Activism and Family

Recently I was invited to speak at the Pirate Party of Massachusetts’ annual convention about my experiences in activism. Being one of the first guys involved in Anonymous’ transformation into a protest movement in 2008, I naturally have a lot to say about getting out in the streets and getting things done. I was asked about how activists can juggle the needs of family with their causes, and since my wife and I are both involved in activist groups and raising two kids I had a lot more to say on the subject than time allowed. Marc Stober mentioned to me that I should write this up as a blog post.

Trading off the kids

If you are lucky enough to have a partner who is involved with your kids and the same activist groups that you are, one possible way to juggle both is to trade off who stays home with the kids and who goes out to the protests. This can be a great solution, especially for couples that are good at communicating after events, because your partner can act as a proxy for you. Events like protests and speeches are great places to network with other activists and make plans for future demonstrations, and having someone there who can represent you means you don’t have to miss out on everything. It does mean that your group will have one less person at the events, but they will still have access to your (or your partner’s) ideas, connections and resources.

There are, of course, situations where this will not work out, most obviously for single parents. Parents who have a partner that is uninterested in their activism will experience a lot of pushback if they suggest the other partner going to events in their stead from time to time, and asking the other partner to act as babysitter for every event may simply be too much.

Bringing the Kids

Is this a thing? For some activist causes, bringing children along is a no brainer: can you imagine a nurse-in with no babies? For other causes, it can be tempting to assume that all protests are child-free zones, but I believe that’s just lazy thinking. Parents will likely find that there are opportunities to include their children in activist events with proper planning and supervision.

I can speak from experience on this one, as my wife and I brought the kids down to Occupy on several occasions and spent some time feeling out what worked for our family. The most important thing for us was making sure that the kids were aware of what was going on, were not pressured to be there or to participate, and were kept away from the areas where civil disobedience actions were taking place. For safety reasons, we stuck strips of duct tape on the kids clothing with their mom’s cell phone number, just in case they got separated from us in the group. We had a very strict rule that the kids could not hold any sign that they did not understand, and so the 7 year old had a sign that read “99% is a lot” while the 4 year old had one that simply read “HONK!” We talked with them about the issues that Occupy was attempting to address and about the historical precedent of protesting in this country, and especially in Boston. The result was that we all had a good time, the kids were not holding any signs that expressed values they didn’t share, and they had a meaningful experience. Later, when the MBTA proposed service cuts that would have decimated our town, we attended a rally at the state house where our girl made a sign saying that the MBTA is her school bus, and the little man learned that some state troopers will say “honk” if you wave a sign at them.

Bringing your children to a protest is something that every parent has to weigh for themselves. It can be a wonderful thing, teaching kids that they can have an impact on the world around them and that it is okay to stand up to authority when the authority figures are getting things wrong. On the other hand, protests can sometimes be scary environments, and certain types of demonstrations are likely to result in situations that are unsafe for children. I would strongly recommend never taking children into a situation where police confrontation is the goal. There may have been a time in our country when this was a good idea, but there are just too many examples of wildly inappropriate levels of force being used against peaceful demonstrators. Bringing kids along is also highly dependent on the children themselves: kids who have problems in large crowds or who don’t like loud noises will not do well at a protest.

Activism from Home

If you can’t make it out to events but still want to contribute to activist causes, there are lots of opportunities to help without leaving your home. No, I’m not just talking about signing online petitions here, there is real work that needs to get done. People on the street are important for shows of force and getting media coverage, but there is a lot that needs to happen behind the scenes to make any cause successful. It’s all about knowing where your skills lie, and finding a way to offer them to the groups you support.

My wife and I both take our activism home with us, in part because we are gluttons for punishment but also because we know what needs to get done and want to contribute in all the ways we can. My particular skill set is helping to connect people and manage meetings to ensure that stuff actually happens, which is something I can do online and over the phone. My wife can write and do graphic design, so she creates flyers, edits press releases, and writes essays for the causes we support. Your skills might lie in managing social media (easier than it sounds), making phone calls, maintaining websites, or proofreading. Ask what your groups need done, and see if you have any of the skills needed to help from home.

Parent Outreach

The most important thing we can do as parents who are involved in activist causes is educating other parents. Raising kids can be an all-consuming job, and it’s very easy for parents to get lost in the daily grind and miss out on causes that they would be interested in. People with kids are acutely aware of the world they are leaving to their children, and are by-and-large highly motivated to make it a better place. Some lack the opportunity to participate in activism, and others may just assume that they can’t juggle family and their favorite causes. But you can help with that. Be the activist ambassador to the playground. The other parents you meet aren’t likely to join you at a march, but they help influence opinions around their community. In the end, raising awareness is one of the most important goals of any cause, and you can accomplish it just by striking up a conversation.

Photo by Maurice Morales