Why We Have to Build Our Movements with Kids — on attending Facing Race, honest communication, and caregiving
I often reference Facing Race as my longest, committed relationship as an adult, and I’m only half kidding. A coalition building space that’s sponsored biannually as an explicit multiracial, multicultural, intergenerational convening, always following an election season and their implications for organizing. As an admitted conference skeptic, and a trainer, any positive statement about a conference is out of character, a posture known to my community.
I was introduced to the Applied Research Center before they became Race Forward while I was in college. Living in Athens, Georgia at the time, having just become old enough to vote, seeing racism in politics more explicitly, preparing for life after school back in northern Virginia.
My first conference coalesced with reelecting Obama, moving to DC, the ten-year anniversary of 911 and the rise of the War on Terror, my graduation, and the deaths of three family members. I was looking at trauma, racial identity, and reengagement with family in one blended hail storm, trying to emerge with tools and clarity on how to weather these transitions, while also learning how to engage my family as a grieving adult, and navigating professional spaces in a community of existing, complicated associations. My ninth nephew was born that year, eighteen years younger than my oldest niece.
Within this context I attended Facing Race in Baltimore under the auspice of healing and equity as guiding themes of the workshops and keynotes.
Next week I head to Detroit where the conference is being hosted this year. I am calling to mind that initial context, and the new context of being in a professional and personal transition period.
I went with my sisters and niece and nephew to a vigil last weekend in acknowledgement of the victims of racism, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, and growing hate violence, and the backdrop it sets for midterm elections.
Sitting in the backseat in between two car seats I asked my nephew if he knew what a vigil was. Annoyed to be in the car he said no, not yet bought into the community space we were on our way to.
Earlier in the week I picked him up from school and we discussed our days. I mentioned that I had gone to physical therapy. In response he asked automatically, “did you go to the cemetery?”
He recalls that physical therapy is always preceded or followed by going to the cemetery for his aunt, whether or not he connects to the meaning it carries for me. I segue and bring that connection full circle as I describe a vigil in comparison to a funeral, wanting him to appreciate the tragedy of violence facilitating death and the sacredness of human life and commemoration of loss met with solidarity.
Like many of us, he is wrestling with how to meaningfully connect to the events of our world, his daily experiences and witnessed experiences, and the narration we provide in the moment.
I’m sitting with this tension as I’ve read recently posts describing the impact of childhood trauma and overused stress responses, and the advice to keep the news away from children. To give them less information instead of more.
I came home a few nights ago and my neighbor was in the hallway near my front door with her young son. He looked up at the journal in my hand and asked me what it was for. I described that I’d just come from a community meeting and I’d taken notes so I could remember things that were said. He accepts this answer and moves on to the topic of water bottles and school days, using his vantage point to enter into mine.
Fittingly the forum I’d just left referenced the relationship between forming connections with your neighbors and investing in alternative models of community accountability. And yet our connection wasn’t directly about the content, it was about the practice, and the visibility of using what we practice.
I’m remembering as I unlock my front door with my neighbor’s son watching me a time a few years ago when my nephew and I had had a fight about running into the hallway alone. He was three at the time, and furious that I had picked him up and corrected him.
He stayed quiet the entire drive to the library where I was leading a workshop that afternoon. As I pulled into a parking spot he looked up at me through my rearview mirror and said only, “You owe me an apology.”
I was quiet for a moment in receipt of his words before responding. “You’re right, I do owe you an apology. But I also need us to find ways to talk to each other about your safety, and to know that you hear me when I draw boundaries. I need you to help me think of different ways to talk to you.”
He responded to my words with his own quietness, and in the three years since we have practiced learning how to listen and talk to each other, sometimes more effectively than others. And yet this modeling of apologizing, of describing how something has made one or both of us feel, or giving him language for the work I do and its relevance to things he’s experiencing and witnessing, this has become one of our shared practices. I have been challenged to reconsider my perceptions of his capacity to understand and contribute, and held accountable for noting my contradictions and mistakes.
Two years ago, when this country elected 45, I was in Athens on my way to Facing Race in Atlanta. It was the first time I’d been back to Georgia since the year I graduated, the place I was in when I cast my first ballet eight years earlier. With conversations like the one above on my mind, I was sitting with how to narrate these decisions to the youth and children in my life, how to arm myself with more tools.
What I’ve learned from children then and since is that we can’t save them from information, and that they see everything. What we can do is make sure they have more information instead of less, more resources instead of less, more community foot holes instead of less, more visibility instead of less.
As we move into this midterm election, and as we continue to be confronted with how much contradiction is present in our values, I offer these tips for caregivers and organizers on how to consciously encourage increased participation and support of children and families.
1) Tell kids how you feel.
There are many studies that highlight how empathic kids are, especially in regards to reading the emotions of their caregivers. Given that developmentally children perceive people’s feelings as about them, not describing our feelings leaves room for internalizations in the form of shame and concern. Modeling how to name how you are feeling and what support you need introduces that skillset to children that becomes reciprocal.
2) If you’re not ready to share information with children, say that instead of anything else.
Children know when we are lying or holding back information. We need to be able to be transparent about our emotional boundaries, or our discomfort about a topic or our related subject matter.
3) Give bodies a voice.
Children are astute at tracking their physical responses, and can refine this mindfulness into age appropriate social scripts for empathy, body language, and setting boundaries. Helping children put words to nonverbal communication is a transferable skill for advocacy and self-advocacy, and a more concrete way to introduce children to harm and safety as related to our feelings and experiences.
4) Invest in children’s books that allow you to introduce hard conversations.
It is cumbersome to be competent in translation, even more so in ways that are accessible to kids. Take some of the pressure off and ask for help. It is out there, and it is a tool for adults and kids alike. It’s also a good reminder to be selective in the messages we are giving children.
5) Describe the impact children have on you and other children.
Children learn to see and account for impact when they are supported in recognizing their impact on others, and given opportunities to gain different skills and awareness. Don’t cut out those chances. Skills like apologizing, humility, support, privacy, and asking for help all must be demonstrated and modeled. Making harm real for kids is connected to how they perceive accountability for harm, prevention of harm, and what is required for genuinely healthy relationships.
6) In addition to providing child care, provide spaces that enable children to participate fully.
Whether this is related to the language we use, or the activities we plan, or how we prepare other participants to adjust their expectations, consider how accessible public spaces and actions are to children. This isn’t just for the benefit of kids, it is for the transformation of the whole space and culture — accessibility and participation go hand in hand, so start with questions of engagement.
7) Hear questions as chances to provide clarity, not a form of disobedience. Just answer them.
Taking a step back to hear someone’s words in addition to their delivery is a struggle, especially with children. And yet every interaction has a teachable component, explicitly or implicitly. Explicit teachable moments allow us to more consciously consider the messages we’re sending, the biases and assumptions that are surfacing, and the examples that are occurring in children’s lives.
8) Highlight for children your continued learning and mistakes.
Children are curious to hear how and where adults are learning, and offer valuable insight in how to respond to a situation or dilemma. Shared learning experiences allow you to provide feedback into each other’s perspectives, and information about separate experiences creates routines in which talking about how you feel and what you are struggling with is comfortable and regularly done.
9) Call the thing the thing.
However hard it is, however unflattering, however scary, call the thing the thing. Give kids the chance to name the violences and concepts they are witnessing. Not only because it’s a necessary step in their learning, but because it is tied to how trustworthy you are. We have to be credible, and that means we have to allow space for processing experiences and asking questions about them.
10) Don’t be the only messenger.
All information deserves to be tested and evaluated. Help children develop criteria for how to select messengers that they can trust, and additional information when they determine they need it.
I head to Detroit next week convicted in many ways, especially by a value I hold to be accountable to kids in my use of power. What that means to me now is different than what it meant to me ten years ago or even two years ago, but what I know and try to practice is the instinct to be transparent and responsive. When we approach children’s engagement in activism spaces with that in mind, we see and choose different things, and we gain an ability to see and name more power dynamics.
If you’re looking for how to find a foot hole to make politics personal, to authentically represent the state of our world, then don’t overthink, simplify. Look for entrance points instead of cover.
Either way, children are experiencing these moments and lessons with us, and they will come to their own decisions about what it all means. If you include their perceptions in your perspective, you will see biases in yourself that sadden you. And, you may just see accountability a little more practically too.