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On Saturday, June 4th, 26 people from many different walks of life, aged 3 to 73, came together and took a risk. None of us – myself included, and I was the facilitator! – knew exactly what we were getting into. All we knew was that we must stand up together and insist that we are worth more.
We Are Worth More has a simple, but ambitious aim: to provide space for caregivers – parents, elder caregivers, therapists, teachers, social service providers, nannies, mentors, or anyone who looks out for the needs of others – to get together and network. We shared a delicious hot meal – caregivers need to be cared for, too! – and we celebrated our incredible value, because boosting our sense of self-worth helps us to grow as advocates, and to confront a system that largely ignores our worth.
Sharing intergenerational wisdom - we all have things to teach each other!
A society that does not care for caregivers is a society in danger – and danger is rampant here in Illinois, which is now going on year two with no state budget, and ranks 50th in the nation for fiscal health. Mary, a home health nurse who has decided to move to Florida, told us about the children she cares for, some of whom are forced to live without medicine that their families can't afford. Anna and Angie reported exhausting battles with school administrations who claim that their children with disabilities no longer qualify for special services. Amineh, a child care professional who works with children while their parents take English classes, explained that adult education is disintegrating in Illinois, and by the end of the month, so will her job. Sonya, a developmental therapist, talked about countless social service agencies that will close, or already have closed their doors. And Aidan and Blake lamented that when they bring up racism, police violence, and our crisis in education, many of their high school classmates simply don’t want to hear it. But once a conversation about justice is sparked, it’s very hard to stop it. It certainly was hard to stop talking at our event! We understand that our survival depends on our ability to gather collectively, and to speak to these challenges.
From the We Are Worth More photo booth!
At the start of the afternoon, I challenged everyone to keep an open mind. “Consider that everyone here has something to teach you. You may know things they don’t. They may lead a life that looks very different from yours. But I challenge you to see every person you encounter today as a mirror. What do they have to show you about yourself?” Then we loosened up and learned each other’s names with an invisible ball game called “Pass the Power.” And since mingling is a surefire way to energize a room, I asked people to reach out across the circle and start a conversation with someone they had never met before. I asked, “Who do you care for, or what do you really care about?” The room was abuzz with passionate responses. The next set of questions took us deeper: “Who cares for you? Are your needs being met – and if not, what do you need?”
Historically, economic thinkers from Adam Smith to Karl Marx have fixated on “productive work,” and dismissed caregiving as “reproductive work.” But advocates for a caring economy, like Ai-Jen Poo and Riane Eisler, argue that household work, family care and education are the very foundations of our society – the work that makes all other work possible. $1 invested in early childhood care and education may reap up to $17 in returns – so why do we struggle, generation after generation, to secure quality programs for parents and children? And why do we accept the fact that there are twice as many elderly women living in poverty as elderly men, knowing as we do that women are more likely to spend years caring for relatives, working with no paycheck and no social security?
Brainstorming! We spend so much time thinking about how to survive... it's important to take time to dream about how we can thrive.
After we mingled, I shared a slideshow with some jaw-dropping statistics. It’s easy to buy the dominant narrative that our government is broke, when we ourselves are struggling. But, to borrow from a popular Chicago Teachers Union hashtag, we could, in fact, be #brokeonpurpose! Here in Illinois, while countless families are barely scraping by, our richest resident, and Governor Rauner’s biggest donor, Citadel CEO Ken Griffin, enjoyed a $16 million tax break, thanks to the new flat tax. And on an international level, the USA looks pitiful indeed – we’re the only developed country in the world with no mandated paid family leave. We spend less than half on childcare and early education than any other developed nation. There is no nation in this world that comes anywhere close to our military spending – but in 2015, a whopping 54% of our federal budget went towards the military, plus an additional 6% for veterans’ benefits. Only 6% went towards health, and 6% towards education.
To borrow the vocabulary of one popular presidential candidate, could our economy be rigged against caring? In her book The Real Wealth of Nations, Riane Eisler wrote that “the devaluation of caregiving is our inheritance from times in which women’s bodies and women’s work were male property... [and] women, and anything associated with women, were basically invisible in economic thinking.” But people of all genders can, and do, care. Would more men enter caring professions, or stay home with their families, if this work paid more? Research shows that involved fathers live longer, have fewer health problems, and are more productive at work. And family-friendly policies like paid leave create more loyal employees, cut costs to employers, and stimulate the economy. As Riane Eisler would say, we have to stop arguing about capitalism versus socialism, left wing versus right wing, or patriarchy versus matriarchy. The true measure of a society's health is whether that society accepts systems of domination, or strives for systems of partnership. Many folks who came on Saturday told me that places that should feel welcoming, like a nursing home or their local school, follow policies that make them feel dominated. They talked about places where they feel respected and heard – homes, community centers, places of worship, and our workshop – as places of partnership.
The owner of a local restaurant, Semiramis, delivered our lunch of chicken kabobs, rice, homemade hummus, pita, and fattoush. As the delicious smells wafted through the room, I asked participants to take one more risk: I asked them to brag! “We know we’re good people – but when we struggle to get by, it’s easy to lose confidence. When society, and the economy, ignores our worth, sometimes we can forget our own incredible value, whether we realize that consciously or not. Caring's not glamorized, is it? So now is your chance to tell someone something amazing about you. Pair up and brag; then write down your amazing quality on one of our posters; and help yourself to lunch!”
After some time to settle in with lunch and enjoy spontaneous conversation, we looked at another slide show with good news: various grassroots organizations working for families and communities, from Logan Square Neighborhood Association (LSNA) to Domestic Workers Alliance to Mothers Against Senseless Killings (MASK) to Community Organizing for Family Issues (COFI) – our allies in the movement towards a partnership society.
Then we shared a dessert from the heart: we passed a box of Hershey’s kisses around a circle, decorated with the message You are Amazing - We are More Powerful than we Know. Each of us thanked the next person for coming, for taking care of others, and for taking care of themselves. We gazed around the room, catching each other’s eyes, smiling, remembering that everyone has something to teach us. Though we have our personal concerns, and our local issues, we must remember that standing up for others is standing up for ourselves. As COFI parent advocate Rosazlia Grillier said, “Sometimes folks are working on the same thing but in separate silos, and that makes it less effective. But I think people are starting to wrap their head around the concept that we can accomplish more together than we can separately.”
A slide from the presentation
Everyone went home with a list of organizations – large and small, national and local – of people already on the ground working for justice. I also sent folks home with an invitation to spark up their own conversations with their friends and families. The invitation included a few provocative questions to get people talking, and links to organizations that offer toolkits and support to budding conversation facilitators – the international Caring Economy Advocates Program, and On the Table, a local movement to foster civic engagement in Chicago.
And we got a wonderful surprise – Blake, a 16-year-old young man, offered to sing us a song. “You are… so beautiful… to me…” Two overworked, under-appreciated mothers turned to each other, their faces streaming with tears, and they magnetized to one other in an enormous hug.
We have another event coming up on June 28th, and we hope to have many more after that. In the true spirit of popular education – education by the people, for the people – our participant feedback was not a survey on paper, but a closing dialogue – What did you learn? What did you teach? What was missing from today's event? The takeaways:
Words of wisdom - from a series of personal interviews I did to prepare for the event
Providing free, nourishing food is a symbolic act of caring for caregivers. Many people also felt nourished by the social connections they made. A few generous donors contributed towards lunch, and the rest, I put on my credit card, because I have faith in this work. I’m willing to take a risk to try and fund it until it catches on. In a world where we’re struggling to survive, we need funding to continue to bring isolated families and groups together to take an honest look at our differences and our similarities, and to amplify our voices. I’d love to get paid for this hard, but exhilarating work – and even better, I’d love to pay other caregivers to start conversations of their own, to build bridges across our city and state, and to step up, speak out, and show the world what solidarity looks like. Most of us caregivers have never been in the army, and never carried a union card - but oh, what a world it will be when we truly unite, and mobilize our ranks to insist once and for all that we deserve security!
Join us for the next round of
WE ARE WORTH MORE
NOSOTROS VALEMOS MÁS
(There will be similar themes next time, but no two events will be exactly the same! Previous attendees welcome to return!)
Dinner: Tuesday, June 28th, 5 - 7:30 pm, Albany Park Library, 3401 W. Foster Ave, Chicago IL 60625.
Social media lovers: check out and share the bilingual Facebook invite.
For more about my work as a writer / teacher / mama / developmental therapist / infant massage instructor / organizer for families,
please check out my website, Power to the Parents.
For more about what sparked this work, check out my article
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