Toshira Garraway Allen is the founder of Families Supporting Families, a nonprofit that supports community grieving the loss of a loved one at the hands of the police. A native of St. Paul’s Frogtown neighborhood, 36-year-old Allen can usually be found leading a protest or campaigning for racial justice and transparency when it comes to police-involved killings.
“Speaking out publicly about the injustices, I think is really difficult and painful and hurtful,” she said, “to know that because someone believes something different, that they would try to hurt me or my family is difficult.
“My family inspires me because I know that the work that I do now in the community will ultimately, hopefully, make it a better tomorrow for my son and make a difference for the young Black men in my family and the community,” she said of her 16-year-old son Justin Teigen, Jr.
“I lost my son’s father at a young age, and I just want to see things be different for my son. I want people to value his life,” she added. In 2009, the father of Garraway Allen’s son was pulled over by St. Paul police, and later found dead after a brutal assault.
“Going through that loss was really painful and devastating to me and my family. That’s when I started speaking to others at different community events,” she said. “I’d go out and talk about the night that my son’s father was pulled over. During that time, I ended up meeting other mothers and other people in the community who had lost loved ones at the hands of law enforcement.”
She ended up meeting Jamar Clark’s sister, and they recognized how there was little to no support for families who had lost loved ones. “We felt isolated and very alone in battling our grief,” she said.
“Meeting these other families and being out in these communities, I decided that we need support continuously for people that had lost loved ones at the hands of law enforcement. Because no matter the circumstances or what happened, people still lost someone and needed support.”
Families Supporting Families provides a safe space for loved ones to come and grieve, to talk to people that understand their experience, and to love on one another.
“I think it provides an outlet for families. The organization holds a lot of memorials in the community,” she said. “We do a lot of banquets. We do a lot of events where there’s food and balloons so it gives a chance for the community to come together and mourn as a whole. It also uplifts the family.
The organization also remembers the birthdays and the day a loved one died for the family. “Those are the hardest days from my own lived experience,” she said.
To survive, Garraway Allen said she has to be very strong in her faith. “My mother taught me my faith that I have. My father always taught me to be independent and be a hard worker, and I was taught to stand up for others and to always stand up for what I believed in.
Among those she credits for helping her organize is Michelle Gross with Communities United Against Police Brutality. “She showed me the ropes. She has been a strong backbone for me, and one I can turn to for advice.”
She also counts the late Mel Reeves as a mentor as well. “When he heard about Justin, he reached out to me to write a story.”
She is also working with young activists like Jerome Treadwell with Minnesota Teen Activists. “Just as Michelle showed me the ropes of organizing, that’s what I’ve done with him,” she said.
“I think ultimately, the work I do saves the whole community,” she said. “I believe that my organization and the work that I’m out here doing actually deals with some of the trauma.
“It keeps the hurt and frustration and anger at bay. When people are not getting their needs met mentally, spiritually and emotionally, at some point their backs are up against the wall, and that’s where the George Floyd outcry came from.”
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