IT WAS A TYPICAL Friday morning (as typical as anything gets around here, anyway), and I was preoccupied with my travel plans -- in a few hours, I was heading to Smithtown, NY for the National Association of Mothers Centers Mothers '08 Conference (April 4-6). In the bustle of getting the kids fed and off to school, I realized I hadn't mentioned to my soon-to-be-11-year-old son that I would be away for the weekend, or that I would be gone when he came home that afternoon. The boy has a long memory for slights, and takes particular delight in tormenting me about my maternal shortcomings: Hey mom, don't forget to sign my permission slip. Like when you FORGOT TO TELL ME you were going out of town for THREE WHOLE DAYS.
Of course, I felt absolutely rotten about leaving him out of the loop regarding my travel schedule. (I may be a thoughtless mother, but I'm not unfeeling.) The truth is that showing up for out-of-town meetings and conferences to talk about the political grounding and future of the mothers' movement has become -- well, not a grind, exactly, but definitely a reflexive routine, sort of like flossing my teeth before bedtime. Let me be clear: I look forward to these events for the opportunity to meet up with old friends and colleagues and connect with new ones -- I really do. And until quite recently, there was nothing I relished more than the prospect of getting together with a bunch of like-minded women (and whenever possible, a few feminist men) to brainstorm about the potential of the mothers' movement and how to mobilize mothers for change.
Reader, I must tell you that a change has come over me. I'm no longer satisfied with writing and talking about the mothers' movement and the values and policy priorities of a caring society (and what it will take to move the United States in that direction). I'm tired of dissecting the relationship between motherhood ideology, conflicts in feminism, and opportunities and barriers to organizing mothers for political action -- so tired of it that just writing this sentence makes my head hurt. I, for one, am ready to move on to the next phase. I want to get the job done. And I have some ideas about how we can get started.
| thinking beyond ourselves
The community of stakeholders in the mothers' movement is larger and more diverse than is usually evident at the motherhood conferences I've attended over the years, and the leadership team at the National Association of Mothers' Centers deserves special credit for inviting participants from a wider circle of support and advocacy organizations to the Mothers '08 Conference. (Full disclosure: the Mothers Movement Online was an event partner, and I worked with the NAMC outreach team early in the conference planning process.) Conspicuously absent from the mix were Joan Blades and Kristin Rowe-Finkbeiner of MomsRising.org. In keeping with their efforts to position MomsRising as the only game in town for activist mamas, Blades and Rowe-Finkbeiner seem to have a no-show policy for events that promote community-building and informal communication among leaders and members of aligned organizations -- which, in my mind, raises reasonable doubts about the MomsRising team's commitment to supporting the development of a broader, fully collaborative movement. (Emily McKhann, a MomsRising volunteer leader from New York state and co-founder of The Motherhood networking site, provided an upbeat overview of MomRising's accomplishments. But it would be a friendly gesture -- as well as an act of good faith -- if Blades and Rowe-Finkbeiner ventured out to mingle with the crowd once in awhile.)
The weekend's program was further marred by some unfortunate oversights -- clearly unintentional, but disappointing nonetheless -- on the part of conference organizers. For example, a lunchtime showcase of national mothers' organizations (you can read my remarks here) included a presentation by Cathy Myers of the Family and Home Network -- a group that has been largely inactive since suspending publication of its monthly journal, Welcome Home, in 2004 -- while a presentation on the continuing work of the National Organization for Women's Mothers and Caregivers Economic Rights Committee -- the project responsible for launching a 2007 action generating more public comments in defense of preserving and expanding the Family & Medical Leave Act than any other organization present -- was mysteriously excluded from the line-up. While I accept the explanation that the omission was due to a miscommunication, I suspect that "thinking beyond ourselves and beyond today"-- the tagline for the Mothers '08 conference -- involves thinking about which voices and agendas are amplified (or not) at our collective events. Good intentions aside, the sad reality is that national conferences and inter-organizational meetings are notoriously poor forums for promoting inclusion and diversity, particularly when the sponsoring organization has a priority and obligation to meet the support and service needs of its members.
The weekend offered a range of creative and action-oriented programming, including a rabble-rousing keynote by Ellen Bravo and a half-day, professionally-facilitated roundtable discussion with leaders of national mothers' organizations. Looking back on previous motherhood conferences and events -- starting with the 2001 Mothers & More National Conference, where Kristin Maschka and I presented one of the first mother-centric advocacy workshops on work-life policy, and the 2002 Symposium on Maternal Feminism at Barnard College (which was particularly memorable for several panelists' open hostility toward actual feminists) -- there's little doubt that the mothers' movement, and many of the organizations affiliated with it, have come a long way in a very short time. As new and existing mothers' advocacy groups become more specialized in their services and message delivery -- and more amenable to working together for change -- the outlook for productive collaboration is resolutely hopeful.
Despite these promising developments, I found it difficult to sustain my optimism about the Mothers '08 conference as a groundbreaking event. The nagging question was whether organizational leaders would use the conference as an opportunity to improve the movement's signal-to-noise ratio by balancing the volume of talk with a transition toward pragmatic change work, or whether the mothers' movement -- like the progressive movement overall -- would stay stuck in the process of endlessly elaborating on the nature of the problem, with no realistic action plan in sight.
| the tension between talk and action
The tension between talk and action surfaced early in the leader's roundtable discussion on Saturday afternoon, when several experienced advocates agreed that lobbying the government to collect more specific data on caregiving activities and mothers' patterns of employment should be our top priority. If we just had more detailed information about mothers' lives and livelihoods, these leaders proposed, the media and public might take our grievances more seriously -- and we'd be in a better position to persuade employers and legislators to do the right thing. (Roundtable participants included representatives from Mothers & More, NAMC, Welfare Warriors, National Advocates for Pregnant Women, MomsRising, Family and Home Network, Mothers Acting Up, the Motherhood Project, and NOW Mothers & Caregivers Economic Rights Committee.)
It's awfully tempting to imagine that the solution to the motherhood problem lies in more targeted research, more accurate media coverage, better understanding of national opinion, and closer attention to framing the public conversation -- all of which would contribute to more effective communication about motherhood and caregiving as social issues. But here's the thing: we already have all the information we need to take effective action. We have 30-plus years of peer-reviewed social research on the causes and consequences of the motherhood penalty, plus reams of expert analysis on policy models and labor standards that have broad social benefits and reduce mothers' economic vulnerability. If newer research has anything critical to tell us, it's that the situation for women and families in the United States isn't getting any better -- and on many social and economic measures, is getting worse. Overwork, flexible work, work-family conflict, and parenting as a gender issue have attracted more and more balanced news coverage -- at both local and national levels -- in the last five years than in the previous two decades, combined. Early in the 2008 Democratic primary race, leading candidates announced a commitment to expanding policies to support caregivers and working families -- a move that just four years ago, would have been viewed as political suicide. Three states -- California, Washington, and New Jersey -- have passed paid family and medical leave bills, and more than a dozen states and municipalities are considering legislation to guarantee workers a minimum number of paid sick days. We don't need more facts and figures to get the mothers' movement off the ground. We need to get on the train before it leaves the station.
| words and deeds
Let me back up a little. Mothers' movement sympathizers are not alone in the conviction that creating and disseminating more information is key to shifting the balance of political power in the United States. If we can just get our hands on fool-proof data and analysis showing that our nation's spending and policy priorities reinforce historic inequalities and are directly harmful to children and families -- not to mention antithetical to core democratic values -- how could any self-respecting lawmaker possibly fail to act?
Our problem, however, is not that our studies and statistics are inaccurate, inconsistent, or incomplete, or that we need to talk about what we feel and know in a more convincing way. What slows the pace of progress has more to do with how power-hoarding groups interpret the source (individual-versus-systemic failure) and impact (fair, not unfair) of social problems, and how difficult it is for social justice activists to disrupt the cause-and-effect logic that undergirds the status quo. (It's tough to talk people out of a belief system that works to their advantage -- no matter how strong the evidence is or how forcefully it's presented.) But in a knowledge-driven society run by super-educated elites, it's easy to see why collective efforts to verify and describe negative fallout from bad policy decisions and unchecked social forces might overshadow community-based organizing as an avenue for giving ordinary people more political clout. When other channels for political activism are closed off, naming and framing our common grievances may be the last, best option for creating a sense of engagement -- at least until new opportunities arise.
Since the mid-1980s, the progressive movement has invested heavily in the production and dissemination of ideas and information, primarily through funding public interest research organizations and progressive media outlets. (I use the term "funding" loosely here, since it's common knowledge that progressive organizations and media projects are constantly strapped for cash.) Today, the most prominent actors in the progressive change community are media professionals, academically-trained analysts, communication specialists, and heads of labor and non-profit organizations. In various capacities, these experts interact with the press, other organizational leaders, research professionals, legislators, and the public to raise awareness about social and economic policies that fly in the face of progress or otherwise diminish the general welfare. Day-to-day work in the progressive research industry involves conducting studies, publishing reports, providing expert testimony, developing policy models, and organizing events, meetings, forums, symposia, press conferences, and panel discussions where academically-trained policy wonks, professional advocates, journalists, labor movement leaders, liberal lawmakers, and other masters of the progressive universe get together and swap ideas about our country's most pressing problems and how to solve them. Sometimes the public is invited to participate -- particularly when information is delivered through blogging or other online sources, or when emotional personal testimony is needed to bring a policy platform to life. But most of these projects and programs exist to enlighten political elites and concerned citizens about the effects of bad policy-making on American communities, not to mobilize ground-level activists.
The professionalization of the progressive movement (including mainstream elements of the women's rights, civil rights, economic justice, and peace movements) was a strategic and necessary response to the breakdown of mid-twentieth century change movements and the massive growth of the right-wing thought industry. It's also been fabulously helpful to intellectual activists like me, who do the work of interpreting and rebroadcasting fact-based information that validates our cause for the benefit of a wider audience. In building the case for a mothers' movement, advocates have cited reports and resources produced by a legion of progressive research institutes, "grasstops" advocacy organizations, and academic centers, including the Institute for Women's Policy Research, Economic Policy Institute, Center for Economic and Policy Research, Families & Work Institute, Center for WorkLife Law, Center for Law and Social Policy, National Women's Law Center, Project on Global Working Families, National Partnership for Women & Families, Sloan Work & Family Research Network, National Center for Children in Poverty, New America Foundation, Demos, projects funded by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, and many more. Professionals who work in the progressive research industry also tend to write a lot of books, op-eds, and magazine articles, expanding the dominance of intellectual activism as the favored model for progressive problem solving.
Personally, I love this stuff. I love the notion that information is powerful, and that one idea can change the world forever -- hopefully for the better. On the other hand, we've accumulated a mountain of knowledge -- sound knowledge based on conscientious research and fair, accurate analysis -- in the form of books, studies, reports, briefing papers, and public commentary written by extremely smart people with excellent credentials, who do a first-rate job of explaining what's wrong with America and what to do about it. Yet in the last 25 years, the progressive movement has had few unqualified successes in the area of policy and regulatory reform. The rise of new conservatism and the partisan stalemate in Congress have obviously contributed to the progressive agenda's failure to thrive. But another salient factor in the moribund state of the progressive movement is the lack of a stable, community-based infrastructure to organize a diverse population of individual, non-professional activists for ongoing change work.
The academic model of progressive activism rests on the theory that, a) intellectual activists -- either by the force of overwhelming evidence or by framing an appeal the correct way -- can, despite historic patterns of resistance, move people with power to act for the common good; and, b) when societal conditions become unbearable -- or when ordinary folks absorb enough information about how and why they're getting the raw end of the deal -- there will be a spontaneous uprising of a critical mass of self-motivated citizen activists (in social movement lingo, this is referred to as "the tipping point"). But what happens in the real world is that social movement professionals and media activists (like yours truly, for example) go to meetings and conferences and scratch our collective heads, because -- given the urgency of the present situation -- we can't figure out why so many people who would benefit from pushing back against the status quo are more excited about watching the next episode of American Idol than working for change.
| building on-ramps to activism
The complex history and dynamics of the professionalization of the progressive movement deserve a more thorough discussion (and anyone who has something to add is welcome to weigh in). In all fairness, there are dozens of non-profit groups dedicated to training and leadership development for social justice advocates, young activists, and community organizers. But there remains a severe shortage of low-cost, continuing programs designed to build and sustain grassroots capacity on a local scale, leaving ordinary people with common concerns (or a bone to pick with the powers that be) with limited opportunities to acquire basic change work skills. As civic engagement continues to erode in the U.S., non-partisan groups that once facilitated grassroots network-building at the local level -- including voluntary associations, membership groups, and service organizations -- are rapidly succumbing to attrition, creating a void for community members in search of entry-level on-ramps to political activism. Needless to say, the devitalization of the labor movement in the United States has also closed off pathways to collective action for millions of middle- and lower-income Americans.
Based on first-hand experience, my impression is that the average middle-class mom is not under-informed or ambivalent about the persistence of gender inequality or employer practices and policy gaps that constrain our opportunities and put all mothers -- and our dependent children -- at greater risk for hardship. To the contrary, a 2004 survey found that 90 percent of U.S. mothers believe the government can do more to support children and families. But short of one-click action campaigns organized by netroots ventures such as MomsRising and MoveOn, mothers and others who want to participate in collective action are hard pressed to find ready-made opportunities in their home communities. Starting a social movement organization from scratch is NOT a feasible solution for would-be activists with real jobs and family responsibilities -- meaning, just about everyone between the ages of 30 and 65 -- and in any case, examples of productive (or even unproductive) grassroots organizing are so rare in most American communities that millions of people who thirst for change are missing critical background knowledge about what really works and where to begin.
In a Sunday morning workshop on "Inspiring the Next Generation of Empowered Women" (not my title!) at the Mothers '08 conference, I wanted to drive home the message that successful change movements require more from social activists than inspiration, passion, and commitment to a shared ideal -- there's real work involved in organizing for change, which (like all kinds of work) can be done effectively, or not.
The single most important thing to know about social movement work is that organizing for change is, first and foremost, a social process. The heart and soul of social activism is making contact with other people who care about the future of the community -- whether the practical definition of "the community" is everyone in your neighborhood, or everyone on the planet. Working for change is not an abstract, intellectual endeavor. It involves working with people you know, and people you will get to know. The time we spend writing, deliberating, and consciousness-raising is a critical step in the change-making process, because it helps us refine our claims, clarify mutual goals, and identify others who are sympathetic or opposed to our cause. As social scientist Charles Tilly notes in Stories, Identity, and Political Change (2002), political organizers "spend a significant part of their effort on the creation and broadcast of collective standard stories that will facilitate communication, coordination, and commitment on the part of allies, bystanders, and even objects of collective claims."
But change work that gets results is also a political process. Successful social movements involve planning, resource mobilization, and strategic interaction with allies and power-holders who represent the systems or institutions we want to transform. If we want the mothers' movement to flourish as a change movement, at some point we need to add a pragmatic layer to all the chatter, and take action to achieve the progress we want to see. Making change is not rocket science -- most of the hands-on work of grassroots activism involves things you already know how to do, like breaking down big tasks into smaller steps, setting priorities, and keeping channels of communication open. Everything else you will need to know can be learned.
Finally, scholars who study the birth and demise of social movements agree that working for change is an identity process. Becoming a social activist means stepping into the stream of change, as an individual and member of your community. One way to define change is "passing from one place, state, form, or phase to another," which, on a personal level, usually means feeling and thinking differently about the world and our place in it, and acting from that new awareness. Unless you happen to be an extraordinarily uninhibited or self-actualized person, it's very likely that working for change will force you to step out of your comfort zone. (If it doesn't, you may want to check out whether your change work is having the impact you'd like to see.)
The mothers' movement is in a perfect position to take advantage of new models of working for change. For example, the innovative organizing paradigm emerging from the Obama for America campaign has mobilized millions of supporters and volunteers with a hybrid model of community organizing that combines conventional ground operations and building grassroots capacity in the field with sophisticated online networking tools to streamline communication and organizing tasks. But in order to grow our movement in a way that will empower mothers and others to act for change, we need to invest in the development of new structures and capacities (a challenge that also applies to the progressive movement in general.) Here's a short list of needs and possibilities:
1. Invest in new organizing structures, including new, community-centered programs for grassroots training and leadership development. Instead of trying to restore or recreate the voluntary networks and organizational structures that supported feminist, labor, and social justice activism 35 years ago, we need to develop and fund new projects and organizations that can sustain the work of grassroots activists at the community level and beyond.
2. Develop and invest in inclusive organizing structures. Working for change is not just for young people or people with advanced degrees. Our social movement organizations, programs, funding priorities, and actions need to do a better job of bringing together stakeholders from diverse communities and backgrounds to develop collective capacity, rather than splitting people who share progressive values into competing special interest camps. Today's progressive movement seriously sucks at developing inclusive organizing structures, which is one of the reasons it's easy for conservative pundits to dismiss progressive leaders as latte-drinking elites who are out of touch with the concerns of the struggling class. The mothers' movement doesn't have to repeat this mistake -- and we don't have to design our social movement organizations based on existing, non-inclusive models.
3. Do what works. For activist mothers, time and energy are precious resources -- which is why we need to be realistic and smart about evaluating how effective our collective actions are in bringing about the change we want to achieve. (A good rule of thumb is "use common sense." Wearing a t-shirt with a slogan on it is a nice way to show your support for a cause, but it's not going to change the world unless you're doing some kind of pragmatic political work while you're wearing it.) What works depends on the specific goals of an action campaign, but it's important to match your organizing approach and tools to the problem you want to solve. For example, if you want to reduce maternal poverty in your community, you might be better off joining a grassroots coalition in support of paid sick days or a living wage ordinance, instead of volunteering in a soup kitchen. Mothers' movement organizations can play an important role in modeling and facilitating effective change work by focusing on what really works instead of resorting to conventional approaches that have little or no measurable impact on resolving unhealthy, unsafe, unfair, and unsustainable social conditions.
4. Plan action campaigns with multiple entry and exit points for first-time and seasoned activists. Some people are so fired up by an issue that they want to devote days or months to a political cause. Others may have only a few hours to spare, but still have something valuable to contribute to a campaign. It's possible to make room for everyone by breaking down tasks into smaller components. Organizers need to build as much flexibility as possible into when and where tasks are performed, and provide good training and coaching for volunteers so that they can use their time productively, learn new skills, and come away with the feeling that they've made a meaningful contribution.
5. Use technology with an eye toward its limitations, and cultivate multiple communication streams. As a get-out-the-vote volunteer and co-coordinator of a small grassroots organizing network in the NH Seacoast region, I've encountered several situations where overreliance on electronic communication creates barriers to participation. In the local context, I work with volunteers who do not like to read or send email (my preferred mode of communication by far), and several who don't have home computers or internet access but want to stay informed. I've also volunteered in low-income communities where a majority of households do not have internet access. The great thing about computer mediated communication is that it's fast and cheap, and can move huge volumes of information to millions of recipients at the same time. The downside is that it doesn't reach everybody, and the people it does reach tend to be concentrated in younger and more affluent demographic groups. In using new technologies, we need to think carefully about who we are actually empowering -- the information consumers, or those who generate information -- and who gets left out of the power surge altogether.
| the irony, and mother courage
I began this essay by insisting that it's time for the mothers' movement to make the transition from facilitating talk to organizing action -- and 4,000 words later, I've finally run out of things to say. There are no insurmountable obstacles to prevent the mothers' movement from making the leap to a full-fledged social movement -- but we have our work cut out for us, and we need all the help we can get.
Meanwhile, I'd like to propose that mothers and others who want to keep the conversation going start thinking and talking about this: What is one action you can take today, tomorrow, or next week that would force you to step out of your personal comfort zone? (Sorry, it has to be something related to change work, not signing up for pole dancing classes or taking sky diving lessons.) Extra points for trying something that involves face-to-face contact with other people, but whatever action you decide to take, aim for something that feels a little bit risky or challenging. Oh yeah, then you have to go out and do it (but you don't have to go it alone -- recruit a friend or two to join you). Did I happen to mention that this is an election year? If you've never volunteered for a voter registration drive or election campaign before, now might be a good time to give it a shot.
If you want to share your ideas or experiences about stepping up for change with other MMO readers, I'll publish it on the blog. Send your story to email@example.com. I look forward to hearing from you.
mmo : april/may 2008