THE WRITE STUFF

A busy mom finds time to return to school, earn two degrees
and make a difference in the lives of others

By BARBARA BLAKE

If there was a bona fide job called “freelance difference-maker,” that would be the second bullet point on the very colorful resume of Tamiko Ambrose Murray MSW ’12, trumped only by the most important: “mom.” Murray didn’t set out to fill a page of her curriculum vitae explaining all the hats she wears in Asheville, from fiction writer and teaching artist to parent educator and community organizer. Especially considering she once wanted to be a nurse — until animal dissection class happened and she ran for the hills.

Tamiko-Ambrose-Murray

Tamiko Ambrose Murray MSW ’12 (right) with her children (from left) Logan and Liana. Photo by John Fletcher

That Murray has been able to bundle her skills into a comfortable set of niches is a testament to hard work and determination under less-than-optimum circumstances, beginning in California when she was 14 and on her own with nowhere to live, convincing employers she was years older so she could get a job and pay rent. Later, as a divorced single mother raising two young children, it took her 10 years to earn a bachelor’s degree from the University of North Carolina at Asheville, slowly and steadily taking classes while supporting her family scrubbing toilets as a janitor at Pack Place, serving food at Rosetta’s Kitchen and writing ad copy about multivitamins for a local organic pharmacy.

Still determined to improve her situation as her kids grew older, Murray earned a master’s degree in social work from WCU, using her expanded skills to open doors of enlightenment and a love of reading and writing for disadvantaged children and families through organizations like the Lake Eden Arts Festival Schools & Streets and Asheville Writers in the Schools. All the while, as her own son and daughter — now 19 and 16 — watched their mother’s fierce commitment to bettering herself and then putting her knowledge into community action, they have developed their own brand of difference-making through art, music and social activism.

“I don’t think I’ve done anything different than any other parent who wants the best for their children. I did take notice of their interests and gifts and have nurtured them,” Murray said. “They definitely witnessed me working hard and never giving up, and in that sense I have modeled for them that the sky is the limit and that there is another world beyond that. I have always encouraged them to dream big.”

Murray is co-founder, with Janet Hurley, of Asheville Writers in the Schools, a nonprofit that places writers in classrooms or in community settings to teach creative writing to young people who consider themselves nonwriters. She also is an artist with TAPAS — Teaching Artists Performing in Asheville Schools — a partnership involving Asheville City Schools Foundation, LEAF Schools & Streets and UNC Asheville that brings teaching artists into classrooms for short-term residencies. She is the local coordinator for Alternate Roots, a southeast regional arts organization that supports the creation and presentation of original art rooted in a particular “community of place, tradition or spirit,” composed of a coalition of artists and cultural workers devoted to the elimination of all forms of oppression. And she is a parent outreach consultant and educator through the family advocacy organization FIRST, a nonprofit resource center housed in the Shiloh Community Center, where she works with parents and caretakers in need of support.

Still in their teens, Murray’s children are well on their way to making their own marks. Logan, who will soon leave home to study recording arts at Full Sail University in Florida, is a tenor sax player who received the Louis Armstrong Award his senior year at Asheville High and plays professionally. He also is a teaching artist assistant with LEAF Schools & Streets and with Delta House, the nonprofit mentoring and education program sponsored by the Asheville alumnae chapter of Delta Sigma Theta sorority, where he works with youths in the LEAF Delta House Jazz Band and is an after-school tutor. Liana, president of the student body at Asheville High and second in her class academically (and has her heart set on attending Yale University), is an accomplished artist whose talents can be seen on the murals at the Burton Street Peace Garden and the Triangle Park on The Block downtown.

Jennifer Pickering, founder and executive director of Lake Eden Arts Festival and its offshoots, said the Asheville community “needs more people like Tamiko,” who until recently was community coordinator for LEAF Schools & Streets and played other key roles with the nonprofit. “It’s so amazing looking at how extraordinary her kids have become at such a young age. … They’re both so active in the community and extremely artistic,” Pickering said. “It’s a testament to Tamiko’s amazing example as a parent and to all of her own work in the community.”

Reprinted in edited format with permission of the Asheville Citizen-Times