[This text was originally published in AREA Chicago #14 in April 2014]
The Chicago Childcare Collective, or ChiChiCo for short (pronounced CheeCheeCoe), was formed in 2007 by a group of radical activists and friends, including Lewis Wallace, Amita Lonial, Simon Strikeback, B Loewe, ChaNell Marshall, and Sam Worley. These organizers became aware of a need of many racial and economic justice–focused organizations in Chicago: free childcare to make organizing and leadership accessible to mothers and other caretakers. They spent a full year planning and building relationships before they began doing childcare.When an organization requested childcare, the “core” group of organizers would coordinate with a network of volunteers to make it happen. Apart from that, very little infrastructure or resources were needed to maintain ChiChiCo—just a network of volunteers and organizations, and some toys and games!
Providing childcare as a way to support parent organizing was not a new idea. Childcare collectives were formed in the 1960s and ’70s in response to a call from feminist organizers. At the same time, radical groups organized free programs to support children and families in their community such as the Black Panthers under the slogan “survival pending revolution.” The Young Lords even took over Lincoln Hospital in the Bronx and established the People’s Child Care Center providing “free lunch and snacks, teaching [children] Puerto Rican History, African History, karate and art, and answering any questions they have.”
After 2000, childcare collectives started proliferating again in countries such as the US, Canada and England as a strategy to build an inclusive, sustainable and intergenerational movement in the worldwide struggle against neoliberal globalization. Moreover, our work is guided by an ideology of community care, which is a formalization of age-old practices worldwide that are often not deemed important enough for the history books. Community care includes childcare, among many other sustainable organizing practices, as a way to move beyond individual productivity and independence to strengthen community resilience and interdependence.
Intergalactic Conspiracy of Childcare Collectives
At the 2010 US Social Forum, these childcare collectives first came together to form the Intergalactic Conspiracy of Childcare Collectives (ICCC). The ICCC is a network of allied childcare collectives from different cities across the world that provide childcare for organizations building social justice movements. Through this work, we aim to help center and prioritize the participation and leadership of women and trans caregivers and families of color in our struggle for collective liberation.
Ever year since the 2010 US Social Forum, ICCC comes together to organize the Allied Media Conference “Kids Transform the World! Practice Space,” which is a series of workshops for kids that connects media with social justice. The Allied Media Conference gives ICCC members a yearly collaborative project and is a wonderful launching point for us to learn and grow together.
Our work is grounded in the belief that play has an important role in radical politics (as do laughter, dancing, and blowing bubbles!). Doing childcare allows us to bring joy to our work, a radical stance in activist communities that often devalue self-care and ignore the possibility that social justice struggles should also sustain and feed us. Our interactions with children are informed by anti-adultist principles. We treat young people as powerful human beings by engaging their fierce questions, respecting their bodies, and honoring their feelings.
Our work is also grounded in anti-oppression politics. We believe that the people most directly affected by racism, sexism, heterosexism, classism, and other forms of oppression should lead organizing efforts to combat those systems. When outsiders seek to “help” marginalized communities, oppressive power dynamics are often reproduced. Though we are by no means a homogenous group, many of ChiChiCo’s founding and current volunteers are class-privileged or white or new to Chicago or nonparents or otherwise privileged and approach childcare as an important and informed act of solidarity. Doing childcare to support the political participation of people of color, poor and working class people, and trans people is a model of care that allows us to meet a real need of grassroots organizations while remaining accountable and building sustainable relationships within the movement. We also recognize that the people most often excluded from political work due to childcare needs are mothers, and this analysis of gender-based oppression is an important part of our work.
Many of the first members of ChiChiCo identified as queer because they were cultivating identities that didn’t fit normative gender or sexual stereotypes. This informed the political vision and positioning of ChiChiCo as well. Gender nonconforming volunteers participated in rich interactions with children that involved questioning gender categories and playing with social roles. The hesitations of some queer volunteers that they wouldn’t be accepted by the children and parents were principally dispelled by building relationships based on mutual reliance and respect. Thus, doing childcare opened up space for queer and trans volunteers to simultaneously build bridges with parents toward the recognition of each other’s full humanity; to engage with organizing communities that don’t always include LGBTQ folks; and to create a cohesive support network by building movement family! We still provide space for volunteers to talk about any issue that comes up for them when doing childcare in order to continue to build together.
By mid-2011, all of the founding members ostensibly worked themselves out of a job as Jenny Weston, Erin Moore, Gilad Shanan, Rebecca Behlen, and Jacob Klippenstein stepped up to be core members. This passing of the baton demonstrated the sustainability of the model because it doesn’t rely on any figurehead or expert class and it can be shared, passed on, and developed.
The second-generation core focused on strengthening partner relationships, building capacity, and expanding the work of ChiChiCo, on top of doing regular childcare events. In February 2012, we supported the occupation of Piccolo Elementary Specialty School in Humboldt Park. A weekend-long parent-led gathering with workshops and games was planned, opposing the firing of the principal, teachers, and staff, and the privatizing of Piccolo. Chicago Public Schools (CPS) and the Chicago Police Department (CPD) locked down the school building with kids, parents and community members inside. After a 24-hour occupation, the Board of Education caved in and agreed to talk to the parents, but, away from the negotiating table, the board unilaterally dismissed the parents’ unanimous vote against the “turnaround” of their school.
After this, we geared up to support the massive CTU teachers’ strike, which consisted of many solidarity actions, meetings and events. Though the mayor continued to disregard parent and student voices, many people were taking their education into their own hands by speaking up and organizing against systemic injustice. This provided them with a valuable education that CPS doesn’t teach.
We also supported parents attending the march against NATO by forming a “baby bloc.” The purpose of a baby bloc is to ensure safety to families who are participating in marches and protests. To do this, we made a banner with the kids beforehand, marched together in a group, stayed away from the front/action, routinely checked in with each other, provided water and carried little ones when needed.
Another type of collaboration started to emerge with groups not asking for conventional childcare, such as our collaboration with AREA Chicago on this issue. We collaborated with the Jane Addams Hull-House Museum to make their exhibit “21st Century Home Economics” kid-friendly, as well as organized the “C is for Civil Rights” Book Club with the Chicago Freedom School, which is described elsewhere in this issue.
Additionally, we hosted more political workshops and social events for volunteers. We organized a training to learn about transformative justice in order to bring transformative justice practices and knowledge into our work. As a result, we strive to incorporate circles in childcare, not only as a way to resolve conflict, but as a way of sharing and exercising power together. On a similar note, we started collective wide meetings as a way to share power amongst volunteers, although this transition turned out more complicated than expected.
At the yearly core retreat in 2012, the core was very excited about the growth of the collective, but realized that most volunteers weren’t sticking around for long. They came up with plans for volunteer engagement including game nights, political education events and projects. The projects were small, temporary, “autonomous” groups to create a blog, plan a study group, prepare for the AMC in 2013, etc. These project groups were going to decide how often to meet, how to move forward with their goals and then report back at monthly collective meetings.
For the very first collective meeting, the core planned to present their new proposed structure, but some collective members initially raised questions about how to first open up communication between all members and how to best practice consensus-based decision making within the whole group before moving forward. Some of the core members felt defensive, and this sparked conversations to address conflicts between individual members while not fully addressing the initial concerns of collective members.
After that, the core was meeting every two weeks to maintain the workload they set out for the next year. They started becoming so busy trying to follow through with the projects that were imagined that the goal of successfully developing a collective decision making process continued to be unintentionally put off. Volunteers also continued to work on projects, but the structure envisioned by the core that involved project groups meeting regularly outside of the collective meetings never really took off. Then, as time went on, collective meetings lapsed into a state of disuse.
In summer 2013, when the core decided to plan the yearly retreat without radically changing the format and opening it up to the whole collective many conversations were sparked around accountability. Were the core organizers accountable to the collective or the other way around? Also, can group visioning really be done without input from the whole group? Eventually three of the four core members stepped down from their roles because of shifting life goals and other commitments. This effectively dissolved the core including separate meetings for the core and collective. The collective now meets only once a month with all volunteers invited. There was a lot to learn from this past year and a half and as we write this we are still processing the experiences and emotions that accompanied these events. Those of us authoring this piece—Jacob Klippenstein, Debbie Southorn, and leli p. monster—share this as a view of our sometimes messy internal transformation as a collective.
Even though all our meetings are now open to the whole collective there is still mostly a core group of people that attend these meetings. Likewise, most volunteer work is done by a group of about ten people. We decided that at trainings we will ask future volunteers to make a commitment to provide childcare for two to four hours once a month for a six month period. We also plan to better articulate the difference between a volunteer, a collective member, a “core-dinator,” as well as other essential roles, in order to remain accountable to each other.
Accountability, of course, isn’t only important within the collective, but also with the organizations we provide childcare for and the kids we work with. As we continue to rework our collective process we are always reminded that accountability requires strong relationships, which require lots of work! Handling communication gaps means knowing if somebody will respond to a call, a text or if you need to talk to them in person at the next queer dance party, rather than relying on an e-mail blast.
“Accountability, of course, also means being open to criticism. More than that, it requires the creation whenever possible of a feedback loop, so as to make that criticism both more likely, and more helpful in the long run.”
The following are some essential questions we’re asking: How do we collectively share decision-making power in an all-volunteer group with differing levels of involvement? How do we both strengthen the work and decentralize the responsibilities of caring for children? How do we nurture and sustain a movement for collective liberation when so many people cycle through for a short period of time? How do we continue to build and grow the limits of our work without burning out a small number of volunteers? How do we remain accountable to each other without turning each meeting into a emotional marathon? How do we reconcile historic devaluing of care work with our goal to provide free/no-cost childcare? How do we practice holistic community care that supports us all?
Though we are still working on the answers to these questions, and the answers are often different depending on who is answering them, we’ve found ways to continue to function as a collective and meet our fundamental goal—to provide free childcare to grassroots organizers. We don’t plan on becoming a formal institution or 501(c)(3) just for the sake of continuing to exist. We like our model and sometimes think of it as an experiment—a temporary solution being done by people working on the ground to support the grassroots. We think of our work as a critical intervention in the harm caused by white supremacist, capitalist patriarchy and a step along the way towards intergenerational community care. And we are committed to grappling with these critical questions to discover what community care really is and how it can work. Ultimately, we want to empower people and communities across the city (and the galaxy!) to be supportive of parents/caregivers and caring for all kids—all the time and in all the places.
So, basically, like the fantastic folks who founded this collective six years ago did so effectively, we’re continually trying to work ourselves out of a “job.” But until then, look forward to hearing more from us!
The Chicago Childcare Collective wouldn’t be the same without the partnerships that we engaged in over the years. In fact, we prefer to operate on a “partner model,” where the bulk of the work that we do is recurring meetings for organizations with which we form long-term partnerships. The more we can communicate with the group putting on the meeting or event, the better we understand in advance what will be expected and required of us, which allows us to better plan for the event and help out better in general. Also, we intend to show solidarity with partner orgs beyond doing childcare, like helping turn people out for actions, fundraisers and other events, which requires strong communication and relationships with the organizations.
We sometimes receive requests a week or less before an event. We are almost always unable to fill these requests because as much as we’d love to support parent participation, these types of arrangements aren’t sustainable. The work of caring for children is already invisibilized. We do this work because we think that it’s the responsibility of the whole community to support kids, parents and family. Showing up at an event where childcare was an afterthought and then being segregated from the meeting because people don’t want to deal with how loud and energetic kids are is simply a perpetuation of the problems we are trying to address.
This is why we look to partner with groups that are not simply inclusive of parents in their spaces, but are grassroots groups lead by parents (especially queer and trans, low-income, disabled, mothers of color) and are actively centering the experiences and respecting the sovereignty of kids and youth. Also, if groups have a budget to pay for childcare we will refer them to the Albany Park Workers Center because we think that caring for kids is a vital and valuable service.
Our partners include some pretty rad organizations. Teachers for Social Justice, for instance, is a long time partner. Their curriculum fairs are an inspiration for not only teachers but also anybody interested in socially just education. Each year, we work hard to make the childcare and kids’ programming at the fair more responsive to the needs of the people attending. Blocks Together is a Humboldt Park–based community organizing group. We support many of their meetings and enjoyed great times growing and building with their kids and youth. They have an excellent office/community center, and they host an array of meetings and gatherings focused on issues like economic justice, restorative justice and the ongoing fight to shut down Juvenile Temporary Detention Center.
Communities United Against Foreclosure and Eviction (CUAFE) is another partner. With chapters spread across a large part of the city they are working tirelessly for housing justice in Chicago. They host meetings in various neighborhoods (Rogers Park, Austin, and in between), which illustrates to us the importance of a wide volunteer base. Our volunteers frequently travel way across the city for events, but, of course, it’s always easier when there’s someone who lives close by. So, when organizations ask us if they can help by donating money we instead ask if they know anybody close by who’d be willing to volunteer.
Since our group is completely volunteer-based, organizing, recruiting, and training volunteers is pretty crucial to what we do. At the moment we have three “core-dinators” that manage day-to-day operations (such as emailing out volunteer requests for upcoming events and building relationships with partner organizations), and a larger group of volunteers that respond to requests and provide childcare. We also host monthly collective meetings that all volunteers can come to if they want to become more involved in ChiChiCo’s projects.
We always want more volunteers. In general, we ask that new volunteers commit to two-to-four hours of childcare per month, for at least six months when they get trained with us. We send out calls from our partner organizations and volunteers reply when they’re able to—a rather autonomous method of making sure that all our requests get covered. Since we don’t ask for money for what we do, it’s important that we build a really strong support network of reliable volunteers. Caring for children can be fun, and we take it seriously. People are trusting us with their loved ones!
We are a collective, and we try to share power and be transparent within the group. Another way to think of us is as a community—we’re more concerned with doing our work sustainably and being accountable to our partner organizations than with growing for the sake of growing. Up to now, most of our recruitment happened through word of mouth and acquaintances. Trainings happen whenever we have at least a few people who are ready to be trained, on an as-needed basis. These trainings involve a lot of talking about our values, role-playing various childcare situations that might arise, going over tips from some of the wizened veterans at ChiChiCo, and making time for Q&A. (If you or someone you know is interested in joining ChiChiCo as a volunteer, please don’t hesitate to get in touch with us about upcoming training opportunities! ~ firstname.lastname@example.org)
Victoria Law, Don’t Leave Your Friends Behind: Concrete Ways to Support Families in Social Justice Movements and Communities, p. 21
 Darrel Enck-Wanzer, ed.The Young Lords: A Reader, p. 222
We chose the word “conspiracy” for its root meaning, “to breathe together” and “intergalactic”—to quote the Zapatistas—“just to be silly.”
Visit intergalactic-childcare.weebly.com for more information and resources.
 Wren Monokian
 “Children are fully recognised as rights-holders who are not only entitled to receive protection but also have the right to participate in all matters affecting them.” (Committee on the Rights of the Child, Report on the forty-third session, September 2006, Day of General Discussion, Recommendations, Preamble)
 Tim Wise, White Like Me: Reflections on Race from a Privileged Son, p. 122
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