[This text was originally published in AREA Chicago #14 in April 2014]
I approach this article as a parent, comparing the drastic differences among organizing spaces and their reaction to my child’s presence, ranging from disapproval to tolerance to welcoming. Participation that once was accessible to me suddenly became elusive once my daughter was born. Parents, grandparents and caregivers may find themselves in a similar situation with the options to either find childcare on their own or not participate in an action or a meeting. Not only does this lead to the exclusion of a greater diversity of people’s strengths and contributions, but it reinforces the individualistic way that childcare is treated today. Finding and paying for childcare is often very stressful and typically a problem for individual families to solve on their own. In considering childcare and the needs of families in social justice organizing, we reject the individualism implicit in this “every family for themselves” mentality.
Without a support network to help with childcare, I would bring my daughter with me to events and meetings. A lot of factors, such as the culture, gender and age of a group, contributed to the inclusion of and attitudes towards my daughter. The expectation to keep my daughter quiet, the lack of interest to entertain or sooth her and the frequent disapproval of breastfeeding that other adults showed meant that I either spent most of the time apart from that group with my daughter or just stopped showing up all together. In other groups, it was and is an implicit expectation that children will not be tolerated so I simply would not consider participation.
I advocate that children are a vital part of multigenerational, inclusive community solutions and actions in our social movements. Accommodating for children can have many benefits to the growth of a social movement. The presence of children and families at a direct action can have a positive effect on the police and media reactions to the group. The presence of children can also encourage a consciousness shift in fellow activists from a model of self-involved, short term organizing to one of caring for and building sustainable community. Because being a parent or primary caregiver for a child is a very universal experience across cultural and political groups, when people outside a movement see families and multigenerational groups at a protest, it makes the movement feel more inclusive and approachable. It becomes more difficult to marginalize and dismiss that movement for being composed of people who are different or “other.”
Children are also often affected, directly and indirectly by the issues that are catalysts for community organizing, such as deportation or foreclosure. Childcare or activism that allows kids to explore social issues can be an important part of building community-based solutions. When adults participate and children have access to toys and play in a space near caregivers, where the noises and minor interruptions that their presence causes are expected older children can listen and be given the opportunity to participate in discussions, provide their perspectives or have conversations later at home. In this way, collective problem solving and community building are skills and practices that can be modeled and taught to kids, rather than hidden from them.
Additionally, as a great deal of learning happens by watching examples, simply modeling the act of seeking out community—as opposed to showing individual solutions—can be a powerful teaching tool. Even if children don’t understand the issues at hand, they are observing and learning from the ways the adults are interacting and building a movement. For instance, when a family is dealing with foreclosure, rather than individually trying to negotiate with banks and avoid eviction, meeting with other families in the similar situation and taking direct actions in favor of other families as well as using resources that other families can share can provide parents an opportunity to model to children community-minded problem solving. When children accompany the process, they not only learn by example, but parents have opportunities to teach their values directly, explaining why they are going to meetings and how families are supporting each other. Kids learn to use the anger and hurt caused by injustice, such as losing a home or a family separation due to deportation to work toward justice. After all, our children will soon be the adults and teaching them the skills and values to organize community-based solutions is useful to the longevity of social movements.
Whether childcare is provided as a segregated activity or the presence and interaction with kids is a natural part of the dynamics in the organizing spaces, the roles that children play—though they may not be “productive”—are important in forming inclusive social movements.