When Dancing with Toddlers is a Political Act

Photo:  Man with a guitar in front of a mural and a kid behind him dancing. Text: "When Dancing with Toddlers is a Political Act / We'll Eat You Up, We Love You So"

In these troubled times, it’s easy to ask, “What can I possibly do as a mom / dad?” This past weekend, my family attended one rocking answer to that question.

Welcoming immigrants and refugees to America is one of my core political values. More than one of my family stories revolves around immigration and I’m a better person for knowing the many immigrants in my life. I strongly believe in providing opportunities for people who just want to build a better life for their children.

So when I saw that the Takoma Parents Action Coalition  was putting on a “Toddler Dance Party” to benefit the Capital Area Immigrants Rights Coalition, I knew this event was our jam.

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Marching for the Future: The Women’s March on Washington

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“Tell us what democracy looks like – this is what democracy looks like!” chanted by countless voices rang through the National Mall. I and two of my friends were in the middle of the Women’s March on Washington yesterday, along with about a million other people. From creative signs to the chants, the crowd was seriously pissed off. At the same time, there was a serious sense of solidarity and dare I say – hope.

As Dave Engledow, the photographer of the World’s Best Father set of photos, says, it felt like the scene in The Grinch Stole Christmas when all of the Whos in Whoville sing together despite the Grinch trying to ruin everything.

Maybe democracy doesn’t come from a store – perhaps democracy means just a little bit more!

A few of my highlights from the day:

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The Challenge and Beauty of Being an Activist Mom

Photo: Photo of a husband and wife dressed in winter clothes hugging with the wife holding a Forward on Climate sign; Text: "The Challenges and Beauty of Being an Activist Mom / We'll Eat You Up, We Love You So"

Standing on the National Mall in the  February cold, I stomped my feet and tried to ignore how sore my lower back felt. Watching the stage, I strained to listen to the speakers, from Silicon Valley billionaires to Native American activists. I was at one of the biggest climate change protests ever, focused on defeating the Keystone XL oil pipeline. While it attracted 12,000 people, it’s unlikely that many were in the same situation as I was: five months pregnant.

Despite the cold and a serious lack of bathrooms, I marched in hopes of shifting the tide against climate change. Now, with the election of Donald Trump for president and the Republican domination of Congress, I find it more important than ever before to be an activist mom.

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Finding Hope in Dark Times

Finding Hope in Dark Times

Trigger Warning: Orlando mass shooting, homophobia, Islamophobia

In the wake of the Orlando mass shooting, it’s hard to maintain hope and not fall into despair. But despair paralyzes. Despair too often makes it about our emotional reaction rather than the victims’ or their families. Despair is unsustainable. In contrast, hope inspires and motivates.

One of the best pieces of advice I’ve seen about maintaining hope is from beloved children’s presenter Mr. Rogers. “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’” While I had heard the quote before, I was reminded of it by fellow blogger Alana at Parenting From the Heart in response to the Orlando shooting.

With so many bad things in the local and national news, looking for the helpers provides a place to plant your feet.

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Songs to Grow Up With: Alice’s Restaurant

Many people have favorite Christmas songs, but few have favorite Thanksgiving songs. But there’s one song that has been part of my Thanksgiving since I was very little: Arlo Guthrie’s Alice’s Restaurant. This sprawling protest song no doubt influenced my current-day activism as much as 50 Simple Things Kids Can Do to Save the Earth or actual politics. So of course, it will inevitably be part of my son’s childhood as well.

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For those unfamiliar with it, Alice’s Restaurant is a 2 part, 18 minute saga supposedly based on truth, but leavened with a heavy dose of absurdity. The live version is the definitive one, where Arlo invites the audience to sing along and then berates them for not harmonizing correctly.

The story begins in the small town of Stockbridge, MA, which is so small that “they got three stop signs, two police officers, and one police car.” Before Thanksgiving dinner at his friend Alice’s house, Arlo and his friends decide to help her out by taking care of her garbage. But when they discover the dump is closed on Thanksgiving (one suspects there was some pre-meal non-food indulging), they take the logical step of throwing it over a cliff, to accompany somebody else’s garbage that’s already there. The next day, they get arrested and thrown in jail for littering, “the biggest crime of the last fifty years” in sleepy western Massachusetts. Despite the over-enthusiasm of the cops with their “twenty-seven 8 x 10 colored glossy photographs with circles and arrows and a paragraph on the back of each one,” the judge merely fines them $50 and makes them pick up the garbage.

The song then fast forwards to several years later, when Arlo has been called up for the draft in Vietnam. In a “building down in New York City called Whitehall Street … you walk in, you get injected, inspected, detected, infected, neglected and selected!” Because of his “criminal record,” he gets assigned to the Group W Bench, which he shares with all kinds of “mean, nasty, ugly-lookin’ people.” When he points out that the army is asking him if he’s moral enough to “burn women, kids, houses and villages after being a litterbug,” they tell him “We don’t like your kind! We’re going to send your fingerprints off to Washington!”

Needless to say, none of this is fare meant for little kids. But despite that, my family listened to it every year driving to my aunt and uncle’s house in New Jersey. We usually tried to catch it on Q104.3, the New York City rock station that always plays it at noon. If we were delayed, we’d put in the battered Best Of cassette and also listen to The Motorcycle Song (which manages to be much, much sillier). It became part of my Thanksgiving tradition as much as turkey and my mom’s mushroom dip.

Obviously, I didn’t understand the song at all at first. I just liked singing along to the catchy chorus. But as I got older, it was one of my first introductions to anti-war messages. I think it was particularly effective because the messages are embedded in a funny, specific story and so become universal. Rather than critiquing the injustice of the Vietnam War specifically, it frames war itself and our approach to it as fundamentally absurd, as ridiculous as taking aerial photography for prosecuting littering. That combination allowed it to transcend its very 1970s context to appeal to me, a girl growing up in the pre-War on Terror 1990s.

And appeal it did. As I grew older, my interest in politics intensified, to the point where I was actively interested in educating others on it in high school. Singing along at Thanksgiving became an act of rebellion, not against my parents, but a corrupt political system that hadn’t changed all that much since the song was released. As the phrase “The personal is political” began to resonate, I realize now it was one of the first things I was exposed to where a personal story (albeit an exaggerated one) was used to make a political point. In the modern day of Tumblr where everyone has a personal/political story to tell, Alice’s Restaurant stands out as a great example of how to do it right.

I think it also shaped my opinions on how political change can and must happen. There’s a great line in the comic book Phonogram (which is all about the power of music) that “the only way for a revolution to succeed is to be more fun than the alternative.” While it comes from a morally ambiguous character, I agree with her. Activism can be exhausting and depressing, something that doesn’t really inspire people. To get people to want to change requires painting a picture of a future that’s better than the current one – more attractive and ideally, more fun. It’s very clear in the song that the hippies are the ones having a hell of a lot more fun than the stuffy, authoritarian police officers and draft recruitment staff. Similarly, it showed me how art can be political. While I got a crash course in using theater to do activism when I participated in the “Stop Shopping chorus” singing Anti-Corporate Christmas Carols in grad school, Alice’s Restaurant was my original introduction to the concept.

Needless to say, this song was one of the touchstones of my life, especially my activism. Although I hope it can be for Sprout as well, I don’t want to force it. We’ll just play it on Thanksgiving and leave it to him to figure out significance it will have in his life. While Arlo sings, “You can get anything you want at Alice’s Restaurant,” I know that I already have.

Songs to Grow Up With: Kids’ Music for Little Radicals

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Listening to music can be a radical act. And I don’t mean in the 2112 or Footloose “music is evil” type of way. But more that the type of music we listen to is not only a reflection of our tastes and perspectives but an influence on them.

Nowhere is this more true than for kids, who either end up listening to music developed for their specific age group or are subjected to their parents’ musical tastes. While some kids music is absolutely inane, it doesn’t have to be. Without needing to go full-on Defiance of Anthropomorphic Sea Mammals (from Portlandia), here are a few songs that may help inspire your kids to be activists or at least anti-authoritarian. Not all of these were originally for kids – many of them are straight-up folk songs – but I think they all have a kid appeal.

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Women’s History Month Role Models – My Friends and Family

Photo: A woman in a pink shirt in front of a bike. Text:

Reading all of the wonderful stories of women being shared for Women’s History Month inspired me to think about the women who have influenced me. I realized that they fell into three categories: women I personally know, women (and girls) in pop culture, and women who have been major leaders in advocacy movements. This week, I’m going highlight my female role-models and hope you find someone to be inspired by!

What do you say when someone asks who inspires you? For me, it’s often the people I have a personal relationship with. Our greatest role models can be right in front of us.

My mom: My number one female role model in my life has always been my mom. As bonkers as we make each other – in that special way only mothers and daughters can – we love each other deeply. As a teacher in an inner-city school district, my mom instilled in me a dual love of learning and service. She was unrelenting in her dedication to her students, buying thousands of dollars in classroom supplies and more than once seriously considering fostering or adopting a student. She taught me what the word “privileged” meant before I ever heard the term, emphasizing that I was lucky to be both physically and emotionally taken care of. Reminding me that many children had neither of those – often, children she worked with every day – she taught me be grateful for what I have and help those who don’t. In her retirement, she’s volunteering at the local nature center and food bank. She’s also the one who inspired my love of cycling. While my family had always gone on short bike trips, her decision to bike 500 miles across New York State during my junior year of college motivated me to sign up for the AIDS Ride for Life. It was the first time I had ever done a major ride and made me a convert to cycling advocacy. In my family, my dad’s mom was the another major influence, whom I’ve written about before.

 

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My friend Nancy, at the first Carl Henn Memorial Ride. 

Nancy Breen: On the bike front, Nancy Breen, the chair of the Rockville Bicycle Advisory Committee, is another real inspiration to me. I know she’ll probably raise an eyebrow at her name being on the list, but she totally deserves it. She’s been the chair of our all-volunteer committee for several years now and it’s a pretty thankless job. Besides motivating us to get into gear, she’s spent endless hours with our city’s Mayor and City Council, whose meetings regularly run to midnight. She’s spoke in front of local policymakers on topics varying from police training to bike lanes. And she does all this in the very male-dominated field of bicycle advocacy. In fact, I think Nancy is a big part of why women are well-represented on RBAC and our concerns are heard. I’m also putting a major shout-out to my friend Sophie Chan-Wood, who does a lot of our group’s marketing and is the Rockville Roll Model for the Washington Area Bicyclists’ Association’s Women and Bikes program.

Sister Lucy Poulin: Lucy is the toughest nun I have ever met. Admittedly, I haven’t met that many nuns, but she is a total badass. She founded Homeworkers Organized for More Employment in the 1970s in very rural Maine and still runs it. (She had co-run it with fellow awesome nun Sister Marie Ahern until two years ago, when Marie passed away.) What started as a simple co-op for crafters expanded to a substantial network of services including multiple homeless shelters, a food bank, a soup kitchen, a land-trust program that helps people build their own houses, an alternative high school, and much more. In addition to the main campus, she’s the matriarch of a rambling farm property. Chris and I volunteered at HOME for about a month and stayed in a plumbing-free house next to a lake at the farm. We ran the summer day camp, which at that time was down to 3 girls. Two of the girls were sisters and came from an incredibly tough background – they lived in one of the homeless shelters and their mom was a user and seller of illegal prescription drugs. Living and working there was super-hard and rewarding. But we had the luxury of it being temporary. Lucy deals with some radically difficult people, both those seeking services and volunteers, day in and day out. I saw her frustrated and even angry, but never impatient or mean. Most importantly, she created an atmosphere of fundamental equality. If you were more than a short-time volunteer, no one made the distinction between you and someone who needed paid work. It was never said but widely acknowledged that we all needed to be there, even if it was for different reasons.

Sylvia Robinson: Sylvia is another local activist that is the heart, soul, and backbone of an essential community organization. Leaving her steady job, she sunk her entire life savings into pursuing her dream of establishing a community center for her neighborhood. Housed in a impressive and historical but crumbly brick building in the DC neighborhood of Pleasant Plains, the Emergence Community Arts Collective hosts dance classes, children’s summer programs, poetry open mics, swap meets, and support groups. Through the organization, Sylvia has also led several projects delving into the history of the neighborhood, with a particular focus of highlighting the contributions of black women. I had the pleasure of knowing Sylvia when I volunteered for Ecolocity, a Transition Towns group that focused on sustainable food. She gave us free space for meetings and events as well as use of the building’s yard for a community garden and mini-food forest. Despite the fact that running your own non-profit is relentless, she was always willing to give our group time and energy as well. I’ll also offer a shout-out to my friend and fellow Ecolocity volunteer Gerri Williams, who now lives in Duluth, MN and co-hosts a radio show.

All of these women are dedicated to their greater community without losing sight of the individual relationships that truly make up that community.

Who are the female role models in your life who have inspired you the most?