2024 gala keynote leads with love

Chris Singleton shares his story of tragedy to transformation

Chris Singleton often travels for work. These travels include school tours where the author and motivational speaker sees firsthand the impact of children living in paycheck-to-paycheck households. He tells the story of one young boy who often slept in class. When Chris asked why, the teacher told him his mother works multiple jobs to make ends meet which means she gets home late. This boy had made it his mission to wait up for her so they could spend time together.

This was just one of many stories shared by Singleton as the keynote speaker at our 2024 Annual Gala: Changing Rules. Changing Lives. Our goal at the Shriver Center on Poverty Law is to build a future free from racism and poverty, and to transform the interlocking systems designed to keep those inequities alive.

Poverty creates adult-sized worries for kids. It forces them to make choices no child should have to make — should I get a good night’s sleep and be ready for first period tomorrow or stay up so I can take advantage of the only time I have to spend with my mama? LaTanya Jackson Wilson, vice president of advocacy at the Shriver Center on Poverty Law, asked, “If we have $900 to give to support raising a child, why aren’t we giving it to the parents?” Chris posed that it would likely end the need for that evening job and free up her time for her son — it would strengthen her family.

Chris, in his keynote address, spoke about those who have had a particular impact on his life and his mission to lead with love.  

His wife. His mother.  

A young white male. Raised in poverty, misled, misinformed, and misguided, he walked into Chris’ family church on June 17, 2015, during the Black congregation’s Bible study, and took the lives of nine African American church members, including Chris’s mother, Sharonda Coleman-Singleton. The tragic loss, the attack’s heavy racial undertones, and the context of a country frequented by instances of gun violence and racism made the massacre a turning point for many. For Chris, it was the start of the realization that while he couldn’t bring his church family or mother back, he could be the opposite of his mother’s killer. He could lead with love.  

As we learned from our first-ever Everyday Warrior awardee, Carmyn, to change rules that change lives, it’s important to lead with love, and it was felt at the April 11 gala as Chris led the audience of 300 through a moment of deeply interpersonal connection. “Stand up and embrace someone who doesn’t look like you. Tell them you love them.” You could feel the love and unity building in the room. This moment was a powerful reminder that to achieve a future where everyone has equitable access to prosperity, it is important to connect across difference.

Angelique Strong Marks, the 2024 Annual Gala event chair, pointed out to the audience that poor Black Americans and poor white Americans have many circumstances, and subsequently needs, in common. And yet animosity exists between these groups by design. But when you create an environment marked by difference, animosity, and scarcity, there is no room for unity, love, and equity.

“I think about my mother’s killer. And I think, man, just the optimism that I have, if I would have met this guy … gave him a hug and said I love you to him,” Chris said while onstage at the gala. “Maybe he taught me a few things. Maybe I taught him a few things. I just think, man, maybe my mom would still be here.”  

But according to Chris, “people change people,” and we would add, people change policy. Everyone has a role to play in the drive toward an equitable America. Chris’ role is to bring people together with a message of love and unity — to change hearts and minds and help people see our shared vision of a nation free from racism and poverty. The Shriver Center’s role is to amplify voices, like Chris’, and lead the charge to change these rules that change lives.

Where does that leave us? At the end of the day, when we hear 9 million children are living in poverty, we come together and say that enough is enough.

Unity doesn’t just happen when you’re surrounded by people who look and think like you. It happens when you lead with love. Similarly, we train lawyers, community organizers, and other activists to build the skills that are vital to equal justice advocacy, with a focus on racial justice, community power, affirmative advocacy, and leadership development. 

Standing together, side by side, we can change rules to change lives.

Thank you to the changemakers who supported our 2024 Annual Gala and fuel our big goals to build a better, brighter future for our nation, where all people can live healthy, productive lives. 

About the Author

Erin Dowland Kabwe
Erin Dowland Kabwe
Erin Dowland Kabwe
Vice President of Development


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