Making Space for Caregivers
This piece was originally published in the Arkansas Times 2018 Big Ideas issue.
Many people get involved in community work and community organizing because they believe in building a more just, more equitable world. Yet the planning spaces for this work — meetings, conferences, events, rallies, vigils, study groups — are seldom welcoming to young children or the people raising them. The same goes for people caring for special needs citizens or aging relatives. The premise of these gatherings is to build a world where everyone is treated fairly, where everyone has equal access, where equity and love and care are paramount. If these gatherings are unwelcoming or inaccessible to caregivers and children, is the work truly invested in building a different future?
Throughout my work in both Little Rock and Dardanelle, I have worked alongside many others to push for greater access to organizing space and associated services for caregivers and their families. Through the Caregivers for Justice network and Little Rock Collective Liberation, I have helped to organize events where caregivers and children aren't just in attendance, but are the root of the work. At the McElroy House in Dardanelle we know that to be engaged in the community means every event we have must be welcoming to children and caregivers. If we want to create change, we must have women and caregivers and grandparents and teenagers at the table. Our coalitions must be filled with single mothers and low-income families. And any space that does not provide childcare is never going to be accessible to a low income family. Being able to hire a sitter is privilege of expendable income. But the problem goes much deeper than creating access.
I've worked in both paid childcare and eldercare; I'm a mother of three young children and I served as my mother's caregiver when she was dying. As a child I grew up in an intergenerational home with my parents and grandmother. In short, I have seen caregiving from a lot of angles. It's only been in recent years that I have been able to name any of this as caregiving or think critically about it. It was just everyday life and it was what people did because we all needed each other. But the more I engage in organizing spaces — whether these be political organizing spaces or cultural ones — I am certain that far too often we operate from the premise the caregiving exists in a world somehow apart from real life. This is deeply classist and it dishonors our generations. It dishonors ourselves and who we have been and who we will be. It has ripple effects such as the immorally low rate of pay for CNAs, childcare workers and nursing home aids. Put another way: If we see holding a crying baby, or having a conversation with a curious toddler, or sitting next to a death bed to be a total diversion from our work in building more just communities, what exactly are we aiming for anyway?
I'm a white woman, and I have learned to honor caregiving — to examine my own history of caregiving and pull the threads of this experience into my current work — by listening to black women who have spent their whole lives in the fight for justice. And I say that here because it's essential information and must be named. So, Arkansas, what if we began to not only create spaces of caregiver accessibility, but what if we also began to fundamentally shift our views on caregiving? After all, we have all been babies. If we are lucky, we will all be elders. We all need each other.