Radical Moms: Using The Power of Motherhood To Make Political Change

One of the proudest moments that Madeleine Charney has shared with her son, Eli, is when she got to hold up the front page of the newspaper on Nov. 7, 2015, and show him that construction of the Keystone XL pipeline had been struck down by President Obama.

Charney, 51, of Amherst, is a member of the Pioneer Valley chapter of Mothers Out Front, a Boston-based climate activist group. She had protested regularly against the construction of the fracked-gas-carrying pipeline, particularly the local arm of the 1,179-mile-project known locally as the Kinder-Morgan Tennessee Gas Pipeline. Charney would often bring her son along for the action. So being able to show her then 8-year-old boy that their work paid off and made for positive change was a great triumph.

“When that was defeated, I can’t express my excitement,” Charney said. “When showing that front page of the paper to my son, I said, ‘Remember when you did the signs and marched? You helped stop this project.’”

That joy was short lived, though. When Donald Trump got into the Oval Office one of his first actions was to reverse Obama’s position and approve pipeline construction. Charney said she’s been an activist for a long time, championing causes such as a clean environment and food justice, but lately she’s felt an even stronger need to have her voice heard.

“With this new administration, there are just so many issues that are shaking me up,” she said. “I say it’s going to be okay to my son because we’re going to make our needs — and our need for a more healthy planet — we’re going to make our positions known.”

Mothers have been a political force in America for decades: there’s Mothers Against Drunk Driving, the Million Mom March, MomsRising, and locally there’s also MotherWoman, for example. The strength of women united by motherhood can be a powerful political armor. America was built on mom and apple pie — how do you attack mom, or apple pie, head on? You can’t without looking like a jerk. However, using women as political punching bags — especially those who aren’t married, white, straight, cis, some kind of Christian, quiet, thin, etc. — is standard. Politics can quickly splinter people into smaller, ranked, maligned groups, which is why being united as mothers — period — is so important. Motherhood cuts through those divisions of culture race, religion, economics, politics, and generations.

“The difference between a mom and a woman doing this is the moral authority,” said Karen Ribiero, one of six founding members of the Mothers Out Front Pioneer Valley chapter, noting the place mothers hold in society. “You don’t fight harder than you fight for your children.”

Mothers Out Front was established in 2013 by about 250 women in the Boston area who created the group’s founding doctrine, the “Declaration of Protection For Our Children Against Climate Change” — a five-point action plan. Mothers Out Front has since grown with more chapters popping up in Massachusetts and four other states: California, Virginia, Ohio, and New York. A Pioneer Valley chapter was founded in 2015 and has been active in promoting the group’s mission to ditch fossil fuels in favor of renewable energy.

The founders decided to harness the power of mothers for political action because of their strength, but also as a way to help mothers get involved in activism at every level. Mothers Out Front meetings and actions are child-friendly and mothers are encouraged to bring their kids to action events. Mothers — as well as men, women, and children who are mother-allies — can spend as much or as little time volunteering for the cause as they can handle, said Ribiero, 47, of Pelham.

“We always have kids [at our meetings]; they can be downstairs playing while we meet upstairs,” she said. “We have grandmothers who are very important, they do babysitting and run kids’ activities during the meetings. We do puppets and parades and ice cream picnics, things that revolve around the children.”

In addition to helping mothers participate in political action, finding a role for children in the group plants the seeds of a rebel spirit.

Radical moms are just, well, rad! And for this Mother’s Day the Advocate wanted to pay homage to some of the local women out there using their maternal political capital to make positive change for everyone. We know you don’t hear this enough, so: Thank you, moms!

— Kristin Palpini,  editor@valleyadvocate.com

The following are three profiles of area activist mothers.

Whitney Battle-Baptiste

Perhaps it is the title of her book, Black Feminist Archeology, which best sums up UMass professor Whitney Battle-Baptiste’s particular mix of activism and academia. And in addition to straddling these two worlds, the 45-year-old Pelham resident is also a mother of three.

Battle-Baptiste’s activism began with her own mother, who protested the Vietnam War while in college. By the time Battle-Baptiste was in high school, she was involved with student groups pushing for, among other things, mandating a course on Black studies at Harry S. Truman High School in the Bronx.

She has been on what she calls the front lines — rallies following the beating of Rodney King, who was attacked by four Los Angeles police officers who were later acquitted, and demonstrations for Black Lives Matter — but says she now performs her most meaningful activism in the classroom and on campus. In her anthropology classes and academic talks, Battle-Baptiste teaches about race and slavery and how their histories have affected the present day.

For her own children, Ayotide, 10, Ololara, 8, and Adelomo, who will be 6 this month, Battle-Baptiste engages them in discussion about the Black Lives Matter movement, and says she wants them to understand they don’t have to be afraid to speak up. She has also taught them the names of the people who have been killed by police.

“Words are so powerful. A Black Lives Matter ‘protest’ versus the women’s ‘march,’” she said. “Black Lives Matter is constantly seen with this aspect of danger.”

Ayotide, her oldest, is already five feet tall. Soon, he’s not going to be seen as a little boy and Battle-Baptiste wants him to understand the realities of how black men are seen in the world — that police officers do not always protect black lives.

“It is really not a choice for black and brown parents to engage in these conversations,” she said.

She keeps her children engaged in the political process, as well. All of them were staunch Bernie Sanders supporters during the 2016 election, and they went to the polls with their parents. Battle-Baptiste said her mother took her to the voting booth as a child, too.

“They know that people fought for the right to vote and it’s important,” she said.

Battle-Baptiste’s academic work has taken her from the Andrew Jackson homestead in Tennessee, to the W.E.B. Du Bois homesite in Great Barrington, and she said she encounters many people who don’t agree with her politically. She encourages people, including herself, to be empathetic with those who may have opposing views.

“When I see a Trump sign or a Confederate flag, I’m probably a little slower to jump at that and attack because of working where I have worked,” she said. “I’ve always been able to navigate spaces with people I’m not supposed to get along with.”

— Dave Eisenstadter,  deisen@valleyadvocate.com

Jossie Valentin

Mothers are often expected to take care of the house and children, and in the past several decades they have been expected to join the workforce as well. Being able to work and still take the time to take care for a family is an admirable thing, but Holyoke City Councillor of Ward 4 Jossie Valentin, 40, takes it to the next level.

Valentin moved to Northampton from Puerto Rico in 1988 in search of better job opportunities and a graduate school. Years later, she would get a master’s degree in forensic psychology and go on to become a licensed drug counselor in Massachusetts.

“My background was mainly with residential programs in terms of substance abuse. I ran the psych unit at the Ludlow jail. Being in these arenas helped prepare me for the advocacy work that I think all elected officials should be a part of,” Valentin said.

She met her wife in 2006, and took to her wife’s two daughters as if they were her own children.

Fed up with what she called “incompetence and inability to reach out to constituents” in her predecessors, Valentin decided to take action and run for councillor herself.

“It was clear to me that there was a huge issue of representation in politics — as a woman, a Puerto Rican, and a lesbian. It was the mentality of ‘if you’re not at the table you might as well be on the menu.’ It was my time to be involved,” Valentin said. “Basically for both my initial election and reelection in 2015 the opponents were complete opposites of me: very conservative. I’ve always been the liberal candidate in this race.”

Valentin describes herself as checking every box on the liberal/progressive checklist. She’s pro-choice, pro-LGBT rights, pro-immigration rights, all of those views are deviations from those held by typically conservative politicians, she said.

She said her beliefs are what got her elected to the council — with 75 percent of the vote in each race.

“I could be concerned with me being an openly gay person, a woman, or a Puerto Rican person depending on the door I was knocking on,” she said. “If I was talking to an older Latino guy, he could be impressed with the fact that I could speak to them in Spanish, but not as impressed that I was running as a gay candidate. In the machismo culture of Puerto Rico it was like, ‘Do you have to talk about this when campaigning?’ People appreciate that I am so open about it.”

Valentin has found that her political activism has influenced her daughters to be more vocal as well as provided them time to hang out. She said that is particularly true of her younger daughter, who at times accompanies her at rallies.

“Being a radical mom I have influenced her as a young woman. We had a pre-Planned Parenthood rally in Springfield recently. She came to that with two of her best friends from high school. To have a 17-year-old say I want to go to this rally and stand there and talk about the mantra ‘our bodies our justice’ was really powerful because obviously it’s them as young women claiming that they are the owners of their bodies,” she said.

Valentin said while she teaches her daughter about resistance, her daughter is also teaching her.

“Sometimes we can get used to seeing things through one lens, and she brings a whole new perspective as a younger person,” she said.

“The one thing I can thank Trump for,” Valentin said, “is that he woke a lot of people up. In my house, even though my daughter can’t vote, it was very clear in her mind that a Trump administration would be detrimental to her as a young woman of color.”

— Chance Viles,  cviles@umass.edu

Frances Crowe

You can spot Frances Crowe’s Northampton home easily by the more than half-dozen political lawn signs on her front lawn — from “Black Lives Matter” to signs railing against war. Crowe, 98, is a local living legend in the activist community and continues to organize and protest for peace.

Crowe said she started her radical activism work in the 1940s after atomic bombs were dropped on Japanese citizens in Hiroshima and Nagasaki during World War II, killing more than 140,000 during the blast and subsequent radioactive fallout. After hearing the news, she became a peace activist.

Her years of activism have certainly influenced her children and grandchildren.

Crowe has three children and five grandchildren; she said most of her political activism took place after her children left home, but others in her family continue the tradition of protest that she and her husband Thomas Crowe started.

Her 24-year-old grandson Tom Crowe recently protested the TD Bank in Amherst for the bank’s investment in the Dakota Access Pipeline and also was one of 10 cyclists from The Pioneer Cycle to ride their bikes to Washington, D.C., for the People’s Climate March.

“I’m very proud of him,” she said. “I don’t get out much. I use a walker a lot. I didn’t go to that bank, but I said, ‘When they protest it against the TD Bank in Northampton I would go.’ ”

During the 1960s and 1970s Crowe protested the Vietnam War and helped young men escape the draft by counseling them on how to become conscientious objectors. During the 1980s, she was a leader in the Nuclear Freeze Movement —a campaign against nuclear weapon testing, deployment, and production. In 2011, she was arrested for trespassing at Vermont Yankee Nuclear Power Plant in attempts to shut down the plant through protest.

“I was arrested, I think, 11 times up there and went to trial once,” she said. “They found me guilty. I was painting ‘Danger Do Not Enter’ on the driveway going up. And so, I was ready to go to jail. I had never paid a fine. So, I always gladly accepted the punishment. They wouldn’t send me to jail — they said I was too old.”

Sitting in her living room with her walker placed in front of her, Crowe said she resists war today by refusing to pay her federal taxes.

“I don’t pay federal taxes. I file and I send the money to the Iraqi Children’s Art Exchange that will go to the cancer hospital in Baghdad. I send the money to the victims of war,” Crowe said.

“We have the largest war budget we’ve ever had. We’re involved in bombing Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, and Pakistan, and we’re killing people,” she said.

“The money that we’re spending is enormous and I keep telling the kids if we weren’t spending all this money for war you could go to college, even through graduate school, without debt.”

 

— Chris Goudreau,  cgoudreau@valleyadvocate.com

Advocate Staff

Author: Advocate Staff

Editor of the Valley Advocate

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