Ebony Roberts and Shaka Senghor: After Separating, How Do You Co-Parent As A Team?

Sep 4, 2020

Part 1 of the TED Radio Hour episode Finding Another Way

After nine years and the birth of their son, Ebony Roberts and Shaka Senghor ultimately separated. But they made a vow: despite the conflict that led to their split, they'd still co-parent as a team.

About Ebony Roberts

Ebony Roberts is a writer, educator, activist, and researcher. She is currently the principal consultant and founder of QualOne Research. Previously, Roberts served as program director for #BeyondPrisons, an organization designed to uplift the voices of those impacted by the criminal justice system. Her work in prisons led her to meet Shaka Senghor, who at the time was serving a 17-40 year sentence for second-degree murder. Their correspondence and the love that grew through letters and visits is chronicled in her memoir, The Love Prison Made and Unmade, which was named a Notable Memoir by The New York Times.

Roberts is a former school administrator and has taught undergraduate and graduate courses in psychology and teacher education at Michigan State University and the University of Michigan. She has developed social studies curriculum for middle and high school students and is the co-author of Building Bridges, a workbook for children with an incarcerated parent.

About Shaka Senghor

Shaka Senghor is a writer and consultant. He is currently the head of diversity, equality, and inclusion for TripActions, a travel management company.

In 1991, Senghor went to prison for committing second-degree murder. He spent 19 years in different prisons in Michigan, seven years of which were in solitary confinement. He was released from prison in 2010. Today, Senghor is a best-selling author, lecturer at universities, and leading voice on criminal justice reform.

Prior to TripActions, Senghor was the MIT Media Lab Director's Fellow and a former Fellow in the inaugural class of the W.K. Kellogg Foundation's Community Leadership Network. He's the recipient of numerous awards, including the 2012 Black Male Engagement Leadership Award, the 2015 Manchester University Innovator of the Year Award, the 2016 FORD Man of Courage Award and the 2016 NAACP Great Expectations Award. He was recognized by OWN (the Oprah Winfrey Network) as a "Soul Igniter" in the inaugural class of the SuperSoul 100. He has taught at the University of Michigan and shares his story of redemption around the world.

Senghor is the author of memoir Righting My Wrongs: Life, Death, Redemption In American Prison, which was published in 2016 and debuted on The New York Times and Washington Post bestseller lists.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

MANOUSH ZOMORODI, HOST:

It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Manoush Zomorodi. On the show today, New Ways of Resolving Conflict.

Conflict in any relationship is inevitable, but let's not start with that. Let's start with romance.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SHAKA SENGHOR: I just remember walking in the room, and she just spoke with such passion and such intelligence and thoughtfulness. And I knew I was attracted to her immediately.

EBONY ROBERTS: Our connection was crazy. It was a very deep emotional connection, and we had so much in common.

ZOMORODI: That's Shaka Senghor and Ebony Roberts. Shaka and Ebony met 16 years ago while Shaka was in prison.

SENGHOR: I was serving what turned out to be a 19-year prison sentence. And I was an organizer inside prison.

ZOMORODI: It was 2005, and Shaka organized an event for Black History Month. Ebony was one of the speakers.

ROBERTS: Yeah, I remember meeting Shaka. Shaka was definitely unforgettable.

ZOMORODI: So back to that moment, sparks clearly fly. And then, like, what do you - how do you ask somebody out in prison? Like, what - how does that work? How do you start dating?

ROBERTS: Well, Shaka, I think - Shaka didn't ask me out, but I think he did make the first move.

SENGHOR: Nah, I don't quite remember it like that.

(LAUGHTER)

SENGHOR: I made the first move?

ROBERTS: Well, here's the thing. So after that program, I got a letter in the mail from Shaka.

SENGHOR: A very professional letter.

ROBERTS: A very professional letter, of course.

ZOMORODI: Ebony didn't respond for a year. But then after she did, the two started writing each other a lot.

ROBERTS: I hadn't found anybody that I connected with on both the social-political level, but also the emotional level. In the beginning, it was just letters. And we would write six-, seven-, eight-page typed letters. And we'd have opened our hearts and shared so much of our lives with each other. And so I looked at him and I looked back at my experiences and relationships that I'd had, and I felt like he was worth the wait.

ZOMORODI: Shaka and Ebony made all kinds of plans for when he got out - marriage, a family, a house. But when Shaka was released, the situation was far tougher than they'd expected.

SENGHOR: Like, nothing prepares you for reentering society after being gone for two decades. And nothing prepares you for taking the leap of being in an adult relationship when your only experience was being in relationships when you were a kid.

I had multiple things that I had to come to terms with. You know, I was not just coming home to a relationship. I'm also a parent to two children who were entering adulthood - reconnecting with my family - trying to find employment, understanding early on that I still had PTSD from two decades ago. And so it was kind of like I was driving in seven lanes of traffic. Meanwhile, Ebony and I, we were on kind of the one-way road of love, right?

ZOMORODI: (Laughter) Yeah.

SENGHOR: But I had all these other things that I was processing in real time. And so it was just a lot, you know? It was a great undertaking to come home.

ZOMORODI: Yeah.

SENGHOR: And that transition is really tough.

ROBERTS: Yeah, he came home in 2010, which was shortly after the Great Recession. So the housing bubble led me to lose the home that I had and the home that he was supposed to come home to. So when he came home in 2010, and by the time he came home, the house was in foreclosure. And within a year, we had to move.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ZOMORODI: Can I just say as someone who's been married for 15 years, relationships are hard enough without a recession, PTSD, foreclosure, other family. I mean, the list that you (laughter) - I mean, the odds were completely stacked against you.

ROBERTS: Yes.

ZOMORODI: And so I have to ask, at what point were you like, let's actually add a child to this equation?

(LAUGHTER)

SENGHOR: Well...

ROBERTS: We didn't plan that out.

ZOMORODI: Ah (laughter).

ROBERTS: No, we didn't plan that out. But it happened. And we were both excited when we found out I was pregnant.

SENGHOR: I was so excited when Ebony told me she was pregnant. You know, I wanted to be present in all of the things, the whole process. And so we did the breathing classes and the doctors visits and, I mean, everything, you know? I remember taking our little office that we had put together and converting that into a nursery and just how amazing it felt to know we were going to be welcoming life into the world.

So, yeah. So, I mean, I was just excited. You know, I was excited. I was nervous. I mean, I was afraid. There were times where I was just, like, questioning, like, damn, like, the timing. Employment was tough. You know, I was hustling books out of the trunk of the car and, you know, getting little speaking engagements here and there, but it wasn't, like, any significant amount of money coming in. We were OK. We were surviving the day-to-day. But in a tough economy, adding a baby to it was really scary.

ROBERTS: I think one of our first conflicts was actually around the anxiety that Shaka had about being a father and being able to provide. I had a, you know, good-paying job, but I was the primary breadwinner. And so he felt a lot of pressure to provide. And a conflict arose because I was like, I got this, you know? I've got a job. I've got benefits. We're going to be OK. And that wasn't sufficient as a man. He felt like, no, I've got to get a job; I've got to be able to provide. And so he did not - I think - I don't know if we've ever talked about this, Shaka, but I think he felt emasculated because I was like, I got this; don't worry. And I felt I was trying to be, you know, compassionate and understanding, and he felt like I was - you know, didn't need him.

SENGHOR: I never felt emasculated. I'm just a very driven person, and I'm used to taking care of the people around me. So it wasn't necessarily about emasculation. It was like, you know, I've already failed in my responsibility with two children by abandoning them with my incarceration. And now here it is. We have a child on the way, and I'm not being able to handle things according to the standards that I have envisioned for myself as a dad.

You know, I grew up in a household where there were constant complaints about working check to check. And, like, that wasn't a vision that I had for myself. So it wasn't that I felt emasculated. It was just I felt purposeful and more driven to not create the same cycle that was playing out not only in our family, but in our community.

ROBERTS: We had been arguing quite a bit. And we tried to fix the problems that we had in our relationship. But we hadn't gone to therapy. We really hadn't done any of the work that we needed to do to handle or address the problems that we had. And there was just so much resentment. And so we reached a point where we decided that, you know, we were better apart than we were together.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ZOMORODI: Conflict is a part of life. But how do we find peaceful ways to work through our differences, whether that's as a family or an entire country?

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ZOMORODI: We're living in a polarized world, and conflicting perspectives divide us to the point that reconciliation can feel nearly impossible. But what if instead of merely tolerating each other, we found better ways to exist together? And so on the show today, New Ways of Resolving Conflict in nature, in ourselves and in our relationships.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ZOMORODI: Ebony and Shaka decided to split up after nearly a decade together, but they weren't ready to give up on being a family with their son, Sekou.

ROBERTS: We had both dreamed of a happily ever after and, you know, having, you know, sort of a model Black family. That was really important to us because so many Black families are fractured, including our own. So it was a really difficult decision, but it was so toxic at that point. And I think we had tried and failed so many times to address the issues on our own. And I think that we were just tired. I'll speak for myself. I was tired.

And there was a point - and Shaka can speak to this - where he kind of checked out. And when one person in a relationship checks out, it's really hard to continue trying to work on a relationship. And so we just reached a point where we realized that it wasn't going to work in the current dynamic.

SENGHOR: Yeah, yeah. Yeah, I had checked out during that time. And I think that the other part that was really an important part of the decision is seeing the effects that our disagreements and our arguments were having on Sekou, and knowing that neither of us wanted to recreate terrible childhood memories that we had both endured in our own different ways, and being very intentional about protecting him from the madness of our adult lives.

And so it was tough, you know? It's like, we got nine years invested. We have been through every type of challenge while I was incarcerated. We had been through challenges post-incarceration. But despite that, it still was tearing apart something that we had put so much work, energy and effort into building together. But we knew for the best interest of our son that we had to make the right decision.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

ROBERTS: Our breakup hit me really hard.

ZOMORODI: Ebony Roberts continues from the TED stage.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

ROBERTS: But I decided I wouldn't let my broken heart get in the way of what was best for Sekou. We struggled initially trying to navigate this new space as co-parents. I asked myself, how do we raise this beautiful boy, full of wonder and promise and so much power, in spite of our failures as a couple? The answer for me was simple. I could either choose fear - fear of being alone, fear of the unknown - or choose love. And I chose love.

It means seeing the good in you as a father and not your missteps as a partner. It means putting Sekou first every time, even if it means I don't get my way. I wanted Sekou to know what it was like to see two parents who got along, two parents who worked together as a team. I wanted him to know what love looks like in its truest form.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ZOMORODI: In a minute, how Shaka and Ebony are building a new kind of family and raising their son together. I'm Manoush Zomorodi, and you're listening to the TED Radio Hour from NPR. Stay with us.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ZOMORODI: It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Manoush Zomorodi. On the show today - new ways of resolving conflict. We were just hearing from Shaka Senghor and Ebony Roberts talking about their decision to end their relationship after nine years together. But they didn't want to break up their family, and so they chose to create a new parenting agreement - to be partners in a new way for the sake of their son, Sekou.

(SOUNDBITE OF TEDx TALK)

SENGHOR: For us, co-parenting is so much more than scheduling pick up and drop off, play dates, deciding what he's going to wear, what he's going to eat. For us, it's about helping each other carry the weight, unpack the load and to show up in the world in a way that honors the beauty of our son.

ROBERTS: We never thought we'd be here, but here we are. And we hope that the way that we show up for Sekou and for each other is a model of what successful co-parenting can look like.

ZOMORODI: So can the two of you help me understand how your version of co-parenting - this new kind of putting the friendship first - what that looks like on a daily basis?

ROBERTS: You know, I think our relationship as co-parents or as parents really deepened actually when our relationship ended because I think we were both able to communicate better about Sekou's needs and really see this as a partnership. We talk about single parenthood, particularly single mothers, and while I am not married, I am not a single mother. I don't raise Sekou alone. I have a partner.

And so, you know, if I'm having a hard day and I'm going through something with Sekou, I come to him and say, this is the situation. What do you think? Did I handle this properly? And I could go to a friend, I could go to someone in my family and ask for advice, but I have the one other person that I know cares about and loves Sekou as much as I do.

SENGHOR: Yeah, I agree. I mean, for us, you know, we center him like he's just such a beautiful soul. And there's no drop-off when he's here with me. There's no drop-off in terms of expectations of love and honoring his mom and making sure he calls his mom and does prayer at night. And whenever we spend time together, you know, he's always like, group hug.

(LAUGHTER)

SENGHOR: But it also feels good to know that we can create this bond of love that's just unbreakable.

(SOUNDBITE OF TEDx TALK)

SENGHOR: Our parenting can be seen as allegory for this two-sided coin of possibilities. On one side, the reality of raising a Black boy in a society says that Black boys, Black bodies and Black lives are only seen as profitable or disposable. And then there's the other side - the possibility of two parents who are no longer together coexisting, supporting each other, loving each other, showing affection publicly in a way that honors the relationship with our son. And even more importantly, it's the power to support each other in those vulnerable moments.

ZOMORODI: When you tell other parents who are split up about how you, the two of you, are parenting together despite not being a couple, what do they want to know? I'm guessing they must have, like, questions about how you make it work.

SENGHOR: Yeah, I get a lot of questions from my friends, who are incredible fathers, actually - like, how do you put the anger, the resentment, the ego, how do you put those things to the side? And what I always just really talk to them about is like - how would you want to feel it as a child?

ZOMORODI: What do your peers want to know, Ebony? What are they confused about with your relationship with Shaka? (Laughter).

ROBERTS: Most people are confused about why we're not together.

SENGHOR: That's been an impediment to my dating life, by the way.

(LAUGHTER)

ROBERTS: You know, I have to tell people that I can love Shaka and respect who he is as a man and a father and know that we're better as co-parents and not as romantic partners and be OK with that. And oftentimes we go straight to the petty because oftentimes we're operating from a place of hurt, and so I just try to, you know, show people by example - I could respond with pettiness, or I can respond out of love.

ZOMORODI: Is there an example you're thinking of, Ebony? Because you sound so virtuous right now, but I'm guessing there must have been a moment where you were like, oh, my God, I can't believe you did that.

ROBERTS: (Laughter) That's what it's like.

ZOMORODI: But you had to put it aside, right?

ROBERTS: I'm trying to think of...

ZOMORODI: I could tell you all the petty moments (laughter).

ROBERTS: Oh, go ahead. Go right ahead. Go right ahead, Shaka.

(LAUGHTER)

ROBERTS: I can't think of one.

ZOMORODI: Let's hear it.

SENGHOR: We've had our conflicts, and we've had moments where we weren't kind or thoughtful. I think the thing that has worked is we know, giving each other a little bit of space, we're going to arrive at the right conclusion, an apology will be forthcoming. But talking to each other, like, that's been our superpower, for real.

ROBERTS: And, you know, I want to add, you know, it's been a struggle to not say something to Shaka in moments when I wanted to - and I had a good friend who told me, you can't control what happens at his house. And he's his dad, and I know he has his best interests, and that has been something that I'm still learning to do.

ZOMORODI: (Laughter).

ROBERTS: But, you know, I think I've gotten a lot better at that.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ZOMORODI: I have learned so much from this conversation, and it really is what makes me want to ask this last question to each of you, which is - you know, we're living in extremely toxic times. But I want to believe that there's something that applies from all the ways that you've described that you came together in a new way - please tell me that there is something that applies to the rift that is in the United States right now.

SENGHOR: I'll say one of the reasons that I believe that we have the rift that we have in the country is because we haven't been honest about what people's real lived experiences has been. And one of the things I learned on my own healing is that you can't fix the things that you're unwilling to acknowledge. And as a country, when you think about the racial dynamics, you think about the economic disparities, it's largely because nobody has had the courage to actually acknowledge the way that policies and the way that social norms have been harmful to a large segment of society. And until we get to a space where we can be honest about all of the things, we can't fix any of them things.

ROBERTS: You know, I think what makes our relationship work and what has made it work from the beginning is compassion, and that's what's needed in our country. And sometimes it's hard to show compassion to someone that we don't love, but we have to show compassion in everyday acts, you know, whether it's with our children or with this - whether it's on the road with someone who's, you know, cut us off. You know, we just have to get out of our own head, out of our own space and think about the other person.

ZOMORODI: That's Ebony Roberts and Shaka Senghor. You can see their full talk at ted.com. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.