The MOTHER tour Inspiring Mothers for Social Action!
The MOTHER tour Inspiring Mothers for Social Action!
By Beth Osnes, Co-founder of Mothers Acting Up
The MOTHER* tour is a program of Mothers Acting Up (MAU) and the Philanthropiece Foundation
*mother: anyone who exercises protective care over someone smaller
In the taxi ride over to do my workshop in Hanoi, Vietnam, a flash of doubt crossed my mind. I wondered if this Empowering Mother’s Voices workshop would work so far from home. Would my ideas and intentions would even translate? This setting was the polar opposite of my own—a communist country, on the other side of the world, and a vastly different cultural history. Fast forward an hour into the workshop at the STD/HIV/AIDS Prevention Center downtown Hanoi, and I felt right at home among mothers and others, who, like me, cared passionately about issues facing children and their families and wanted to empower their voices to speak out to make a difference.
This workshop in Vietnam was just one of the many places visited by the MOTHER tour which traveled to many parts of the world to create a global community of mothers all using their voices to move from concern to action. Though the two-year world tour is complete, a DVD and online version of the tour is just being launched, which can be downloaded at no cost or ordered via www.mothertour.org. This tour uses theatre as a tool for mothers to inspire, educate, and empower themselves to act on behalf of their most passionate concerns facing the world. It begins with a one-woman show, M-other, that I wrote and perform. This performance explores what it might just take for the mothers of one country to authentically care about the mothers and children of another country. It’s based on a fictional program, called “Baby Swapping,” created by the United Nations to generate care for the world’s children. In this small, limited pilot program, seven mothers from seven nations from around the world are required by their governments to swap their six-month-old babies with another mother from another nation for one month. It follows the life of one American woman who at first whole-heartedly resists having to give up her baby, then falls in love with the baby she receives from Ethiopia, and ultimately becomes a champion for the community in Indonesia where her child has been sent. The fiction that the “other” is not part of the “mother” is washed away. What remains is a powerful affirmation of our interconnectedness in both our challenges and our solutions as a global community. The last line of the show states, “I think the hardest part about going back to my old life will be facing my old self that believed I was separate from you, facing the part of myself that believed you were ‘other.’ Everything has changed. Before I had asked, Why me? Why now? Now I ask, if not me, who? If not now, when?”
After watching the show, you could do the Empowering Mother Voices workshop to get the skills, practice and confidence needed to take your voices out into the world. In the workshop mothers experience the power of their embodied voices and then use these voices to declare their most passionate concerns. Next each mother is invited to devise one specific way to use her voices to act on this concern. Then together, we rehearse each mother’s action—all working together to devise solutions to any obstacles that get in the way of her being able to do her action. Through the process, mothers in the workshop empower themselves and each other to use their voices to speak up on behalf of the concerns they self-identify. They also realize that their lives are not set in whatever their current reality is, but that their lives can change—that they can author their own lives in service of their most passionate concerns.
On Tour Around the World:
Over two years, the tour traveled to many cities across North America (Toronto, Milwaukee, Austin, Denver, and New Orleans, just to name some) and several international locations (Panama, Malaysia, Vietnam, Guatemala and Ethiopia). Some of the stories from the tour are of small transformations, of a mother seeing herself as larger and more powerful than she once imagined herself. Other stories are heart-wrenchingly raw about children vulnerable to poverty and risk. What follows are just a few stories I wish to share that stand as proof that we mothers, though divided by language and the particular challenges we face, are united in our concerns for children and our world.
In Penang, Malaysia: Actions Big and Small, All Making a World of Difference
At the workshop in Penang one Chinese woman said that she was concerned about the 12-year-old daughter of a woman at her Buddhist temple. She said that the mother was very poor, single and had cancer. If the mother died, she was afraid that custody of her daughter would go to the girl’s father who was a drug user who she suspected would traffic his daughter to pay for his addiction. Her action based on this concern was to set up a lunch meeting with the mother and ask her if she needed help making arrangements for the daughter with the temple in the possible case of her death. This was just one girl who was at risk of becoming a part of a larger statistic of child sex-trafficking; this was one small action within this woman’s immediate community, taken on behalf of just one child.
At that same workshop a woman named Pricilla, a therapist for children with mental health issues, shared the following personal story. She told of young girl she was working with who suffered from symptoms of mental illness due to the fact that she had been molested. In one particular therapy session the girl was extremely agitated because her abuser had still not yet been incarcerated or charged with the crime (even though Pricilla had been in communication with the local police about the situation.) Pricilla took the girl outside near the ocean and had her write on a piece of paper all that she felt about her fear. Since there was no one around them, she urged the girl to use her voice to express what she was feeling and the girl screamed out, “I don’t want him to hurt me anymore.” She helped the girl fold the paper into a boat and they walked to the rocky shore to set her worries out to sea. When they threw the paper boat, it landed among the rocks. The girl was bothered by this, but Pricilla assured her the tide would soon come in and take it out to sea. Still the girl was not satisfied, but insisted on climbing out onto the rocks, got the paper boat, and threw it out into the waves. Together they stood by the shore and watched the little boat float away.
Not only does Pricilla work as a therapist in the schools for children, she was also works to bring awareness to school officials as to the importance of mental health issues as they impact children. During the workshop she devised an action to meet with her regional government to educate them about the mental health needs for children, thereby working towards systemic change to help children as well as direct action with individual children in her practice.
Columbus, Ohio: Seeing Ourselves a Larger and More Powerful than we Imagined
At this workshop a lovely older women, Dorothy, spoke of her life as a mother of nine grown children, a grandmother to many, and a nurse for decades. After such an immensely full life she was now in her retirement looking for what to do with her time that would be a worthy contribution. When stating her specific action, she said she would like to start reading to children in her neighborhood school. Everyone seemed to think that was a fine action. As we continued around the circle, another older woman who was active with RESULTS, a non-profit that trains people to partner with their elected leaders to lobby for poverty issues, said that her action would be to hold an open town hall meeting at their local lower-income health center. She said she could assure that their congressperson would be there since she had a good working relationship with him, which, in turn, would likely attract good media coverage. Her goal was to publicly draw attention to the most dire health challenges faced by children and their families living in poverty.
Dorothy’s demeanor changed upon hearing this, and she said directly to this woman, “I want to do that.” They exchanged contact information on the spot and decided that they would proceed with this plan together. All of us present witnessed Dorothy re-imagine herself as someone bigger and more mighty than she had previously imagined—with a public voice, and with the life experience to stand behind it. Though reading to children is a noble and worthy pursuit, in that moment she saw herself and her life experience as preparing her for something more public and daring.
Chajul, Guatemala: Every Women Can Effectively Use Her Voices for Change
On a rainy afternoon in a remote cloud-forest village, indigenous Mayan women who spoke only their native Ixil language continued to stream into the Empowering Mother Voices workshop until there were nearly seventy mothers. They giggled at the strangeness of our vocal warm ups but were good sports about trying them and feeling the results as much as their timidity would allow. When it came time for each woman to declare her most passionate concern, I invited each mother forward by the hand and stood by her side to ensure her confidence to speak. Many had concerns of poverty related to their lives and the lives of their children. Since there were so many mothers present, my translators and I decided to focus on the concern that came up for the majority of the mothers-- their children’s education. What could these mothers do to help their children get a scholarship (of which many were available through NGOs in their community.)?
Though illiterate themselves, they all knew that their students all needed to do well in school to earn a scholarship and that education was the way out of poverty. So how could they help their students do well? They all agreed that they could not understand their children’s homework so were unable to help them or even guide them. When asked what could help with this, one woman suggested that mothers could talk to their student’s teachers. So we asked for a volunteer of a mother who had never spoken with her children’s teacher. It became obvious that very few of the women ever had. Three brave women stepped forward and another was convinced to portray the teacher since she was, indeed, a teacher! The interchange between them, witnessed by the entire community of mothers present demystified the entire process of approaching a teacher to ask for assistance. The teacher assured them that educators were glad to talk with them about how to support their children and gave them tips for making sure their students were doing their homework even if they couldn’t read the work themselves. In the discussion with the women that followed, it was clear that many of them felt that they could, indeed, consider talking with their children’s teachers. More importantly, they realized that they, though living in poverty and illiterate, could effectively act on their concerns.
Lubbock Texas: Supporting Mothers so they Can Support Children Everywhere
The mother in this photo (on the right), her husband, and their two children (the younger daughter center), had recently become homeless when he lost his job and they could no longer afford the rent on their apartment. This woman’s own mother wasn’t able to take them in, but her mother-in-law (on the left) welcomed them into her home in Lubbock. My first impression of the grandmother when we were starting the workshop was that she was rather shut down and shy. However, as we moved around the circle declaring our most passionate concerns, she spoke with unexpected eloquence and grace about how it’s the role of the elders to build up the mothers upon whose care the well-being of all children rests. She spoke with the wisdom of a wise, old soul as she praised her daughter-in-law for her courage in the face of their situation and how it was her honor to help her be strong during this difficult time for her family.
When it came time for the mother herself to declare her concern, all she could express was her gratitude to her mother-in-law and that she was desperately concerned for her own two children. She said she knew there was a world of other children out there who were also suffering, but that she could only think of her own right now. We all reassured her that, given her immediate situation, her action for the day was to simply accept the encouragement and love from everyone present. After sharing a meal together after the workshop, we had a procession on one of the main streets in the town since it was Mother’s Day weekend. The daughter was excited to try out the stilts we had brought, and with the support of her mother and grandmother on either side of her, she stood tall, strong and happy.
In Closing: An Invitation to Join In
Personally, as the mother who developed this program and traveled to many parts of the world with it (many times with kids or my whole family), I have been changed by the experience. I am in awe of mothers and their courage. I have witnessed mothers re-imagining traditional ideas of “mother” to include having a public voice capable of influencing change that prioritizes the well being of women, families, and children everywhere. If you feel like you or your community could use some inspiration, consider watching the performance M-other (http://vimeo.com/16450369). To jump-start your process of expanding into having a public voice, consider doing the workshop with your community of family, friends or faith (http://vimeo.com/16457665). This process requires mothers to re-imagine themselves and their role in civic participation. It requires the development of a public voice and a public self for mothers, who are historically private people within the inner circles of community. Mothers stepping into the public realm—effectively entering into the conversation of how policies are established, resources are allocated, conflicts resolved, and decisions are measured—has the potential to radically reshape our world. Our aim for mothers is full public inclusion such that children, women and families around the world have access to health care, education, and safety and that we begin to measure our actions based on how they impact the entire global family. That alone could usher in a new chapter of human history, an era of strong supported mothers, in turn speaking out and acting up for children and families everywhere.