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Fair means fair

My fight for equal access to education for teen moms

By Katherine Arnoldi

katherine arnoldi, from the amazing true story of a teenage single mom

"What's this about fair," my mother would say, pulling my brother and I out of a life threatening brawl. "The world is not fair." My mother should know. She was a single mom with three kids to raise in the 60s. She was about as angry as a person could be about unfairness. She was a perpetual time bomb of high blood pressure and bitterness.

I was never able to accept an unfair world, either. First, of course, my mother was unfair, but before I knew it I was a teen mom and about to see just how unfair the rest of the world could be, too. Working in a factory gave me even more fodder for my arsenal of injustice, and I held on tight to my belief that the world should be fair and I wanted to do everything I could to make it that way. After all, I had my daughter to consider.

First I had to learn to fight for equal access to education. For that story see the graphic novel, The Amazing True Story of a Teenage Single Mom (Hyperion, 1998), the story of how I found Jackie, another single mom with two kids who said the two words that changed my life forever: financial aid.

Jackie made me see that single moms did not have equal rights in four ways: to fairness in the courts, to employment, to housing and to education. I wanted the world to be fair and I wanted to do my part. But how could a single mom who had a long way to go to work up to subsistence living help anyone else? Who would ever listen to me? I had a sneaking suspicion that if I ever mentioned these things people labeled me as crazy, which I realized everyone had done towards my mother. Once marginalized, it feels like you are yelling out on an empty plain.

In 1976 I wrote my first article for single moms about buying property with owner financing for a magazine called Hard Labor. I had this idea I had garnered from structural materialist anthropologists that those in power had the money and if single moms could own property, the basis of wealth I thought, then we would have more power. I also realized that I was one of only two single moms on campus at the University of Arkansas and that something was wrong with that, which made me mad and furious that I, for example, had waited two years on the waiting list for "married student" housing which was a dark concrete hell with not a tree or blade of grass in sight in the shadow of the gargantuan, luxurious football stadium where thousands of red-clad Razorbacks yelling "Pig Souie" disturbed my few minutes of precious study time. I knew there were plenty of single moms in the town and plenty in the state, the second poorest state in the country. I also surmised that when a sorority girl became pregnant she had to disappear, her education over, or else would return a year later with a new baby sister in the family.

Jackie, meanwhile, was in North Carolina visiting teen moms in her poor rural county bringing them the hope of going back for their GED and eventually college. As I pursued a Masters in literature in North Carolina and then Creative Writing in New York City (where I moved because I wanted to publish a book about teen moms), I, too, took financial aid forms and college applications to GED programs, realizing that if teen moms were coerced to leave high schools, as they are, then go and valiantly get their GED, they miss out on guidance counseling and information about financial aid and college.

What threw me over the edge of anger was seeing a photo in the New York Times in 1987 of a teen mom with a baby in one arm and a teddy bear in the other, a trivialization of the immensity of that young girl's problem. The article was about the epidemic of teen pregnancy and I could see it all coming then, how teen moms would be blamed for the economic crises caused by the Savings & Loan bailout and Desert Storm, all the way up to the End Welfare as We Know It frenzy. It's not FAIR, I yelled, just I had at my mother about my brother.

I wrote up a lengthy tome, the Single Mother's Bill of Rights, which Pat Gowans published in the Welfare Mother's Voice, along with my other articles about unfairness and justice (Thanks to Pat Gowans who has thirty years of activism for poor mothers). I had been publishing my rants on the subject in The Quarterly (thank you Gordon Lish!), Room of One's Own and Blue Collar Review but I also started, inspired by the East Village cartoonists in my neighborhood (David Sandlin, Eric Drooker, Seth Tobacman, Sabrina Jones) to make my own cartoon book. I thought that if I gave out the story of my life to the teen moms I was seeing in the GED programs, then they would understand that I, too, had many of the problems they had. I xeroxed it myself, adding to it each time before I would spend all night at the 24 hour copy center, along with all the other anarchists of the East Village, self publishing our manifestos.

I wanted a home for my "operations" and I approached Armando Perez and Chino Garcia at the Charas Community Center two blocks from where I was living -- on 9th Street between B and C -- and eventually I started the Single Mom College Program there in the early 90s. Every Saturday I sat outside at a table and handed out financial aid forms and gave out college advice, most especially trying to entice moms by the amount of Pell Grant available a year, $4,000, SEOG, $4,000, TAP state tuition assistance, $3,000 and advising on how to avoid loans. I went with the revolutionary Charas folks as we set up booths at street fairs and festivals in Tompkins Square Park.

I went to the Blue Mountain Center, a socially conscious art center and there, Harriet Barlow, Ben Shrader and Jonathan Rowe of Redefining Progress inspired me that my little zine should be published. The next year it won a New York Foundation of the Arts Award in Drawing and that inspired me to give it to my agent, Jennifer Hangen, and so, The Amazing True Story of a Teenage Single Mom was published and I was suddenly on the Today Show, Tom Brokow and the Nightly News, CNN Entertainment and NPR getting to say that teen mothers do not have equal access to education, and if they are raising almost half of our country's children could not this lack of equal rights contribute to the feminization of poverty? I also was able to say that there appears to be a societal shift from nuclear family to single parenting and, just like the shift from extended family to nuclear family, it is women and children who are suffering. We need to lift the institutions up to our level of responsibility, I said.

And just in case the institutions did not want to do so on their own, I started a class action lawsuit against the New York City Board of Education with the New York Civil Liberties Union for coercing teen moms to leave high school. Enid Mastrianni, formerly of the Upstate Welfare Warriors, and I started looking at the top 300 colleges for accessibility for moms. The results were dismal. The idea is to use Title IX, which guarantees gender equity in education (nothing in it about sports, by the way) to get the colleges to provide equal accommodations for mothers, since having children is a gender characteristic. A long shot, but, as I am still fueled by anger, I think it's worth a try. For results go to www.katherinearnoldi.com and click on the Guide to Colleges for Mothers.

My anger has not subsided, especially as I now find that the incidence of single parenting is going up the world over, now 30 percent in Mexico, and up to 17 percent in Malaysia, and growing. Thanks to the World Bank and the WTO and their neoliberal agenda, countries are doing what our country had done over the past twenty years: sign welfare bills, cut spending on education, health and social welfare, provide a military for global riot control and to protect the interests of the World Bank, and women who have been living a subsistence living are seeing their fields being taken over to grow exportable crops such as coffee and other unedibles and are forced to migrate to the cities, where, voila!, they are needed for the factories to make more exports out of plastic and other distressingly meaningless compounds. That's why my next graphic novel is about how women have been affected the world over by the neoliberal agenda. The fight for justice is just beginning and I am grateful to have been and to be a part!!

The Amazing True Story of a Teenage Single Mom is being made in to a movie by the Kennedy Marshall Company (Seabiscuit, Poltergeist) due out the Fall of 2006. Hopefully, that will raise the level of interest in helping teen moms have equal access to education.

mmo : december 2005

Katherine Arnoldi has received two New York Foundation of the Arts Awards (Fiction, Drawing), the DeJur Award, and the Henfield TransAtlantic Fiction Award. Her graphic novel, The Amazing True Story of a Teenage Single Mom had been nominated for a Will Eisner Award in the Graphic Novel, has won two American Library Awards, and was named one of the top ten books of the year by Entertainment Weekly. She decided to take her own advice and is in a doctoral program at SUNY Binghamton.

Also on MMO:

The truth about teen moms
You Look Too Young to be a Mom:
Teen Mothers Speak Out on Love, Learning, and Success

Deborah Davis, editor (book review)

Speaking out for teen moms
MMO interviews Deborah Davis,
editor of You Look Too Young to be a Mom

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