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Moving the Movement: A Multigenerational Ideal of Revolutionary Work

Cynthia Oka
Date Published: 
June 20, 2011

On May 7, 2011, the Breakthrough Mamas, a grassroots collective of poor/single/disabled/ (im)migrant/teen mamas of color, led a Mother’s Day Liberation Rally in coalition with other activist mamas and allies in the Committee for Single Mothers on the Move. The rally brought together a wide range of political struggles in Vancouver, British Columbia—around housing, health, living wages, transportation, childcare, status, legal support, education, and cultural integrity. It also provided a platform to demand freedom from violence against women, sexual/reproductive self-determination, and gender liberation for all peoples.

Within this framework, the Breakthrough Mamas oppose the ideology/practice of child apprehensions by the state, which disproportionately target indigenous, poor, and undocumented communities under the rhetoric of welfare and protection of the child. As it sponsors this violence against families, the state continues to underwrite colonization, imperialist aggression, hetero-patriarchal violence, capitalist exploitation, and the criminalization of poverty.

The rally was organized around the premise of children’s full participation; we planned as many children- as adult-centered activities for people to engage in. An emphasis on children is significant here because they are the only members of our community who are still considered “optional” human beings. It is not uncommon to hear organizers say, “Oh, I just don’t like children,” as though they were insentient things, like cars, that you could opt to like or not.

The Breakthrough Mamas continue a legacy for the revolutionary taking-back of Mother’s Day from corporate pundits complicit in the very systemic oppression of mamas. Instead of flowers and chocolates, we are creating zones for Mother’s Day to be strategically used for highlighting a model of multigenerational, mama- and children-centered, revolutionary community, and for amplifying critical struggles for justice that many mamas are engaged in directly, invisibly, and in isolation, every single day. If the list is long, it is because there is no singular mama-only issue, just like there is no singular kind of mama. What is singular is the withholding of recognition by the Left of mamas as political—even revolutionary—workers. 

Revolutionary mamas in radical Left organizing

Revolutionary mamas are some of the most invisible, undervalued and unsupported organizers in the radical Left. Many of us find it impossible to be present and participate in highly visible Left spaces or spaces where decisions about political agendas and strategies get made. The problem is not just a lack of childcare; more fundamentally, the Left has broadly failed to produce an analysis of mothering as skilled work and revolutionary practice within our frameworks of labor exploitation, freedom of access, and political leadership from below. While mainstream society clearly does not recognize mothering as “real” work, neither does the Left see it as “political” work. As Mai’a Williams, instigator of the blog Guerrilla Mama Medicine, the Outlaw Midwives zine, and the Divine Survivors Clinic, put it, “Not only do we make spaces directly unavailable to folks who do mothering work, but we create entire movements that assume mothers don’t exist.”

I had the privilege of co-facilitating a mama-centered space with TK Karakashian Tunchez, revolutionary mama and creator of the New Mythos Project, at the 2010 US Social Forum in Detroit. Revolutionary mamas from all across North America shared our experiences in radical Left organizing, which were overwhelmingly characterized by a sense of dispossession, disrespect, and marginalization. It is exhausting to fight for access all the time, when even feminist, women-centered and reproductive justice organizations expect mamas to “stay involved” by ignoring our needs and our children’s needs. This includes not supporting mamas to bring our children to Left organizing spaces, or choosing sites for decision-making and networking that explicitly exclude children. As TK put it, “While other organizers have the privilege to walk away, go home and hang up their organizing toolbelts at the end of the day, we are left dealing with the very real ramifications of how we’ve been organizing, both from the results in our communities and the results on our bodies... Lots of us are done with surviving. We’re really trying to thrive.”

Many revolutionary mamas are poor/single/welfare/teen/disabled/(im)migrant/ indigenous/mamas of color who face combined structural limitations rooted in racist, colonial, imperial, hetero-patriarchal, and capitalist oppression. These manifest themselves in blockages to our mobility, lack of discretionary time, compromised health, intense isolation, and pervasive stigmas about our incompetency as mothers (including the fear or trauma of child apprehension), on top of the class, gender, and race-based struggles we share with other poor people, people of color and women. Yet here we are, fighting for our liberation as militantly at home as on the streets, where we often find our bodies are the frontlines of revolutionary struggle.

Stretching and shifting hegemonic Left organizing

We know that the relegation of mothering work to the domain of “personal choice” is rooted in a colonial paradigm which has facilitated the bearing down of state violence on individual mamas’ and children’s bodies. Yet communal mothering, caregiving, and control over the education of our children continue to be some of the most neglected interventions in our movements on account of their being considered mundane, cumbersome, or “private” issues. While excellent reasons remain for revolutionary mamas to be wary of scrutiny over our mothering practices, this is no excuse for other organizers to remain complacent. In the same way that we would expect men to fight hetero-patriarchy even as we acknowledge the need for women’s autonomous spaces, organizers who are not mamas need to shift towards a multigenerational ideal of revolutionary work that prioritizes skillful caregiving, childrearing, healing, mentoring, and homemaking, as much as mobilizing mass numbers of people to fight for policy change.

The hegemony of the mass mobilization/direct action model is in part attributable to the fact that it responds to political currents in the publicized domain, where it benefits from (while simultaneously being targeted by) the media, communications, legal, and surveillance infrastructure of state and capitalist institutions. Amongst other things, it appeals to our need to manifest and witness our own collective power. Yet many organizers, especially mamas, are struggling with the burnout effects of this model of organizing, particularly when we are folks already living intimately with the violent effects of state policy. “It’s definitely behind-the-scenes mama work that is the grassroots,” says TK. “The stuff that isn’t sexy and doesn’t get seen, because all the efforts and attention are being directed at the ‘emergency’ state we’re always in. Meanwhile, mamas still struggle to feed their kids!”

There is, obviously, no distinction between organizers who are mamas and those who are not in terms of desire or experience in say, confronting riot cops or holding down blockades (although they might have to assume different risks and require different support systems). The distinction exists in the kinds of work that are valorized and those that are devalued within the Left’s political imagination of what revolutionary work should look like. “I would love,” says Mai’a, “to see more organizing based around networks of caretaking, reciprocity, and sharing.” In other words, our organizing needs to encompass mothering as the political practice of raising whole, resilient people and communities capable of nurturing revolutionary consciousness past their points of spectacular eruption.

Those of us who have chosen mothering as political work often find it extremely isolating and depleting to participate in hegemonic forms of organizing because there is no cultural infrastructure that respects, values, and incorporates the work we are already doing as intrinsic to the organizing process. This is not reducible to facilitating mamas’ access to social movements as they currently operate. As TK has pointed out, it is ironic that radical childcare collectives are recognized as political workers, but revolutionary mamas themselves are not. Childcare is without question an extremely important issue of accessibility. But without a much broader politicization of mothering work, a focus on childcare can also facilitate the ongoing marginalization and exploitation of mamas in radical Left organizing.

As the only single/poor/teen mama of color present (and not consistently because there was no childcare) in resistance efforts leading up to the 2010 Winter Olympic Games in Vancouver, the most strategic thing I felt I could do was demand that childcare be a part of the first major mobilization corresponding with the Opening Ceremonies. Providing childcare could go a long way to enabling mamas to participate in the ways we wanted to, given the worries shared by many that the police might use tear gas or sound cannons to assault protesters.

Instead of acting in solidarity, fellow anti-Olympic organizers asked me to organize childcare for the day of action. The only ally who stepped up to share the work was Claire Wilson, a skilled childcare organizer who at the time was collaborating with me on a mama-centered leadership development program at Vancouver Status of Women. With no support from other organizers, we brought together 20 community caregivers; arranged a space downtown; solicited donations of food, toys, and art supplies; outreached; secured legal support; and on the day of action provided care for more than 20 young children in our “Free Kids Zone.” Many of them were children of Native Youth Movement warriors whose mamas had driven several hours to the city from St’at’imc territory.

Childcare provision is not a substitute for a multigenerational framework of revolutionary struggle, which requires that we act upon an understanding of mothering as the skilled and committed practice of (re)producing political subjects for various imagined communities—whether it be the nation, the church, or the revolution. Its forced existence outside the domain of shared responsibility has resulted in a paradoxical Left politics that prioritize short-term gains in state and capitalist-controlled institutions (the government, the workplace, the streets) over our capacity, as communities of revolutionaries, to continue ourselves.

As Mai’a put it, “I’ve fought with riot cops. If it comes down to facing down boys in uniforms with guns, I can do it…. but that’s not where movements are won.” Indeed, our reliance on state and corporate violence as an impetus to action (within which childcare cannot be framed as anything other than access) is actually a concession that we, as a broad movement, do not yet have a strategic vision of how revolutionary consciousness can be intentionally manifested, reproduced, and grown over many generations.

Practicing revolutionary mothering

Revolutionary mamas share a common ethos of struggle which involves a valuing in and of itself of a commitment to the survival and thriving of other living bodies within a multi- and inter-generational framework. This is an ethos that fundamentally contradicts the colonial and capitalist logic of instrumentality. But beyond that, we engage in highly diverse forms of organizing.

TK, for instance, is committed to creating mama-centered spaces that focus on self-empowerment and healing. Using arts-based tools, this work supports mamas to continue participating in revolutionary struggles where our existence is rarely acknowledged and the methods of organizing tend to be positively hostile to our lived realities. Recently, TK has been touring with The New Mythos Project across US cities in the Northeast and Southwest, holding dialogues, interviews, and workshops with revolutionary mamas and caregivers to begin producing and promoting a culture of healing within movement work. TK is also spearheading the development of a national network of revolutionary mamas and community caregivers.

On the other side of the world, in Cairo, Mai’a is doing Middle East solidarity work through her midwifery practice and creative mama-centered interventions that connect radical political analysis with daily practices for creating healthy communities. “I really don’t get it,” she said. “Mamas who manage to organize, work, take care of kids, make miracles happen daily, aren’t those the people you want to be leaders of your movement? ...I really do not understand how people don’t think that [mothering] is organizing. How you erase those people, with those skills, from your organizing.”

Many mamas like Mai’a and their children were present and participating at Tahrir Square day after day. There was a different context where mothering communities were much more prevalent and children seen as members of revolutionary struggle. “In a culture of people who in general assume that watching out for the kids around you is part of your basic way of being in public space, the line is not so hard between activist and mama,” she said.

And in Vancouver, there is the Breakthrough Mamas. Our collective originated from a leadership development program I coordinated specifically for poor/low-income, single mamas of color. After training for a summer together, most of us decided to stay together and form a political collective to fight for just conditions of mothering work, advance an analysis of mothering in the context of revolutionary struggle, and build a mama-centered model of multigenerational organizing. As some of the people most violently impacted by state policy, we strategically engage in movements for policy change–but in ways that draw from our skills as mothers and as individuals with our own sets of gifts. We are facilitators, scholars, artists, and poets who choose to balance our talents and desires with the ethos of mothering, of making lifelines and life possible far beyond ourselves.

There are many other examples of revolutionary mamas organizing. Check out, for instance, Young Women United based in New Mexico, who produce the Revolutionary Motherhood Zine and work to realize communal models of mothering while resisting the criminalization of working class communities of color. Or the mamas of POOR Magazine, based in California, who organize with poor youth, adults, and elders to produce revolutionary media access, arts, education, and solutions based in the aspirations of poor folks.

“No movement,” says Mai’a, “on the Left (or the Right) is going to succeed without being mama-centric.” Put another way, the radical Left has got to become adept at mothering, not only children, but ourselves and each other. Truthfully, it is not difficult for me to get my seven-year-old to march on the streets, wave picket signs, or understand the concept of property destruction. What has been difficult is teaching him to trust his voice. To know how to listen deeply and fight courageously. To build spaces where people can unfold their pain and heal. To commit to others for their own sakes and to stay with them when they break. To extend life beyond himself.

To continue.

These are revolutionary mothering skills.

Cynthia Dewi Oka resides in Vancouver, unceded and occupied Coast Salish Territories. She is a revolutionary mama of color, poet, and organizer with the Breakthrough Mamas and the Rhizome Movement Building Centre. She is thankful to her son, Paul, who never lets her forget how to dream.