In search of a Mother's Voice in America
Juliana opened her icebox to be faced with a ridiculous amount of food. In a sudden moment of unexpected clarity, she saw how grotesque, how out of balance that was. The images of starving children that had beamed into her living room for decades weighed heavily on her heart. She wanted to make sure every child had enough to eat. But how could she make that happen, what could she do to make a difference?
Joellen rode her bike down the beautiful creek path near her home in Boulder, Colorado. She went through her mental checklist of all the things she felt she had needed to accomplish in order to be the best mother she could be to her three children; She provided them with healthy organic food, music lessons, a wonderful bilingual preschool, then she realized she had no idea what kind of world her children might one day inherit. That if she didn’t have a hand in shaping that world for the better, then all her hard work could be for naught.
“We don’t really get rewarded or penalized by how we vote on children’s issues,” a visiting member of congress stated one day. He had been explaining why he had voted a certain way on a certain bill. Juliana and Joellen were galvanized. “Our members of congress work for us and yet they are not prioritizing children in our public policies,” they realized. Something desperately needed to change.
They began their research. According to UNICEF, fourteen million children have lost one or both parents to AIDS, and worldwide, one child dies every three seconds due to malnutrition and mostly preventable diseases. They learned that ninety percent of all war casualties are civilians, with almost half of this number being children. They discovered the United States, was spending more on its military spending than all other countries in the world - combined - and that according to the global footprint network, while most humans use 20% more resources than the earth can replenish today, North Americans, just like them, were using as much as 500% of their share.
Children living within North America weren’t faring well either. 9.3 million of them do not have health insurance. Chronic and debilitating diseases like Asthma are on the rise with the under fours seeing the largest rates of illness. Experts agree asthma is most likely caused by a growing number of chemical pollutants in our immediate environment. Pollutants are also finding their way into our water supply. The Natural Resources Defense Council say there are 7 million people in this country every year that are now becoming sick from contaminated tap water.
The facts were alarming, overwhelming. It would have been easy to roll over and try to forget that they had learned anything of the truth of what was happening outside their own front doors, yet that burning passion to do something, anything, kept propelling them forward. With their two friends, Beth and Erica, they sat around their kitchen tables and began crafting their visions for a saner world into their declaration of intent:
“We realize that we live in a world that does not prioritize or protect our children’s well-being and that this will not change without each of us finding the courage and commitment to speak out on their behalf. By mobilizing our gigantic political strength, we can ensure the health, education and safety of every child, not just a privileged few.
Let us whisper this to each other;
Sing it out in the streets,
Yell it from the rooftops,
Declare it in our houses of government:
We will protect our children with our personal and political strength, wherever they live on earth.”
And so it began. Snowy vigils on street corners which only their closest friends and family members often attended, Letters to the Editor written and published in their local papers, and a visit to their Senator to request funding for children’s education. “We just passed a tax cut. There isn’t enough funding,” he had told them. And they wondered right there and then, that if there had been hundreds of mothers crowded in his office that day, would his answer have been different, would they have been too difficult to ignore? They started a website and invited other mothers to join them in standing up for the children in their own communities, in standing up for all the world’s children. They called themselves Mothers Acting Up.
Why mothers? Why now? Why America?
As the doors to the rest of the world are opened and the stories of their plight reach our homes, the burden of living well often lies heavy on our hearts. We listen, we see, we hear and we endeavour to understand what it is like for the women and their children who live lives so very different from our own. Now what? What is it that we can do?
For the majority of people reading the news and listening to the stories, it can be all too easy to shut off in order to survive, to keep on going. With no apparent solution in sight for many of these issues, and problems that seem far greater than just one person can feel able to even begin to break down, it is much easier to leave well alone and walk away. Ignorance is bliss. But the truth is, that in today’s interconnected world it is far harder to ignore the cries of the starving infant who once lived over there, in that place on that continent more than a thousand miles from us, than it used to be. Because today, that continent is as much a part of our lives in America as we are a part of theirs. That continent is our new next door.
Mothers have been traditionally absent from the decision making table for generations.
The reasons are many and varied. Societal norms have dictated a mother’s role is in the home for centuries, perhaps creating a situation whereby mothers have felt their roles have been limited to their own children in their own home. Activism for a mother still tends to extend only into those territories most often entered into by their own children; their schools, their community centers and their immediate environments. She may have a voice in her children’s playground, she may even have a voice on her local school or community board, but to extend that voice into the public political arena that involves the discussion of policies that affect all children, beyond her own, that has been and continues to be dominated by the realm of men.
The assumption is this is mostly due to lack of time. That mother’s are far too busy and necessarily preoccupied with the well-being of their own children to be concerned about the well-being of others. However, in the seven years since Mothers Acting Up was founded, Juliana, Joellen, Beth, Erica and their growing band of mothers have been discovering there are also other far deeper issues at play that present obstacles to a mother becoming activist in the United States.
“It’s not that I don’t care. It’s that I have no idea what to do, how to do it, or if I’m ever going to find the time.”
Mothers Acting Up conducted a survey of mother’s at Mother’s Day events being held in nine cities across North America. 72% of respondents felt their child’s well-being was connected to children’s well-being around the world and over 90% agreed that addressing the issues of global poverty, environmental degradation and the impact of war is critical to their own child’s well-being. However, when asked what their greatest obstacles to becoming activist on behalf of the world’s children were, the overwhelming response stated a lack of time, a fear of becoming public and not knowing what to do. An additional survey was sent out to a thousand mothers from very different backgrounds; Welfare to work warriors, single working mothers, and mothers outside America. The results confirmed our first findings. Close to 40 % of respondents claimed their biggest challenge in acting up was a lack of time, followed by not knowing what to do, a lack of education on the issues and feeling overwhelmed.
Creating a New culture of Activism
“I largely thought the obstacles (to mother activism) were time and fear of it being dangerous. I remember not going to the Million Mom March because I felt it would be irresponsible to go with my children (I later realized I was wrong when Joellen described Moms picnicking with their kids on a lawn). I had to reshape my idea of what activism could look like and that's what we've continued to do with MAU.”
Beth Osnes, mother of three and cofounder of Mothers Acting Up
Creating an invitation to act up on behalf of the world’s children in a way that appealed to the busy demanding lives of mothers was a challenge, though Beth was not going to give up easily. Instead of marches and rallies with banners and bullhorns and angry chanting, Beth, Juliana, Joellen and their friends created parades, with mothers walking on stilts and dressed in flamboyant and outrageous costumes. There were big hats filled with flowers, children blew on kazoos to attract attention and the banners proclaiming their desire and ability to care for the world’s children were hand painted in beautiful bright colors. Sometimes there were puppets, sometimes there were floats. Mothers Acting Up worked hard to present a new idea of activism to mother’s in America. One that was joyful, fun and exuberant. That was positive and easily accessible. That was something every mother, could and indeed should bring their children to attend. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the sight of mothers walking down their main streets on stilts attracted huge media attention and together mothers across America began to realize that it was going to be possible to stand up and have their ideas noticed by doing it differently. More to the point, it seemed Mothers managed to find the time to participate, when they felt able to participate with their children.
Since MAU began in 2002, there have been over 90 annual mother’s day parades held in cities across North America and a growing membership residing in all 50 US states and 24 countries. MAU has successsfully reclaimed mother's day from consumerism with each mother's day parade being centered on an annual collective action campaign. Past action campaigns include postcard pledges to government officials, presidential candidates and media personalities calling for a reduction in military spending and in increase in funding to programs that better serve our children. MAU is currently working in partnership with the Global Action for Children on the Stand for The Worlds Children campaign which calls for the creation of a new childrens' ambassadorial post in US government to oversee programs and funding benefiting vulnerable children worldwide. A bill in support of this initiative is currently being drafted and is expected to be submitted for consideration next year. In the meantime, mother leaders are being trained to publicly stand up and use their voices to declare their desire for children's needs to be prioritized in US public and foreign policies.
Overcoming the fear of being public
“I’m not a very public or political person and don’t get all hot and sweaty about policy. I reread my first letter-to-the-editor six million times before I sent it in, searching for any teeny thing that could offend someone. When it was published, I burst into tears. I think this is a very common experience, fear about: being more public than you’ve ever been before; stepping into a more political role; battling with our own insecurities; making people uncomfortable perhaps, or even angry.”
Juliana Forbes, mother of two and cofounder of Mothers Acting Up
Mothers Acting Up is not an empowerment organization, but in order to fulfill its mission of mobilizing mothers on behalf of the world’s children, it became necessary to include some form of empowerment and public speaking training. Many mothers do not see it as their role to publicly stand up on behalf of children. There is a lot of work to be done to encourage mothers to realize that they have and should have a hand in shaping their children’s destiny. Programs were created to address this problem. Beth uses her theater for empowerment training to teach women how to stand up and practice speaking out publicly, in workshops being held in cities throughout North America. Juliana uses her creative side to develop inspirational communications that bring the personal stories of other activists, other leaders who have taken the leap into the public arena to life. These stories serve as the benchmark for other women to begin to see themselves differently, that maybe if this person here has stood up and made a difference in this way, then maybe she can too. Joellen created a mother leadership program that teaches mothers the skills she needs to write a letter to the editor in her local paper, to organize field trips to her local senator, and to begin to incorporate activism into her daily life one little step at a time.
Moving from Concern to Action
“ How many times have I been up in the middle of the night nursing a sick child? Countless. Each time I think about mothers sitting up with their children, unable to make a late night call to a pediatrician – a reality for the parents of 9 million children in the U.S - I think about the mothers in developing countries without protection for their children from something as simple as dehydration. I think of a 10 year old girl in South Africa, sitting up with her younger sibling. All of us up in the middle of the night…”
Joellen Raderstorf, mother of three and cofounder of Mothers Acting Up
There are more mothers in America every day who are waking up to the realization that we cannot let the fate of the rest of the world’s children take a nosedive while we take care of our own. In a world where every other child lives in poverty, almost half of all casualties from war are now children and the earth that has so tenderly been taking care of us, is becoming sicker and sicker every day, it is time for a mother’s voice to rise up and speak out loud and clear: ENOUGH is ENOUGH. There is enough food to go around, let’s work out how to get it around. There are enough resources to ensure every child has access to lifesaving medicines, to a quality education, to a safe environment and a secure future. So lets work out how to make that happen.
All we need to do to make a start is to begin talking about it, writing about it, contacting our members of congress about it. Every step we take on behalf of the world's children is a step towards the change we need.
This article is part of a writing assignment for Voices of Our Future, which is providing rigorous web 2.0 and new media training for 31 emerging women leaders. We are speaking out for social change from some of the most forgotten corners of the world. Meet Us.