A customer masquerading as a human is caught lifting a pair of boots and it is the first time ever this single mother of three and grandmother to six gets called "n***."
She asks him to leave and he cusses up others outside the store. He does not know this woman, could never guess where she has been.
She is working the front of the Tucson Goodwill store on Fort Lowell Road. The dude squeals again, this time threatening, and he means it: "I'll fuck you up, n***."
She says to him, "Really, you gonna call me that? We gotta be all this?"
The guy commands certain fright, and the store calls the cops.
Tawana Brown's guts churn inside out but she will not let the 12 or so employees working see her bust in two. She is the store's manager, after all. Later she wrenches away to the bathroom to collect herself, to face down the shock, to soothe the tears and wounds in her mind.
They say to call if he ever shows up again... Well, dude shows up again days later. The call is made and cops haul him off.
An angry crusty white guy with his previously banned-from-the-store girlfriend in tow step into the store and go at her too, crazy as caged monkeys. Brown recognizes the woman and asks them to leave. Each vomit the same thing, "make me leave, n***" etc.
If only those were isolated moments from several weeks ago Brown could gaze back on, but they aren't. It happened two other times, different people gibbering at the n-word at her and such.
Brown used to show up early for work, alone, to set up COVID temperature checks and symptom forms, sometimes to unlock the doors and allow employees who arrive early in to avoid a summer-sun wait. She is too frightened to show up alone or early now, and a Goodwill's district manager scheduled someone to come with her.
Goodwill does not tolerate this racist shit.
No one ever called 46-year-old Brown the n-word in eastside Detroit, where countless whites drive into the city for work and then spend their money in the lily-white suburbs, with its clean streets, kept landscapes, dependable municipal services and white nationalist neighbors.
She grew up with three brothers where whole city blocks are burned out, street after street boasting homes charred to the ground or boarded up or swallowed by earth, where a street is good if one in three houses is livable, where there are no grocery stores or working streetlights. If the elementary schools aren't shuttered they can't afford pencils. It is where long gray winters feel like endless silent vigils to the dead auto factories and their long-gone bustling workers, glory days before crack-cocaine huffed it out in the 1980s. Its residents reflect that, the depression and boredom and risk inform everything, the waning self-respect and inner poise. If ever there was tragedy to expedite a Detroit escape, Brown's blighted eastside world was it.
No one ever called her the n-word until Trump was in the White House. She didn't fear for her life because of her skin color until, really, Trump began sending troops in and gassing peaceful BLM protestors for his own photo ops. She can only shake her head when the notion of Trump enters it, an acknowledgement of a stirred-up hatred.
* * *
This is the story of a woman basically saved by Goodwill Southern Arizona, an American dreaming, and there are those who don't make it and others who won't understand it. How she was encouraged and supported, mentored, and overcame Detroit-weaned low self-esteem and unmarketable skills, and was trained and paid for it. It wasn't easy for her, starting at $5.65 an hour in 2003. Three months later she was promoted to supervisor.
I walked into the Goodwill thrift store one day and met Brown. She informed me I had to go through the company to get permission to do any kind of story, which I hate to do. If there are channels and permissions and auditions and flacks I won't do it, the stories too-often become PR. I called the company marketing director, Matthew Flores, and he was cool, said I could talk to anyone I want and later left me alone to do just that.
I returned to learn more about this woman at the register, who seemed to possess that trick of inconspicuousness only possible when it articulates the precise organization of the world around her, this Goodwill thrift store she oversees, its employees and donation center in back. Everybody has the fuzzy unseen spaces where sadness and joy fight for light, and her face, through its congenial yet unclear expression, showed an earned abundance of both.
* * *
It is Monday morning and the Goodwill store smells of floor cleaner and M&Ms. It is heavy in the decoration of ordinary lives, dominant colors of oat and orange, an adult re-entry office to the side denoted with wall messages of Goodwill's missions. It is beautifully lit. Racks and shelves heave with household items, clothes and melancholy treasures, a camo toy copter, a 3D unicorn coffee mug, Mexican embroidery and some William Faulkner. Masked customers and employees circulate at distances, young and old, brown, white, black, tatted or wrinkly. A wordy old-timer addresses a half-startled preteen boy nuances of Harry Potter characters, an elderly woman fills her cart with stuffed animals, happy to discover a koala bear for 99 cents, which, she grins, will nab her $40 on eBay.
Brown is in the back of the store, its airy warehouse and donation center, wearing a floral blouse and black mask and gloves. Public donations fill myriad containers and shelving, some kind of island of misfit toys for kids and adults. The warehouse is sectioned in easy, right-angled pathways, an organizational philosophy based on the Kaizen strategy, a Japanese term meaning "continues improvement," which seeps into Goodwill as an operations enhancer for every employee in all aspects of work.
The store is short-handed today, down four employees, so the store manager is quietly and carefully sifting through boxes and containers filled of shoes and boots from other worlds walked, separating them. Goodwill radio plays softly throughout the store, Lulu singing If you wanted the moon I would try to make a star. After careful examination, Brown will either price the shoes to be shelved up front in the store, or place the more imperfect ones in a box to be later sold by the pound, or another box, one meant for the boutique store or online sales, which today contains a beige pair of Ferragamo kitten-heel pumps, at least $500 new. She works and talks, good-cheer conversations and the occasional self-directed barb while ticking off the intricacies of her work duties. She is quick, intelligent, her words zip in terse, melodic sentences, as if the life stories lift on some unheard musical backdrop, as comforting as someone recalling a trip to Disneyland.
There is no bitter rant, her hands are not clenched tight in recall, no outward hatred towards others or groups, and it ain't easy to miss the kindness in her dark eyes. Her life treatise is modest now: she is relaxed, able to enjoy a level of financial and emotional security she has earned, a woman who welcomes thoughtful opinion but sidesteps with a chuckle racist concepts and tawdry conspiracies. She'd rather talk Hector, for instance, the older gentleman working his ass off 20 feet away sorting newly arrived donations under the rollup loading-dock door. "I'm really happy with him," she says. "He's kind, and he just works hard."
The employee work here is filled with completable tasks, sorting, pricing, watching the floor and stocking the shelves, as certain as hanging a shirt. "The young ones who come in here, between 19 and 25, saying they want and need the work and will do a good job end up quitting. They just don't want to do the work, and it's so easy. She points to Hector, says, "He can outwork all the young ones."
After a pause she adds, "Look what Goodwill is doing for the community. It's giving single moms a job, it's giving Hector a job."
"I love the crew I have now. I like to get dirty with them," she laughs.
Brown arrived in Tucson from Detroit 17 years ago on a Greyhound bus with her three children. A two-week vacation to visit a cousin, relief from a fierce Michigan winter. Tucson in January was heaven then, a veritable land of milk and honey next to Detroit—85 degrees on a winter's day, a forever big-sun sky above strange spiky landscape. The vacation turned to survival, the family never returned to Detroit, except later to visit people, lonely as it was in Tucson with no immediate family or friends. They left behind their place and all their things because, simply, Brown wanted a better life for her children, and schools that didn't pass them for merely wearing shoes and showing up.
She didn't fully understand the circle of poverty of her existence until she left Detroit and looked back, could detail with hindsight and new experience a place where you live and die and suffer and no one notices or cares. Where men in your life count off days in the big house.
Her younger story is a classic Detroit one, that one of failed industrial promise. Dad worked his years until retirement at Chrysler, and a stay-at-home mom. Brown had a baby at 15, who she would bring to high school with her. She split from her first child's dad, a kid too, who did what he could, and still does. "We were young and stupid," she laughs. That daughter is now 31 and lives back in Michigan, married, earning a living wage, with three children of her own.
Brown moved out at 17, dropped out of high school (later earned her GED) to work whatever temporary job would have her. She didn't want to rely on her family, "felt guilty my parents were taking care of my daughter."
She met another man, Ike, fell in love, as evidenced by his name etched into her neck in fading cursive, to which she rolls her eyes in embarrassment. Her parents wouldn't even allow him in their house. He's in prison now and Brown is not even sure why, and doesn't care. No love lost there. She outgrew him years ago.
* * *
It is difficult not to question the wide-eyed optimism and open-heartedness of Goodwill Southern Arizona's non-profit state, this honed philosophy keen to bust circles of poverty, and ignorance, fueled on a rugged sense of self-sustainment, people working for each other, not some Wall Street entity. Seems more like a dream, where some Pavlovian conditioned response idea that the depressed or mentally or physically disabled person is defined by how they are judged and treated, is completely circumvented. Like any business, the attitudes trickle down from the top.
Headed by two female co-presidents, Liz Gulick and Lisa Allen, and nearly a dozen others on a Board of Directors who oversee the grant writing and fiduciary to the community outreach, teaching the disabled, the lost, the hurting, the homeless, the recovering and the getting-back-ups.
Whole operation is ridiculously organized, down to monitoring the fuel consumption of trucks used to haul donations from its 19 Southern Arizona stores, and seven separate donation centers, and the main warehouse, and on rare occasion, the city dump. Right now, the fulltime workforce totals a little under 400 folks. On average it's more than 500, but it fluctuates with high turnover at entry-level. Goodwill shuttered stores during the pandemic and furloughed many employees, most of whom returned upon reopening, some stayed on unemployment. Also, there's a workforce development staff and academic specialists at the Pima County One-Stop Centers and Goodwill's own Metro Program (which partners with local employers) a homeless drop-in center for kids, and those emerging from foster care. The Goodwill headquarters houses its workforce development team, administration team, training rooms and classrooms. Since founding in Tucson in 1969, Goodwill has helped countless souls overcome work inhibitors and financial catastrophe, and in turn their families and kids.
Its litany of progressive turns includes a grant-funded adult re-entry program, which focuses on getting recently released inmates gainfully employed through apprenticeship and certification training, job placement, and more. So far that program has been going rather swimmingly; just halfway through they have already met all but one of their Department of Labor requirements. For example, records show only 4.3 percent recidivism of the more than 100 entered in the program convicted of a new offense within 12 months of release or probation placement.
It is the little things, the tuition reimbursement for schooling, 403b matching (retirement for employees of tax-exempt organizations), disability programs, free tele-medicine for every employee and health care if they choose it. They offer soft-skill training and post-secondary schooling for self-sustaining employment and any kind of career advancement within Goodwill, or anywhere else the person chooses. The list goes on.
Goodwill Southern Arizona is autonomous from its national Goodwill aegis, and to uphold its own weight, 92 percent of the money Goodwill Southern Arizona spends as an organization goes back to programs or employment. Basically, if you give to Goodwill, that is where the money goes.
The other 8 percent is in administration costs. There are multiple revenue streams too, and it tallies like this: 93 percent of Goodwill's revenue comes from the stores, the rest is from contracts and grants, monetary giving etc. Last fiscal year Goodwill Southern Arizona's total revenue topped $31 million after taking in roughly 33 million tons of donations. That's more than 30 million tons of stuff with which folks in Southern Arizona did not burden a landfill, stuff that employed and fed.
* * *
Marketing man Matthew Flores and Quinn Van Renterghem, a Goodwill Employee Development Specialist, are hanging in the Fort Lowell store, shooting the shit, talking religion, soccer, education and why they chose Goodwill as a career. How the business model is an original social enterprise, established more than 100 years ago by Dr. Edgar Helms in Boston. He relieved discarded items from the well-off and employed people to repair and refurbish the items to resell."The overall structure has been established for years," Flores says.
The paradigm is simple, as Flores notes, excess from one household used to generate income for the hurting in a community. Helms' early funding came from the Methodist Church, but there are no religious ties now in the Southern Arizona branch, nor is it cultic or greedy, terms leveled at various national Goodwill organizations in the past. No one is getting rich. Flores and Van Renterghem make a fair living wage for Tucson. There is non-judgy humanity in the mission, but, as they point out, "obviously human dynamics get involved."
"Helping the seemingly unemployable become employable can be really aggravating at times," Quinn laughs.
Unusables are occasionally dumped in off hours and today there are dozens of spent tires someone unloaded by the donation dock. If one uses Goodwill as a dumpsite, they can't accept it.
Flores could've chosen other more profitable careers. Hell, he has another, unpaid fulltime gig as a woman's soccer coach, a top-tier team rising through its ranks. He rose up too, the Tucson High grad first attended an Air Force Academy on a soccer scholarship before graduating from NAU. The former semi-pro fútbolero player began on the bottom rung of Goodwill marketing.
The 38-year-old was born in his parent's house above the fire station in Bisbee, Arizona. Dad was in community resource development, working with Native tribes. Growing up, Flores spent time in his dad and uncle's childhood town in central Arizona, remembers the "No Mexicans/No Dogs" signs.
"We had friends in straight poverty, and I didn't have new shoes, but they did, my dad made sure. And I was pissed. I got older and realized what a piece of garbage I was. The majority of us have plenty to live..."
He pulls a mint, dry-cleaned shirt listed for under 10 bucks from the rack, recognizes it sold new for $200, and places it back in the rack. Adds, "The excess is enough for everyone."
The 29-year-old Tucson-raised Quinn, with Jesus hair and a blue Goodwill tee, looks more like a guy who'd back Conor Oberst on the drum stool than one leading groups (pre-pandemic) of 30 packed into a small room teaching, say, self-care, communication, respect for the effort of others, that sort of thing. He graduated from Oklahoma Wesleyan University, a Christian liberal-arts school (entered keen to become a pastor, studying philosophy and theology) and returned to Tucson to flee Oklahoma's ultra-conservative backdrop. Before landing at Goodwill five years ago he worked a Tucson Starbucks.
"I'm not so into religion now," he says, and he's studied them all. "I am into Jesus, though. You know, helping the widows and orphans. Matthew 5 and 6 is all anyone needs."
Adds, "Before I worked at Goodwill I was a thrift-store guy, but never went to Goodwill. I somehow thought it was kind of ghetto," he laughs. "Then I began to learn what they do for the community."
* * *
"I got me a savings account for the first time," Brown says a few days later, sitting in her office off the warehouse floor. "And I bought a good car. When I was a girl I dreamed of living in an apartment like mine." She adds, out-scissoring her arms, "I never thought I would ever be where I am."
She'll tell me she honestly doesn't know how she did it, but the answer comes.
Brown found Goodwill through the Department of Economic Security the year she moved here. Goodwill work enabled her to get an apartment, to keep her family clothed and fed, with some early daycare help from DES. Goodwill chipped in with gifts and food and clothing to mark her first Tucson Christmas here. The next year she bought an $800 car, no more negotiating bus routes and transfers to daycare and work, and drove it until "the wheels fell off. My kids," she adds, "never knew we were poor."
Her parents left Detroit for Tucson a few years later and moved into their daughter's same apartment complex. "They surprised me! They came out here on a Greyhound bus, had their things shipped later."
Brown's eldest daughter got pregnant while attending high school too. Twice. Brown laughs, "she had a baby in a swing and one in her arms while doing her homework. She said, 'Mama, I did it myself.' So I got to be a grandma, not a mother again. That's what tells me I raised them right."
Over the years, two of her children and a son-in-law all worked at Goodwill. Quinn even helped one daughter fill out financial aid forms for school.
Her father died four years ago and mom suffered a stroke. "But," Brown grins, "she still lives around the corner from me."
When Brown retires to her apartment after a long day of work she'll greet her one daughter still at home, who is 20, studying IT work at Pima Community College. She will pour herself a glass of wine and relax on her porch with her pet terrier. Soon she'll rise, shower and ready herself for bed, prepared to do it over again. A once-frightened person embracing the sweet routine of her life.
Or maybe her 25-year-old middle daughter will stop by, who also has three children, and is working her way up at Tucson's Comcast corporate. Maybe Brown's boyfriend will appear too.
Before I leave she tells me that she never allowed her kids to use the n-word.
"They got some of that in school, so they understood what I was going through here," she says. "My daughter told me, 'Some people are just gonna be stupid.'"
Thank you for all the comments and I really appreciate all the perspectives. I do. I never intended to trigger or hurt anyone with the hatefulness of this language others used toward Tawana Brown. My apologies. The context for its use was everything, to show hatred unvarnished. I hope that people read on and see Tawana's life as something worth celebrating in some small way. It sure was a privilege and joy to get to know her. The use of the n-word has been amended and/or retracted on the web version of this story.