Childcare Groups Are Playing Key Role in Pushing Change and Fighting Trump
For the women of color who run the Philadelphia-based Espalda Collective, Spanish for “backbone,” providing childcare for social movement parents is not merely a vehicle to support righteous organizing. It is vital movement work in itself, just as integral to advancing justice as leading chants on a bullhorn, facilitating a popular assembly or organizing in one’s workplace. “We see this work as organizing in its own right,” NÃ¡tali CortÃ©s-Sweenie, an organizer with the collective, told AlterNet. “We're working with kids to begin grappling with the issues or concepts that their parents or caregivers are organizing around, with them in mind.”
The Espalda Collective is situated in a constellation of nationwide childcare collectives that have sprung up since the early 2000s to organize caregiving as movement work. From Chicago to New Orleans to Memphis, teams of childcare providers are entering into long-term collaborations with organizations that are on the front lines of poverty, racism and environmental destruction, working fastidiously to create a better world. Some of these childcare formations envision their roles through a solidarity framework, providing volunteer childcare so that low-income parents and caregivers of color can participate in meetings, actions and assemblies. Others, like the Espalda Collective, see their labor as central to the work of social change and develop in-depth programming premised on the principle that children can organize adults—and each other.
All are contributing to the ecosystem of front-lines organizing, at a time of intensified resistance to the fascist and white supremacist forces that now have a seat in the White House. These childcare organizers are at the helm of efforts to build resistance to this harrowing political moment that extends far beyond two- to four-year election cycles—and looks beyond adult circles of decision-making. “Strong women are so often the backbones of their families and communities, and they often do work that goes unnoticed,” said CortÃ©s-Sweenie. “We want to lift that up, as families and tight-knit communities are so crucial to movement work.”
‘A reminder of what community is’
Rachel Adler has been an organizer with the Philly Childcare Collective for more than two years. “Our goal is to provide childcare at meetings and events that are put on by groups that are doing campaigns and projects and anything related to racial and economic justice,” she told AlterNet. “We provide free childcare for organizations and groups of people and projects that are led by working-class families of color.”
For Adler, this has meant coordinating childcare for large general assemblies and direct action trainings organized by the city’s New Sanctuary Movement, which is mobilizing city residents to defend people who are targeted for a likely increase of immigration raids under the Trump administration. With roots in the 1980s-era sanctuary movement, the effort seeks to bring "sanctuary to the streets" by mobilizing community members and 19 congregations to directly intervene in authorities’ attempts to take people away from their homes, families and communities. “Having children should not be a barrier to movement work,” says Adler, particularly where that work can be a matter of life and death, family unification or separation.
After Trump won the electoral college, many others apparently shared Adler’s conviction. The organization has ballooned since November, with almost 70 volunteers on the listserv, roughly 50 people in rotation and four or five coordinators at any given time. Adler said her participation is motivated by the conviction that “children and young people are important people and political actors. They have ideas about how the world should be. That broader theme, [that] we want kids to be part of social movements, and we want to grow spaces where kids are part of social movement.”
This point was driven home, she said, during a general assembly meeting the Thursday after Trump won the election. “The New Sanctuary Movement is very prayerful,” she noted. “At the end of their meeting, they had a short candlelight prayer together, and they said, ‘We need the kids here, we need the childcare providers here, we want everyone in the circle.’”
“The kids were running around and playing in the room where candles were lit,” she continued. “You get this feeling that there are a lot of different pieces to the work, and there are a lot of roles for people to play and get strength and feel their emotions. It was a moment when it felt pretty unifying and grounding. Even though, for me as a childcare provider, I hadn’t participated in the content of meeting, I was still invited into the circle with everyone organizing together. It reminded me that my role and everyone’s role in it is important, and we are in the movement together. It was a reminder of what community is and what we’re fighting for.”
‘Community resilience and interdependence’
“When a radical woman becomes a mother, she often finds herself left behind by her mostly childless peer group,” Victoria Law and China Martens wrote in their preface to the book Don't Leave Your Friends Behind. “Various social justice movements and radical left philosophies challenge us to create personal and social change but often provide no support for mothers who try to do so.”
Childcare as movement work is not a new concept, comprising a core element of the popular “survival programs” of the Black Panthers. As Nick Chiles summarizes for the Atlanta Black Star, “The free breakfast for schoolchildren program was set up in Berkeley, California, in 1968 by Bobby Seale and Huey P. Newton. It was the first significant community program organized by the Panthers, and perhaps the most well known. By the end of 1969, free breakfast was served in 19 cities, under the sponsorship of the national headquarters and 23 local affiliates. More than 20,000 children received full free breakfast (bread, bacon, eggs, grits) before going to their elementary or junior high school.”
The Young Lords integrated free breakfast programs and childcare into some of their more confrontational tactics. In 1969, the organization staged an 11-day occupation of the First Spanish Methodist Church in New York. They launched the action by providing “free breakfast and clothing programs, health services, a day care center, and a liberation school from the church,” journalist Jennifer Lee recounts.
Feminist organizers have played a key role in pressing broad-based social movements, as well as tightly knit political formations, to collectivize the work of childcare. In a recent article, the Oakland-based activist Micky Ellinger reflected on her experiences with the Prairie Fire Organizing Committee, which was active in the San Francisco Bay Area during the 1970s and 80s. “Our collective child care was more than a practical matter, and more than just a belief that ‘the children are our future,’” she wrote. “We saw social reproduction, ‘women’s work,’ as the work that knits human communities together. We wanted all of our members to participate in work that we saw as crucial to building revolutionary consciousness and making revolution.”
Looking beyond the U.S. context to the global south, numerous social movements from Nicaragua to India have long demanded free and egalitarian early childcare and education. In South Africa, educational disparities imposed by white minority rule played a key role in enforcing apartheid. When thousands of high school students in the black township of Soweto staged a mass protest in 1976 against apartheid in the education system, hundreds were massacred by police. The slaughter provoked nationwide outrage and mobilization, placing young people at the center of the anti-apartheid struggle.
U.S. childcare collectives in their modern iteration began springing up in the midst of the global justice movement. “After 2000, childcare collectives started proliferating again in countries such as the U.S., Canada and England as a strategy to build an inclusive, sustainable and intergenerational movement in the worldwide struggle against neoliberal globalization,” the Chicago Childcare Collective explains in an article about its organizational roots. “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.”
The DC Childcare Collective emerged in 2005 when the local community organization, Empower DC, was working on a Childcare for All campaign. “They said that they want people who are in need of more childcare in the city to be able to come to organizing meetings,” Jeremy Weyl, a member of the DC Childcare Collective, told AlterNet. “People came together and started doing childcare informally. This spread to becoming more formal and providing childcare for more local justice organizations that needed this support, prioritizing childcare for low-income parents of color.”
“On a personal level, I have found childcare to be extremely enjoyable and rejuvenating work,” said Weyl. “Childcare is critically needed and essential work. It is a process of community and collective care, and also a form of self-care.”
‘Don’t leave anyone behind’
The New York-based RegeneraciÃ³n Childcare Collective writes in its materials that “Intergenerational movements sustain themselves through periods of intense repression and regenerate over time. They develop a profound collective memory, which allows each generation to learn from the experiences of those that came before.”
“Kids teach us that movement is a process—not a program—and that this process is playful, imaginative and creative, not just serious and rational,” the organization continues. “In turn, we teach kids that their play is a powerful tool they can and should cultivate throughout their lives, with serious implications for the world we inhabit.”
Lauren Ballester, an organizer with Espalda Collective, told AlterNet that her approach to childcare is informed by “all the ways that people from the global south have been hustling and finding ways to take care of each other, to keep each other accountable, safe and able to sustain ourselves.”
The integral role of childcare in fortifying movement work was poignantly illustrated during a recent campaign led by Philly Thrive, which successfully prevented the expansion of an oil refinery in south Philadelphia. “As part of what we did with the kids that week, we had them all write notes and draw pictures to talk about how the oil refinery would affect them and talk about how oil refinery would affect them,” said Ballester. “Some of them lived in the housing projects that are right next to the refinery and were drawing pictures of asthma. They drew pictures of what they would want to see instead of the refinery.” Those images were then included in a direct action to post messages on the windows of the Philadelphia Regional Port Authority.
Childcare collectives across the country share tips on such actions and exercises via the “Intergalactic Conspiracy of Childcare Collectives,” which first formed for the 2010 U.S. Social Forum and continues to maintain an active listserv and organize in-person collaborations. Some collectives have developed in-depth works of art and writing as part of their programming, with the aim of sharing these resources with the public.
The play “How Radical Kids Destroyed 'The Prison Monster'" was collectively written by RegeneraciÃ³n for the 10th anniversary conference of the prison abolition organization Critical Resistance, held in Oakland in 2008. Centering on themes from the convergence, the piece “follows a cast of diverse in their struggle to overcome a voracious prison monster, and build a world in which they can all live in safety and peace,” the organization states. The key protagonist is Akila, described as “A Black American whose grandmother was a Black Panther. Akila's power is that of knowledge—knowing the histories of oppression and resistance.”
For some, leveraging children’s powers starts with an invitation for them to help shape the space of their own childcare. “We always try to start every new group of kids by building community agreements together and having them generate norms about how we want to treat each other in the space and what it would look like to take care of each other,” said Ballester. “During a recent meeting for the New Sanctuary Movement, one young person contributed a norm by saying, ‘Don’t leave anyone behind.’”
“This was very simple in some ways, and in other ways really deep and poignant,” continued Ballester. “Especially when we’re thinking about the migrant justice community and all of the ways people get scapegoated and left behind the narrative of the ‘perfect immigrant.’ That’s so much of what the New Sanctuary Movement is about—not leaving anyone behind.”