Of Mothers and Fortresses

My oldest son started Kindergarten in the public school last month.

I was totally fine with it, except for the whole “mom doesn’t get to go to school with him every day thing.”

But I’m learning to deal.

This transition for my family has me reflecting, though, about when and how my roles as advocate and Mommy collide, not in the “want to simultaneously be at this public forum on poverty and at kids’ church choir practice” way, but in the “Mommy needs to advocate, but as a Mom” way.

It manifests itself in many forms, honestly–when a fellow parent at the orientation asks whether class sizes seem a little larger this year than in the past, and I can’t help but use it as a platform to talk about school finance and our state’s dire need for a real revenue strategy; or when a teacher complains about the booster seat law and its effect on field trip transportation arrangements, and I try to gently insert some commentary on how it is the public’s business to regulate child safety, given the public impact when families fail to do so.

I promise it was gently. I think.

A while ago, I read this post by Allison Fine (herself a mother, too) about her experiences trying to transform her son’s public school “fortress” into the kind of networked, transparent, accountable, responsive organization that not only yields better results but also offers a fundamentally different user experience–one that is empowering and accessible, rather than off-putting and formidable (as fortresses are designed to be).

And I know that that kind of Mommy advocacy is in my future, too: not just using our family’s encounters with institutions as teachable moments around policy and organizational change, but also having to deploy my own advocacy skills in order to make a system work for my own children. I’m certainly not at the point where I’m ready to offer any real pearls of wisdom regarding this intersection between motherhood and advocacy, really, but I have been doing some thinking about how I have approached advocacy within complex systems before, about my experiences with this kind of “for the one” case advocacy, and about what being true to who I am as an advocate will mean for my efforts to be true to who I am as a mom, too.

  • Doing with, not for, is just as important when it’s my own children. It’s easy to say that we believe in empowering practice, and then easy to step in and take care of those who matter most to us. I know that, if I want my advocacy with my kids to have the kind of transformational effect on them (not just the situations in which they find themselves), I have to remember those lessons here, too. That means involving them as much as possible in defining problems, letting them help craft potential solutions, and building in opportunities for them to grow in the process.
  • Know thy target. Do I really, really want to volunteer with the PTA as much as I am this year? Does working on a school carnival really feed my soul? But does building relationships with allies who understand how to make this system work, and becoming a stakeholder myself by demonstrating my investment to the institution and its goals, matter when it comes to pushing for the kinds of systemic changes that my kids and others may need? Pass the crepe paper.
  • There are always reasons to organize. I’m not interested in being the kind of advocate who just makes noise until she gets what she wants for her own small issue, even though I’m certainly not afraid to make a racket. I want to use discrete problems to build the case for wider change, and the only way to do that is to listen for openings in the questions and concerns others raise, and to not be afraid to talk school finance or the upcoming election in line at the open house.
  • And, finally, choose your battles. I haven’t yet gotten to the point of doing an actual power analysis and strategy chart for a challenge at my son’s school, but I’m definitely not ruling it out. Just as I do in a legislative context, or in agency advocacy within the executive branch, I have to be willing to let some things slide, if I want to reserve the kind of interpersonal power I’ll need to succeed in the bigger fights.

    What about you? What have you learned advocating with these fortress institutions (hospitals, insurance companies, mental health systems, schools) on your own behalf, or for a family member? How are you different as a “personal” advocate than in a public context? What lessons carry over? What advice would you share?

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