My name is Elise ashkin-Baker
Right now in my life I am a student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. I will be entering my 4th year there as an African American Studies and Political Science double major. I took a gap year between Junior and Senior year to get my mental health together and figure out how I was going to finish school. The year was transformative and necessary. For the first time in 7 years my depression faded to the background. I wrote, I traveled, I did some speaking events, I worked and ran my conference. It was beautiful.
This year has also been really hard. The love of my life, my best friend, my biggest fan, and my partner in this world passed away on May 14th, 2019. It has been a cruel twist of fate. But I persist. You can see the pain in my recent writings, as they reflect what I am going through in my life. Writing gives me a platform to actually express what I’m feeling honestly without any reactions, facial expressions, trying to formulate thoughts into words to explain so that people will understand. Writing is so much easier, so much kinder, without judgement.
I am just a human. Struggling to figure out where I belong in this world. Trying to figure out why we can’t get along. Trying to figure out what it all means.
I am co-director and founding member of a non-profit organization called Triangle Model United Nations Inc. (TRIMUNC) for short. We provide middle school students across North Carolina and from all backgrounds an opportunity to participate in a mock version of the United Nations. Not only do they get to represent a country and tackle some of the worlds most pressing issues. They also learn debate, public speaking, critical thinking, and the confidence to think about issues outside of their own sphere. I did Model United Nations as a middle schooler and through High School and now I run this program. It is truly transformative. It taught me that my voice mattered and the things I had to say were important and valid. I try to help my students feel that same way.
I also work at a Green Beagle Lodge which is a eco-friendly doggy daycare, grooming, and boarding facility. I’ve taken my dog there for 3 years and needed money while on my year off. I love it.
My main focus though is on Criminal Justice Reform. After college I plan on going to Law School so that I can gain the credentials needed to change our system of incarceration in this country. I worked at the Durham County Criminal Justice Resource Center and found that this was my passion. An entire population of mostly brown and black folks has been tossed aside and overlooked. I see them. And I love them. I have gotten the opportunity to work on the Durham Reentry Council figuring out ways the community can help people being released effectively rejoin society. It is so special. I get to work alongside my father and his amazing co-workers, as well as attend many events and conferences surrounding the issue. It is truly my passion and I love it. It also runs in my family. My grandmother worked with women in prison in upstate New York for most of her life, now my father has shifted his career toward this work, and I find myself drawn to it.
I have no real religion. My father is Jewish and my mother is Christian. We have always celebrated all of the holidays, my favorite being passover. I went to a Quaker high school and have found myself drawn to their doctrine, but I would not consider myself a Quaker. I am just a black woman, who worships other women, who worships the earth, who sees the light in every person, and values humanity. Mother Gaia (earth) is my spiritual guide and I revere her.
My passions lie in traveling, writing, reading, being outside, and studying the complexity of our societal issues. I love to teach and I love to learn. I love the sun and the ocean. I love civil disobedience. I have traveled to 22 countries. My favorite being Mexico, where my heart lies. What makes Mexico the best country in the world is the people. I know the real Mexico. Not the drugs and the crime and the immigration. I know the people in rural mountain villages who will talk to you about their truths. About being invisible, about being forgotten, about living in poverty, and yet somehow persisting and finding a way to be happy despite it all. I have travelled all across that country and go there about 3 times a year.
I was born in Cooperstown, NY and was adopted by my parents Dr. Cheryl Baker and Dr. Evan Ashkin when I was about 3 days old. I was delivered at a hospital in Oneonta, NY and the doctor who delivered me happened to be a friend of my parents. He knew that my parents were looking to adopt and so when my birth mother told him upon delivering me, that she wanted to put me up for adoption, he immediately called my parents who freaked out, dropped everything and came to the hospital to see me. They spent the first 3 days of my life living in the hospital with me and running out only to buy baby stuff for the house. On the 3rd day they brought me home and I was greeted by my neighbors and my family and friends who traveled from far and wide to meet me over the first few months of my life. At 6 months my adoption was finalized and my parents became legally my parents.
I always knew I was adopted. My parents read me childrens stories about adoption. My favorite being one by the actress Jamie Lee Curtis. And from that book my parents and my entire family called me the star that fell from the heavens.
I grew up in Durham, North Carolina in a neighborhood called Trinity Park near downtown. We moved to Durham because our family friends Emily Young, Jeff Goll, and their two children Davia and Izzy lived there. Also my mom got a job offer from Duke and my dad got a job offer from UNC. It was perfect. My mother and Emily met in high school in Chicago and then went to college together at UC Santa Cruz. In my childhood I lived one street away from my best friend Davia, and we were raised together in a beautiful mashing of families. My sister and Izzy grew up together as best friends as well. It was perfect.
When I was about 7 and my sister was 2 my grandfather Larry Ashkin sold his contracting company and spread the wealth throughout his family. We moved to a nicer house in a nicer neighborhood right on Duke’s West Campus. It just so happened that our new house was 2 doors down from my best friend from pre-school Dina Guilak and her family. It was perfect.
I went to private school my whole life. I was always very popular, as I have always been a kind and gentle soul. I went to Duke School from Kindergarten through 6th grade. In 5th and 6th grade I was on top. Every one loved me. Not because I was pretty, I was chubby with boobs just starting to sprout, and I dressed like a boy and was 100% uncomfortable in my body, but it didn’t phase me much. I was popular because I was charismatic, I loved people, I connected with everyone and I did my best to make everyone feel seen and heard. I had a sense of justice as well, I remember vividly in 4th grade, a boy teasing my friends while we were playing in our fairy garden. He was calling them fat so I walked up to him and punched him as hard as I could in the stomach (Yes I now know violence is not the answer, but still, it felt great). The “cool” kids loved me, but also the “uncool” kids loved me, because I loved them. I wanted everyone to get along and be happy all the time. I always have.
In 7th grade the world slapped me in the face. Hard. My parents moved us to Barcelona, Spain for a year. It was incredible. We got to travel all across Europe, I learned so much about people, history, and the world. At the same time I was enrolled in the American School of Barcelona that brought in students from all over the world. The main curriculum was taught in English but there were special classes for Spaniards and those from Catalunya (the region Barcelona was located in). Barcelona, and to some degree the rest of Spain, suffers from a lot of the same things the United States suffers from. They have a deep history of colonialism, a deep history of oppression. They were hit hard by the recession and this increased the nationalism and populism, and caused many folks to turn against each other and blame each other for their problems. All I knew was it was terrible.
This was the first time I realized I was different. I was bullied in school in Barcelona. Partly because of my skin color, partly because I was chubby, partly because I didn’t speak Catalan. It was the first time I realized I wasn’t like everyone else. I wasn’t fair skinned (relative to them), I didn’t have straight hair, I wasn’t skinny, and I wasn’t from there. I didn’t fit in. The bullying made me withdraw into myself and my Sarah Dessen novels. I got the first Kindle that ever came out and I would spend every social moment reading my books, at lunch, at recess. I hid. I used to sob every morning and beg my parents not to make me go to school. I would fake sick during field trips and cry myself to sleep every night.
The turning point happened at Winter Break when my dad took me home to North Carolina to visit my friends and try to cheer me up. When I went back I realized I was amazing. People loved me exactly as I was. And I went back to Spain for the second half of the year with a renewed confidence. By the end of the school year, while I was still different from them, I was outgoing and I was loved. I had friends and they threw me a huge goodbye party with the whole grade. I didn’t want to leave Spain by the end. But we did. And I went home.
My 8th grade year I began Model United Nations and I wrote a piece about diarrheal disease in children in Tanzania. My world exploded and I was passionate about all the different issues facing people all over the world. And I was well spoken and outspoken, people listened, and I talked because I cared and because I knew, and I was right.
In high school my depression took over. High school was a blur for me because I was in such a low place. I played all the sports, I dated the star basketball player, I had best friends, but I was living above it all, as if watching it happen. I was there but I wasn’t there. I was deeply depressed and it consumed me. This was not situational depression, nothing happened, things were going as well as they can go for a kid in high school. This was a deep chemical imbalance in my brain that made me a shell of who I am.
This was also when I realized I was black. It was my boyfriend at the times family who made me realize that. He was one of 9 children raised by a single father living in the south side of Durham. His mother was addicted to crack and only came around once a year to ask for money. I met her once. She liked me. His family embraced me with open arms. I was one of them. And I wanted so badly to be one of them. I spent as much time there as possible. I felt like I had found my people and I finally belonged. I had a culture and a history and a people and it felt so good.
That ended quickly though. In college my desire to be a part of black culture led me to a group of amazing black women. We were all so different but we latched onto each other because thats what you do freshman year. We became a group and I was so happy. We partied together, we studied together, we ate together, it was awesome. It soon became clear to me however that I wasn’t one of them. The jokes about me being light skinned, and “so white” got to me and I blew up at them. I lost them Sophomore year and at first I was sad. I could have gone back to them but I chose not to, simply because I knew I didn’t belong.
It wasn’t because I was “too white” to be in that group. It was because they didn’t accept me for who I was. And this is when my true awakening began.
I am a black woman. I have caramel colored skin and 3c curls. My birth father was black. I am a black woman. I was raised by 2 white parents and my birth mother is white. I have lighter skin and that means I am more privileged than most black women. But that doesn’t take away from my blackness.
It is a conundrum being someone of mixed heritage.
While I am accepted by the black community I am also ridiculed for being too white. And while I am accepted by the white community I am also discriminated against for being too black.
It means that I simultaneously belong everywhere, and nowhere.
I was raised by liberal white people, I am comfortable around them (to some degree). I talk like them and I look more like them than most black women. Because of that, white people see me, and are more likely to listen to me than a darker skinned black woman. That makes it my responsibility and my duty to speak. Speak about my experience as a black woman. And raise the voices of my fellow sisters that are often overlooked. I take this very seriously.
Now I realize that sounds pretty condescending, as if I see myself as above other women of color. But I have a very logical, factual side to myself. Those are the facts of the way our society works, and the way our society views women of color. I think it is the job of all people with any amount of privilege to use it to help others. To use it to fight injustice at every level. Men need to use their male privilege to address issues perpetuated by the patriarchy. Rich people need to use their socioeconomic privilege to speak about the inequities of our capitalistic society. White people need to wake up and dedicate themselves to using their white privilege to end the continued assault on people of color worldwide. And I, need to use my light skin privilege to combat colorism and fight for women of color to be heard, and understood. I need to use my socioeconomic privilege to shout from the rooftops about the financial burden of simply being a black woman in this world. I need to use every tool I have (even if it’s unfair and wrong that I have it) to help other people and make our world a more equitable place.
My parents are truly the most amazing people I have ever met.
My father grew up a hippie by his own choosing. He grew up in upstate New York in Croton on the Hudson and at 15 he enrolled himself at Putney boarding school in Vermont and worked on the farm and searched for meaning. Before college he traveled to India and Nepal searching for god and his path, it was there he decided he would become a doctor. He found Meher Baba, a prophet without religion who preached love and light in every person. In college he went to UC Santa Cruz where he met my mother. He did his residency during the HIV epidemic in the 80’s in San Fransisco. From his start as a doctor he knew his calling was to help the underserved people of this world. Since then he opened his own practice in Chapel Hill, NC, began the underserved residency tract at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill medical school, and started taking a group of medical students (and me) to rural Mexico to work with the people there. He left that small practice and moved us to Spain for a year. When we came back he continued working with migrant farmworkers, uninsured, and underserved patients in North Carolina. While doing that he discovered a huge discrepancy in our health care system. People coming out of prison with chronic health conditions had no linkages to health care once they were released. He took this and ran with it. He created the Formerly Incarcerated Transition Program (FIT) which connects people being released with a community health worker who themselves has a history of incarceration, who not only helps guide them to medical resources but also helps them find housing, jobs, and anything else they need to reenter the community. To this day he continues to expand the program statewide and is being recognized for his amazing work. My dad is truly amazing beyond his accomplishments though. He is humble, he is warm and kind, he is open about everything, and he has a deep passion for learning while also being able to acknowledge his own ignorances. He is like no other man I have ever met. We have always had a special connection. Our souls are connected and we will find each other in every lifetime, I am sure of it.
My mother was born and raised in Southern California. Her family life was dysfunctional and by the age of 16 my mom had seen it all. She went to High School in Chicago and then college at Evergreen in Washington. She also was a true hippie living with 5 people, building sailboats, learning and loving. She took a year off and got a job because she split from her parents and no longer had their financial support. She is truly a self made woman. She put herself through college and transferred to UC Santa Cruz where she met my father. She also traveled to India and discovered Meher Baba with my father. After my father finished his residency program in San Fransisco my mother began her residency program at Albany Medical School in New York and that is where my story begins. Since then my mother has been an incredible doctor at Duke University. She became involved with their Global Health Program and traveled to Nicaragua to do underserved medicine there. She works part-time as an Internist at Duke and spends the rest of her time taking care of her family (amazingly I might add), traveling, learning, and loving. She is truly incredible. She has an eye for everything, she constantly thinks about other people, and she is one of those people who knows what you need before you even need it. She taught me what it means to be a strong independent and fiercely smart woman and she takes no shit from anyone.
My sister came 5 years after I was born. My parents struggled to conceive and my sister was a test-tube baby. The one that finally worked. We joke that she was born with a cigar in one hand and a glass of champagne in the other shouting “where’s the party?!” But really what that means is that she is fierce, strong, independent, and FULL of life. Nothing my sister has ever done, she’s done halfway. She puts her everything into everything always, its just who she is. When she was younger that meant she needed more guidance, she was difficult and stubborn in the best of ways and the hardest of ways. As she’s gotten older she is slowly becoming who she will be for the rest of her life. She is wild and loves life and lives every moment to the fullest. She is in High School now and has been a Vegan for 5 years. She is an amazing artist, smart as a tack, loves competition, and is loved by all. She struggles with perfectionism, and not allowing the outside world to dictate her decisions. But she is figuring it out like she always has. Head on, face first. She is brilliant, passionate, beautiful, kind and sensitive. I will forever be in awe of my sister and who she is. Watching her grow up has been the wildest and best ride of my life.