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When You Are Dying And No One Notices: What We Can Learn From The Joyce Vincent Story

I cannot fathom dying alone with nobody even picking up the phone to check on me.

Human Interest

I cannot fathom dying alone with nobody even picking up the phone to check on me.

Imagine sitting in your living room one evening, wrapping some last minute Christmas gifts, when for some reason or another you take your last breath. Nobody around to witness it, nobody in your life who even cares. Even worse, to sit there for three years as your body slowly decays, the static that once crackled on your television dying along with you.

I'm sure many of us cannot imagine such extreme circumstances, but that is exactly what happened to Joyce Vincent in 2003. She was a beautiful young Caribbean woman from North London whom many confessed to being someone who everybody loved--just not enough to make sure that she was still alive and well. This real-life tragedy was recently depicted on an episode of Being Mary Jane, and the story is so heartbreaking that even portraying it on a TV show couldn't mask the emotional impact of what it must be like to die alone.

To date, no one knows what caused the death of the 38-year-old woman who by many accounts seemed to be living “the life," but more disturbing is the fact that her death wasn't realized until three years later during an eviction. It's a mystery that filmmaker Carol Morley set out to explore in her new documentary Dreams of Life, which debuted this past October at the BFI Film Festival in London and has garnered nomination buzz for best documentary.

While researching the mysterious events following Joyce's death, Carol Morley initially had a difficult time finding anyone who even knew the young woman. The ones who did--the family members of the deceased who attended her funeral--would not respond to Morley's inquiries. Finally after some time, past friends and associates began to reach out to share their memories of the woman they saw as a beautifully talented, sociable and intelligent woman who they thought had it all together. By many accounts Joyce was popular, lovable, and charismatic. She was a singer, whose gift led her to meet celebrities such as Quincy Jones, Stevie Wonder, and even Nelson Mandela.

So what happened within the life of this budding singer/socialite that forced her to withdraw from the public, resulting in her death going unnoticed for so many years? While many people focus on how a seemingly healthy young woman died suddenly, I believe many don't consider the possibility that she died of loneliness--something that many people quietly suffer from every day.

The signs are sometimes there, but we're too busy to see them. Here are three things I personally took away from Joyce's story on what to look out for before those I cherish drift away.

Just Because They Smile Doesn't Mean They're Happy

I'm acquainted with so many young women who insist that they're so independent and they don't need anyone in their lives, so they focus on work and never make time for anything else. I know women who have given up on love due to past heartbreaks, and given up on friends because they're unable to trust others. Is this what happened to Joyce? Did she give up on building new relationships with others due to past hurts, and eventually waste away in her loneliness?

I'm sure many of us have heard the saying “smiling on the outside, crying on the inside." The truth is, this world and everything that comes with it can be depressing. There have been plenty of times that I've kept my emotions inside, pretending like everything was okay, when inside I was breaking down. Mental illness, specifically depression, is a disease that more and more people are being diagnosed with, but many are not being treated for. Depression is often linked to anti-social behavior, and total withdrawal from others. I've been at the point in my life where I was so consumed by my own issues that I withdrew from my loved ones in order to “spare them" the ordeal of having to deal with my problems. I've since learned this is not the way to go. Everyone needs some sort of human interaction (outside of work).

Small Gestures Go a Long Way

I was taught in my youth to show kindness to others, especially those who may be singled out and made fun of. You never know what someone else is going through, and just the simplest gesture of kindness to someone you may not know well or at all, to let them know you're interested in them and that you care, can make a big difference.

In a world consumed by digital media, we a as a society seem more likely to type hello to strangers online rather than say hello to the strangers we pass on the street everyday. Taking the time to notice someone who may not have been told hello in years can make a huge impact in their life. A lot of the time we tend to judge others who seem to keep to themselves, assuming they're strange or something is wrong with them. Why not join that quiet person who always sits alone at lunch and start a conversation? Maybe they won't engage, and that's fine because the effort was made, but what if they do engage and what if you make a new friend? No one should die alone, and that is exactly why the story of Joyce Vincent continues to haunt me.

Let Your Loved Ones Know You Care

One thing I've learned not to do is a hold a grudge. There isn't much my loved ones can to do to me to force me to never speak to them, and I make a conscious effort to never hold grudges.

A few years back, I almost lost my mother to symptoms of MS, and from that day forward I vowed to never let petty things get in the way of showing my love and appreciation for those I care about. I couldn't imagine any one I loved leaving this earth unsure of how I feel about them. I also do my best to not distance myself from others.

So often I find myself consumed by work and my immediate family, that I often neglect my loved ones who I don't see everyday. A few years ago, my grandfather died suddenly from cancer. Prior to him being hospitalized, he was having a hard time getting around to run errands and do everyday things like laundry and shopping. At this point in time, we thought he simply had a bad cold. Being his oldest granddaughter, I was the one he called for assistance a lot. There were times where I became overwhelmed with running errands for him as well as my disabled mother, and managing my own family. I did it, however, without complaint, and I am so glad I did.

Sometimes I question whether I could've done more, or if he thought he was bothering me before he passed away, but the truth is, though it was difficult I did it without complaint, and with a smile, and I have no doubt in my mind that he knew I loved him when he departed this earth.

The tragic end to Joyce Vincent has caused me to wonder how many people I know or have encountered who are just like her; who may die a death that no one will notice. I've personally decided to make a conscious effort to be kinder to others, specifically to those I don't know. Whether it's a casual compliment on someone's outfit, or a smile and hello, it's the little things that make people feel noticed and part of a world that many of us can get lost in.

I pray that Joyce Vincent is now at peace.

What do you do to show others that you care?

ACLU By ACLUSponsored

Over the past four years, we grew accustomed to a regular barrage of blatant, segregationist-style racism from the White House. Donald Trump tweeted that “the Squad," four Democratic Congresswomen who are Black, Latinx, and South Asian, should “go back" to the “corrupt" countries they came from; that same year, he called Elizabeth Warren “Pocahontas," mocking her belief that she might be descended from Native American ancestors.

But as outrageous as the racist comments Trump regularly spewed were, the racially unjust governmental actions his administration took and, in the case of COVID-19, didn't take, impacted millions more — especially Black and Brown people.

To begin to heal and move toward real racial justice, we must address not only the harms of the past four years, but also the harms tracing back to this country's origins. Racism has played an active role in the creation of our systems of education, health care, ownership, and employment, and virtually every other facet of life since this nation's founding.

Our history has shown us that it's not enough to take racist policies off the books if we are going to achieve true justice. Those past policies have structured our society and created deeply-rooted patterns and practices that can only be disrupted and reformed with new policies of similar strength and efficacy. In short, a systemic problem requires a systemic solution. To combat systemic racism, we must pursue systemic equality.

What is Systemic Racism?

A system is a collection of elements that are organized for a common purpose. Racism in America is a system that combines economic, political, and social components. That system specifically disempowers and disenfranchises Black people, while maintaining and expanding implicit and explicit advantages for white people, leading to better opportunities in jobs, education, and housing, and discrimination in the criminal legal system. For example, the country's voting systems empower white voters at the expense of voters of color, resulting in an unequal system of governance in which those communities have little voice and representation, even in policies that directly impact them.

Systemic Equality is a Systemic Solution

In the years ahead, the ACLU will pursue administrative and legislative campaigns targeting the Biden-Harris administration and Congress. We will leverage legal advocacy to dismantle systemic barriers, and will work with our affiliates to change policies nearer to the communities most harmed by these legacies. The goal is to build a nation where every person can achieve their highest potential, unhampered by structural and institutional racism.

To begin, in 2021, we believe the Biden administration and Congress should take the following crucial steps to advance systemic equality:

Voting Rights

The administration must issue an executive order creating a Justice Department lead staff position on voting rights violations in every U.S. Attorney office. We are seeing a flood of unlawful restrictions on voting across the country, and at every level of state and local government. This nationwide problem requires nationwide investigatory and enforcement resources. Even if it requires new training and approval protocols, a new voting rights enforcement program with the participation of all 93 U.S. Attorney offices is the best way to help ensure nationwide enforcement of voting rights laws.

These assistant U.S. attorneys should begin by ensuring that every American in the custody of the Bureau of Prisons who is eligible to vote can vote, and monitor the Census and redistricting process to fight the dilution of voting power in communities of color.

We are also calling on Congress to pass the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act to finally create a fair and equal national voting system, the cause for which John Lewis devoted his life.

Student Debt

Black borrowers pay more than other students for the same degrees, and graduate with an average of $7,400 more in debt than their white peers. In the years following graduation, the debt gap more than triples. Nearly half of Black borrowers will default within 12 years. In other words, for Black Americans, the American dream costs more. Last week, Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, along with House Reps. Ayanna Pressley, Maxine Waters, and others, called on President Biden to cancel up to $50,000 in federal student loan debt per borrower.

We couldn't agree more. By forgiving $50,000 of student debt, President Biden can unleash pent up economic potential in Black communities, while relieving them of a burden that forestalls so many hopes and dreams. Black women in particular will benefit from this executive action, as they are proportionately the most indebted group of all Americans.

Postal Banking

In both low and high income majority-Black communities, traditional bank branches are 50 percent more likely to close than in white communities. The result is that nearly 50 percent of Black Americans are unbanked or underbanked, and many pay more than $2,000 in fees associated with subprime financial institutions. Over their lifetime, those fees can add up to as much as two years of annual income for the average Black family.

The U.S. Postal Service can and should meet this crisis by providing competitive, low-cost financial services to help advance economic equality. We call on President Biden to appoint new members to the Postal Board of Governors so that the Post Office can do the work of providing essential services to every American.

Fair Housing

Across the country, millions of people are living in communities of concentrated poverty, including 26 percent of all Black children. The Biden administration should again implement the 2015 Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing rule, which required localities that receive federal funds for housing to investigate and address barriers to fair housing and patterns or practices that promote bias. In 1980, the average Black person lived in a neighborhood that was 62 percent Black and 31 percent white. By 2010, the average Black person's neighborhood was 48 percent Black and 34 percent white. Reinstating the Obama-era Fair Housing Rule will combat this ongoing segregation and set us on a path to true integration.

Congress should also pass the American Housing and Economic Mobility Act, or a similar measure, to finally redress the legacy of redlining and break down the walls of segregation once and for all.

Broadband Access

To realize broadband's potential to benefit our democracy and connect us to one another, all people in the United States must have equal access and broadband must be made affordable for the most vulnerable. Yet today, 15 percent of American households with school-age children do not have subscriptions to any form of broadband, including one-quarter of Black households (an additional 23 percent of African Americans are “smartphone-only" internet users, meaning they lack traditional home broadband service but do own a smartphone, which is insufficient to attend class, do homework, or apply for a job). The Biden administration, Federal Communications Commission, and Congress must develop and implement plans to increase funding for broadband to expand universal access.

Enhanced, Refundable Child Tax Credits

The United States faces a crisis of child poverty. Seventeen percent of all American children are impoverished — a rate higher than not just peer nations like Canada and the U.K., but Mexico and Russia as well. Currently, more than 50 percent of Black and Latinx children in the U.S. do not qualify for the full benefit, compared to 23 percent of white children, and nearly one in five Black children do not receive any credit at all.

To combat this crisis, President Biden and Congress should enhance the child tax credit and make it fully refundable. If we enhance the child tax credit, we can cut child poverty by 40 percent and instantly lift over 50 percent of Black children out of poverty.

Reparations

We cannot repair harms that we have not fully diagnosed. We must commit to a thorough examination of the impact of the legacy of chattel slavery on racial inequality today. In 2021, Congress must pass H.R. 40, which would establish a commission to study reparations and make recommendations for Black Americans.

The Long View

For the past century, the ACLU has fought for racial justice in legislatures and in courts, including through several landmark Supreme Court cases. While the court has not always ruled in favor of racial justice, incremental wins throughout history have helped to chip away at different forms of racism such as school segregation ( Brown v. Board), racial bias in the criminal legal system (Powell v. Alabama, i.e. the Scottsboro Boys), and marriage inequality (Loving v. Virginia). While these landmark victories initiated necessary reforms, they were only a starting point.

Systemic racism continues to pervade the lives of Black people through voter suppression, lack of financial services, housing discrimination, and other areas. More than anything, doing this work has taught the ACLU that we must fight on every front in order to overcome our country's legacies of racism. That is what our Systemic Equality agenda is all about.

In the weeks ahead, we will both expand on our views of why these campaigns are crucial to systemic equality and signal the path this country must take. We will also dive into our work to build organizing, advocacy, and legal power in the South — a region with a unique history of racial oppression and violence alongside a rich history of antiracist organizing and advocacy. We are committed to four principles throughout this campaign: reconciliation, access, prosperity, and empowerment. We hope that our actions can meet our ambition to, as Dr. King said, lead this nation to live out the true meaning of its creed.

What you can do:
Take the pledge: Systemic Equality Agenda
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Featured image by Shutterstock

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