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Reclaiming Families: A Framework for the Movement

Walidah Imarisha
Date Published: 
June 27, 2011

For the last 40 years, the Right in this country has claimed ownership of the role of “protecting family values.” Along with that role came the privilege of shaping and defining what constitutes a family, both in mass culture and according to the law.

But there is a radical initiative to take back the idea of supporting family and put it in a reproductive justice frame that lifts up the voices and leadership of parents and communities who are the most under threat. It’s called Strong Families.

Moira Bowman of Strong Families says only 22 percent of families in the US fit the mold of straight mom and dad and two kids. “The reality is we are the majority when it comes to families in this country, and yet the policies being created don’t support or reflect immigrant families, families of color, queer families, working class families, extended families.”

Bowman and others leading this initiative offer the strong families framework not just to the reproductive justice movement, but to immigrant rights, labor, racial justice, criminal justice, LGBTQ organizations, and sectors of the social justice movement as a framework that they can build together, while they are building power as well.

Strong Families was started by organizations working on reproductive justice, including Asian Communities for Reproductive Justice (ACRJ), Western States Center, California Latinas for Reproductive Justice, Political Research Associates, Movement Strategy Center, Young Women United, National Asian Pacific Islander Women’s Health Forum, and the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health.

Strong Families has a long-term vision, looking at the political landscape ten years from now, and envisions “expanding the definition of family to support families of all kinds” by 2020. This work will happen through a cultural shift, as well as working on policy campaigns on the local, state, and national levels.

 “Any and all community organizations, regardless of mission, issue, constituency or strategy, work with families. Strong Families helps them talk about the range of issues that plague our communities from a grounded place –—our lived experiences,” says Aimee Santos-Lyons of the Western States Center, a regional nonprofit in the Northwest that was one of the shapers of this initiative.

Santos-Lyons strongly believes that Strong Families can help the movement create real change. “Through this framework, multiple communities can stitch our individual stories together to see the bigger picture. We get to see the broken systems that raid our families, demoralize and degrade us, punish us, and keep us apart. When we give value to those stories and are able to see the bigger picture, we can envision a world where our families have dignity and worth.”

National actions

A national example of this work happened for Mother’s Day, which Strong Families organizers affectionately renamed “Mama’s Day.” Groups across the country organized events using the Strong Families framework, to support and honor those mothers who have “the least amount of resources and are most under attack,” like single moms, moms of color, low-income moms, immigrant moms, young moms, and queer moms. They wanted to honor and raise up the work of mothers who are not only ignored, but often scapegoated.

This campaign showed the creativity and variety of tactics available and included blogs, marches, rallies, ceremonies, letter-writing campaigns, and even a music video put out by ACRJ. The video poignantly reframes young moms and moms of color as community organizers and leaders.

Young Women United (YWU) in Albuquerque, New Mexcio used Mama’s Day to advocate for midwives and better birth outcomes in all communities, especially in communities of color. YWU, along with Tewa Women United and Espanola Valley Women’s Health, a homebirth midwifery practice, held a prayer walk on May 5. At this gathering, the community came together to “walk with prayers in the dust of every footstep… because midwifery is birth justice.”

The National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health (NLIRH) used Mama’s Day to reframe the birthright citizenship/Fourteenth Amendment attacks as an attack on Latina immigrant mothers and their families. NLIRH hosted a congressional briefing in DC on May 10 on these issues and the work being done to counter the attacks.

On May 7, the Center for Young Women’s Development (CYWD), which works with formerly and currently incarcerated young mothers in the juvenile justice system, co-hosted a celebration and resource fair for young moms and their families at City Hall in San Francisco with several other organizations.

The CYWD has also created the Incarcerated Young Mother’s Bill of Rights for mothers in detention, a document that ties in closely with Strong Families. “Using the Strong Families frame has given us a proactive way to organize around the bill of rights… and change stereotypes of teen moms, especially those who have conflict with the juvenile justice system,” says CYWD executive director Marlene Sanchez. “This gives us an opportunity to create a more positive image of the capability of young mothers and advocate for support not punishment.”

Also on May 7, Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays Portland Black Chapter (PFLAG PBC) hosted their second annual Mother’s Day Brunch in Portland, Oregon to honor LGBTQ moms and moms of LGBTQ youth in the community. PFLAG PBC is one of the only culturally-specific PFLAG chapters in the country and is looked to as a model by other chapters.

Antoinette Edwards of PFLAG PBC says the Strong Families framework was very important for her group. “PFLAG is often seen as only a support group, but the Black Chapter is much more,” says Edwards. “We advocate, educate, get resources, organize, and support. Strong Families helps our work not only by strengthening us through shared ideology and being our ally, but also reminding us and encouraging us not to lose the social justice piece of our work.”

Edwards, who was one of the founders of PFLAG PBC and is a longstanding community leader in Portland’s Black community, feels Strong Families can be culturally relevant. “Just as Strong Families values families just the way they are, so do we. We strive to spread that message throughout our communities that family does not have to look one way. In the Black community we are very familiar with families not looking like the status quo; it is in our history, part of our culture.”

These are a few examples of the ways that Strong Families can reframe the issues liberation movements engage in to highlight not only the needs and experiences of those most affected, but also place them in a central role as the organizers and leaders they are, working to strengthen and build power in our communities.

“Strong Families allows us to have a shared language and understanding that fighting for laws and policies that benefit not just one kind of family, but all kinds of families, strengthens all our communities in the end,” Santos-Lyons explains.

Or as the ACRJ music video says at the end, “No mama walks alone. Let’s fly together.”

Walidah Imarisha is a member of the editorial collective of Left Turn and a trainer with Western States Center.