This is by way no means a full analysis on the the role that children can play in social justice spaces, but more of a reflection of my experience as a parent in a very specific instance.
This instance, being Facing Race. Over a year ago, I was bowling with my sister and friend, Leslie Grant-Spann and our small children. Malayia then 7 years old, Gibran then 7 as well, Anayansi, 4 and Baby J, then 1. We were talking about the Facing Race conference that Leslie organizes, and the topic of childcare came up.
The reflections were that while childcare is usually good and adequate, our children do not find it very exciting and do not like the childcare spaces. And this was not just at this national conference, it was at most meetings, gatherings, etc. We both thought that it was because our children are too much. Too much meaning that they have literally grown up since in-utero at convening, boring meetings, marches, demonstrations, film screenings, radio shows, television shows, etc. And had navigated knowing when they should be quiet, when they could talk with others, etc. So the thought of childcare since they have been about 5 years of age, has been something that they have both (in this case, Malayia and Gibran) with a healthy sense of authority and clarity, declined.
Did I say that they have grown up in this? oh yes, lets add that they also have lived experiences in issues that their parents talk about all the time. For starters they live in the Bronx, where three of the four parents have lived for decades and have been active, very active and vocal about making sure the Bronx is defended, centered and organized around issues of teenage pregnancy, immigration, gentrification, economic rights, sexual and reproductive justice, etc. etc. Their community aunties and uncles work in organizations that again defend the rights of people in the borough, and going in and out of organizing spaces, is also like going to the park.
Also important to note they are great and excellent friends. They spend a lot of time together, never get into any arguments or fights (and if they do, I guess they know how to resolve it because I personally have never heard a complaint), they have gone out of town with each others family, sleepovers, etc.
When they were presented with the opportunity to present.... both of them said an easy YES! and I remember the conversation like it was yesterday
Janvieve/Leslie: What about you all present at the conference?
Malayia: Gibran this is going to be so much fun!
Gibran: When is it?
Leslie: Next year.
Malayia: That's so long!
And then the months flew by and September rolled around and we started planning this workshop.
I thought about how this could be done, where the children were fully centered. We knew the topic was going to be around immigration and incarceration, because they both though about that. What I recall is:
Children had to interview family members about what their stories were. From the interviews, I was able to get a draft script, which then the children had full say in. This process was fun, because not only did the children get to learn new things, but the parents also found out facts about their parents that they just did not know.
From the draft stories, agenda was born, and then re-done. Parents developed a draft agenda that was presented to the children during a family breakfast after a sleepover at one of our houses. The children both agreed that the workshop was going to be boring and too much talking. Thats what they do not like about adult workshops, it is not fun and one person talks too much. They were clear that they were not going to be like that. They determined where they wanted to engage their participants, add arts and crafts and add added a dance party. We had allies that were generous in their sharing for the arts and crafts portion, through hand made drawings, and other ideas.
Boundaries were set and clear. Children stated that there were not going to be any adults in the room unless they were a parent, and children under 4 could not participate. While they love babies, they did not think babies were going to let them or other participants focus. Parents had to sit on chairs at the back or wait outside. They were going to let adults in after the workshop so they could join the dance party. (And parents/adults did!)
Research, Research, Research, Scrap. Parents found online clips that they could show for children to learn more about the issues of immigration and incarceration, but the children were not feeling them, and thus we had to do more work to find other options. The children were not sold on any of the over 15 videos that we found online, and they chose not to show any of them.
Keep in mind all ability levels. The older children, Malayia (8) and Gibran (7), know how to read and write and were going to scribe some definitions. Anayansi (5), reminded them that not all the participants know how to read and write and said that she would draw on the wall whatever they needed to explain. Anayansi was the workshops Graphic Notetaker!
Practice, Practice, Practice. The children were not prompted much to practice. In the case of Gibran, I did notice that he was willing to read out his script on demand to family members and friends (something that he does not do in general). Malayia had a rehearsal sleep over and the children practiced and did run through's a few times. They had a full rehearsal the night before.
Trust and believe. They had fun, they did a great job and they are excited to do more. As we watched, all the adults in the room were in tears. Did I say all? YES! ALL! There was a pre-k teacher in the room whose mascara had run. She could not believe that children had delivered such a powerful workshop. Leslie and I were holding hands crying, like thick watery tears, and Omar and Jamal were teary eyed and looking proud. The children participants also participated and gave testimony about their lived stories and experiences. It was healthy to have children, their stories and lived experiences acknowledged.
We have been receiving emails inviting the children to present. While this is great, as parents we do need to remind folks that they are children and are in school. But we are open to having conversations about how we can make this intentional within your organization and events. As parents, we did put in a LOT OF WORK to make this a powerful experience for the children and we are willing to replicate it, but not as a stand alone action that does not reflect the need for children to be included as integral participants in dialogues and actions.