Thursday, April 28, 2011

Community activism with young children

My kids are old enough that it’s no longer an imposition to leave them with one parent or a babysitter for dinner and bedtime, which makes it easier to attend meetings and events in the evening. My husband and I also have enough low-stress time together now that it’s less imperative to spend evenings together. But that wasn’t always the case and it was frustrating at times to be unable to participate in activist events or the planning thereof. Other people clearly have the same issue; an unfortunate number of organizations’ memberships consist primarily of students/ twentysomethings and people over 50 whose kids are mostly grown, with a big gap in the middle of families-with-kids.

Organizations can arrange things differently to better attract families, but this makes for difficult scheduling around workdays, and when it comes down to it people with young children usually have less to devote to big projects than other demographics. The limits on what families have to offer given the realities of life with young children can make active participation in traditional organizations less viable even with accommodations. So here are some things we did:

For the record, organizers are often friendly to children; my son attended innumerable meetings and events of Bethlehem Neighbors for Peace. Most children can be trained to play quietly for short periods of time, and he could look at books/ draw/ eat/ play with small toys on the floor in between breaks of actively engaging with a parent outside. As infants, my kids were often more happy being paced around in the backs of meetings than at home. If one parent can bring the baby along with them that leaves the at-home parent with some breathing room.

We formed a Roots & Shoots chapter that enabled us to focus on community projects with our kids and other families. Ours was based at Five Rivers and opted mainly for environment-themed projects but the program is flexible enough to allow for a lot of different activities. This can be done without connection to any organization or through 4-H or Girl Scouts instead, but Roots & Shoots does provide some great activism ideas.

Writing letters and making actual phone calls to politicians can still make a difference. It sometimes felt like a cop-out but my husband and I did quite a bit of that.

Something we didn’t do, but would be a good strategy, would be to work with parent-focused organizations that are more likely to include children. Schools, La Leche League, and religious groups come to mind. Turning your daytime playgroup into a political discussion group or guerrilla gardening troop is also an option.

A lot of our activism became personal. Some people discount home and lifestyle changes as meaningful on a larger scale but I disagree; I think we all should be trying to live the kinds of lives that support our values. Besides reducing our financial support for industries we don’t like, friends have made changes in their lives when they’ve seen things we’ve done. Eating and growing organic food, reducing resource waste, and minimizing exposure to toxins fit into our family lifestyle as well as our personal activism.

And I don’t discount the connections we made with neighbors and other parents as unimportant either. Community resilience is an important focus of mine, and getting to know people around town is an integral part of that. I have a number of people I would feel comfortable relying on in a personal emergency or a community disaster, and they could form the basis of future community collaborations as they become necessary.

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