*Author’s Note: I wrote this before the election. Beginning around 9:30 on Tuesday evening, as my friends and I gathered around my laptop screen watching with disbelief as state after state turned red on the map, I have felt a mixture of deep sadness and fear and disbelief, interspersed by occasional moments of fierce anger and galvanization, and intense tenderness towards my fellow beings. I am tempted to tear up and re-write this whole thing, but instead I will contextualize it this way:
Our work for human rights and justice for all people is still in front of us, and is ever more crucial and immediate in the aftermath of this election. We do this work for our children and we must also do it with our children. I am also feeling very strongly the reality that the fear and hopelessness and anger that has been ignited in so many by the results of Tuesday’s election in the mostly white, mostly middle class, mostly straight, mostly educated community that I am surrounded by, while valid and justified, is only the tip of the iceberg of the fear and hopelessness and anger that folks in the minorities have been feeling for centuries, especially as it relates to our children.
On Friday, November 4th, Joseph and I attended protest organized by Tennessee Says No Dakota Access Pipeline (#TNSaysNoDAPL) in solidarity with the Water Protectors gathered at Standing Rock (#WaterIsLife #NoDAPL).
The protest was set to take place during school hours, so I thought Great! Finally a protest I can show up to without worrying about my kid or being burdened by guilt. But Thursday afternoon when I picked Joseph up from school the sign outside the door reminded me: No School tomorrow: Parent Teacher Conferences.
Thus I turned inward to the same reckoning I have considered so many times since Joseph’s birth. This issue is important. It’s important to show up to this action. Is this action likely to become unsafe? Will there be other kids there? Will we be doing anything illegal? How is it going to impact Joseph? Do the benefits outweigh the costs? How will I feel if I don’t go? The thoughts bounced around and around in my head all evening.
I called a friend for more information and in the end decided that it really was very low risk, and Joseph could have his nap a little late this one day. So Friday afternoon found me strapping my baby to my back and walking up to Market Square from the old city. There was already a crowd gathered when we arrived, and I found happily that Joseph was not the only child this time – several other parents and their children were milling around. We formed a circle while organizers briefed us on the plan of action, how not to talk to the police, who had the medic kit, passed out leaflets and signs, and practiced chants. A legal observer serving the protest stood with his arms crossed outside the circle in a suit jacket. Cell phone cameras in every other hand captured the proceedings.
The first stop on was Suntrust bank – one of the major funders of DAPL. We marched with banners and signs, a stilt walker, and four people beating drums harnessed to their chests. We gathered on the corner, chanting Water Not Oil, Keep It In The Soil! and Water is Life! Life is Water! I held a big foam core sign on a stake that read No More Oil Pipelines in big red letters and swayed back and forth to comfort Joseph, occasionally reaching behind me to pat him through the Ergo. We occupied the corner for some time while two delegates delivered a letter demanding that Suntrust divest, and waited for a meeting with the manager of the bank. We made enough noise that someone leaned over the rooftop and yelled, Can you all drum better?! To which our drummers responded, Can you come help us drum? We need some help!
Everyone greeted me and Joseph both, and everyone said to him Oh, look at you sleepy baby! It was true, I was keeping him up past nap time to show up to this action, and despite all the drumming and shouting it seemed like he might fall asleep on my back.
At one point I turned to my Minister, Rev. Chris Buice, and said, joking,
I think Joseph might sleep through the revolution.
Yea, maybe Dr. King needed to add an exception to that line: ‘Does not apply to one-year-olds,’ Chris replied, laughing.
We referred, of course, to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s famous line “Don’t sleep through the revolution,” which Chris had recently worked into a sermon and which had been on my mind for the past several weeks.
Growing up a Unitarian Universalist, Social Justice came to me more quickly than Spirituality in my formative years. Activism has been integral to my life and identity since those days, and that is still true after Joseph’s birth. With regularity, I drag my child to meetings, protests, trainings, and I have yet to escape the guilt that follows me no matter what choice I make.
Sometimes I bring Joseph along and it goes pretty well. Sometimes he sits and plays quietly with his toys or makes the whole group laugh with a particularly well timed and characteristically unintelligible statement. Sometimes people say to me I just love meetings with babies, they are so much more fun. I need more of these. Or they go out of their way to find me afterwards and say, I’m really grateful for your all’s presence at these meetings, even though it probably is hard for you. I just wish more people brought their kids. On these days I go home feeling triumphant, affirmed, and worthwhile.
Other times, Joseph takes my divided attention as an opportunity to fall and hit his head, and I have to carry him out of the meeting screaming feeling like the worst mother that ever was while all of my fellow organizers that I respect and love and admire look on. Sometimes he babbles so loudly or interrupts so frequently that I question whether our presence is doing more good than harm to the work. Sometimes I spend the whole meeting chasing him around, and afterwards I don’t even have a working memory of what was said, much less having contributed anything meaningful.
Joseph is usually (but not always) the only baby at any of the regular meetings we attend, although there are sometimes one or two other children. Most frequent is a two-year-old grandson of an activist acquaintance of mine. At an Anti-Racism training recently, this activist/grandmother gave a particularly eloquent and moving monologue despite being regularly interrupted by dinosaur noises from her grandson. In closing to her speech, she pulled a diaper out of her bag, sighed, and said…And, well, there’s things that need to be attended to, but…I am determined. Then she gracefully left the room to change her grandson’s diaper, returning after several minutes and staying to the end of the training.
This has been my internal rallying cry ever since. Every time I leave a meeting wondering whether I should bother trying again, every time I take Joseph to a protest and he misses nap time or I start to feel concern: I am determined.
I can understand why there are not more children and families in justice work. It’s hard. It makes you feel guilty. You have to leave to change diapers. You have to keep your kids up past bedtime. Even if there is childcare offered, you worry because you don’t know that person or maybe the work you’re doing is dangerous. You feel guilty because your kid interrupts the meeting, or you can’t work as quickly as is needed. Parents are often overburdened and under-supported just trying to get by. Who has time for unpaid activism? You feel useless even when you do manage to show up. And of course, our culture does not include activism in the job description of Perfect Parent. It includes safety and routine and in-bed-by-seven.
I do not remember feeling this way before. This work used to be fun, and if not fun at least exciting. I used to look forward to meetings, eagerly take on tasks and dive in to fiery arguments. I would go home feeling energized and empowered. But now it’s not fun. I don’t want to have to do this work anymore. I leave the meeting feeling defeated and tired. I know exactly how much I should say yes to, and even though it’s a fraction of the work I used to do it still feels like too much. I don’t get excited about it anymore, I just muster up the energy to do what I must do. The worst of it is I feel scared all the time. What kind of world is this to raise a child in? Full of violence and fear, poisoned and polluted and unstable.
I don’t want to do it anymore. But simply put it is what we have to do, as people alive today and especially as parents. What else can we do? Confronted by tragedy and injustice and violence, not to act is insanity or denial or both (and speaking honestly I have been guilty of both charges), and in light of the recent election, our work is only made more crucial, more real, more immediate. Charged with the protection of the fragile new lives of our children, anything but action makes us remiss in our duties. Even if we believe we will not see the change we work for in our lifetime, we still must show up and do the work.
In last Sunday’s sermon, Rev. Chris Buice read a list of the American Psychological Association’s recommendations for maintaining good mental health during the heightened stress and unique trauma of this election season. The most useful of the recommendations? Action is better than anxiety. Don’t sit around at home worrying, take meaningful action. In the same vein, on a post-it note stuck in my handwritten book of excerpts is the following words copied from Dorothy Allison’s Bastard Out of Carolina: People don’t do right because of the fear of God or the love of him. You do the right thing because the world doesn’t make sense if you don’t.
I’m not here to make anyone feel any more guilt than you already do about your level of involvement in the Movement(s) closest to your heart. I am also not here to tell you the right way to work for social change. There’s about as many ways to do the work and as many things needing doing as there are people to do them. All I’m saying is don’t sit at home because you’re afraid you’re not supposed to show up with your kid. You are. And don’t worry, they are allowed to sleep through the revolution, especially if it happens during nap time.
Eventually, our delegates emerged from Suntrust bank after delivering their letter. As they emerged, with shoulders squared and beaming, the crowd began to cheer. They walked into the center of the circle and reported their conversation, that the manager had told them he did not know anything about the pipeline or that Suntrust was invested in it. Watching them, I felt a huge swell of affection and that mama-bear kind of pride well up in my chest. These are our folks! This is our family! I tried to tell Joseph with my thoughts, but he was too sleepy to even notice that they were back.
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