which was part of how I was able to be as successful as I was. It cut down on the childcare. It cut down on the amount of time I had to be away from my son. I utilized the time while he was at the early childhood education center to study and sleep and clean the house and go grocery shopping and do that kind of stuff so that, when he came home at night, I was able to cook dinner and do art projects and be a mom to a toddler. I feel like I got this gift of time with my son when he’s at this incredibly precious age. But I also got the space to work on myself and really dig in and do some hard work as far as addressing some of the trauma that I had carried with me that had been passed down for generations. Jeremiah Program, and the tools that I got from there, gave me the time and the space to work through some of that stuff, but still be fully present my son and be, honestly, a better parent than I think I could have been any other way.
What is your life like now?
I just opened my barbershop. It’s a little scary. I keep freaking out about money, and then I get an email with some sort of, “Hey, can you do this project or help with this thing?” And it just always seems to be the amount of money [I need]. [I’m] practicing a lot of the stuff I learned at Jeremiah: the positive affirmations and taking the time to remind myself that I can do this. I’ve made less money and gotten myself out of it. Everyone’s struggling right now, so if I’m going to struggle, now’s the time to do it. I’m in good company. It’s hard and it’s a lot and it’s overwhelming, but this is not the hardest thing I’ve ever done.
How did you get involved with the alumni program?
I’ve done all kinds of work with Jeremiah and other campuses. It made such an impact on me that I’m just like, “Everyone needs this.” I’ve been saying to Jeremiah for a long time that there needs to be some kind of way for us to loop back to alumni and show donors how our lives have been impacted. Let us tell you how this program has changed our life and pay us to stand up and be experts in your program. Listen to us when we say, “this or that was helpful or wasn’t helpful” and “stop spending the resources on the things that were cute and thoughtful but didn’t help.” They’ve always been so responsive to the things that I’ve said.
When I left Jeremiah, I wished there was a network of people who have done the same thing. They’ve changed their life. They’ve made a different decision. Because life keeps happening. I keep checking in with Jeremiah, but not all the time. You get in a car accident or a bill comes up or a family member gets cancer or whatever the thing is: Life is going to continue to happen. And, so, to have people around you that have gone through a similar experience to be like, “You’ve got this! You can do this! And also, can I buy you coffee?” Just those little things. I’m super excited that it’s going to be a thing.
“Everyone’s struggling right now, so if I’m going to struggle, now’s the time to do it. I’m in good company. It’s hard and it’s a lot and it’s overwhelming, but this is not the hardest thing I’ve ever done.”Brittany Block, JP Fellow
What does being an alumni fellow mean to you?
To be honest, I’m not a thousand percent sure. The world I grew up in, being a fellow? What does that even mean? My mom’s a drug addict. My dad was a plumbing heating and cooling contractor. These were not things that people in my family were doing.
So, to be honest with you, what it exactly means to be a fellow is still kind of unknown to me, but just the fact that I get to represent Jeremiah in another capacity means so much to me.
When I started Empowerment, I was so resistant to it. I was like, “This this is bologna. This is the typical, like, ‘Oh, yay, girl power!’ without any substance.” I was not vibing at all. But, honestly, the more the weeks went on and the more I tried to open my mind to what they were offering, the more my actual way of thinking started to change.
And to be able to reconnect with the other moms? I’m so excited about that. And even learning more about how our social system structures are set up and how fundraising and nonprofits work—that’s all the stuff that I’m super excited to learn more about.
What are some of the issues that you would like to see the alumni network prioritize?
That first five years, when a mom leaves Jeremiah Program, she’s very vulnerable. What opportunities does Jeremiah have to be able to shorten that window so it’s two years? So that we really pave the path out of poverty for them? Making sure people’s credit score is in a good spot for renting. I went straight into a rental situation and that was so stressful, and with the way the housing market is right now, somebody’s credit score could be the difference between them being able to find another housing situation and ending up in some kind of crazy predicament because they have a bad credit score. So, seeing Jeremiah start having those conversations earlier with moms, because it can’t be six months until I need to move out when we start talking about my credit. That’s not going to cut it. There’s not enough time then.
Then I needed furniture and then I needed a deposit on an apartment or a down payment. Those are big purchases. That’s a lot of money. So, talking to moms about, “Do you have a savings account for this kind of stuff? Do you have an emergency savings account? When you’re getting assistance from the social services, it’s hard to think about putting $20 away. That’s a lot of money, you know? But, when you go to move out, that could be the difference between being able to get a place and not.
What are some of the most important changes that you think that we as a society need to make to better support single mothers?
We need to stop stigmatizing moms. I didn’t do anything wrong. I had a relationship that wasn’t healthy and I made the healthy decision for me and my son to leave the relationship. I think people have a lot of beliefs about what they think the social service system is and it’s not actually what it is. People hear these punchline headlines that they’ve read over the years in newspapers and they’ve let that determine their opinion of poor people or single moms or unwed mothers or however you want to label it.
You don’t know my story. Every single mom is completely different. How she became a single mom is a different story. So, just honoring that, but also having empathy for the amount of work that person is trying to do in being present and raising a child and earning a living. We already know the odds are stacked against us as women financially, and then we’re putting most of the burden financially on women to carry that. Then we go into workplaces that aren’t designed for us. … We’re going into school settings that aren’t designed for us. If people in the world have the ability to create a more welcoming space for mom, just encouraging people to put away their own opinions of what or why that person became a single mother and just clear the space for them, because that’s the right thing to do.
What do you want people to know about Jeremiah Program?
Jeremiah always says their secret sauce is the empowerment training, and I think that that’s so true. If you know anything about brain science and trauma, without the cognitive restructuring that’s taught within empowerment, we don’t teach people the skills to understand why your heart rate is the way it is or why your anxiety is spiking or why you lost your appetite or why all those sorts of things that happen when you’re under stress. But teaching people to plug back into themselves and [ask,] “Why am I feeling this way?” Being able to stop and take a deep breath and realize you’re still in control. Being able to make decisions instead of just responding to things that are happening to you. It’s life changing. When I can just be like, “I need a minute to think about this,” and I feel empowered to be able to say, “I can’t make a decision right now.” But I think, as women, there’s all these narratives out there that we just need to comply and we need to respond quickly and not ask for help.
That’s what empowerment taught me—that it’s okay to not have it all, all the time.
This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.