7 ways to revolutionize childcare and build all-ages movements

Childcare at the 2009 City from Below conference in Baltimore. (WNV / Victoria Law)

Childcare at the 2009 City from Below conference in Baltimore. (WNV/Victoria Law)

Last week I was part of Queering Abolition, a panel discussion on queer and trans prison advocacy and abolition. One of my co-panelists was Susan Rosenberg, a former political prisoner who spent 16 years in prison before her sentence was commuted by outgoing President Bill Clinton. The panel was in the auditorium of the City University of New York Graduate Center. Being on the panel was exciting — not just because I was part of a dialogue around prison advocacy and abolition that centered on trans people, but also because it reminded me of how far I’d come and how much community and movement support have enabled me.

I first saw Susan Rosenberg in that same auditorium about 12 years ago. She had been released from prison the year before and was part of a day-long conference on incarceration. My daughter was not quite two years old and, like many political events — both then and now — there was no child care. The organizers told me that I was welcome to bring my child and so I did.

She had a fantastic time. My daughter, after nursing for a bit and sitting in my lap for an even shorter bit, wriggled out of my arms and explored the back rows of the auditorium. The seats were like those in the movie theater, springing up when no weight was applied. She was entranced with these seats, pulling them down and letting them flip back up with a clatter. She did this again and again, much to the amusement of the handful of 20-somethings around us. I kept one eye on her and one eye on the stage where, far below, Susan Rosenberg, Laura Whitehorn and two other important people in the prison movement talked about women and incarceration.

When the audience erupted into applause, my daughter stopped and applauded along. “Yaaaay!” she cheered, as she clapped her tiny hands together over and over.

Partway through the next panel, she grew bored with the back row and began making her way down the aisle. I let her get about 10 feet away from me before grabbing her and carrying her back. She did this several times, growing more and more confident navigating the shallow slope. Then, she began to run towards the stage and the stairs leading to the stage, steps that are oh-so-alluring in the eyes of a not-quite two-year-old. By then, only a sliver of my attention was on the discussion on-stage; most of it was on my daughter and trying to keep her from disrupting the conference. So, we left.

Twelve years later, I was back in that same room — not as a harried and under-supported parent this time, but as a panelist. Unlike the last time, as I set foot in the auditorium, the organizers of Queering Abolition (Black and Pink — NYC, which supports queer and trans people inside prisons) offered child care. And it also made me think about all the ways, between those two events and those 12 years, that people in various movements and communities stepped up to support me as a mother in their midst, enabling me to learn, grow and continue to be part of social justice organizing. Without their support, I might have kept on being the person who left discussions and events until I grew tired of even trying.

But I’m lucky. There are so many people who have recently become parents or primary caregivers who don’t have that kind of support — or people in their lives who understand the need for support and are willing to help meet that need. We parents know that we need support if we’re going to continue being part of political organizing, but it’s overwhelming and exhausting to continually ask our supposed comrades if they can accommodate our new needs. It’s even more overwhelming and exhausting when the answer is no.

In 2003, I met China Martens, a mother in Baltimore who would become my co-conspirator for what we called the “all-ages child care revolution.” What we realized, early on, is that, rather than trying to get parents to take on the additional responsibility of building their support networks, it’s much more effective to talk to people who do not have caregiving responsibilities and make them understand the importance of supporting parents and caregivers’ participation. People without children (or other caregiving responsibilities) have more time to help out, to plan support strategies and to advocate for family-friendly movement spaces and events. It shouldn’t always fall on those most directly affected (and exhausted) to have to create these spaces on their own. That’s a pretty sure way to push them away from organizing work.

Here are some ways that helped and can easily be applied to your own organizing work. They don’t require a huge amount of resources, but do demonstrate a commitment to creating movements that accommodate all ages.

1. Provide child care

Child care doesn’t need to be elaborate. It does need to be in a room that is clean and safe, meaning that there are no hazards for a small child. Ideally two (or more) people should be doing child care so that, if an emergency arises, no children are left alone.

Child care does require a commitment from the organizers that it is a priority and should not be left until the last minute. It should also be clearly announced on all outreach and publicity. Otherwise, parents assume that there is no child care and will stay home.

2. If you don’t have a rapport with kids, find other ways to help

Be the one to come in early, clean the room and make sure there are no choking hazards, exposed electrical outlets, plastic bags or sharp objects. Crawl on the floor and look at the room as if you were a baby. What do you see there that might be dangerous? Not sure what constitutes a choking hazard? If it seems like it would fit through a toilet paper tube, get it out of there!

Offer to be the one on call if an emergency arises and ferry information to the appropriate person. If a child suddenly misses their caregiver or doesn’t feel well, be the person to locate the caregiver and make sure they get to the room quickly.

3. Have food

The organizers of Queering Abolition served dinner (a vegan and gluten-free dinner at that), and made sure to announce that fact on all of their publicity.

For parents, having food at an evening meeting or event may be the deciding factor as to whether they attend or whether they hustle their child(ren) home after school and fix them supper. (Even people without children will appreciate not having to choose between eating dinner and attending a meeting or event.)

4. Be prepared to have children in the room

This might sound like it contradicts the first point, but it doesn’t. Even when you provide child care, some children don’t want to be so far from their caregivers (and vice versa). Be prepared to have children in the meeting or event space. If you’re the facilitator or a speaker, make an announcement about children’s presence beforehand so that parents don’t feel obliged to leave the room once their child(ren) start making noise. When he notices children in the room, Jason Lydon of Black and Pink Boston announces, “Children’s noise is the sound of our movement growing.” I’ve taken to saying that too and, when I do, I’ve noticed that not only do parents visibly relax, but others in the room don’t give them the side-eye.

Have toys and activities for kids to do. When my daughter turned two, a fellow volunteer at ABC No Rio, a community arts center, bought her a bag of wooden blocks, which we kept there. We also kept a basket of toys for her so that whenever she came with me or her dad, she would have a variety of things to do. Similarly, the office of Women on the Rise telling HerStory, or WORTH, an advocacy organization of formerly incarcerated women, had a crib, children’s books and toys.

5. Be the person who gets down on the floor and plays with the kid in the room

Children, particularly young children, don’t like being left to play by themselves, even if they are in the middle of the room. Be the person who gets down on the floor to color with them or build a fabulous structure out of blocks. You can still keep an ear on the discussion — trust me, I know from years of experience — while also allowing the parent or caregiver to participate more fully.

This also applies to spaces where organizing grows: At WORTH, when a staff member had a baby, she brought him to the office regularly and everyone took responsibility for him. They held him so that she could have two hands free to meet her responsibilities. They fed him when he was hungry. They changed his diaper. And, when he began to toddle around, they followed him and made sure he didn’t hurt himself or wreak too much havoc on the office.

Supporting the all-ages revolution doesn’t end when the meeting or event comes to a close. You can incorporate these into your everyday life — and make a new friend in the process!

6. Doing something that a child might enjoy? Invite that kid along!

Do you have a plot in a garden? Do you love to skateboard or bike? Do you bake cookies, make giant puppets or quilt? Invite a kid to join you. It may be slow-going at first to teach a three-year-old how to safely wield a needle or not to rub glue or paint in their hair, but they learn quickly. In the meantime, you’re giving them an opportunity to experience something new while also giving their caregiver a probably much-needed break.

7. Start to develop relationships with caregivers and children in your movements and communities

It can start with inviting them over to have dinner (or lunch or brunch). Get to know them — and let them get to know you. Asking for help from people who are virtually strangers can be difficult but, as they grow to know you better, caregivers and kids will feel easier letting you know what they need, as well as what doesn’t work for them. And you’ll get to know them and figure out ways that you and those around you can accommodate their needs so that they can stay involved.

This is far from an exhaustive list. There are many different ways to help build an all-ages revolution. My co-conspirator China and I put together “Don’t Leave Your Friends Behind,” originally as a zine series and, two years ago, as an edited anthology, to include the many different ways that caregivers, kids and others in their community have worked to create all-ages movements.

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