Mothering Justice "Mamas' Agenda" addresses childcare and early childhood education

Danielle Atkinson

A grassroots policy advocacy organization, Mothering Justice provides mothers of color in America with resources and tools to make equitable policy changes. One of its agenda items is early childhood education. To achieve equity in and access to early childhood education, Mothering Justice works to “decrease the income gap of early educators and caregivers and build childcare policies that fully support every Michigan family.”

Early Education Matters recently spoke with Danielle Atkinson, national executive director and founder of Mothering Justice.

Q. What is the work of Mothering Justice?

A.  We work on issues of financial stability and leadership development for mothers of color. We really believe that given access to information and understanding of the system, mothers of color can be a powerful force in progressive policy change on behalf of all families because we know that they disproportionately are affected and impacted by policy in this country.
We do that a few different ways. One, we work on policy. We have a Mamas’ Agenda that was cultivated through a participatory process with our moms. They basically told us what is affecting their financial stability. We've won on several of those issues, including paid leave and minimum wage. We also have leadership development. If they want to run for office, we've got a fellowship for that. If they want to do civic engagement, we have that fellowship. If they consider themselves an ally, we've got a fellowship for that.

We also do voter engagement. It's really important to us that we are holding our elected officials accountable and that starts with elections. So, we are constantly talking to candidates about our issues and asking them to take a strong stance on the principles around our policies. It’s not good enough to say you’re for childcare. You need folks that are for affordable care and good wage policies.

And we do family friendly advocacy, making sure that all that we do is accessible to families and children. If we don't have a welcoming space, folks are not able to participate. And that impacts how our policies are framed and done.

Marygrove Early Education Center in Detroit.

Q. Why is it important that we have affordable, culturally relevant, quality childcare environments for Southeast Michigan's children?

A. Brain science has been telling us what the indigenous community came to as an analysis long ago. Zero to three is such a critical time for brain development. That's also the time when we're, unfortunately, turning our babies over to the world. We need to make sure that the practices in their early learning spaces are consistent with what they're learning at home and what their parents value at home. We have a beautifully diverse community in Southeast Michigan, including different practices, ways of being, and religions. It's important to parents and caregivers’ state of mind that their babies are in environments that reflect their culture.

We women of color, people of color, families of color are more likely to work untraditional hours. To reflect the cultures that people are in right now, we need to have after-hours care. We need to have places where babies can sleep — places where our traditions are upheld.

Q. How does a living wage for childcare workers fit into the equation?

A. There is this ridiculous distinction between parents, families, and caregivers. They are all the same, especially when we're talking about communities of color. I've seen situations where the care providers were not able to afford the services that they were providing, which is ridiculous. We need to make sure that the people caring for our most vulnerable, our most loved children are able to do that for their most loved, most cared-for people in their lives, as well. Everyone should make a living wage period. And the people that are caring for our community and are literally the workforce behind the workforce should be receiving that.

"People talked about how they actually love parenting — parenting is not the stressor. It's to have to go to work sick or to leave their babies in the hospital." Danielle Atkinson

Q. How are paid family and parental leave part of the solution to the early childcare workforce shortage? How could paid leave benefit parents?

A. Parents are especially trying to find a life-work balance. The children who we care for depend on us. And work being what financially allows us to take care of them. When those things are in conflict, which they often are, they really lead to a lot of stress in our parents.

We recently did a survey with our parents. People talked about how they actually love parenting — parenting is not the stressor. It's to have to go to work sick or to leave their babies in the hospital. Or, when their kids are sick, having to send their kids to school. It’s a huge issue. And we've been battling for years. People are really trying to make this a side issue or a small women's issue. But we know that not having paid leave affects people throughout the totality of their life. You lose a job because of that. It can affect your seniority. It could affect your Social Security, your retirement.

Paid leave is really the ability to care for others. In our communities, we need individuals who are able to do that. We shouldn't have to define our families based on some arbitrary workplace policy. In communities of color, caregivers are aunties and grandmothers. We define family through blood or affinity.

When you have to decide between going to work to make money to pay your bills or staying home and taking care of a kid and not meeting your bills, you're going to go to work. We know that from the evidence, which means people are sending their kids to school sick. On the other end, we have people coming into work sick. And that's how we spread illnesses. We need to be able to protect the health of our communities and our society by allowing people to not have to make that impossible decision.

We talk about family bonding. We talk about breastfeeding. We talk about all these things, but without the mechanisms that protect people against losing wages, those are impossible decisions. People are not able to breastfeed or keep breastfeeding. It's very, very difficult — or bonding with a newborn child or being able to be there for someone who is in the last days of their lives. That is what community is. We have very heteronormative, out-of-date policies at workplaces that make the distinction between husbands and wives or moms and dads. We need to make sure that our policies reflect the communities that we live in and the people that we care for.

Q. Who collaborates with Mothering Justice’s work?

A. The people that we work with the most are our mamas. We have those mamas that are fellows. They are really designing and moving the program. We have organizations that we work with very closely that have a similar alignment to the work, beliefs and values — Detroit Action, 482 Forward, We the People, Michigan Liberation, Restaurant Opportunities Centers of Michigan, MOSES, Rising Voices, and SEIU. Those are the people that we like to say we hang with the most. We're utilizing our power together.

Estelle Slootmaker is project editor for the Early Education Matters series. Contact her at [email protected].

Photos by Doug Coombe.

Early Education Matters is a series about how Michigan parents, childcare providers, and early childhood educators are working together to implement PreK for All. It is made possible with funding from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation.

Enjoy this story? Sign up for free solutions-based reporting in your inbox each week.