By Leah Nelson, Research Director from the Appleseed report Afterward
Summer Sturdivant, an activist and pastry chef from Selma, Ala., watched her little brother die. He lay in the street while the police captured the man who shot him. The ambulance made a wrong turn, doubled back, arrived when he was still alive but got there too late to keep him that way.
Sturdivant, then 25, didn’t have time to digest any of it. “It was like the next thing and the next thing and the next thing. Trying to make sure my mom’s OK, trying to make sure everybody’s OK.”
When she spoke with Appleseed nearly a year later, she was still consumed with that task. Her brother left behind a very young son, and after her brother died, she became the little boy’s primary caregiver, responsible for food and clothing and doctor’s appointments but without access to state support because of legal obstacles and a bureaucracy that is ill-suited to the realities of her everyday life
Her family was also worried about the money they still owed the funeral home for the cost of the burial. They applied for assistance from the Alabama Crime Victim’s Compensation Commission, which offers financial help to crime victims and their families. A year later, the Commission still hadn’t gotten back to them and the funeral home was threatening to take them to Small Claims Court.
The victims’ services workers Sturdivant interacted with seemed busy and distracted, uninterested in the particulars of her family’s needs or the depth of their grief. Sturdivant said that death by violence is “so normalized in this area,” that victims’ advocates have become used to it.
“It’s a lot to bury a child and even be worried about where the money is coming from, then worry about whether you’re going to get to small claims court,” she said. “It just makes you feel like you’re on an island.”
“I’m thankful to be connected to people that pour into me.”
Long before her brother was killed, Sturdivant was active with Mothers and Men Against All Violence In Solidarity (MAAVIS), an organization founded by Callie Greer, who also works as Alabama Appleseed’s Community Navigator.
MAAVIS brings together families who have experienced loss to help them process their grief together – over meals, through song, through art, through community, through activism. With the goal of building a more restorative community and defusing the retaliatory violence that can occur in the wake of a homicide, it also creates space for people to connect safely with the families of those who harmed their loved ones, if that is what they want to do.
Sturdivant relied on what she learned from Greer and MAAVIS when, the day after her brother died, the mother of the man who killed him reached out, wanting to talk with Sturdivant’s mother.
“I was like, No, my mom is not in a place for that,” Sturdivant said. “So I spoke with her, and I had a prayer with her. We talked, and I let her know she’s a good mom,” she said. “She was crying because she lost somebody too, you know? She lost a child who – he might not be dead, but he’s in the system for good now.”
She wishes people who work for that system had the same compassion. “When you’re handling families and specifically Black families, you got to be careful. You got to be really careful how you talk to them,” she said.
Sturdivant is handling her struggles with grace. Even as she continued to deal with the bureaucratic, financial, and emotional aftermath of her brother’s death and the sudden experience of parenthood, she also let herself find joy in building her small business as a pastry chef while maintaining and strengthening the relationships she formed through her work with MAAVIS. Her brother always encouraged her dreams of baking, and her business, which she said “was birthed out of a loss.”
Reflecting on a community event she attended with other women who had lost loved ones to violence, she said, “I’m thankful to be connected to people that pour into me. To be the baby of directly affected women and still be able to give and even pour into other people.”