State Rep. Erica Crawley admits there were times in her life when she was angry and depressed, wondering why God was punishing her with obstacles that, on many occasions, could have derailed her life.
Violence, poverty, two parents addicted to drugs, an unexpected and bedridden pregnancy, lack of health care, lack of food, a failed attempt at college, unemployment, a sick mother — Crawley can find plenty of reasons why her life could have turned out much worse.
Instead, the 38-year-old Columbus Democrat is telling her story from the 11th floor of the Riffe Center, knowing that though she would never wish to relive many of those experiences, they will make her a better representative.
“When I was going through these adversities, I was angry at times, very angry at God,” said Crawley, one of five Franklin County freshman lawmakers elected in November. “Now I can have an appreciation for the things that I’ve gone through because I have a level of relatability.”
A life that started in the 1980s on Youngstown’s rough south side progressed into an unlikely campaign victory in the 26th District on Columbus’ East Side, where, despite having lived in the area only four years, she defeated a sitting member of the Columbus Board of Education in the Democratic primary.Join the conversation at Facebook.com/dispatchpolitics and connect with us on Twitter @OhioPoliticsNow
For residents of her district, where a quarter of households are below the federal poverty level and more than 30,000 residents are on Medicaid, Crawley isn’t just representing them. She is them.
As she campaigned, “nobody talked about my education or that I went to law school or where I worked,” she said. “They cared about whether I cared about the same things they care about. Let’s talk about unaffordable housing, which 83 percent of the district lives in. I’m part of that. Most of my income goes to keeping a roof over me and my girls’ heads.”
Crawley, for example, knows what it’s like to be unemployed — and it’s not only some experience in her distant past. It was last year.
Crawley studied for the grueling Ohio bar exam in 2018 while running for office, working and taking care of twin teenagers as a single mom. She had delayed taking the test in 2017 so she could care for her sick mother.
She lost her job as a law clerk at Eastman & Smith in late April, after she was one of the 48 percent who took the exam in February and did not pass.
“I was on unemployment last year while I was campaigning,” she said. “There were times my girls ate and I didn’t. Or I’d just eat some black beans and rice.”
But for someone who estimates that she was rejected by law schools more than 20 times before being accepted by Capital University, Crawley has no intention of giving up. She plans to take the test again in February 2020.
Many state lawmakers have law degrees. Crawley's ability to look at state policies through the lens of her life experiences is something that she believes sets her apart.
“I think my background is very diverse and it gives me a different voice,” she said. “I can relate to a lot of different people. That’s why I raised my hand.”
For those dealing with drugs, gun violence or poverty, she can relate. In Youngstown she lived with her mother, who suffered a long list of health problems and was addicted to crack for much of Crawley’s youth and early adult life. She would see her father on regular occasions, but he, too, was dealing with crack and alcohol addiction. She now suspects it stemmed from her father's service in the Vietnam War.
“I can say now, what I didn’t understand as a child is that he was doing the best he could managing PTSD that had been untreated,” she said.
Near-constant financial trouble caused her and her mom to move about a half-dozen times. She remembers living with her aunt and cousins, at times with no electricity or hot water. They lived with her mom’s friend, both sleeping on a couch.
“I felt like I was trapped. I felt like I had no voice," Crawley said. "People knew what was going on in my household and nobody did anything.
“A lot of my friends’ parents struggled with addictions, too. And there was so much violence at the time when I was a teenager. A couple of my friends got killed who were selling drugs.”
When she was 16, a close friend was killed by his best friend over a girl.
“I never wanted anyone to feel like I felt,” Crawley said.
Auntie Marvel's love
With a difficult home life and so much crime and violence around her, Crawley said playing softball from age 8 through high school was a help. “Having that group of girls made a difference to me.”
She also had a valuable person in her life who helped her stay focused and out of trouble — her great-aunt, Marvel Flint.
"Auntie Marvel" would pick her up on Sundays and take her to church, and at times would let her stay over and take her shopping, something she rarely got to do otherwise.
“She would always tell me I was loved and could do anything I wanted,” Crawley said.
Flint was a stable adult in whom she could confide and vent the frustrations in her life.
“I felt robbed, and I could talk to my great-aunt about those things, just because she showed me unconditional love,” Crawley said. “I’ve struggled with depression and struggled with growing up in a place like Youngstown. She allowed me to talk about what was going on in my life and school.”
Crawley knows that having a disciplined, principled adult in her life is something too many at-risk youth do not have.
“Children who don’t get caught up, there is usually a mentor or somebody they lean on,” she said, noting that counseling and mental-health services will be among her priorities in the Statehouse.
“When I was 16 and I went to talk to someone because I was having problems at school and angry with my mom, I went to an old white man,” Crawley said. “I was like, this isn’t going to work.”
She graduated from Youngstown's Chaney High School in 1998, but at age 17 was already the primary caretaker for her mother, who was dealing with, among other things, back problems, arthritis and would eventually have both shoulders and a knee replaced. Crawley wanted to go to the University of Toledo, but instead enrolled at Youngstown State University so she could care for her mom.
In 1999, she was able to enroll at Toledo. But, lacking family support, she admitted that she too often showed more interest in working and having fun than attending classes.
When classmates would go home for Thanksgiving to spend time with families, Crawley went home and did not even see her mother.
“I felt like I needed to get away,” she said.
Escape to the Navy
Crawley found that escape in December 2000 when she left school to join the Navy. She was promoted quickly to a role at the Naval Computer and Telecommunications Area Master Station in Norfolk, Virginia, where, as an information-systems technician, she made sure ships and subs in the Atlantic fleet could communicate with one another and have proper satellite access.
“I grew up. I went from being all over the place to being disciplined,” Crawley said. “I found meaning and purpose. I felt like I was making a difference in what I did. I mattered. I didn’t get it at home. I didn’t feel like I mattered.”
Crawley is now turning her appreciation for the military into legislative action. She plans to make her first piece of legislation a bipartisan collaboration with Rep. Nino Vitale, R-Urbana, to make tax-deductible the one-time veterans' disability severance payment given to those discharged from the military because of an injury in the line of duty.
While serving in 2002, Crawley received word that her great-aunt was suffering kidney failure and would need dialysis. Crawley didn’t hesitate — she immediately requested time off and donated her kidney.
“I felt like she gave me my life,” Crawley said. “I know I wouldn’t be where I am today if she didn’t tell me she loved me, or took me to church and spent time with me.”
She returned to the Navy, and her orders were up in June 2003 — but at that point, her mother was living with her in Virginia, recovering from open heart surgery. Staying in the Navy would have required her to leave her mom and do a tour at sea, so she was honorably discharge.
A few months later, Crawley moved to Atlanta to work for the Black Child Development Institute. But once again, life interrupted her plans. She learned she was pregnant with twins.
“I lost it. I just cried,” she said of becoming a mother in her early 20s. “It was traumatic because I had not really had a life. My childhood was stolen for me. I got out of the military to take care of my mom. And now I was in a place where I was just living my life for the first time by myself, and now that was being taken away from me.”
Her pregnancy had complications, and she had to spend months on bed rest. Maternal health, she said, will be a priority for her as a lawmaker.
“Now there is an emphasis on toxic stress, especially on African-American women,” she said. “I came from a household where I saw domestic violence and my parents struggled with drugs. What type of stress did that have on carrying my babies?”
Faith and Hope
Crawley's daughters, Faith and Hope, were born in June 2004, six weeks early. Crawley got through it, she said, with help from a woman who became her mentor and life coach, Linda Hassan Anderson, who was president of the Black Child Development Institute. “She supported me tremendously.”
Crawley’s parents, by then sober, moved her to Cleveland, where Crawley, a single mom, would work and enroll in 2005 at Cleveland State, eventually seeking a degree in criminology. At times, she took out school loans to pay bills at home, so she could focus on classes.
In 2007, her great-aunt Flint went into the hospital. During one visit that occurred during the presidential election, they talked about who would advocate for change for her generation.
“She took down her oxygen mask and said, ‘Why not you?’” They were the last words her Auntie Marvel would speak to her. She never left the hospital and died three months later.
“I was like, why not me?” Crawley said. “That question catapulted me into a direction of working with children and figuring out where I could make a difference for kids who came from a similar background as me.”
It inspired her to run for office.
After graduating from Cleveland State, Crawley moved back to Atlanta, working for early-child development at the YMCA while earning a master’s degree in public administration. Ultimately, she wanted to go to law school.
“The thought of being an attorney came into my mind when I was young. I saw Clair Huxtable on TV and she looked like me,” Crawley said of "The Cosby Show" character. “It was just something in me and I could not let that go.”
After more than 20 law-school rejections, she was accepted at Capital, moved to Columbus in 2014 and graduated in 2017.
Voice for the voiceless
Years of schooling, moving, parenting and on-and-off jobs have left a heavy burden on Crawley, who not only knows the value of education, but like many Ohioans, also knows the cost. She racked up $243,000 in student loans.
When she decided to run for the House, Crawley said she wasn’t sure anyone would vote for her.
Once again, Crawley points to the help she received — this time from Rep. Kristin Boggs, D-Columbus, the No. 2 leader in the House Democratic caucus.
“I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for her, too,” she said. “It makes a difference having another woman, who’s a mom, tell you that you can do this, you can handle it.”
After so many challenges in her past, Crawley is ready to focus on the job in front of her. She wants to expand access to health care, help veterans, address prenatal and infant health care, and facilitate more open conversations about discrimination and race.
“We need to take into consideration that communities of color have been disproportionately affected by gun violence, discrimination and police violence,” she said.
Crawley said she was emotional after her swearing-in, thinking about her Auntie Marvel.
What would her great-aunt think of her now?
“She would be proud and she would probably say, ‘It is you. You can be the voice for those who have not yet discovered their voice.'”
Source : https://www.dispatch.com/news/20190217/new-state-lawmaker-has-lived-difficult-life-familiar-to-her-columbus-constituents