Dear Joe by Alycia Jenkins

When we decided to share 20 of our favorite Umoja stories with you this year, we knew the list would not be complete without sharing this next one. This story celebrates one of Umoja’s most impactful staff members, Joe Cytrynbaum. Joe passed in 2009. During his time with Umoja, he had a profound impact on hundreds of young lives. Now, nearly a decade later, they still post moving tributes on Joe’s Facebook page – they share their life milestones with him and reflect on how grateful they are to have known Joe in their formative years.

These young people have thousands of memories of Joe. The story of Joe would fill volumes. So instead, we have chosen to focus on one young person, Alycia Jenkins, and one memory. Here is story #15…

“Dear Joe Cytry-Bomb,

On this day I remember you. As I sit here in my apartment in Hartford, CT, I think of all of the ways that you changed my life as a teen. There are so many ways that you have touched my life that I’m finding it difficult to find a specific story that has been vital in my life. But I do have a story. This is the story of the time that Joe came to meet my family in the summer of 2006.

The day that I found out about Joe’s death it shook my world. My immediate family found out the same day I did, and we were all devastated. I went to the back porch of the house and cried. I cried for a few minutes and looked out of the window, and the first memory I had of Joe was of the first time that I had ever seen anyone fight for me outside of my family. He was passionate. And the work he did that summer changed my life forever. 

In the summer of 2006, I had just ended my freshmen year and was looking forward to participating in many summer programs with Umoja. Support from my family at this time was very little because my parents didn’t understand why I would do these programs instead of work. They wanted me to get a summer job; therefore they didn’t sign the forms that needed to be signed in order for me to go. So I told Umoja Staff about this issue, and Joe took it upon himself to show up at the doorstep of my house. He came to talk to my dad to try and convince him to allow me to go. My father was taken aback by this gesture when he saw Joe appear at the door. I was also shocked. My father allowed Joe into the house and invited Joe to sit on the couch. And for a good forty-five minutes they talked. Joe convinced my father and my mother. I couldn’t believe it. I was able to do the programs. 

This moment changed my life forever because I saw the ability to be diplomatic and succeed with healthy support.  After seeing Joe stand up for me with his passion and support, it gave me courage to continue to communicate with the people in my life that I held dear in ways that garnered their support. This also taught me how to fight for myself and encouraged me to have confidence. This moment changed the way I viewed and respected my parents. Most youth who come from the same space that I grew up never have the opportunity to have their father present in their lives and the fact that I did was remarkable. I am thankful for this memory. 

The most important thing I took from this moment was the fact that Joe showed up. He taught me through his bravery (my father is a tough, brazen, and resilient man; and in many ways I am just like him) that he could not only speak on my behalf but was able to cultivate to my father (and me) my agency. More importantly, from this experience Joe motivated me to look within myself to become my own agent. Joe did not disrespect my father or me in the process of supporting me in my adventurous endeavors. He did not pretend to be the ‘white savior’ and reminded my father of his dignity. This is by far the best essence of this moment for me. And for that I appreciate Joe and what he has done for my family and me.      

The vital lesson I learned from having Joe in my life during his short time here in the physical was the essence of self-confidence and feeling comfortable with my voice. Joe never tried to shut me up, and he often reminded me to listen to my inner voice. He often encouraged me to fight the ‘good fight’ without fear and to trust my instinct. When I was a child, I never had the opportunity to trust my voice, instinct, or my confidence. Joe helped me bring out the best in my ability to conquer the world that was in front of me. Joe was Alycia.jpga guide for me that believed in me to move forward. He never shamed me into believing in myself, and he understood my stance for my people and the importance of working in a collective manner to better the world and community. And for that, I am grateful.”

Alycia is a writer, artist, and educator living in Connecticut. Alycia attributes Joe as the key motivator and influence for her to pursue her passion as a writer and spoken word artist. He even gave her the stage name she still uses to this day “Lady Abstract.”