The Chittenden Regional Council is committed to honoring and valuing the voices of families that live in our community, and we hold those voices up each and every time we work together towards our common goals. Whether or not families are at our physical meeting tables, their seat is arguably the most important, and their perspectives are critical to Building Bright Future’s mission. While we always try to do our best to capture authentic parent stories, it’s not always easy to elevate them in meaningful ways that will impact and inform change.
Marlon Fisher is a local father, amongst several other important titles, and he recently shared his own raw and honest story at The KidsNet Collaborative Chittenden County Legislative Forum. The forum was designed as an opportunity to discuss current issues, concerns and legislative priorities regarding child protection, children exposed to domestic violence, and the health, safety and well-being of children, youth and families in our community. The impact of Marlon’s speech could be felt immediately, and he has graciously agreed to share it again here with us in this virtual space. I challenge all who read to consider how we can come together to create more opportunities for family voice to lead our work and empower more families to share their own experiences, ideas, and real stories with all of us.
I have a rare, miraculous, and uncomfortable life story. Thus far, I have averted my pre-determined destiny. To understand the significance of this, I will tell you about the blessings I have cultivated in my life and how unlikely I was to be where I am today. More importantly, since I have your ears, I will tell you what I believe we must do better as a community so that more children can grow up to live the lives they love.
My name is Marlon Fisher or as some call me while announcing me to the comedy stage, Big Fish. I am a father of two children, one who is 3 years old and one that is 2 years old next month. I am a husband to my wife of almost 5 years. I would not describe our marriage as going strong, but I would say it is still going. We live here in Burlington in a house situated perfectly by the lake on the bike path that I helped to purchase with my VA home loan. I am a Combat Veteran of the United States Army. I work downtown at probation and parole as the youth probation officer for the youthful offenders. I sit on the board of Dad Guild, an organization dedicated to the socialization and cohesion of dads in our community. I perform comedy and storytelling whenever I have extra time, which is not that often anymore. I love to be outside with my family, dancing with my kids in the kitchen, and rolling around on the floor with my children playing “Buffalo” which is really a game my 3-year-old designed to ride around the house on my back, which generally hurts my knees. I am proud that I can purchase the modest needs of our life without careful consideration. Each day I have at least a few moments where I can’t believe this is my life.
Unprompted, I will often say to my wife in the midst of a mundane activity some or all of the following in no particular order, “I can’t believe we have a house, I never thought I would have one. We have our own apple tree that actually produces good apples. I have a BBQ, a backyard and a porch, I never thought that was going to be me. Look, we have two amazing boys, isn’t that incredible? Is this really our life?” I am truly baffled from time to time about how I arrived here, but I know that it most certainly involved an everyday grinding away from my destiny. My destiny was handed down to me by being a black male born in the city to a teen mom in poverty. My destiny is placed in front of me every day when I am followed by security in large stores, approached by middle age white women asking why I am so nice to my children, or when I am the first person someone thinks of when something goes missing.
I was born to my mother in New York City in 1982, my mom was 16 when she got pregnant with me. She was at that time a track star. My father was also 16 and was a basketball star. I was the beginning of neither one of them ever realizing their dreams. My mom went one way in the road, she gave up everything to give me the best life she possibly could, and my father went the other way in the road, giving me up to give himself the best life he possibly could.
By the time I was born, my mom already had experienced several different types of trauma and as I grew, she would experience many more, a lot of which I was present for and witness to. Most profound to the shape of my life, were the countless incidents of domestic violence that she was the survivor of while raising me. Two years after I was born, my brother was born, and I remember my mom bringing him home. At that very moment, I determined I was the man of the family and it was my responsibly to protect, raise, teach, and love him with every ounce of my being. Throughout the next decade I watched as my mother gave her whole heart and soul to men when she fell in love with them and in return, they beat her and left her behind. My mom scraped to provide for everything that we needed; food, clothing, shelter and love. And somehow, we together, the three of us just kept getting up in the morning, sometimes in new apartments after being evicted, sometimes with no food to eat, sometimes with a perpetrator in our space, but we kept standing back up. Early on, my mom set the expectation that we never give up.
Six was a big year for me. It was the first year that I was groomed by my mother’s perpetrator to sell drugs. It was also the year that a group of high-ranking executives from Merrill Lynch and the National Urban League came to my first-grade classroom and introduced the Scholarship Builder Program. 250 students across the country from poor inner-city neighborhoods would receive a scholarship to college and in order to get us there, we each received a team of people to support us along the way. Team Fisher, my team, was made up of people that believed in me, taught me, saved me, gave us money, opportunities, experiences and helped us reinvent our lives. They paid for me to go to private school after I dropped out of high school. They let me stay with them after my mom kicked me out when I stood up to her then perpetrator and he came back with a gun to threaten me. Team Fisher brought me to summer camp every summer in Westport, New York starting at the age of 10 and that camp became my North Star for 26 consecutive summers. As I was being pulled under time and time again by my destiny, there was always a hand reaching out to me that I only had to grasp right before I drowned and every single time it was offered I reached as far as I could and gulped big breaths of resiliency. From my childhood, I learned that when a hand is extended, all I have to do is grab a hold.
I have my own complex trauma history. I went into the Army with profound historical traumatic challenges and only acquired more on my tour of duty. When I was coming out of the military there was a hand offering opportunity in Vermont and I accepted. When I got here there was a hand offering work and I took it. January 6th, 2014, a few short months after I took that job, I met my wife and I saw a very different kind of possibility for life in her. It was a different type of hand reaching out, there was love being offered. I accepted. It has been nearly impossible for me to trust the relationship. I am deeply afraid of being open with her and the love between us. When she is strong and doesn’t seem like she needs me, I get mad and even though it is happening less and less, I get mean. When I feel like she is going to leave, has the capacity to leave if she wanted, is leaving on a plane, or to work somewhere away, I start grasping for control and power to firm up my footing. When she offers me feedback, my insecurities flare and I attack her immediately. I am scared of not knowing how to live this life and love a family. I am frightened she sees me for who I am and who I have been. I am constantly on guard to protect my own tender spots. We have had some very bad moments where I have looked like those men I watched hurt my mom, except that there are lines I don’t cross because I am doing my work. Power and control are very important to me, to the detriment of our marriage. The need for power and control have been woven deeply throughout all areas of my life from the residual of childhood trauma. I watched as others had power over my mother, my brother, and I. As I grew, I always felt safer if I could control a situation and this love for my family has no bounds, no rules, no guarantee, no control. I try to make sure everything is in the diaper bag every time we leave the house in case of emergency. I try to make sure there is no one dangerous lurking around my family. I try to prevent chaos by keeping my office precisely spotless at work. But no matter how much I try, I can’t prevent pain in my relationship and so to regain power and control sometimes I say a meaner thing first before she can. I am deeply afraid of losing what I thought I would never have. My wife has been close hundreds of times to wanting a less fractured partner. Today, I can understand that, and I am recovering as fast as possible by putting in the work.
My personal plan of recovery is considerable, and it is comprehensive. I am in therapy with a man and have been for several years now, we talk about what it means to be a husband, a father, and a man. It took me 35 years to be ready for those conversations and find the right therapist. My wife and I have a group of friends that is there for us when we are struggling and suffering. They show up, hold us, feed us, laugh and cry with us and I tell them how massively I have struggled to get over the things I saw as a tiny boy trying to be a husband to my mother and a father to my brother. We have built ourselves a family whom we can call when crisis occurs. It took me 35 years to have friends that I can tell the whole truth to. We go to couple’s therapy, although most recently when our couple’s therapist called me out in session, I told my wife I wanted a divorce and we haven’t been back since. I am still broken from time to time. I talk to dads at Dad Guild and the Family Room about being a dad and about being a man whatever those words mean. I talk to dads about love mostly. I talk to the kids on my caseload about hygiene because that is a real time tool that can be measured and I talk to them about humility, time, attendance, respect, community, work ethic, and compassion. I link as many men and fathers to programs and groups because I just wish someone had done that for the people that were raising me.
There are not nearly enough programs and resources. I feel the weight of the world on my shoulders and mostly it is about knowing what can happen when the right resources are not in place. People reached out for me and I grabbed hold but I am one of so few. Most of the kids on my caseload do not have what they need.
Every day I am hustling backwards to redo my childhood and at the same time prevent more trauma and pain in my children, the children I serve, the community around me and our culture. I am blessed that I am a very funny and social guy, people think I have all my stuff together and they love to be around me, and I love to be around them. I am lucky and also this was a substantial effort. As a black guy in Vermont it is allowable for me to be funny and social but I am not allowed to be frustrated or angry, disappointed or sad. I learned from early childhood to put on a smile and has made some Vermonters feel more comfortable about being outwardly racist toward myself and my family. The smile was a façade for many years but now it serves as a purposeful reprieve from the heaviness that is my life’s work of recovering and living. It serves as lightness in paradox to the responsibility I feel for creating opportunities to prevent and intervene in trauma, especially of fathers that trickle down to their children generationally. Every day I task myself with putting more of my own personal puzzle pieces together, so that I can help others put theirs together. My children make me want to do better each day.
Although my mom wanted to do better for me and my brothers, it has not gone the same way for her because she didn’t meet someone like my wife to partner with, she never had the scholarship builder program, she didn’t finish a degree, and she didn’t have resources. To this day my mom has become nothing she ever wanted to be, except that she is a mom to three big strong boys, all living their own kind of lives. She is the definition of complex and developmental trauma and systemic racism and it shows. I am angry about her having given up over the last several years. I knew her as a fighter, but she doesn’t have any fight left in her and my heart is broken over that. She is tired, sick and stuck and I can’t save her even though I have tried over and over again and probably will forever. This may be her story, but it will not be mine and it will not be the story of any other person if I can so help it. Today, I am focused on building networks of support, resiliency tools, community resources, organizational strategies toward recovery all threaded together through love and vulnerability. My children, our children deserve a better world where everyone is given the opportunity to live a life they love. I am hoping you will keep helping me do this. Thank you.