On a recent Monday afternoon, Sheletta Brundidge made it through the long line at the post office with a laundry basket full of copies of her latest children’s book. She spent $300 to mail them out to friends and other families she had found through social media. Then she dropped off more books at her son’s school before going home to make macaroni and cheese for her kids’ lunch. All that while doing a phone interview. Brundidge is what she calls a “pop-up problem solver.” If there’s a need to be met, she’ll make sure it gets done. “This is mom life,” she said.
Brundidge balances her duties as a mother of four with her many professional endeavors. The Cottage Grove resident is the author of three children’s books based on her own kids’ journeys with autism, a series known as “These Brundidge Babies.” The most recent in the series, “Brandon Spots His Sign,” was published March 31. Brundidge is also an Emmy-winning comedian, and her podcasting platform, ShelettaMakesMeLaugh.com, features nine weekly shows hosted by Black subject experts from Minnesota. The podcast’s themes range from travel to mental health to autism awareness and beyond.
Many know Brundidge as “Minnesota’s Autism Mom” because of her work in autism education and activism. Alongside her children, she worked with the Minnesota legislature to pass a bill to introduce autism training for police officers and advocated for the construction of sensory-friendly rooms in sports stadiums. The Minnesota Twins recently opened the Sensory Suite in Target Field, and Brundidge and her children were among the first to step inside.
In March, Brundidge was recognized as the Minnesota honoree for USA Today’s Women of the Year. In April, Gov. Tim Walz commended Brundidge in his State of the State address for her willingness to advocate for the COVID-19 vaccine after her initial skepticism. At the request of her son, Brundidge changed her mind about getting the vaccine after doing some research and speaking with doctors.
We spoke with Brundidge about her new book, the importance of community, her family’s history in activism work, and how she built her own seat at the table.
Three of your four children have autism. Was there anything specific that pushed you to get involved in activism and education surrounding this condition?
I was super depressed when I found out I had kids with autism. In fact, I lost 100 pounds. I remember hearing God’s voice, and I said, “Lord, why are you punishing me?” And God said, “I’m not punishing you; I’m giving you a position. Your position as a mother, that is a privilege. Now, get up and help your kids, and then go out and help somebody else.”
I just started doing some research, reading articles, periodicals, and studies, trying to figure out what would be the best options for my babies. I started finding out about grants and scholarships that would pay for alternative therapy that insurance won’t cover and looking at laws that needed to be passed to help kids who have autism live a better life. Then, I started seeing the struggle of other parents and seeing their cries for help. My kids had started getting real good, they were so much better. My daughter tested off the spectrum. I didn’t even know that was possible. So, I saw hope. I want parents to know that it can, and will, get better. That’s why I’m always out there. I’m always talking. I’m always advocating. Anytime I see a need, whether it’s education, or information, or legislation, or partnering with the Twins, or Fraser Minnesota, or United Healthcare, I’m always doing something to make sure that people are aware.
Tell me about your new book, “Brandon Spots His Sign.” What inspired this story, and what message were you hoping to get across?
We were on vacation down in Texas, and we were at an RV park. Brandon is normally a kid who’s afraid of everything, and he was like, “Mom, I want to go swimming.” And then he was like, “Mom, I want to ride my brother’s hoverboard.” And I was like, where’s this burst of bravery coming from? He said, “Mom, these people all got signs supporting me in Texas, they love me here. Let’s go ride in the golf cart, I’ll show you.” So we go riding around this RV park in Houston, Texas, and he keeps saying, “Did you spot my sign?” He was talking about the “Let’s Go Brandon” flags. He thought everybody was cheering for him, and I didn’t have the heart to tell him.
When Brandon told me he spotted his sign, I heard directly from the Lord that this is a book. I called my publisher and I was like, “We’re gonna write this book, we’re gonna put it out there into the world, and it’s gonna be a bestseller.” The goal is to get this book into the hands of President Joe Biden and Jill Biden and have them read it to kids at school. I am snatching that whole “Let’s Go Brandon” slogan from an ugly insult to a rallying cry of support for kids with special needs. Brandon doesn’t see the flags as an insult to the President of the United States, with his sweet little 9-year-old autistic self. He sees encouragement. He sees people cheering for him. He sees inspiration. He was inspired, and so was I. I was inspired to write this book for other kids who have social anxiety and autism. [Editor’s note: In late May, Brandon received a letter from President Joe Biden, calling him “an inspiration.”]
You often speak about representation in media and literature. What do you think the representation of Black, autistic youth in your books has on your own kids, as well as others like them?
It gives them confidence. They feel seen, they feel validated. A lot of times we talk about diversity and inclusion, and we talk about Black and white, and Asian, and Hispanic, and Indigenous, but we’re talking about kids who [have] special needs, too. That’s diversity and inclusion. Diversify the books in the library, in your classroom, in the library with your kids at home. If you don’t have any books with Black kids on the cover, if you don’t have any books about kids with special needs, guess what, I got some for you.
Have people responded well to you filling in that gap?
Yes, the Girl Scouts right here in Minnesota are using my book as a teaching tool. I heard from a professor at Duke University that she is doing the same. We always tell the story through the eyes of the autistic child, but we include the entire family. So kids can see themselves in the stories of my children and more readily identify with them.
Speaking of your family, I know you and your kids have done a lot of activism work together. Has this always been something you’ve done as a group?
That goes all the way back to my great-grandmother. She would cook for Freedom Riders. She never marched, she never did a speech, she never did any of that because that wasn’t her thing. But we all have a role to play. She was an excellent cook, so she would cook and take food to the jails for all the people who came down South on those buses. I was there, sitting in the kitchen while she would cook dinners. When I got to be an adult, I realized everybody has a role to play in this life. So when I’m out there doing what I do, my kids are with me. They have a responsibility. Freedom ain’t free. You were created and designed and you have a purpose, and you need to find out what your purpose is, what your gift is, and how you could use it to make your community better.
I can tell that community is important to you. You’ve said before that you don’t have to stay in one lane, and that you need to be wherever your community needs you. I’m wondering if you could say more about what exactly community means to you.
Community means helping people in need, whoever those people are. They ain’t got to look like me, they ain’t got to sound like me, they ain’t got to dress or smell like me, nothing. If you need help, I’m there. I want to use my name to help anybody and everybody, whether I’m passing out carbon monoxide detectors, or passing out autism books, or Thanksgiving turkeys.
You’ve cited influential Black women like Fannie Lou Hamer, Rosa Parks, and Madam C.J. Walker as your sources of inspiration. Where do you see the influence of these women in your work and in your everyday life?
I think of them all the time. I wake up thinking about them, I go to bed thinking about them. Fannie Lou Hamer was beaten within an inch of her life, and after they did that, she got up and went to register people to vote. How dare I sit up here in Cottage Grove with a nine-seater, and an iPad, and a college degree, and Google, and not keep going? Instead of fighting for a seat at the table, I built my own, like Madam C.J. Walker, and created my podcast platform. Madam C.J. Walker showed us that you can do it in your own way, and if you are authentic, and true, and you work hard and break through those barriers, then success is there for you. I could’ve [given] up, but every time I fall, I get right back up. Every time I see some lemons, I make lemonade.
Speaking of success, congrats on being named one of USA Today’s Women of the Year! How do you feel about this recognition?
At first, I thought it was a hoax. For far too long, Black women, women in general, have waited for someone to shine the spotlight on us, and then we act all shy. I’m working hard, and I’m going to make sure you see the work that I do. I come into the room with my own spotlight. So if my light, and my accomplishments, and me celebrating the work that I’ve done offends you, you better leave the room. Because I’m definitely not going to wait for society or white men to say good job and pat me on the back. I’m gonna pat myself on the back. So when they nominated me, I took out billboards all around town. There are about five or six billboards where I congratulate my own self, because I need women to see, especially Black women, that it’s just fine for us to show out. It’s just fine for us to celebrate us.
What’s up next on your to-do list? What are you currently working on?
You know, just continue to do the work that needs to be done. Educating, inspiring, empowering. Expanding my company and holding these corporations accountable who promised to partner with Black-owned media companies like mine after George Floyd died. Creating a bridge between Black media and Fortune 500 companies. We want people to look at us and see that we care more about others than we care about ourselves, and that we’re more committed to service than we are selling anything.
Read this story in our upcoming July/August issue.