Once a teenage mother, she now helps young Cleveland moms 'unleash the beast' of parenthood
Cuyahoga County accounts for a larger proportion of people in prison than any other county in Ohio. This story is part of a “Sound of Us” series in which formerly incarcerated poet and speaker Cardell Belfoure interviews Clevelanders who’ve been to prison themselves and are now working as activists. The series was produced in partnership with the nonprofit Building Freedom Ohio.
Linda Howard sits behind the front desk of Building Freedom Ohio, an organization on Cleveland’s East Side. She’s calling a man who’s recently been released from prison.
"Hi, I was calling to speak to Michael. Is there a Michael here?" she asked.
There's not, so she leaves a message.
"We holding a meet and greet event if you're interested," she says, before providing details.
Building Freedom Ohio is a nonprofit that supports and connects returning citizens. Right now, Linda’s doing the brunt and grunt work. In between calls, she staples pages to hand out at an upcoming event.
Later, when she gets a break in the action, I asked her to describe her work.
"What do you do?" I asked.
"What do I do?" she repeated. "I do a lot."
She’s not lying. The 36-year-old is also a mom, works as a manager at a hotel and runs her own nonprofit called Young Mothers of Cleveland. She helps young moms find housing, jobs and feel less alone.
You know how they say people wear many hats? Well, Howard wears only one hat: a black bucket hat, flipped up in the front. But it’s got two sides — with two different logos.
"One side [is] Young Mothers of Cleveland," she says, showing the front of the hat before turning around. "The back side [is] Building Freedom Ohio, because I represent both. So I like to rock both," she explained with a big laugh.
In their shoes
Young Mothers of Cleveland is especially close to her heart — not only because it’s her own organization, but because conceiving at an early age hits home.
Howard grew up in public housing in Cleveland’s Central neighborhood. She had a happy childhood, with a mom and dad who loved and supported her — including when she got pregnant and had a baby at age 13. But Howard noticed a lot of girls whose parents weren't so understanding.
"My best friend, we had our babies together. My best friend was 17 when she got pregnant. I was 12, going on 13. Her mother was more like, ‘I ain’t dealing with it. I barely want to deal with you all. I'm definitely not about to deal with a baby. It’s not about to happen,’" Howard recalled.
"And seeing my best friend go through that, it was just like, ‘Mom. Like, let them come here,’ you know?" Howard continued. "‘Come over here. It may be the projects, but it's a whole bunch of light over here, though. Just come over here.’"
‘Just come over here’ has been her rally cry ever since.
She recently hosted an open house for young moms and grandmas. Tables were full of diapers and clothes, free for the taking. And whenever she holds events like this, Linda also talks to the women, loves on them and nurtures them while they’re there.
"I have something that I call 'Unleash the Beast' and they be like ‘Lin, what's that?’ I'm like, ‘Just unleash whatever that's on your heart, whatever that’s heavy. You don't have to take that home to your kids,'" Howard said.
Helping people who need it is part of what she talked about in a poem she wrote with my coaching. Here's an excerpt from the poem:
How to pull folks together, different nationalities in different communities.
Not knowing that we are dealing with the same things,
you may be scared of a murderer, a robber, even a white collar crimer, especially knowing that we all are together to be greater
to making better and beautiful communities.
I asked Linda what she'd want people to take from her poem.
"My passion is in the city," she said. "And when I say in the city, my passion is Cleveland. It needs a lot of work, and I think I can try my best to bridge that gap a little bit. I'm just gonna take care of everybody."
So don’t be surprised if you see that two-sided bucket hat somewhere in the community soon — with Linda smiling underneath it.