I love my mother.
From my birth in 1974 to her death in 2005, my mother taught me through her stories about the women of the Black Panther Party, that mothers are a key vehicle for social change and are critical to the fight for democratic rights and regulation. Perhaps this is why the conservative Right has so viciously and aggressively targeted their communications at mothers and motherhood within communities of color, poor communities, and young communities. Without the voices and visions of mothers, and their leadership at multiple levels, 21st century progressive movements cannot win.
I grew up the daughter of a woman in pain. With both sickle cell anemia and a history of abuse, my mother knew what suffering was. That pain, and my mother’s lifelong attempts through child-rearing, education, and community organizing in the Black Panther Party to transform her own suffering into both safety and belonging, provide the context for my analysis about the critical role of motherhood in building social movements. Personally, I hope this analysis will also usher in a new phase of life that brings a turning point where I am transformed from a single person accountable primarily to myself- to a nurturer of children, of leaders, and of the kind of social movements that give birth to new vision, new conditions, and new ways of governing and making change.
Like many of you, I learned about governance at home. Whether from the constant reprise that I had to share with not only my younger sister, but any child or adult who was living with us at the time -to the silent observation that my mother relied upon a network of women to care for her children and keep them safe from harm- it was clear to me from a very young age that governance was a communal affair, requiring multiple forms of leadership- both hierarchical and collective, consensus building strategies, shared infrastructure, and an economic system that supported the base needs of all equally and allowed for each to contribute according to their means and ability.
It was also clear that the strain of single parenting, under-employment, and lack of consistent and reliable intimate partnership raised the level of volatility and inconsistency in my home. The lesson that emerged in my young mind was complex. On the one hand, the partnership and leadership of the powerful and brilliant black women that raised me was critical to my survival and success. On the other hand, every mother I knew had been victimized by the men they loved and trusted, betrayed in some way by other sisters, and was unable to show vulnerability except when the dam broke and it came pouring out- too often at home, alone with their children. Just as they were resourceful, inspiring, nurturing, and full of almost unreasonable joy- these women were also volatile, overly hostile, isolated, manipulative, and unhappy. These black women who loved and nurtured me were unrecognized for their extraordinary gifts, unable to foster and maintain intimate relationships with men or women, and yet responsible for cultivating a next generation with little to no support.
How can a household, a community, or a nation be effectively governed when women are held disproportionately responsible for its future and yet are disproportionately neglected, abused, excluded, isolated, and invisible? Two words: it can’t.
Instead, empire is sustained, and mothers become one of the tools of its continuous resurrection. But, just as mothers can become the ideological vehicles for hierarchy and dominance- they are uniquely positioned to lead both visionary and opposition strategies to it. With the right supports, mothers from under-represented communities can help lead the way to new forms of governance, new approaches to the economy, and an enlightenment of civil society grounded in fundamental human rights. In fact, they always have.
20th Century social movements saw the rise of foundation-supported social change sectors- and within those efforts, the deliberate targeting of resources to strengthen the capacity of progressive and conservative movements to win. On the right, conservatives invested in culture wars, with women leading the way in many instances. Whether in the fight against reproductive justice and freedom, or against queer rights, or for incarceration- women, and mothers in particular, were projected into media debates as the spokespeople for a conservative vision of family, labor relations and wages, and were often the most virulent opponents of immigrant rights or restorative justice policies.
These mothers were cast as crime victims, as victims of leftists who didn’t value family, as victims of failed government policy. Conservative organizations worked hard to use that frame to cultivate a generation of anti-feminist female leaders- the Ann Coulters, the Sarah Palins- that continue to re-define feminism and the vision of motherhood in it’s most destructive and hierarchical forms. This culture war -with mothers as its motive force- has been too often neglected and ignored by progressive movements. By under-estimating the impact of these culture wars on framing the future, and under-resourcing strategic communications and cultural strategies that center the voices and visions of progressive mothers, particularly those from under-represented communities- progressive movements have weakened their ability to win.
This is true across all sectors of progressive movements, not just in the issue areas obviously pertaining to women- like reproductive justice or women’s rights.
In the fight for true Internet Freedom and media equity, mothers are a neglected constituency with the potential to be powerful spokespeople and leaders for a new distribution of media rights and resources.
When I was in junior high school, my mother brought home our first computer. We were the first house on the block to have one, and it launched a new nickname for my mother that stuck till the day she died- January 15th, 2005. Our neighbors called her “Professor”. It was clear, through the purchase of that computer, that she viewed her children’s access to education as a core strategy for their liberation. This is a framework and belief shared by so many women with children, and people in general. And it is this core belief, translated into an increasingly digitized world, that makes mothers a key set of spokespeople for fights over Internet regulation.
Before we had the computer, my mom bought the full set of Encyclopedia Brittanica. It was a sight to see, neighborhood children coming over to our house after school to use our encyclopedias to do their homework. And, once we got the Internet, the phenomenon continued on a digital landscape. A mother chose that path. A mother bought those books. A mother brought that computer home and taught herself how to use it so that she could free her daughters of some of the untenable choices she’d had to make.
Right now, mothers across this nation, and across the world are deciding how best to educate their children, and they are increasingly using digital technologies and mobile platforms to do it. Whether they are at home, in prisons, being deported, jobless, or at work- mothers of all genders and physical types, with or deprived of their children, are shaping the beliefs and practices of the next generation of constituents and leaders. These children, of which I was one, are learning at home from their mothers what type of democracy and economy they deserve. It is mothers who will teach the next generation to read not only books but mobile phones and computers. It is mothers who will shape the engagement strategies and activation point of the next generation of every day Americans. Mothers will decide- whether implicitly and informally, or as explicit and prioritized leaders in our movements for change- what future a 21st century social movement creates.
To transform racism and poverty, and the stories and media infrastructure that supports and directs that transformation, social movements must strengthen the infrastructure to support motherhood, change the story about mothers from under-represented communities, and increase the visibility of the voices and visions of mothers. With them, we are powerful. Without them, we lose.
My mother was beautiful, brilliant, powerful. And whether you are a teacher, a doctor, unemployed, a sex worker, or a prisoner- so are you. I see you. I support you. And I lift your voice, and sing.