Learning from Strong Families

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

By Aimee Santos-Lyons, Western States Center

A couple of weeks ago, amidst all the Occupy protests and electoral organizing that's happening, I helped lead a gathering for Strong Families Northwest. We brought together 20 folks from 4 organizations who work with vulnerable families in the state of Washington. We talked in depth about how many of their families are consistently thrown under the bus and about the system that's been set-up to do all the throwing. Leading these conversations was incredibly hard. I think whenever you bring folks together and ask about their families, you're asking people to dig deep into complex and often painful stuff. However, out of these stories of struggle and even tragedy, I came away with gifts of startling insight that has transformed the way I'm going to do my organizing.

Lesson One: To know someone is to ask who they call their family.
Everyone has a story to share about their families. At the convening, I heard painful stories, emotion evident in the way their voices cracked or barely went above a whisper or how their shoulders stooped. Zora Neale Hurston says that the deepest agony is a story untold. When who you are and the family who helped shape you are barely recognized, the overwhelming message is that you and your family don't matter. I can see how that message radiates and is reinforced strongly across different social institutions - public agencies, schools, churches, prisons, corporations, media.

There was a powerful moment of recognition as folks revealed and offered up pieces of themselves. They had walked into the room strangers to one another, and somehow by talking about their children, their parents, their friends and loved ones they saw, in the words of Nadine, "a little bit of myself in each and every one of you." That moment of recognition was friggin hard to get to - because we had all learned and internalized years of racist, sexist and homophobic programming that we were all trying to un-learn together. But when it came, it felt hard-earned and authentic. Like a chosen family coming together to say yeah we'll stick by you.  Yeah we have shared fates and in the end, our freedom rests on yours as well.

Lesson Two: To make families strong, we'll need to engage every muscle, every memory, and every heart string we have.
There was one brief moment during the convening when I lost it. I felt the deep desolation of story after story of children of color and queer youth being lost to institutions. I absorbed the despair of immigrant mothers and mothers with addictions who lost their children to the punishing and hostile systems that bear down on them. I should have anticipated this and prepared myself but I didn't. So I got triggered. Without meaning to I remembered my own experience and terror at the prospect of losing custody of my child to my abusive ex-husband ten years ago. What would I have done in their place? How could I have overcome all those hurdles and a system that looks at me and sees a brown immigrant woman with no citizenship rights to defend her? The truth is though, I didn't have to. I have a range of privileges that buffered me from the most devastating impacts of domestic violence. Other women are not so fortunate.

And that's really how I recovered from that moment of panic. First, because their strength and courage inspired me. These women were amazing. They didn't take their circumstances lying down...they resisted, they fought the system and for some, won their children back. And most importantly, their life's work is now about making sure it doesn't happen to another parent again. But most striking of all, the care and compassion they demonstrated to everyone, despite life events that would have made me a righteous angry organizer helped me shift my attitude. It made me realize that the way to win over these attacks on our family is to show them how a family works and how we ought to treat one another.

Lesson Three: The work is both one at a time and all together.

The vision that we all shared as people working with vulnerable families seems simple enough: a world where all people have dignity, self-determination and respect; where all families are recognized, have rights that are equally protected and given resources that would help them all thrive. I would want this for anyone, not just for myself and my family. But when I think about the layers of existing policies and practices that peel away from this vision, it's hard to imagine where we should start to begin re-building and re-directing how families are talked about and treated.

It feels like there's a roadmap embedded within the complicated and scary stories that illustrate how certain families are ignored, minimized and/or brutalized. And when I say certain families I mean the families who're deeply stigmatized in American society because of who they are, what they look like, where they're from, and who they love and form families with - families of color, immigrant and refugee families, LGBT families, young mothers and fathers, low-income ones, families with members who have addictions or incarcerations. But the sheer number of stories can be overwhelming. Where do we start first? How high up do we start to rail against the system.

But as I observed within one exercise the different leaders take turns at executing bold action and leadership, I realized that even as we work to solve and eliminate each glaring social injustice at the Children's Protective Services, within ICE, in our schools or in the economy we also have to understand that a piece of the work is above and beyond our individual agendas and targets. That the cultural conversation about how we define families and parcel out our support and protections, is the big hairy beast that we also need to tackle together, each of us holding one piece of the puzzle.

I can already anticipate that there will be times when we'll want to start jumping up and down, saying “Me! Me! Me! Look at my piece of the puzzle first!” because someone in power is going to say there's only enough for one or two pieces. But when that time comes, I'm going to dig deep into my reservoir of strength and summon this moment and sensation of friendship and solidarity, when we stood together in a room and saw ourselves as allies and remind ourselves that we cannot get there without each other. And that it will take a big loud rebel yell from all of us screaming at the top of our lungs with backs straight and eyes steely-gazed that we're going to be able to bring the whole thing down and turn it around. For the sake of my family, your family and countless more.

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