Caregivers do crucial, complicated, artful work. We give and protect life. We cultivate human potential. And the decisions we make on a daily basis are, quite literally, choices about how to evolve our species. So why do so many of us feel isolated, overworked, judged, unappreciated, depleted, or downright invisible? Over the course of two events in June of 2016, I recruited almost 50 people from many different walks of life, aged 3 to 73, to come together, take a risk, and talk to strangers about why our life-giving work is so devalued – and what we can do to reclaim our voices, our worth, and our world.
We Are Worth More began with 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 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 personal self-worth helps us to grow as advocates, and to take on a system that largely ignores our worth.
A society that doesn’t care for caregivers is a society in danger – and danger is rampant in our home state of 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 events! We understand that our survival depends on our ability to gather collectively, and to speak to these challenges.
At the start of the event, I challenged everyone to keep an open mind. “Consider that everyone here has something that you can learn from. 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 can they 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, 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, thinkers from Adam Smith to Karl Marx have fixated on “productive work,” dismissed caregiving as “reproductive work,” and written it out of our economy. But advocates for care, like Ai-Jen Poo, founder of the National Domestic Workers’ Alliance, and Riane Eisler, founder of The Caring Economy Campaign, 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?
At each event, 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 slogan, we could, in fact, be “broke on purpose!” Here in Illinois, while countless families are barely scraping by, our richest resident, Citadel CEO Ken Griffin, enjoyed a $16 million tax break, thanks to the new flat tax which taxes the ultra wealthy and ordinary citizens at the same rate. 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.
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 to the events told us that places that should feel welcoming, like a nursing home or their local school, follow policies that make them feel dominated. They described places where they feel respected and heard – homes, community centers, and our workshop – as places of partnership.
At each event, the owner of a local restaurant, Semiramis, delivered our meal 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 some food!”
After some time to settle in with our meal 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 the National 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.
At our second event, Mecole Jordan, a community organizer who fights the criminalization of poverty, got up and gave us a rousing talk about how to overcome our nervousness and talk to our lawmakers. "Just remember this: You are a public servant, and I pay your salary!”
After our meal, 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 taking a stand for others is taking a stand 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.
At the end of our first event, we got a 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.
Quotes from one-to-one & roundtable interviews with caregivers, conducted before the events
In the spirit of popular education - education by the people, for the people - we did participant feedback not only as surveys on paper, but as closing dialogue - What did you learn? What did you teach? What was missing from today's event?
*It was great to mix things up, interact, and listen to people who we might normally never meet. Different as we are, we're far from alone in our struggles.
*Humans aren't statistics - but looking at statistics gives us perspective. We realize that there's plenty of money out there - it's just being hoarded by a small segment of the population.
* Some people want more specific workshops: for example, on how to advocate for children with special needs. We'd love to have the budget to pay honorariums, so we can invite more busy, seasoned advocates out to network with us and share their skills.
*We're tired. Really tired. As civil rights leader Fannie Lou Hamer said, "I'm sick and tired of being sick and tired!" If the shift from domination to partnership is, as they say, a movement, not a moment, we need to find ways to sustain ourselves emotionally and financially, so we don't lose momentum. Teach-ins, rallies, and events are important - but only if their spirit carries on, reverberating into our daily lives. When we show up for advocacy trainings where we receive lectures about political problems and how to fight them, we often go home feeling lonely and overwhelmed. But at events that encourage us to push outside our comfort zones, introduce ourselves to new people, and mingle before we problem-solve, we leave feeling lively, hopeful, sustained by our new connections - and more likely to continue the fight.
HOW CAN WE KEEP OUR VOICES REVERBERATING?
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 food, and the rest, I put on my credit card, because I have faith in this work and 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, to amplify our voices, and to continue to generate solutions for a world based on partnership, rather than a world based on domination.
I’d love to get more financial sustenance to keep this hard, but exhilarating work going – including funding to pay other caregivers to host their own events, to interview one another and share their findings in blogs and social media, to practice public speaking about the issues that matter, and to build more bridges. 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 unite, and mobilize our ranks to insist once and for all that we deserve security!
Two dragons making a heart with their fire, Delfa, 2014
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Questions? Comments? Suggestions? Want to talk about collaborating?
Contact Kate: email@example.com
JOIN US ONLINE Saturday, October 22nd!
Power to the Parents: Reclaiming our Voices, Our Worth, and Our World
10am-12 noon Pacific
Parents and caregivers do crucial, complicated, artful work. We give and protect life. We cultivate human potential. And the decisions we make on a daily basis are, quite literally, choices about how to evolve our species. So why do so many of us feel isolated, overworked, judged, unappreciated, depleted, or downright invisible? In this interactive webinar, we who give so much will slow down, and open to receiving. We’ll call back some of the scattered pieces of ourselves, and investigate our true worth. We’ll learn about historical legacies of domination and discrimination that wrote caregiving out of our economy and erased it from public life, and we’ll share strategies for building a society that values nurturing and thrives on partnership.
You’ll connect with parents and advocates from around the world, and share links to exciting caregiver movements and collaborations that you can follow as they grow. You will practice speaking your voice, articulating your value, and asking for what you need – from yourself, your community, and your world.
Registrants will receive:
· Access to the interactive, live 2-hour online program with Kate O’Rourke
· A recording of the live session to replay
· A resource list with links to caregiver movements and organizations that support and empower parents
· Caring Economy Fast Fact Sheets for Caregivers