Once Upon a Time in Brooklyn
(created for the upcoming issue of Left Turn Magazine)
[Out of Brooklyn have sprung two inspiring models of community-based radical childcare. The organizers of Regeneración Childcare NYC weave their own experiences and those of Pachamama: the Bushwick Childcare Cooperative into an enchanting tale of communities taking care of each other in their own ways in the shadow of the Architects of Despair.]
Once upon a time... in a land called Argentina, there lived hundreds of thousands of people who found themselves with no work. In spite of this, they struggled and found ways to survive. Some formed Unemployed Workers Movements and, over time, were overcome by three beautiful feelings. Listening and speaking with each other, they felt “rage.” Rage was the feeling they felt when they learned that it wasn’t just by chance, but rather by design, that so many of them were out of work.
The unemployed workers called the designers of their most unfortunate situation the “Architects of Despair.” The Architects of Despair practiced a devastating magic—capitalism—that they had been casting intensely over the past decades, taking over all of Argentina’s industries and resources. The unemployed workers organized their rage and they forced the Architects of Despair to give them the things they needed to survive. In this way, the unemployed workers discovered a second feeling, “hope.”
But, even when “giving” the unemployed workers what they needed to survive, the Architects of Despair still found ways to take more things away from them. So the unemployed workers began creating their own ways to feed, teach and heal themselves. In taking care of each other in their own way, they discovered the third beautiful feeling, “dignity.”
Dignity, hope, and rage
With dignity, hope, and rage, the unemployed workers soon went from feeling invisible to having the eyes of the world upon them. In the final weeks of 2001, Argentina erupted in protest against all the damage the Architects of Despair had wrought upon the country. Some of the unemployed workers to reach out and connect with people struggling against the Architects of Despair in other parts of the world.
In 2004, Marcella and Xiomara, two unemployed women workers from movements in Argentina, traveled to the faraway land of Brooklyn. They exchanged stories and ideas with women from Critical Resistance, Sista II Sista, the Center for Immigrant Families, and Estación Libre. Moved by their exchanges, Xiomara and Marcella invited some women to visit them in Argentina during "Autonomous January.” The women returned to New York with much inspiration.
One woman, Sora of Sista II Sista, saw the unemployed workers’ dignity in their self-organization and was especially motivated. Sora had a two-year-old daughter named Sele, and she wanted to join with other mamas so they could organize themselves and care for each other and their children in a better way. Sora spoke to mamas in Sista II Sista and in her neighborhood of Bushwick, Brooklyn. She talked with Celia, who had two young children named Costanzeana and Gabriel. She also met Olivia, who was stuck in her home all day with her daughter Chantelle, feeling trapped, with no other mamas to support her.
Bushwick Childcare Cooperative
Organizing themselves and imagining strategies to defeat the Architects of Despair was not an easy task for these mamas. They came from different places and spoke different languages. Sora was from Chile; Olivia was a black woman whose family lived in Bushwick for as long as she could remember; Celia was from Ecuador, and there were other mamas who came from around the world. Despite their differences, they created a new organization called Pachamama: the Bushwick Childcare Cooperative.
Pachamama means something like “Mother Earth” in Aymara, an Incan language. It was a good name because it reflected the Latin American roots of many of the mothers, yet still had the word “mama” in it, so people who spoke English could understand the name too. With a room full of toys and games in the Sista II Sista office, and with lots of determination, they invited more mamas to join them in raising their children together…
Some of the mamas had grown up in Brooklyn all their lives, and told stories about how the neighborhood had changed, and where they used to go to school, and who they used to play with. Some of the mamas came to Brooklyn from Ecuador, Colombia, Brasil, Chile, Tibet, Bangladesh, Nigeria, Liberia, Trinidad, Jamaica and Guyana, and told stories about how the Architects of Despair made it seem easier to live in Brooklyn than in the neighborhoods, villages and towns that they were from. They told Ramona about raising chickens on their farms, about building huts out of clay, about the tricks their mamas had whispered to them to rock a baby to sleep, on a crowded bus, to tie a knot in a long cloth and use it as a sling to carry a baby on a long walk, to blend grains and cut vegetables so that babies would eat without fussing.
“These kids are a handful!” Celia exclaimed one day, as Gabriel jammed his scooter into Chantelle’s bicycle, “We need some help!” “I’m sure there are people out there who would love to help us do childcare,” Olivia mused, “But how will we find them?” Sora quickly offered a solution, “We can ask our friends, and they can ask their friends… and someone will surely come!”
A few days later, a young woman knocked on the door. “Hi,” she said, “I’m Ramona, and I heard that you are looking for someone to help out with childcare. I just finished college—I’m new to the neighborhood. I would love to hang out with your kids!” On a sunny afternoon, Ramona went to the park with Costanzeana, Gabriel, Sele, and Chantelle. What fun they had! By the end of the day, Ramona was exhausted, but smiling. “When can I come again?” she asked. “As often as you like!” Olivia told her. And so Ramona did. She played with the kids, and talked with the mamas.
At Pachamama, Ramona felt part of a family. Yet she realized that the mamas worried about things that she, and her aunts, sisters, and cousins didn’t have to worry about—like not being able to speak English, or not being able to find work, or not having enough money to travel to see their mamas, or even to travel to Manhattan.
“Ramona!” Sora said one day. “What are you doing on Friday night? Some people are coming over so we can talk about how to fight the Architects of Despair. A lot of the people are mamas and papas. Could you come over and play with the kids?” Ramona was worried. With so many kids, she would not be able to play with them all at the same time, and they would all start fighting and running into the room where the adults were talking and disturb their conversation.
“We don’t want a space where kids feel that only adults can imagine ways to strengthen our communities and protect ourselves against the Architects of Despair,” Sora said, “and we don’t want adults to feel that either. We want to create a space where all of our imaginations help each other grow; but we realize that kids might get bored from sitting still the way that adults tend to do, so we set up the play room with toys and games.”
Seeds of Regeneración
Ramona was relieved to hear this, and even more relieved to meet Mitch. Mitch also came to play with kids whose parents were at the gathering. “Here in America, it seems like kids are hidden away while their parents work and organize,” Ramona said, “but many people we know do things differently.” Contemplating this, Mitch turned to Ramona, “Ramona, we both know so many mamas working to protect our communities against the Architects of Despair. I’m sure mamas are doing the same thing all over this city. And if there are mamas, there are kids…”
“Yes!” Ramona exclaimed, “and there are surely people all over this city who would love to play with kids while their mamas are organizing!” Mitch asked, “But how will we find people who will want to do childcare?” “If we ask our friends, and they ask their friends,” said Ramona, “Surely someone will come…”
And so they did. One day, Mitch and Ramona opened the doors of an unused office space and the room filled with people. Sora joined them; and together they told the story of the unemployed workers in Argentina, and Pachamama, and their hopes and dreams of dignity. The people felt inspired, and excited to do childcare. But after the people left the meeting, Mitch, Ramona and Sora all felt a little bit unsettled. “Everyone at the meeting was white!” complained Ramona.
“I wonder why…” pondered Mitch, “we did tell our friends to tell their friends that the kids and mamas we hang out with are mostly immigrants, or Spanish-speaking, or Black, or other folks of color…” Ramona suggested, “It seems like many of the people at our meeting are able to wander from place to place, and be involved with different projects, and are looking to feel connected to something, and feel that connecting to awesome mamas and awesome kids would be powerful.”
Excited, hopeful, and confused
“On the one hand it is exciting to flip the script on who serves who, by having white people take care of kids of color,” mused Sora, “but on the other hand, I really think it would be the wrong message to send to our kids that we can’t take care of our own, and that we need white people to come in and take care of our kids for us.” So Mitch, Ramona and Sora left their meeting hopeful, because so many people were excited about doing childcare, and confused because the people were so different than who they had imagined.
Pachamama was growing. The mamas were creating a space of love and holistic care for themselves and their families. They also organized other families and friends into “Imperialism is Bad for Children” contingents for the anti-war marches. Things went on like this at Pachamama for some time—families grew, babies were born and folks were listening and learning from each other every day.
But when the winter came, it started to feel too cold for the mamas to bring their kids all the way to Pachamama, and they decided to stay home instead. Back in Bushwick, Sora, Olivia and Celia were the only mamas still coming to Pachamama every day and caring for Sele, Chantelle, Gabriel and Costanzeana.
“You know what I think?” said Sora one day, “I think we should close Pachamama for a little bit, and just build within ourselves. Let’s figure out what we need to do to be strong within us before trying to organize the rest of the neighborhood, and the rest of the city.” Celia asked, “Could we teach ourselves about child development so that we know what games we should be playing with the kids to encourage their curiosity and growth?”
“Can we also learn how to take care of ourselves and each other better?” asked Olivia, “I feel sad a lot, and I would like to know if other mamas feel sad too, and I would like to know how they take care of themselves when they feel sad.” And so the mamas did just this. They met twice a week to learn about their kids, and to learn about themselves, and while they sat around the table and read books and drew diagrams and talked with each other, Ramona played with their kids.
In these months, many groups had asked Mitch and Ramona if they could play with their kids. Mitch and Ramona were always looking for more volunteers. Some of the volunteers spoke Spanish and were white. Some were people of color, and were looking to support other communities in struggle. Some did not grow up in the city, and were looking for communities to whom they could be accountable. Some had traveled to faraway places like Argentina and Chiapas and brought back visions of another world.
Over the months, they built a network of childcare volunteers and called it Regeneración. They work with kids and mothers to regenerate communities, relationships, and resistance. They would also honor their ancestors, elders, prisoners, and friends from all over the world.
Happily ever after?
And so the childcare crew in New York City had found its vision and name; and Pachamama reopened its doors in Brooklyn with renewed enthusiasm…and there was even word of other childcare collectives and childcare cooperatives popping up in other cities and towns. But something still didn’t feel right.
These groups and their friends, family and all the people they cared about around the world, were still suffering. And this was because the Architects of Despair were still very powerful. And so it was good that they were getting to know and trust each other more, and that they were building their power to organize themselves, to fight, and to take care of each other. And there was still much work (and play) to be done…
Written and illustrated by members of Regeneración Childcare NYC: Radhika Singh, M. Mayuran Tiruchelvam, RJ Maccani, Ileana Dulce Méndez-Peñate and Canek Peña-Vargas.
Sunday, March 04, 2007
Once Upon a Time in Brooklyn