The weekend of the Inauguration, millions took to the streets in cities all over this nation and all over the world. It was a show of resistance to the looming threat of tyranny. We needed to reassure ourselves that this country’s great experiment in democracy has a fighting chance to survive what has quickly shown itself to be an unconstitutional, authoritarian regime.
As social media exploded with gorgeous images of massive crowds and witty slogans, one that moved me showed a baby, not yet two years old, proudly holding her own crayon-scribbled sign above her head as she sat atop her father’s shoulders. The look of resolve on her chubby little face says, “Go ahead and try messing with me and my rights! I dare you.”
Okay, perhaps I’m reading a tad bit into this. It is possible that this child simply wanted to feel included, a “big girl” with a sign of her own at an exciting event that she had zero agency in attending. The child’s mother, in an interview, explained that they had been making signs as a family. As she was speaking to her older child about the significance of the march and why they were making signs in the first place, they turned around to see the baby diligently working on her own piece of cardboard, there at the coffee table.
I found this photo so moving not just because it was an adorable indulgence by the parents of a toddler playing “protest,” but because this child, like so many children and adults alike, was attending her first act of public witness. Instead of calling a babysitter, these parents deemed it important to include their children in civic engagement and to show them the power of their individual and of our collective voice. The photo and the story connected to it embody the common desire of many UU parents to raise civically engaged social justice fighters. We may not all share the same priorities in our justice-seeking, but I have yet to meet any UU parents or guardians who didn’t wish to instill in their kids the understanding that we each have a responsibility for one another and for leaving this world a little better than we found it. I am proud to be a part of a faith tradition that holds this value as central to our religious movement.
A lifelong UU myself, I am ever-grateful to my mom for teaching me these lessons. I spent most of my childhood in Odessa, a mid-sized oil town in West Texas. Not everything is big in Texas—our community seemed to be characterized by small minds and closed hearts. You can imagine the situation of progressives who live in Odessa and places like it. On the one hand, they have learned it is both figuratively and literally safer to keep one's head down and mouth closed as protection against the bigotry. One must to know how to choose one’s battles. Yet, in their own way, many progressives in such towns are brave, staunch, and strident in their resistance.
During our childhood, my mom was such a woman. Every year we could, we were one of the few (if not the only) non-black families walking in the annual small-but-mighty Martin Luther King, Jr. Day march. I remember the looks we would get! Looks of surprise from fellow marchers and looks of scorn from passing drivers taught me a lesson in courage that I still carry. The faces of white & Latinx people seemed to say "N-lover!" "Race traitor!" "Why are you wasting your time?! What have they ever done for ever done for you?!" They seemed to judge my mother with the question that surely springs into the mind of any parent who chooses to teach a resistance lesson, "What kind of parent would bring their child to such an event?!"
I couldn’t articulate this at the time, but I now believe the surprise on the faces of the forty-or-so black marchers was shock that my Latinx family had joined the march, belonging as we apparently did to a people whom black people were conditioned to understand as another enemy, ready to fight them over the crumbs which fell from the table of white supremacy. No one was necessarily thanking us for showing up, even if they did so with their words. We were looked at with justifiable suspicion, so showing up with the expectation of a pat on the back upon arrival and leaving with warm-fuzzy feelings could not be the motivation. My mother taught us that none of us could be free until all of us are free; I learned that we have skin in this game, too. This understanding sits at the core of my Unitarian Universalist theology.
I also remember that whenever we would find a small band (and yes, it was always small) of Chicanx protestors picketing outside the courthouse, it didn’t matter where we were going or how little money we had. My mother would pull a U-turn, have one of us run into a 7/11 and grab a 12-pack of cold sodas, and quickly drive back to the protest site to offer refreshment to those out in the heat. As many kids are by their parents, I was mortified. I would ask, “But, Mom! You don’t even know what they are protesting! What if you don’t even agree with it? Shouldn’t you take the time to figure out the issue before driving all crazy and getting so excited?” Her answer was always the same, “No! When you see Chicanos [subtext: in a town like this] picketing in the sun, you take them cold drinks! We don’t need to know what they are protesting, because they are Raza! That’s all we need to know!”
Now that I’m an adult, my mother’s lesson in solidarity resonates with me. If marginalized people are telling you that things aren’t hunky-dory, things are not hunky-dory! We must take the story-tellers at their word. Believe that they know more about their experience than we do. We must listen. Offer practical support, even if our role is not glamorous, even if we may not be thanked.
As we bring our children to the front lines of resistance, these are the lessons they will absorb. For Unitarian Universalist families, actions that say “no” to authoritarianism and “yes” to justice can be a religious practice, one that can—indeed, must—include our children. Kids of all ages will be asking questions of their “village” of elders. They will watch how we respond to flagrant injustices. They will wonder what role is theirs.
Luckily, Unitarian Universalists have great resources and shared ideas at the ready to guide parents in these conversations and actions. The Standing on the Side of Love Campaign’s 30 Days of Love activities calendar is filled with family activities to do at home and in your community that will get the conversations going and bring the fun into learning the fundamentals of sustained, spirit-led organizing on any day of the year!
Below are more ideas for where to go for help and ideas for doing, talking, and living social justice with your kiddos:
- #1 resource: Talk to your congregation’s professional religious educator. If they don’t have an answer, they will know where to look!
- Schedule a conversation with your minister to better discover and articulate your theological grounding in the work of resistance and how you might include your children in age-appropriate ways.
- Find thoughtful readings and engaging activities on the Family Quest webpages, the virtual religious education program of the UUA’s Church of the Larger Fellowship.
- Check out this June, 2016 article on the Edutopia website by Jinnie Spiegler, Director of Curriculum for the Anti-Defamation League: “Teaching Young Children about Bias, Diversity, and Social Justice”
- On YouTube, watch a video made by an interracial couple who parent and minister together: “Talking to Your Kids About Injustice” (YouTube)
- Teaching for Change has curated (and sells) multicultural and social justice books for children, educators, and parents.
- Check out these books for parents: Raising an Emotionally Intelligent Child: The Heart of Parenting, by John Gottman with Joan Declaire and Parenting for Social Change by Teresa Graham Brett.
- Get the back story on the homemade protest sign the toddler is holding in the photo, above: "This #WokeBaby Made Her Own Adorable Sign for the Women's March," by Elyse Wanshel on the Huffington Post website.