Mamas Day 2014: Mothering Through Climate Chaos

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

This Mamas Day 2014 piece by Michelle Mascarenhas-Swan is cross-posted from the Movement Strategy Center's "Let's Talk: At the Heart of Movement Building" blog. 

Michelle Mascarenhas-Swan
Our kids love it when we tell good stories. Throughout time, we mamas have imparted wisdom and values through storytelling. Like all humans, mamas are narrative creatures.

But many of us have lost the art of storytelling, forgotten the values and wisdom of our ancestors. Our kids hear their stories from mainstream media, often closing their minds to the possibilities of another world—or as the Zapatistas say, a world of many worlds. So we try to find good books for our kids—stories that depict our girls as the agents of change, images that show the real diversity of our families, teach the morals of taking care of each other.

As I struggle to impart a coherent vision and set of values to my kids, storytelling has become an essential practice. On my mind every day is Grace Lee Boggs’ question “What time is it on the clock of the world?” After centuries of an extractive economy taking its toll, I’m clear that the world our kids are inheriting will look very different than the one I was raised for.

My parents raised me and my sisters to work hard and play by the rules. This was their best strategy to teach us to survive—at the least to get by and ideally to get ahead. These values were reinforced by the stories I saw on TV while my parents were at work. These values were supposed to help us land good jobs, settle down in our own houses, have security in old age—all things that seemed within reach at that point.

But that world is not the world my kids will inherit. The basis of the economy—the natural world—has been disrupted to the point that we cannot depend even on the stability of the climate.

The values of working hard and playing by the rules won’t equip my daughters for a world of instability and transition. What my kids need are a different set of skills and values, a way of moving in the world, that will help them navigate the shocks and slides ahead, to carve out lives of purpose, achievement, and happiness that all parents wish for their children.

For the future ahead I am parenting my children to:
  • Trust their instincts and each other in the moment; take the time to reflect and learn from mistakes, communicate lovingly and fearlessly to grow beloved community.
  • Respond to the changes and challenges ahead in ways that seize the moment to win the kinds of systemic transformation needed.
  • Restore ancestral ways of taking care of one another, holding each other through good times and bad, using what we have around us to meet our needs, and holding sacred all that which holds us.
So the stories I tell my girls are of sheroes who work as part of larger groups (that may include animals, fairies, and elves) to cultivate their resilience and resistance: farmers who practice martial arts, artists who are also scientists, former princesses turned rebels working with the underground trading society to redistribute the wealth stolen from the people.

It’s clear that in the next period of human history, playing by the rules will not protect our children from the challenges they will face. Even knowing this, I still feel afraid, still worry that I’m putting too much of the weight of this crumbling world on their little shoulders.

As I head to a police brutality speak-out with my six- and nine-year-old daughters, I question myself: How will they feel as mothers from East and West Oakland share pictures of their dark-skinned boys killed by police? How will anger or fear of the police play out for them? Will it keep them safe? Will it help keep others safe? Will it change or reinforce the racial stereotypes of black men as criminals? Sometimes I can barely sleep as these questions scroll through my mind. But I am more afraid—deeply afraid—of shielding them from what is coming—leaving them stunned and unable to act as crises hit.

I recently shared the post-disaster stories of Rebecca Solnit’s A Paradise Built in Hell with my daughters. Solnit tells how during 9/11, one World Trade Center office worker walked down 44 flights of stairs after being told to go back up to his office by a man in a uniform with a megaphone saying everything was fine. Minutes later, the elevator shaft was filled with jet fuel and everyone in it died in the explosion.

Photo by Shadia Fayne Wood
She tells how during the Tsunami in Japan in 2012, some teachers kept their kids in their classrooms under instructions from school administrators. A few took their kids out of the school to higher ground, saving their lives. In times like these, the courage of people to use their own agency to act boldly and courageously meant the difference between life and death.

Solnit shows us that in case after case, when disasters strike, the authorities—driven to keep things “normal”—give horribly bad instructions. And, regular people step up to do whatever needs to get done—acting with what they have: their hearts and their hands.

My kids describe my job as “saving the world” and I don’t shield them from all of what I know is happening: extinction of languages, cultures, and species; oceans dying; severe drought in the Southwest U.S. where my family lives and massive flooding in the UK where their dad’s family lives; toxins in our air, water, and soil making people sick; massive industrial “accidents” happening all the time destroying this community or that one.

Even before we understood how human activity was disrupting the planet’s climate and other systems, I could have told them stories of how this economy had ripped our family apart. From the lush tropical land and rich coastline of Goa where my grandmother was born, my family migrated to the other five of six continents. Driven into the global economy, my family were tobacco merchants in Africa in the early 1900s, oil company workers on the Arabian Peninsula mid-century, and more recently, white collar workers for the corporations making and selling the ever-expanding basket of stuff we never knew we needed. I know that our our ancestors’ labor was an essential “fuel” for the extractive economy.

Now, I’m teaching my kids how to put their own labor into an economy for life. This means getting together instead of getting ahead. It means buen vivir—living well. In practice this means we have tried to set up our daily lives to reflect these values. We have after-school co-ops where parents share child-care (and child-rearing) while the kids grow up together—mutually learning about their boundaries and strengths as part of a larger group.

Our kids take martial arts together, learn how to grow food, cook together, and create their own ritual and ceremony. We grown-ups have each other’s backs when we have to work late, when a marriage is on the rocks, when someone is ill, when someone needs a place to stay. We share conversation and laughter over collective meals and our kids know what it feels like to be truly seen and heard for their beautiful selves. These are small acts that will not topple a corrupt economic system that is destroying the planet. But they build the tools for embodying the world we must create.

Over time, our families will be positioned to more easily take bolder, collective actions to confront and replace a system that makes us poor and breaks our hearts.

My friend Max has a tattoo on his arm that says, “What the hands do the heart learns.”

Our work and our stories will equip our children to love the world they are creating—a world where people act courageously to defy the old rules and instead, fight for a just transition to an economy for life.

Michelle Mascarenhas-Swan is a collective member of the Movement Generation Justice & Ecology Project and Co-Director of the Our Power Campaign. Since 2007, MG has been helping to bridge the divide between the scale of the ecological crisis and our movement strategies. As a collective member, Michelle leads trainings, facilitates strategy sessions, and works with other groups to carry out local and national campaigns. Michelle co-led the founding and launch of the Our Power Campaign which brings together nearly 40 organizations and alliances rooted in frontline communities across the U.S. to foster a just transition to local, living economies. Michelle brings over a decade of experience in organizing for just food systems as the founding director of the Center for Food and Justice and a Kellogg Food and Society Policy Fellow. She was one of the early initiators of the Farm to School movement in the U.S. helping to start the first Farmers’ Market Salad Bar at McKinley Elementary School in Santa Monica in 1997. Michelle loves to build the soil and work in the garden.


  1. I am the proud father of Michelle, who left behind her designer labeled lifestyle to co-join movements to cherish our natural and national landscape, co-joined with like minded people, all over the world, so that all living beings can flourish with a clean and healthful environment.
    joseph mascarenhas