For decades, the right has claimed to speak for children and families, while the contemporary left is widely seen as the province of the young and unencumbered. But the millennials who helped fuel the post-2016 growth of groups like the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) and various racial and climate justice groups are no longer so young; many have started families and are seeking new modes of organizing that allow them to remain politically active while caring for young children.
Such modes have ample precedent. In its heyday, the Communist Party of the United States of America (CPUSA) was composed largely of families, many of whom sent their children to party-affiliated Sunday schools, youth groups, and summer camps. The marriage of politics and family life was not limited to red diaper babies. Labor unions have historically and to this day provided members with a community of like-minded families and/or childcare-related benefits, and parents and children continue to walk picket lines together. Churches provided many Black Americans the community and material support, such as Bible study and youth groups and meeting spaces, that enabled the civil rights movement of the 1960s to flourish and children to play a pivotal role. New York Democratic Senator Kirsten Gillibrand’s maternal grandmother, Dorothea “Polly” Noonan, was known for her role in Albany’s once-mighty Democratic machine; her fellow Albany County Democratic Women’s Club members were known in Noonan’s day as “Polly’s girls.” In Gillibrand’s 2014 memoir, Off the Sidelines, the senator recalled being around 8 years old (circa 1974) when she joined “the assembly line that Polly’s girls formed in the campaign headquarters in downtown Albany one August at the beginning of the election season.” In the 1980s, families and children advocated for nuclear disarmament. When we were growing up in the 1990s, my mother often drove my brothers and me around our hometown of Buffalo, N.Y., honking and cheering in support of striking workers and abortion providers.
For their part, conservative activists have long seen families as key to their organizing and branding. Although their vision of family is generally narrow and rooted in homophobia and conservative Christianity—see Phyllis Schlafly, Anita Bryant, Focus on the Family, Laura Schlessinger (formerly an Orthodox Jew), and, more recently, Moms for Liberty, book bans, and child “grooming” panics—they are often more adept than their progressive counterparts at presenting themselves as defenders of parents, children, and families. They have excelled at paying tribute to and benefiting from the labor of mothers, including those who feel disrespected for not working outside of the home. In an atomized and disconnected society, many find explicit promises to “focus on the family” and put “families first” appealing, as well as the belief, which exists on the left but is more commonly associated with the right, that family is more important than money or social status. As conservative Ohio Senator J.D. Vance tweeted shortly before he was elected in 2022, “If your worldview tells you that it’s bad for women to become mothers but liberating for them to work 90 hours a week in a cubicle at the New York Times or Goldman Sachs, you’ve been had.” Whether or not that’s a fair characterization of his opponents’ worldview, it’s smart politics in a country and state with far more underappreciated moms than high-powered corporate ladder climbers. And many ladder climbers, especially those with kids, would agree that there’s nothing “liberating” about a 90-hour workweek.
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Increased family responsibilities have always made political commitments—not to mention friendships, hobbies, and fitness regimens—harder to sustain. But in recent years, long work hours and an increasingly dire childcare crisis have effectively barred many parents, especially mothers, from meaningful political participation. (It’s no accident and no surprise that the right’s most effective organizers have always had plenty of domestic help.) Candidates and elected officials with kids have a few more options than they did decades ago: Parents running for office in some states may now spend campaign funds on childcare and some Albany lawmakers have apparently benefited from a covert on-site daycare center. But options for parents whose political involvement does not include running for office remain few and far between.
A number of Working Families Party (WFP) chapter chairs throughout the country are parents of young children who welcome families to WFP meetings, events, and organizing efforts. But it’s difficult to keep parents involved in the absence of broader social supports for working families. Khulia Pringle, the National Parents Union’s Minnesota Manager of Organizing and Outreach, said in a phone conversation that working-class parents often face barriers to attending meetings of any kind. “School board meetings are at 5:30,” she said. “If you want me at that [meeting], you’re going to have to make sure that I’m able to leave work early if I need to, and you’re going to have to pay me for that time. I don’t have any extra gas to [drive to] that meeting. And then [I may need to] pay somebody to get the kids home or watch them for that hour or two.” Of the parents she has worked with, many of whom are low-income and Black, Pringle said, “It’s not that they don’t care. Their basic needs aren’t met…. Let’s say I didn’t have to work and you want me to be at the school board meeting at 5:30. I don’t know how I’m going to feed these kids tonight. Who’s going to watch these kids while I go and participate in your meeting?” It takes more to create an equitable and inclusive educational system than inviting Black parents to attend school board meetings, Pringle suggested, and work obligations are a primary obstacle to participation for most parents.
Liat Olenick cofounded Climate Families NYC in hopes of addressing some of these issues. As a teacher and the parent of a 1-year-old, Olenick said she felt “a lot of motivation” to build a more sustainable model for combating the climate crisis. “It’s really hard if you have kids under 10 to participate in regular activism,” she said. “The meetings are at bedtime or dinnertime and a lot of the protests and other kinds of actions are really boring for kids and they don’t want to come, but then you need child care to participate.”
The New York City branch of DSA (NYC-DSA), of which I am a member, is the country’s largest chapter. NYC-DSA members recently relaunched Red Sprouts, a childcare initiative that withered during the pandemic, and started Comrades with Kids, a group of caregivers and members organizing to make DSA “more approachable” for working-class families. While these initiatives are specific to New York City, other chapters have engaged in similar efforts. DSA members across the country share information and resources like this graphic guide to childcare that members of DSACincy, the organization’s Cincinnati, Ohio, and northern Kentucky chapter, put together and publicized on Twitter.
Danny Valdes, a cofounder of Comrades with Kids, said the group wants to help make DSA a “political home” for people with families while plugging them into campaigns for things like universal childcare that are “really important for working-class parents across the board.” Families have not always been an “organizing vector” for DSA, he said, in part because the people who powered the organization’s recent revitalization were relatively young and “not thinking about kids” when they established much of the group’s current infrastructure. Phoebe Gilpin got involved with reviving Red Sprouts because she wants DSA to be able to attract and retain busy working-class parents. The “spark that lit” the revamp, she said, was having “a critical mass of parents [in NYC-DSA] who were finding it really difficult to manage both their responsibilities to their families and also their ideological and political interests.”
“If we’re not making things accessible to parents, [we’re] leaving out a huge bloc of kids and [adults] who could otherwise be mobilized and organized,” Olenick said. A group called Families for Climate does similar work in Portland, Ore.; part of its mission is to “make climate action accessible & inclusive for busy working parents, kids and families of all kinds, thereby engaging a large demographic that previously struggled to find their place & voice in climate organizing.”
Family-based organizing models can also lighten parents’ burden and strengthen community ties for kids and parents alike. “I would love to have summer camps and [a kind of] Sunday school model,” Gilpin said. “Something that really invites children as a part of the community…. [I’m] thinking about [how to] foster and raise people who are critical thinkers, who are curious, who are politically engaged, who are hopeful about what’s to come in the world…especially when [most schools are] based on a neoliberal model and focused on outcomes and achievement rather than on kindness and compassion and care and equity.” Valdes said he hopes one day to establish something like “a summer camp or some sort of educational component or after-school homework help…things that working-class families would really appreciate and need…anything that helps share the burden of child-raising in this insane cutthroat capitalist society.”
While camps explicitly affiliated with the CPUSA have mostly disappeared, child-centered progressive institutions still exist today, from Camp Kinderland, which was established by Jewish union activists in 1923, to Farm & Wilderness, with its values of simplicity, peace, integrity, community, equity, and sustainability, and various Quaker summer camps that emphasize community and connection. What progressive political organizations are attempting to do now is establish spaces and activities that bring kids and adults together to learn about and engage in political work, and, in the process, deepen social bonds and ideological commitments within and between families. Such spaces can help parents answer big-picture questions about what kind of people they want their children to be, what skills and habits they want them to have, and how to build communities that support parents, value and care for children, and foster meaningful political engagement.
Amanda Litman, cofounder and co–executive director of Run for Something, which recruits and supports young, diverse progressives in down-ballot races, said she has been “fascinated by the politicization of motherhood and the way that the right has managed to claim it” and by the “paucity of spaces for moms in particular” on the left. Correcting this is part of what motivates Valdes, who sees initiatives like Comrades with Kids as critical to reclaiming the concept of family from the right and “clawing back” the “right-wing takeover” of local schools. “It’s important that the left’s message is not, ‘Families are an outdated institution that we should abolish outright,’” he said. Valdes and his comrades subscribe to a more “expansive vision” of family: what it means and whom it includes. In his view, the left should emphasize that families are “an important human institution…not bound by the [limitations] that the right wing decides to put on them.” Olenick believes it’s crucial for the left to recognize and harness the “unique power that parents and children have to influence decision-makers.”
The left has a long tradition of questioning whether society ought to be organized around the family unit. Feminist author Sophie Lewis’s 2022 book Abolish the Family: A Manifesto for Care and Liberation traces the history of left-wing calls to abolish the family, from 19th-century utopian socialist Charles Fourier, The Communist Manifesto, and early-20th-century Russian revolutionary Alexandra Kollontai to the anti-family politics of 1960s radical feminists like Shulamith Firestone, gay liberationists, and others. When articulated as a demand to stop tying human rights like healthcare and housing to family status, the imperative to “abolish the family” can attract sympathy. As a stand-alone command, without context, it can alienate and repel—which is why it is not, today, a rallying cry for US leftist organizations of any size.
Valdes also brought up churches as a model, crediting them with “integrating families and kids into everything that they do.” There’s a difference, he added, between accommodating families and truly including them. “If somebody needed to bring their kid to a DSA meeting or event, [we could accommodate them] right now,” he said. “But our goal is to try to make DSA actively welcoming to parents, and maybe parents who are seeking community or kids who are seeking a thing to do [will start to] think of DSA…as a place where they are welcome to come and partake” in the group’s activities. “Nothing is more motivating for organizers than their kids,” he added, “[and] nothing is more time-consuming for organizers than their kids.”
Progressive organizations are not immune to ingrained gendered expectations. Climate Families NYC is largely composed of women and kids. “We do have dad members and we want to cultivate more dads,” Olenick said. “But right now our leadership is all women.” Other groups have seen a small but noteworthy shift; Men are also now seeking out and helping to build more family-friendly groups. Valdes and another founder of Comrades with Kids are men. And Olivia Killingsworth, who is coleading the Red Sprouts revamp, told me “there are just as many men in our little organizing group as there are women” and “people who identify as male…are just as excited about this as [parents and non-parents] who identify as non-male.” Women in general still “bear the brunt of caretaking,” she noted. But in left spaces, “just as many men have had to step back from organizing because of wanting or needing to be caretakers at home…it feels rather balanced.” Gilpin added, “It’s really hard for men or male-identified people without children to develop relationships with children because it’s seen as taboo or outside the norm” and “this is potentially a way [for them] to get to spend time with kids.”
Climate Families NYC has been hosting monthly play dates where parents and kids engage as a group in some kind of political action—a protest, meeting, or legislative advocacy—while also playing and socializing. According to Olenick, the best way to get kids excited to participate in politics is to make activities “fun and active and sensory.” “We do a lot of music and art so it’s genuinely enjoyable [for kids] and not just standing at a protest listening to speeches, but also…[showing them], ‘Here’s this big problem and they can do something that can make a difference.’” Empowering kids in this way can help mitigate “fears and anxiety…about all the scary climate shit that’s happening: the wildfire smoke and the floods and the extreme heat. When they hear about [that], they’re like, ‘Oh, that’s why we do climate activism.’”
Asked what progressive organizing would look like in a perfect world, especially now that she’s a parent, Olenick paused. “For me, it’s what Climate Families NYC is doing,” she said. “It’s amazing. I helped found the group before I had a kid and I was like, ‘OK, I can have a baby now cause I have a community of people who are on the same page as me and will do activism in a way that’s family-friendly.’”