(this essay was published in the last issue of Left Turn magazine, and is written by a Heads Up Collective member.)
Collective Parenting for Collective Liberation
By Rahula Janowski
Although outright hostility towards parents and children in radical left spaces is uncommon, there is an undercurrent of hostility or at least ambivalence about parents and children in many radical movements in the US. Meanwhile, the radical left in the US is small, fractured, and struggling, and our communities of resistance are largely racially segregated, mono-generational, and unsustainable. One important way to build the strength of our communities of resistance, and through that build the strength of our movements for radical social change, is to develop multi-generational movement cultures that embrace and support parents, all kinds of families, and folks of all ages.
My daughter was born in November of 2002, and before that, I had been looking closely at how mothering and radical political activism and organizing intersected for several years. Growing up in a working class, counter-cultural community in rural Vermont, there was always a wide age-range of kids and youth running around at every event, every roof-raising, and every party. When I became involved in West coast anarchist communities in the early 1990’s, my experiences stood in stark contrast; children were rarely present in radical spaces, be it meetings, parties, or even demonstrations.
For almost a decade, I lived and engaged in political work in communities that were mostly white folks in our twenties, with an occasional teenager, a few folks of color, and a handful of people over 30. In these communities, it was assumed that when activists and organizers had children or got older, they dropped out of the movement because something about parenthood and aging made people less radical and less willing to step up.
In the years since the birth of my kid, I’ve managed to stay politically engaged as a result of a supportive partner and household, and as time goes on I’m meeting more politically radical folks with kids. In spite of that, one thing I’ve realized is that although becoming a parent doesn’t make people less radical, in many cases, the radical communities with which I am familiar are unintentionally pushing people with children out.
Since my experience is limited to the predominately white sectors of the anti-authoritarian, global justice/anti-war communities, my observations and conclusions may not be reflective of experiences in other communities. I know that around the world, parents and mothers in particular are often the driving force behind grassroots popular resistance campaigns and movements within cultures that are far more embracing of children than the dominant US culture. However, in the political communities I have been a part of, parents and mothers are hard pressed to be involved in radical change work. And when mothers are involved, often we must leave our children at home along with our identity as mothers.
I hear stories, mostly from mothers, over and over, stories of how difficult it is to get out of the house, never mind to a meeting. How demoralizing it is to not be able to do nearly as much political work as before parenthood, and then to experience the varying levels of hostility encountered in movement spaces when we do venture out with our kids, along with the level of incomprehension most of our activist/organizer friends have about the realities of parenting. Often, these stories are related in an apologetic tone, as if our inability to juggle the intense demands of parenting, often alongside paying work, with the demands of being a deeply involved member of a community of resistance is a personal flaw, rather than a failure of our communities.
This dynamic needs to change drastically, not only so that the movement isn’t constantly losing experienced, skilled, and committed people as they become parents, but also because mono-generational movements that do not include people in all stages of life will neither move nor win. We need communities that are strong, that can withstand difficult times and challenges, and that can nurture and support its members to continue the work. A community of resistance that is multi-generational will have a continuum of memory, will carry lessons from one generation to the next, and will be a base for strong multi-generational movements.
Everyone brings different things to movements. We each arrive at the work with our own individual history, which is shaped by our personal experience as well as by our communities’ collective histories. When people who are engaged in political work become parents, we find ourselves with less time to engage in the work. But for many of us, that comes along with an increased sense of the urgency and necessity for doing the work and some new perspectives.
Becoming a parent shook me from short-term thinking to a much longer-term orientation to the work and the world. I find myself thinking not only about how to raise my child so that she’ll be prepared for the world she is going to inherit, but also how to engage in social change work so that world will be a better place than it is now, and how to build movements that will be stronger as she and her cohorts become old enough to join them.
My housemate, Clare Bayard, who is deeply invested in Natasha’s life, speaks to how involvement with kids can have a similar effect for people who aren’t parents: “I have always appreciated the wisdom of a seven generations framework coming from First Nations people, but never truly internalized what it meant until Natasha was born.” Clare continues, “She gives me a real investment in the future of this world beyond my lifetime, and because I care what world her life will trace through, I am constantly pushed to unstick from short term fixes and think deeply about how the work we do today will impact the world for generations to come.”
Interaction with the next generation brings a sense of continuity and dynamic longevity to the struggle. Playing with and caring for young children inspires hope for the future. Having relationships with youth keeps us in touch with their fire and inspiration. There is also a consistent pattern of youth pushing the struggle forward—helping movements and organizations evolve, by bringing their energy and particular insights to the work.
When we involve parents and children in our activist and organizing spaces, when we incorporate the children as part of the fabric of our communities of resistance, we are raising the next generation of revolutionaries. There is an idea that the children of radicals will always rebel and grow up to be interminably right-wing, but there are many examples that show this idea to be false.
One example of children carrying forward their parents’ revolutionary politics is the story of Camillo Mejia. After serving 6 months in combat in Iraq, in 2004, Mejia applied for Conscientious Objector status, which was denied, and he was eventually court-martialed. In a March 2005 interview on Democracy Now!, Mejia discussed growing up in the Sandanista Revolution. He says, about the pressure to follow in his father’s revolutionary footsteps, “I just turned my back on it, because I wanted to find my own way, and I guess joining the military was the culmination of that.” He continues “…the state of rebellion was there somewhere, but you know, the right conditions were not given until I went to Iraq for me to actually hear that voice and say, ‘No’… So … that family background has finally kicked in and, you know, given me a new conscience.” Camilo Mejia continues to be a strong leader among soldiers and former soldiers speaking out against the war on Iraq, and is also raising a child of his own.
Many folks involved in social justice movements, whether they use this terminology or not, engage in the theory and practice of prefigurative politics—the idea that how we engage in our work for social change prefigures what the world we hope to create will look like. If we seek a world in which all people have equal access to the workings of society; where parents, children, elders, people of all generations are integrated into society and communities; where all children are safe, nurtured, able to live free of violence and oppression; and everyone is given all they need to grow into the fullest version possible of themselves, then a necessary step toward building that world is working to make these things true within our communities of resistance.
What we need within our communities of resistance is an approach to raising children that is also “prefigurative.” How we treat kids is a powerful force in shaping society. This idea should not be used as an excuse to blame society’s woes on individual parents or on individual parenting choices. Obviously, no one parents in a vacuum. A politicized prefigurative parenting involves moving our lens back, broadening our focus from placing sole responsibility for children on individual parents or individual families, to a community level, and even further, to a societal level. In addition to the various systems of oppression including white supremacy, patriarchy, and capitalism, each parent must function in the context of their dominant society’s approach to children—educational access or lack thereof, current thinking about child psychology, medical practices, and the influences of teachers, caregivers, and extended families.
Because beliefs and practices of the dominant culture are often carried over into communities committed to changing society, we must change our values and practices within our communities of resistance as we push outwards. It is not unusual or surprising that the attitudes toward children within our communities of resistance reflect the attitudes of the dominant society. This means that while there are many specific acts that folks can undertake to truly include families and kids, the larger need is for a different framework of beliefs and assumptions about families within our communities—a framework that assumes the involvement of parents, elders, youth, and children, and sees their absence as an indication of something seriously wrong that needs to be addressed. Many specific acts of support for parents and children within communities of resistance can play the dual role of offering concrete support while laying the groundwork for this shift in frameworks.
In order for this to happen, people who are not parents need to actively work to become aware of the parents in their midst, and also to examine closely their own feelings about kids and about kids in movement space. Parents can also be more assertive about finding allies within our movements and asking for what we need. Parents and non-parents need to learn more about what it can look like to be a multi-generational movement, and to look to movements outside of the dominant US culture for examples and leadership.
Although the predominant approach to children and families within white-dominated movements in the US is a hands off, slightly hostile approach, this is not true globally, or within some communities within the US, in particular communities of color. Mijo, a Korean American friend tells me of her experiences working with a large group of farmers from Korea in Seattle. “When the Koreans were here,” she said, “everyone—including people I’d just met, whose names I didn’t even know—felt equally free to swoop [her son] up and kiss him, run off out of my sight and play with him, yell at him if he was about to get run over by a bicycle, or swat his hand if he reached for something like a candle. This kind of thing doesn’t happen in US white culture.”
The approach to community hinted at in Mijo’s experience can and should be a goal for our communities of resistance—where taking responsibility for entertaining and protecting kids is assumed by everybody, where interacting with the younger members of the community is just as important as with senior members, and where kids are made to feel part of the space. As people in our communities have children, we should interact with the kids as though they are the people who will be carrying our struggles forward when we are no longer able to, and in that way, include them as part of the movement right from the start.
When a parent knows that her child is safe in political spaces, and knows that her comrades will look after the child, she is free to more actively engage in the work. When a child feels that they are part of the community and part of the work, their commitment to the community and to the work will stay with them into adulthood.
Providing formal childcare at political events has an enormous impact. Knowing that not only is your child welcome to attend the event, but that there will be something for them to do easily makes the difference between a parent attending or not attending. Childcare collectives discussed below are one model for providing childcare and organizations with a budget should consider paying someone to hang out with the kids. There does need to be a level of accountability around how the people who provide the childcare are chosen and supervised, because our communities are no safer than any other communities when it comes to adults who act inappropriately with children.
Sometimes, even if no childcare can be provided, having a basket of toys and an area set aside for parents and kids to hang out in is a great help. The desired shift in thinking is for organizers to make the assumption that some of the people who want to come to your event (or meeting, or demonstration, or conference) are parents, and that you want to actively encourage their participation. And when parents do show up with children, it makes a huge difference if they are greeted with warmth and welcome, rather than the frosty assumption that “that kid will disrupt the meeting.”
Recently there have been some efforts that are shifting community approaches to kids within movement spaces, such as childcare collectives, which are formations of political activists who provide childcare as an act of solidarity. The Bay Area Childcare Collective mission states: “We are committed to providing grassroots organizations and movements composed of and led by immigrant women, low-income women, and women of color with trained, competent, patient and politicized childcare providers for one-time events or ongoing meetings.” Believing that the people who are most directly affected by systems of oppression must be in the leadership of movements attempting to undo those systems, the Childcare Collective takes care of the children so the parents can do the work.
Participation in or developing a childcare collective is not only a way to provide direct support to parents in the movement, but also offers a lot to childcare providers. Josh Connor, one of the Bay Area Childcare Collective organizers explains, “Children and young people bring vitality and life to all of our movements and they are a reminder of what we are fighting for. They are often able to offer the most insightful perspectives that cut to the heart of important issues. Their questions challenge us to develop our own abilities to describe the world around us.”
Another option for sharing responsibility for child-raising is the childcare team model developed by Prairie Fire Organizing Committee (PFOC), an anti-imperialist organization from the 1970’s and 1980’s with links to the Weather Underground organization. PFOC had a strong feminist analysis and understood that valuing the participation and leadership of women meant that providing childcare on a consistent, regular basis was crucial. PFOC in the San Francisco Bay Area expected every member who was not a parent to be part of a childcare team for a parent in the organization who had kids, and these childcare teams in many cases continued to operate after the end of PFOC.
Currently some families with young children in the Bay Area have taken on an adaptation of this model, gathering a crew of adults from our political community who regularly spend time with our kids, forming relationships with them over time. Having this level of support is crucial for parents who remain engaged in political work, and it also works to weave the children more tightly into the community. When children at a political event know not only their parents, but have close relationships with other adults there, they will feel more a part of the community, other non-parents will see them as involved in the community, and we can begin to move away from the idea of children as distractions and nuisances.
All of these efforts, along with many other actions, support the building of a community of resistance that is inclusive of people of all ages and in all stages of life, contributing in part to the development of strong multi-racial, cross class, and multi-tendency movements that are strong and sustainable for the long-haul.
Rahula Janowski does anti-racism and anti-imperialist work with the Heads Up Collective in San Francisco, and is a mother to an amazing 4 year old.
This article was deeply influenced by the feedback from participants in the prefigurative parenting workshop, as well as the support of Praxis House and the Heads Up Collective, and through the deep and sometimes challenging conversations with the wise women at http://hellakittens.com.