Everyday activism and community care with Lauren Smith Brody
Plus mulching as an antidote for doom-scrolling
I woke up on Wednesday to a text that had been sent the night before from a friend which read: “I can’t stop crying about Texas,” and a pit immediately lodged itself in my gut because without having had seen the news yet, I knew what the text must be in response to. Because we live in a country in which 22 school shootings have taken place this year alone. A country in which only 10 days prior to my friend’s text, 10 Black people were murdered in a Buffalo, NY supermarket. Racist hate crimes and school shootings. This is America.
And it gave me no satisfaction to be right. Right to assume that when a friend (who has no connection to Texas) texts me about crying about Texas it must be because we live in a country that is controlled by a powerful minority of people who prioritize theoretical, abstract versions of human life over real human lives.
Barely awake, I started scrolling.
I donated to Everytown.
I emailed my state reps (here’s the text of the email if you want to copy and paste - the italicized stuff is only relevant for NH):
I'm horrified by the lack of legislation protecting our community against gun violence. Please vote against SB-154; in reference to SB 141-FN, please support committee recommendation inexpedient to legislate. I am concerned about a lack of a senate vote on the Bipartisan Background Checks act of 2021, H.R.8 and the Enhanced Background Checks Act of 2021, H.R. 1446. Please support a vote and the passage of these two acts. Thank you for your service.
I shared Instagram posts to my stories. I retweeted.
And then I read something on Twitter that made me stop scrolling, something about how teachers, if complying with lockdown procedural mandates, must keep their classroom doors locked to people trying to escape an active shooter, since allowing those people in (children or adults) might also give the shooter access to their classroom. And this horrifying yet relatively mundane detail just sort of did me in. I closed my computer.
And then, because I felt trapped, both in my body and within reality, I went outside and started mulching garden beds. Shoveling the mulch from the pile, pushing the wheelbarrow up a hill, spreading the mulch around flowers, sweating; it all felt manageable. To be able to do what felt good (or at least, less bad) in that moment, was a privilege not everyone has. And in addition to feeling bad about the state of the world, I also felt a little bad that I didn’t keep doom-scrolling, that I didn’t keep retweeting, that I made the decision to remove myself from the horror instead of staying mired in it. If a friend told me she felt guilty for taking care of herself when so many heartbroken parents (in Texas and elsewhere) cannot do the same, I would tell her to stop being so hard on herself. I would tell her that staying locked into the pain of the headlines wasn’t helping anyone. I would tell her we must take care of ourselves in order to take care of others.
Lauren Smith Brody is the author of The Fifth Trimester: The Working Mom’s Guide to Style, Sanity, and Success after Baby, and a co-founder of the non-profit organization, Chamber of Mothers, and has been advocating for caregiving rights and gender equity since 2017. When I interviewed Lauren for Momfluenced, I left the call feeling lighter and less hopeless about the institution of motherhood in America than I had in weeks, so on Thursday, I thought; maybe Lauren can wave her magic wand of hope at me again and give me some insight about how to cope with tragedy while also remaining politically engaged. And because Lauren’s wonderful, she obliged.
Here’s our conversation, which has been edited and condensed for clarity.
How are you? How are you coping?
I’m ok. I actually took two hours off yesterday afternoon to do a for-profit work project that I've been meaning to do for weeks now. And I had to put down my phone to do it, and I was totally in the zone for two and a half hours. And yeah, I realize what a privilege it was for me to find escape in work. And then when my kids came home, I was just really deliberate about spending time with them.
Ugh. Yeah, after a few hours of scrolling, I just had to stop. I spread mulch, which is also a huge privilege. To get to be outside and move my body.
For me, last winter, it was shoveling snow. I can’t even remember which disaster it was in response to, but all I could do was shovel snow.
I struggle finding the line between taking care of myself and putting my head in the sand, you know? Especially when there are so many people who don’t have the privilege of putting their heads in the sand.
Totally. Well, I think taking care of yourself is going to be unique to your brain and your body. Right? Like nobody's going to know better what you actually need than you, but also, nobody's going to have a harder time granting permission to meet those needs.
Yeah, that's so true.
And for some of us, the advocacy work is the release, you know? It’s the thing that gives a lot of the rest of our lives some meaning. It forces me to put words around some of the values that I try to teach my kids.
What I do on social media is not a business. It's totally my pro bono work. So for me, going through my DMs and offering little bits of advice to people trying to advocate for themselves in the workplace, for example, is energizing. Then you have something horribly tragic that needs to be solved by like, massive policy change and I feel pretty out of my depth.
I feel like so many people I've talked to locate the real sense of hopelessness in the fact that we are so divided as a country, and like, the people that are furious and enraged and heartbroken now are the same people that were furious and enraged and heartbroken last time this happened.
I do think though, that people become a little bit more educated every time. Like there was someone today who I like and respect and whose values align with mine, who DMed me and was like, what about the mental health side of things? And I was like, Oh my gosh, okay. First, go follow Jessi Gold and Pooja Lakshmin because they will put this better than me, but that's a line the gun lobby has used for years, like guns don't kill people. People kill people, and therefore, all of our problems are rooted in mental illness. But people with mental illness are more likely to be killed by guns than to do the killing. And of course, of course, we need more mental health support for everyone in our country. But every country essentially has similar levels of mental illness and only in the United States do we have school shootings. So the second you move away from guns in a conversation about gun violence, all you’re doing is helping the NRA. The point in telling you this is just to show that people are always learning and becoming more savvy about the messages they’re being fed by politicians and big systems.
How can people with non-professional social media followings feel like their individual voices matter? How do they not sink into hopelessness? I think sometimes people say to themselves, what’s the point in me posting my thoughts to my 321 friends and family, you know?
The great unifier of social media is that everyone has a voice. Say you know what it’s like to have an infant right now, and you have a friend who can’t get formula for her baby with allergies. There are probably friends or family following you that don’t know about that particular situation, and would benefit from hearing about it.
And we should all try to recognize what we’re good at, and also what we don’t know. I’m good at connecting people, but I’m not at all an expert in baby formula. I'm not an expert in gun safety. I know what I believe, I know my values, but I’m not an expert. So I focus on highlighting the work of people who are experts in those fields, you know? It’s also telling that (especially for privileged white women), we often don’t use our voices as activists until something happens that impacts us and our families. The problem of formula inaccessibility, for example, has been a problem for low-income families well before the recent headlines.
Right. For almost every social justice movement in history, you can find Black activists, Indigenous activists, and other marginalized activists that have been working for years on this one issue that you might only have just realized WAS an issue.
Right! So locate your own expertise. AND look for the people who have been doing the work and research years before you were aware of a problem, and ask them how best you can help.
Tell me about what you were trying to express with your viral Instagram post.
For parents right now, there's no such thing as even being able to focus on just one crisis. It’s a lot of and, and, and. It’s the pandemic, and economic inequity, and racism, and a formula shortage, and the war on reproductive rights, and, and, and. And all of these things are impacting us as we’re trying to parent and build up our little humans. You can’t silo yourself by just protesting ONE thing. They’re all completely interconnected. The childcare shortage is connected to the lack of paid family and medical leave, which is connected to the fact that people can't breastfeed as much as the AAP is telling them to and so don't you dare say that breastfeeding is free when there’s a formula shortage. And, and, and.
So with my post, I was trying to express the overarching overwhelm, and I think that’s why it struck such a nerve.
I feel like people are craving to be told that it is okay if you have to compartmentalize in order to survive being a parent in America right now.
Oh, my God. Yes. So we have a WhatsApp group for the cofounders of Chamber of Mothers. And yesterday, we sort of touched base, and part of our ethos is that one of us will swoop in to the front of our V of birds as needed to let the other people rest and take care of themselves. Like, if what we're promoting is being able to have a life that works, then we also need to have lives that work, you know?
And so we figured out who was gonna do what and how we could do things that were active and helpful. And sometimes the helpful thing is for us to be able to care for our families. And to care for our ourselves. So I guess the lesson there is like, if you have the wonderful opportunity to partner with other people who represent a diversity of voices, geographic locations, family structures, experiences, but also share your values, then lean on each other.
Totally. I also think there's something fucked up about how moms specifically—people who are so conditioned to view ourselves as failures in one way or another—are beating ourselves for failing to be good activists and advocates, you know?
I totally, totally relate to that. My fellow co-founders are always asking ourselves, how much is our unpaid work taking time away from our families (which is the root of everything that drives us anyway)? And how much time are we giving to our paid work that allows us to be able to have the privilege of doing work that also doesn't pay, right. And we're trying to be really, really transparent and deliberate about it in a way that I don't see happening everywhere on social media.
What do you say to the people who are not in leadership roles? I mean, not everyone can be a cofounder of a maternal advocacy group, you know?
I think it’s about figuring out who you trust and leaning on those sources. For example, I rely on Liuba Grechen Shirley and her foundation, Vote Mama, to know the ins and outs of what it takes to get caregiving people elected into office. So I amplify her voice when those specific issues come up.
Another concrete thing to do is make monthly recurring donations. You're actually better off giving an organization $5 a month rather than one $60 lump sum when a crisis hits, because then that organization can use those smaller monthly donations to help build their war chest for the next crisis (because there will be a next crisis). As opposed to having to manage a budget that fluctuates so wildly based on reactionary response to current events.
And on a local level, maybe you should lend your support to local reps who care about what you care about. Maybe you should consider running for office if you’re not finding any candidate that aligns with your values.
Also, if you’re like me and you break out in hives over the idea of being performative with your advocacy, do a gut check and ask yourself if you can tell your kids about how you used your voice on any given day.
Because what happens between my thumb and phone sometimes feels very removed and unrelated to my parenting unless I tell my kids about it. It forces me to explain what I've done and why. But if I'm posting about some social justice cause and I can't find the words to explain what I did and why, then maybe it was kind of performative, you know? That’s part of the reason I added the call to action (in the form of donation) to my post on Instagram.
I want to be able to show my kids (and myself) that change is possible and that there are a lot of good people in the world. So I told them about how much money we raised, what Everytown will do with the money, why I chose Everytown to donate to, etc.
I think it’s also useful to look back on other cultural moments and reexamine how you responded as an advocate. Be kind of critical. And be open. For example, the subtitle of my book mentions “working moms.” I don’t use that phrase anymore. We’re all working moms. But rather than pretending that I’ve never used that phrase, I’m open about it because we’re all constantly learning. And if me sort of showing my work can help others be more open, I think that’s great. It takes vulnerability.
And it invites people in.
Yeah, it keeps people from being so defensive too. Like, until six months ago, I used the term “pro life” in reference to anti-choice ideology. And somebody explained to me why that wasn't a good idea. And I was like, oh shit, you know? But I’m so glad they told me! And I’m glad I had the opportunity to learn. Being deliberate and proactive about how you’ve grown is actually a really worthwhile exercise for anybody trying to do some good in the world.
To the person that says nothing has changed for moms and caregivers in the last years and I don’t see any change coming, what would you say?
I would say that there’s a lot more visibility around the structural inequities and challenges specific to parenthood than ever before. It's really important to remember that the only problem you can solve is a problem you can see. Once we can see a problem, we can collect data about the problem, make cases for how to solve the problem, figure out who’s hurt most by the problem and how to best support them, etc.
Think about cleaning out your closet. Like, you know when you take everything off the hangers and out of the drawers and throw it on the bed? And you’re looking at all the chaos strewn on the bed and you’re just like, oh god there’s so much, and you feel like just shoving it all back in the closet? I think that’s where we’re at right now. And even though it feels awful and overwhelming looking at all those clothes on the bed, you need to see them to make good decisions about next steps. I think we’re in the messy middle and we need to see the mess to find the solution. The problems unique to mothers and caregivers have been invisible for so long and now that we can see them clearly, we can band together and help solve them together.
Thank you Lauren!
I want to send you all into the weekend with two quotes from Dani McClain’s indispensable book, We Live for the We: The Political Power of Black Motherhood. The first quote speaks to how advocacy is only a choice for some mothers. And the second quote underscores how we can examine our individual lives to locate potential for meaningful change.
Black mothers advocate for our children everywhere, from the playground to the schoolhouse to the doctor’s office. There is always a campaign to wage. There is always a need to make our children’s humanity more visible and to convince, cajole, or pressure someone who’s making our lives more difficult because of their own blind spots or racist impulses. Activism is woven into the fabric of our daily lives, and it doesn’t take long before we see the systemic reasons we’re constantly waging these campaigns on behalf of our children and families. That’s when we start connecting the dots between our struggles and others’ and, as Cat Brooks puts it, start living for the we.
Those empowered on the global, federal, or state levels may be out of step with and openly hostile to our communities, but what if we gave our best energies and attention to building something new or revitalizing existing community-based projects that are small enough to be responsive and effectively meet our needs?
Take care everyone. And please, for the love of all that is good in the world, send me something silly and frivolous and ridiculous for next week’s WTF.