May 18, 2021
A childhood filled with exposure to poverty, mental illness and drug addiction and several moves between California and Tijuana might crush some young people. Not so for Anna Lenaker AB ’19, MPA ’20, who earned a scholarship to Brown as a first-generation college student and then earned her MPA from the Watson Institute. In April of this year, her compelling and powerful memoir, Able to Be Otherwise: A Memoir, was published by New Degree Press. Lenaker skillfully weaves her personal experiences and those of her mother with global issues of climate change, mental illness and more.
In an episode of Watson’s Trending Globally podcast series, Lenaker talked with podcast host Sarah Baldwin. Lenaker’s geographic, emotional and academic journeys from childhood to the Watson Institute are extraordinary. After her mother, avidly engaged with a Pentecostal church, believed the voice of God told her to go to Mexico for a fresh start, the twosome moves to Tijuana. There, Lenaker, age 7, was pulled out of school to sell their belonging on the street – all to earn money so her mother could support her heroin habit and avoid the pain of withdrawal.
After Lenaker and her mother had pneumonia and were arrested, Lanaker’s sister-in-law took her to California. Although she missed more than two years of school while in Tijuana, Lenaker entered her age-appropriate grade and thrived. After winning a district-wide spelling bee, Lenaker, who loved school and learning, realized that her unorthodox childhood didn’t have to constrain her future options.
As a first-generation college student earning a full scholarship to Brown, Lenaker said, “I was so excited the moment I got into Brown. It still remains,
I feel, one of the most intensive feelings … of pure joy and disbelief that …getting the full ride … was incredible.” Nevertheless, the marked contrast between her life and that of many undergraduate colleagues made Lenaker feel like an imposter. Only after connecting with other low-income and first-generation students did Lenaker feel that “Brown was a home away from home.”
While engaged in her Religious Studies concentration, Lenaker began to recognize how she could contribute to conversations about poverty, addiction and climate change. To do so, she decided to “share my very intimate encounters … of these issues in an open and … honest way.” Her MPA consultancy with the Clinton Foundation’s Health Matters Initiative provided the perfect opportunity to deepen this dialogue. There, she worked on a program to train faith-based leaders in addiction issues, combat stigma and equip them to help those in their religious community who struggled with addiction issues. “What if the Pentecostal pastor that my mom saw every week had been equipped and known about … addiction…? …That, for me, was a perfect example of how I could use my MPA with my previous history to really enact change …that I think will be effective.”
After returning to the hills of Northern California when the pandemic shut Brown’s campus, Lenaker began dreaming of the post-pandemic world she hoped would emerge: “I dream of a world where, even if our homes are currently safe from the effects of climate change, we care that others’ homes are in flames, flooded or frozen… where poverty is understood not as an individual failing or as a product of laziness but as a system failure.”
As she wrote in her memoir, “This world is a work in progress waiting to be transformed by our collective imagination.”
The book is available on Kindle and in hardback in several venues.