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Hire the Squeaky Wheel

If we want success, we have to buy it

By Kelly Ault

My mother used to tell us that the "squeaky wheel gets the grease." As the oldest of eight children, she would know. Competition was stiff for new clothes, the family car on a Friday night, the last piece of pie, let alone parental attention. Through years of refinement, she perfected the combination of sheer word volume, enthusiastic assertiveness and strong opinions to get what she wanted. Needless to say, when my mother enters a room, she leaves her mark.

The mother's movement has the right mix of elements to secure social change: inter-generational history, visionary organizations, charismatic leaders, ground-breaking research, compelling message, intrigued media, thoughtful commentary and most important of all, millions of people who would benefit. But to truly achieve equal rights for women in the home, workplace and community, it needs to make some serious noise.

The movement needs to hire a massive sales force of sorts. It needs grassroots organizers building influence in places of power at every level: halls of government, boardrooms of businesses, newsrooms of media, auditoriums of academic institutions and libraries of communities. A qualified employee exists wherever there is a baby on a breast or a toddler in pre-school. New mothers are not only perfect spokeswomen, skilled at multi-tasking, perceptive leaders and well-networked, they are available. We simply need the money to hire them on their terms. 

Here is where the social movement transforms into an economic initiative by offering the ultimate flexible work option package. Compensation might look something like this: Twenty-five dollars to host a book group on the latest motherhood memoir. Fifty dollars to organize a forum on movement issues like the need for high quality and affordable child and health care. One hundred dollars to edit a local newsletter and two hundred dollars to the writers and poets documenting the motherhood experience. Five hundred dollars to launch a media campaign recognizing businesses spearheading family-friendly policies. One thousand dollars to organize a letter-writing campaign on key legislative initiatives. Five thousand dollars to run a mother's resource center.

Mothers are already doing these things -- let's just pay them for their time, whether that is two hours of naptime or two mornings of pre-school time. Through paid volunteerism, the movement could put a squeaky wheel in every community and women could pocket a paycheck. This isn't just an altruistic handout, although it would boost morale. It comes down to a change in the times. Although volunteerism is still an important civic duty in our country, the reality is that our society has become work-centered. A majority of women return to work after having children for various reasons from income to self-worth and we can't expect them to volunteer on top of it. The same offer should apply to stay-at-home moms who have their own set of taxing responsibilities. Besides, the movement should walk the talk and lead by example. If we want success, we have to buy it.

Both the far out and the practical would finance the movement's "grassroots grants fund:" Celebrities featured in People Magazine's Babies of the Year issue would host a fundraising benefit. Businesses selling goods from baby food to strollers would commit a percentage of proceeds. Investments from the public sector would be billed as workforce retraining and sustainable economic development. Academic institutions would sponsor educational or professional development components. Fees for events, subscriptions to newsletters and revenues from "how to organize" manuals and trainings would generate respectable numbers. Finally, I don't need to describe our gender's prowess in running raffles, fundraising dinners and bake sales.

Certainly, I have left out a million details on how this would work. I have sidestepped the enormous administrative and legal challenges. I have neglected to mention any of the organizations that are leading the charge and how they might collaborate. And I have avoided the possibility of chaos on the ground -- messages mangled, co-opted or uncoordinated, events that flop or deadlines missed due to a sick child. But the risk of mishap seems worth it against the inspiring of thousands of actions to forward the cause. To me, it resembles the minor scrapes and bruises my toddlers sustained when they learned to walk. 

The point: There is a vast untapped resource in mothers that will work for the cause if they could make a living at it -- or at least support the monthly diaper bill. The movement needs a mom's network in every community that goes beyond providing daily support for the mothering experience and playgroups, but one that is united in and paid for the roll-up-your-sleeves work of the cause. If the movement's advocates are serious about being successful, they need to reinforce with cash what the leaders have told us -- that motherhood makes us smarter and leadership begins at home.

My mother met her match with her three daughters. Not only did we inherit her ability to bend an ear, we had a generation's worth of cultural shifts on our side. But as a movement, skills and progress are not enough to get our way. Today's mothers may appreciate increased equality as well as recognize how much work still needs to be done. Their drive to play a role, however, is lost in the daily demands on their time and ambitious expectations from families, workplaces and communities. Seed money may provide the offer they can't refuse.

mmo : september 2006

Kelly Ault is a freelance writer who lives in Middlesex, Vermont with her husband and identical twin boys, Austin and Carson, who are 2 years and 9 months old. Her work has been published in Northern Woodlands and AMC Outdoors magazines and Vermont-based publications, Mama Says and Vermont Sports.

Related articles:

The Activism Industry
Dana R. Fisher, AlterNet, 19.sept.06
Progressive groups are outsourcing their grassroots canvassing to national organizations. What happens when paid employees replace committed activists?

The opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views or policy positions of the MMO or its staff.
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