February’s Friends of PM Press package arrived today. In celebration and to keep myself motivated to power through the amazing books, I’ve sat down and finally type up my response to Victoria Law and China Martens’ Don’t Leave Your Friends Behind. I read the whole book back in November and have been mulling over it since.
I was initially super excited about the book since the full title is Don’t Leave Your Friends Behind: Concrete Ways to Support Families in Social Justice Movements and Communities. It’s a collection of 51 short pieces by a range of activists divided up into seven chapters with titles like “What’s Gender, Race, and Class Got to Do with It?” and “Don’t Leave Anyone Behind.” There a few essays that stood out as actually focusing on concrete actions and suggestions, but the majority were too focused on individual experiences and written in an autobiographical narrative style to be to my liking and felt more like reading a zine than a handbook on organizing.
Of the zine-style pieces, the overwhelming tone was that non-parents need to do all the child- and family- friendly organizing. The main desire was really good childcare at events and meetings. I live in NYC, which definitely sharpened my response. Space is hard to get, especially accessible space, and there is so much more work than organizer hours. While organizers everywhere have a tendency to over-extend themselves, it’s more acute here. I’m a lot more willing to redirect time and energy to a specific area if I know that I count on the people who are raising the issue working with me as a partner instead of dropping it at my feel with what amounts to a “you’re a bad comrade if you don’t do all this work for me with any cooperation on my part.” Surviving as an activist is hard even if one doesn’t have children, which the entitled tone of many of the pieces forget. Over and over, the authors writing as parents implied that there was no legitimate reason for objecting to how they or their children behaved in activists spaces in ways that felt self-centered at best but more often than not downright ableist. My main snark was that while I don’t want to leave my friends behind, I would like to leave some of those jerk-faces behind. As a whole, the book felt more like a collection of slightly grumpy rants about negative experiences as parents in radical spaces than an overview of how we can build stronger, more inclusive communities that have space for children and people with children.
There were a few pieces that stood out as exceptional. Rozalinda Borcila’s La Casita is Ours! A Conversation with Children in Struggle (pp 34-44) does an amazing job of illustrating how children can be active participants in a political struggle and includes a list of seven big take away lessons. Organizing within an Anarcha-Feminst Childrearing Collective, by CRAP! Collective (Child Rearing Against Patriarchy), (pp111-115), provides clear suggestions on how to organize a family/ child block for a march in a responsible way. Babyproofing for Punks, by Clayton Dewey, (pp 133-135) is a great guide both for houses and less-finished convergence spaces that acknowledges that “perfect” isn’t always attainable and problematizes the idea of a “safe space.” Stacy Milbern’s two and a half page Accessibility (pp 205-207) is a short almost-check list of some accessibility features for events or spaces and shows how so much of the features that have been brought up previously in the book are not just applicable for children and parents.
The tension between Amariah Love/ Kelli’s Childcare Collective of Atlanta’s Radical Childcare Start-Up Notes (pp144-151) and Jennifer Silverman’s Equal Access: Community Childcare for Special Needs (pp180-183) best summarize my frustration with many of the expectations implicit in other writings. Much of my family, both chosen and biological, are educators who work with children professionally. They are seriously skilled in what they do. Being a teacher, childcare provider, or nanny is a vocation. Some of them have multiple high level degrees. Some of them are voraciously self-taught. All of them are amazing and dedicated. And all of them work in a field that is severely undervalued by capitalist society. I can’t in good conscience ask them to provide more of their undercompensated, underacknolwedged labor for free and I won’t lie to my community and myself that some random person can provide the quality childcare that the parents in this book are asking for. Given the centrality of gender and class in this book, why has this tension been left largely unaddressed? Why isn’t there more meaty mention of how undervalued caring is as a whole and tying that together?
I wouldn’t reread this book, though I might go back to a few of the pieces for reference. I don’t read autobiographic zines because I almost never enjoy them. Don’t Leave Your Friends Behind may be a good compilation of that style of writing, but it’s not the concrete guide that the subtitle implies. The book does a noteworthy job on including a wide range of perspectives and fearlessly putting forward race and class as absolutely central to understanding parenthood in our communities. There are writings by women, trans*/ gender non-conforming folk and men, both as parents and non-parent activists. Queerness and explicitly queer spaces are integrated into the book. The one demographic type hole I noticed is that most of the writings are about recent organizing. A lot of the people involved in the women’s peace/ anti-nuclear movement of the 1970’s and 1980’s are and were parents. Childcare collectives have been sprouting up since the 1960’s. I would have liked to get some sense of the historical arch of how we make movements accessible to children and parents. It isn’t liked radicals only started having kids in the past few years. I was also somewhat surprised that there weren’t any pieces written from a grandparent’s perspective. I have no doubt that this book is a decent starting place for young activists from white, middle-class backgrounds who have done most or all of their organizing in the context of college, but if this is the best guide on making movements and communities welcoming to children and parents out there, we’re all in trouble.
In the spirit of Reading Rainbow (“don’t take my word for it, check it out for yourself”): dontleaveyourfriendsbehind.blogspot.com (the website for the book).