Color photo of a woman in a purple dress sitting in a chair with a guitar in her lap and a microphone stand next to her
Benjamin Burgess

I used to love fairy tales as a young girl. But let’s cut to the chase, I’m 42 years old and “the prince” never came. While I was waiting for his non-existent majesty, I did learn a few things about transforming my former dream of a whirlwind romance into something more stable and less likely to blow off my wig: the reality of “community.” 

 That word is thrown around a lot these days. Not to sound condescending, but I don’t think most people really take the time to ask themselves what it means to them.  

 Sorry to disappoint, but I don’t claim to definitively know what community is either. I just know that without it, I probably wouldn’t be alive to write this article. 

Into Transition 

 It’s difficult for me to describe my childhood. If I had to choose one word, it would probably be “complex.” My mother was regarded as a guru by some of her close friends. More evenings than not, anywhere from three to 10 people would congregate in the living room of our Section 8 apartment. Our household was full of poetry, music, theater, and whimsy. Unfortunately, it also included addiction. 

 I was put into the foster care system when I was 9 years old. I hope it will suffice to say that it was better for me than it was for some, and worse for me than it was for others. I hate to sound like a human fortune cookie, but I often do. Consider yourself advised. 

 Some of the worst things in life can turn out to be the best things. Being separated from my biological family meant that I suddenly had to learn how to make a family out of any kind of people I came across. On the one hand, being adaptable makes it relatively easy to connect with people from different backgrounds. On the other hand, being able to adapt and change can make it very easy to lose yourself. 

 I ended up going through about five different foster homes over the course of five years. When I was 13, my two siblings and I were almost adopted by our foster family, but our foster mom went into a diabetic coma and died. Our foster dad was devastated and he couldn’t keep us. Once again, when I was 14, my two siblings and I were put into a foster home with the possibility of adoption. When I was 16 years old, I was finally adopted. But by that time, the last thing I wanted in life was more parental figures. 

What no one tells you about being a retired foster kid is that even if you get a 4-year full tuition scholarship to Morgan State University, if you don’t address the pain of your childhood, there is a strong chance that, at some point, you will be blindsided by a Mack truck-sized amount of unprocessed trauma.  

I returned home from my attempt at college, defeated, only to remember that I didn’t actually have a home.  

 I  moved in with my best friend from high school and his family. I was sleeping on the couch, watching lots of late night cable, and eating way too much ice cream. In short, I was doing my part to strengthen the traditions of the cultural phenomena that would come to be known as couchsurfing. 

 At some point, I knew I was in a downward spiral. I left the suburbs and went to the city with no place to go.  

 As fate would have it, I ended up taking the subway to Dupont Circle. Everything seemed so animated and surreal. But as the hours quickly passed, reality started to set in. I did not have a plan for where I was going to sleep that night. 

 The next morning, I woke up and someone had decided to sleep next to me in the grass of the Dupont Circle park. He introduced himself, told me he had slept out there to make sure I was going to be okay, and left. At the risk of sounding silly, to this day I think of him as a guardian angel. 

 I was on the street or in transition (moving from one short-term living situation to another) from the late ‘90s until about 2002. I basically survived on a combination of work trade, barter, and charity. I played music in public pIaces. I swapped cleaning services, child care, cooking, house sitting, pet sitting, etc. I didn’t know it at the time, but I was slowly but surely entering the world of cooperative economics. 

Color photo of a woman seated in a chair, playing the guitar and singing in to a microphone

Dowe performing the guitar. Photo by Benjamin Burgess

A Spiritual Home 

 Setting up a physical home was not a major priority for me because I had seen how quickly a physical home could be torn apart forever. I wanted a level of security that could not be taken away.  

 Eventually, I realized that the only kind of home I could bring myself to believe in was a spiritual one. I imagined that home as giving me a sense of indestructible peace. As the years passed, it wasn’t clear that I would ever find one. Then, one day, I found Falun Dafa. 

 I first heard about Falun Dafa, also known as Falun Gong, from a friend who described a chilling scene from the international news media. The leader of the Chinese Communist Party, Jiang Zemin, had sentenced thousands of Falun Dafa practitioners in China to incarceration, for peacefully appealing to the government.  

 I went home and looked up the practice online, tried to teach myself the exercises for about 20 minutes or so, and then gave up. But the first time I ever met Falun Dafa practitioners in person was not long after that.  

 I was on the National Mall for a reparations rally in 2002 when I came across a couple of Falun Gong practitioners handing out flyers and demonstrating exercises as they often did in public parks. I took a flyer and introduced myself. One of the practitioners was also named Courtney. The coincidence was enough to stop me in my tracks. I decided to try out the exercises then and there, and I have been studying Falun Dafa ever since.  

 If it seems odd to imagine a Black woman at a rally for African liberation doing a meditation practice from China, welcome to my life: Expect weirdness. 

The Labor Of Peace 

Color photo of a woman seated crosslegged on a couch holding a mug in her hands

Dowe at home. Photo by Rodney Choice

Even though I wasn’t the most disciplined student of Falun Dafa, I did find a sense of security in the focused study of a spiritual practice. I decided to settle down and turned my adventures toward the world within.  

 One day I was headed from New York City to Baltimore by bus. I fell asleep during the ride and woke up in Washington, D.C., instead of Baltimore. I had missed my stop. I called an old friend who lived in D.C. to see if I could stay over for the night. That’s how I ended up at the Peace House. 

The Peace House was a collective living space near the Convention Center. The community still exists, but has moved to a location in Northeast. Its residents supported the decades-long continuous anti-nuclear vigil across from the White House, in Lafayette Park. It was founded by William Thomas (now deceased), and maintained by countless other activists over the years. It is maintained to this day. 

The first time I met William Thomas, he suggested that I move into the Peace House. But by the time I got there, he had passed. I worked out an agreement with his widow, Ellen Thomas, to work in exchange for a bunk in the house.  

Ironically, some of the people who lived at the Peace House the longest were deeply at odds with each other for extended periods time. I learned that sometimes making peace just means staying out of each other’s way.

During my time at the Peace House, I met the man with whom I would conceive a child. He didn’t turn out to be the same man that would help me to raise one. This is where the story gets hardest to tell.

Through a combination of bad decisions, bad luck, and gentrification, I became homeless while I was pregnant. The family of a very close friend invited me to come live with them for free and to give birth to my child there since I wanted a home birth. They literally saved my life and the life of my child. There are just no words for that level of generosity.

Every week, their family observed Shabbat, the Jewish holiday. The rhythm and beauty of the ritual had a calming effect on my spirit. I found midwives who were willing to overlook my financial situation. Miraculously, one of my high school friends lived close enough to my new location that she was willing to organize a blessing circle for me. Many women in the neighborhood attended the blessing circle and brought gifts for my unborn child, even though none of them had ever met me before. The kindness and generosity of that family and of that community will stay with me for the rest of my life.

On May 23, 2012, I gave birth to my only child, Solomon. His name means “ Peace.”

It took me a long time to get my bearings. I came back to the D.C. area. I tried not to wear out my welcome at the homes of distant family and friends, but I needed more support than I ever needed before. I couldn’t see a clear way forward.

I tried to rent a cheap room in a group house and ended up being unceremoniously evicted when someone else defaulted on their rent payment. I went to the local social services office, but I didn’t even have enough documentation to get into a family shelter.

Color photo of a woman in a winter hat, scarf, and coat leaning against a decorative metal post in front of a brick house

Dowe outside her home. Photo by Rodney Choice

I wondered if I was being selfish by keeping my child instead of putting him up for adoption. I couldn’t give him the life that I felt he deserved and I couldn’t see how I would ever be able to provide for him. If anyone reading this is thinking about using a permanent solution for a temporary problem, please reconsider. My breakthrough was just around the corner.

The same day that my son and I were denied admission to a family shelter, I found a flyer for a women’s empowerment seminar. It was free and I decided to go even though I didn’t have a babysitter. The seminar was full of professional Black women who were learning how to cultivate a deeper sense of community through sister circles. I decided to share my story with the group. Before I knew it, there was a hat being passed around to take up a collection. The women sent me home with $700, food, a stack of their business cards, and so much love. I felt like I had received a powerful vote of confidence and I wanted to be worthy of it.

I reached out to a family of Falun Dafa practitioners and asked them if I could live with them while I figured things out. They said yes. With that bit of stability, I soon found the House Of Ruth family housing program. And before long I was in a beautiful 2-bedroom apartment in D.C. with income adjusted rent. House of Ruth offered free therapy as part of their program and I started going to weekly sessions. I was tempted to start taking classes or try to get a job, but instead, I decided to prioritize my healing.

I talked to my case manager from the Department of Human Services and asked to have six months to focus on my mental health. During that time, I enrolled in three different women’s empowerment programs, including “WomenStrong” at Bread For the City. With the help of Bread For The City and WomenStrong, I conceived of a women’s radio co-op project that would highlight the stories of local women and broadcast live sister circles. I applied for a grant from the D.C. Commission for the Arts and Humanities and the radio co-op was funded at $60,000.

At that point, I was more stable but I felt painfully isolated inside of the day-to-day work of raising my son. I needed a deeper sense of community.

During my early pregnancy, I had started researching intentional communities, and through a series of unpredictable events, I was eventually referred to the urban, income-sharing, intentional community that I would come to call my home: Compersia Community.

A picture of a painting of a bush in bloom with red flowers hanging on a wall

Wall art in a Compersia common room. Photo by Samantha Caruso 

My favorite way to describe Compersia is “the dysfunctional family that I’ve always wanted.

The alternative economy of the community allows my son and I to have a lot more material security than we would have on our own. We all share our income and our labor to best meet our individual and collective needs. The best part about living in this community for me is the ongoing opportunity for personal growth. This is definitely easier said than done, but finding people who believe in me so much has motivated me to take my personal growth and healing more seriously than ever before. 

Looking Back To Move Forward

One day I returned home to the commune to find that there was a big meeting with the DMV Land Collective being held in the living room. The collective is basically a group of local folks pooling resources to buy land together. A little over a year ago, I had created a proposal for a women and children’s refuge on a land trust about three hours south of D.C., held by The School Of Living, an educational organization that supports the establishment of sustainable communities. Now that proposal had been tentatively approved, I just needed more people to help me with it. I joined the meeting and became fast friends with the founders of Tightshift Laboring Cooperative, a local worker-owned business, that focuses on the needs of returning citizens, the homeless, and at-risk youth.

Today, I am an advisory board member of Tightshift and I am working with its founders to establish a land trust-based healing village where people who have been excluded from the mainstream economy can practice sustainable living while living in close relationship with each other and the Earth, indefinitely. I serve on the board of directors for The School of Living, The Fellowship For Intentional Community, and  Earth Rights Institute, a nongovernmental organization recognized by the United Nations. I’m also currently being considered for the board of Bread For The City.

The different instances of support that I have received over the course of my life are far too many to remember, but there is one person that I would like to acknowledge by name. My son’s godfather came into my life when I was two months pregnant and he has been a consistent source of love and support for more than seven years now. Thank you, Pablo.

I’d also like to take this opportunity to say thank you to anyone who ever put a dollar in my guitar case or a smile in my heart, as I played music on the street, in and out of the D.C. area, for over a decade. Your encouragement and support was invaluable.

I hope that my story will help others to appreciate the many forms of community in their own lives. These days, I’m just as excited about being part of a circle as I am about being part of a couple. I still don’t claim to be an expert, but I have definitely been blessed by an abundance of  community in my life. And with that, I believe that I have already started my happy beginning.