A few weekends ago, I rolled out of bed early Saturday morning to attend Tavis Smiley’s State of the Black Union symposium in Los Angeles. Like many Americans, I’m out of work. My money is tighter than a black power fist, and finding a job is challenging. So I was eager to get a dose of motivation from one of the panelists, best-selling author and spiritual teacher Iyanla Vanzant.
She has motivated millions around the world with her life coaching and openness about overcoming her own past hardships—abusive relationships, teen pregnancy and poverty. But I was shocked when Vanzant announced to the audience that she lost her house in 2006 and didn’t have health insurance. I could hear the “wows” ripple through the audience. How did this happen, and what gave her courage to share her story?
I caught up with Vanzant after the State of the Black Union. Between 2001-2003, she lost her 31-year-old daughter to colon cancer and two siblings also passed away. While dealing with the foreclosure of her million dollar, four-bedroom home she bought in 1995 on five acres of land in Anne Arundel County, Md., she was going through a divorce. Vanzant broke down to me what happened and how she’s still standing.
The Root: While on the State of the Black Union panel, you said you got a bad mortgage deal you didn’t understand. What kind of mortgage did you have?
Iyanla Vanzant: What I had was a balloon payment on the end of my mortgage. So I had to pay the interest for five years, then pay the total amount of the mortgage at the end of those five years. While at the time it seemed like a very good idea, [but due to] the changes and fluxes in my income, when it came time to make the balloon payments, I didn’t have the money to pay it. And so they forced me to sell my house.
The Root: Did you talk to a financial expert to dig yourself out of this situation?
Vanzant: I have an accountant, and I have a financial attorney. Both of them said the same thing, “You have to pay this off.” And I didn’t have the money to pay it off. It was real simple.
The Root: You are a best-selling author, TV personality and attorney. What else was going on financially that prevented you from saving your home?
The Root: I imagine when you’re going through something like that, it feels good to know you’re not the only one.
Vanzant: I didn’t do anything wrong. And I think that’s what happens with people who have shady mortgage deals. They start to feel like “I should’ve known better; I should’ve done better.” If you have a mortgage payment and you don’t have a job, you can’t pay the mortgage. It’s just that simple. I wasn’t comparing myself to other people … life happens. Probably if my daughter hadn’t been ill, I would’ve had another kind of reserve. I would’ve been working and earning income. I also lost a major publishing deal at that time. I also canceled a major television contract at that time.
The Root: You canceled the contract, or did your employers cancel it?
Vanzant: … I withdrew. I didn’t want to renew [the “Iyanla” show] for another season.
The Root: You said in 2007 you were living without health insurance …
Vanzant: No. I said I had health insurance, and that is was $444 a month. In 2007, I had surgery to remove a bone spur in my foot. At the end of the year, my premiums jumped to $695. Never mind the 14 years I paid the premium and never used it. But because of this one medical condition, they take what they spend on a year, average it out and that’s how they determine your premium. They never lowered my premium when I didn’t use it. So now my premium is up to $695 which is absolutely ridiculous. And I’m not going to pay it. I want to say I can’t afford to pay it, but that’s not really true. It’s just robbery. And they did the same thing with my grandson. When my daughter, [his aunt], passed away, I put him in grief therapy. And so at the end of the year, I wanted to change carriers … He was 13 years old, and they wouldn’t insure him because of a pre-existing condition. It’s grief counseling. It’s not tuberculosis or muscular dystrophy … these are just gouging practices.
The Root: Do you have health insurance now?
Vanzant: No, I do not have insurance.
The Root: How are you handling that?
Vanzant: I had health insurance for 14 years and never used it. I had one corrected procedure on my foot, and I don’t think I need to be robbed $695 a month for me, $110 a month for my grandson with another carrier, and another $110 a month for my granddaughter. That’s almost $1,000 a month for people who aren’t even sick.
The Root: The goal of President Obama’s “Making Home Affordable Plan” is to help 9 million people stay in their homes. What’s your response to people who say “Why should we help them? They got themselves into this mess.”
Vanzant: I say go somewhere and have a cup of tea because something’s wrong with you. It’s crazy because you have these unregulated systems that nobody was watching. I do think consumers need to be educated. I grew up in abject poverty. I raised my three children on welfare in the projects. So for me, having to raise to that level of self-realization and self-actualization where I can even buy a home was huge. And I had no model and no practice and no experience with that, so I depended upon people to support me or help me or give me information. And I do believe that at the time the people gave me the information they thought was best for me … so I say if we can save 9 million people in their homes, then we need to do that by any means necessary.
The Root: You, Michelle Singletary and others on the panel implied that this crisis is not only a financial awakening in our country but a spiritual awakening.
Vanzant: No, not all … what I hope happens from my sharing was that people understood, just like me, we are all subject to the prevails of life.
The Root: What reactions have you gotten from your supporters?
Vanzant: Oh my God! People think I’m homeless! [Laughter].
The Root: Really?
Vanzant: It’s so kind. I got $20 in the mail. I keep getting e-mails about it. But people think I’m homeless, and I guess that’s because I didn’t go into the minute details of the story, so it’s like people think this happened yesterday.
The Root: The woman sitting next to me in the audience said we should send you money.
Vanzant: Bless their hearts. The bigger thing for me is I raised my grandson. He’s 17 now and getting ready to go off to college. And so I need to understand what impact this will have on my ability to get him a school loan …. And I have a 14-year-old granddaughter that I acquired in June, but there are hundred of thousands of women in my situation. They thought they were done. And then at 50, 60, 65, they’ve got teenagers or babies that they’re raising. A roll of toilet paper used to last me two months. Now it’s gone in four days. And that’s an increased expense. It sounds silly, but it’s real.
The Root: Where are you living now?
Vanzant: I’m renting a house that sits on 30 acres of land that are historic properties. The land that I live on housed the post office and the train station that black people used in this area if they were traveling on the train up to the North beyond Maryland or if they had to go to the post office. Those two structures are on the property that I live on.
The Root: What’s next for you?
Vanzant: I’ve gotten offers to do all kinds of stuff. I have another publishing deal. I just put out another book—“Taping the Power Within.” It will be 20 years old in September and a revised edition was re-released. I’m in the midst of writing a book …. My current pet project is to reunite fathers with their children. That’s what I’ve been called to do, by any means necessary, to work with the fathers, the mothers and the children, so that these fathers can be in a relationship with their children. That’s how we’re going avoid the prison’s revolving door.
The Root: How are you going to do this project?
Vanzant: It will come to me.
The Root: In your teachings, you say there’s a lesson to be learned in life experiences. What lesson did you learn?
Vanzant: The greatest lesson for me was never count on what you might have. Count on what you do have. Had I counted on what I did have, I would’ve never gone into that kind of mortgage deal. I also learned just how much I can do without. I learned to do without the house. I learned to live without my daughter, which was much more challenging. Still is challenging. I learned to live without my husband. I learned that true healing is a process …. Once the process begins you have to buckle up and ride it all the way through. Even though it may not seem like it at the time, you always come out better than you were. Always.
Jeneé Darden is a freelance journalist living in Los Angeles and blogs at Cocoa Fly.