Breeding Empathy, and Activism

In 1989 when I was twelve years old, my mother took my brother, my sister, and me to the March for Women’s Lives in Washington, DC. People stomped around peacefully but angrily on our hometown Mall, its symbol of political liberty suddenly visceral.

There were a handful of counter protests, of course. One woman with a three-foot tall picture of an aborted fetus shook it violently at us.

“Is this what you want?” she screamed into my eight-year old sister’s face.

We walked on, toward the National Gallery, and I pretended for a moment that we were just tourists, caught up in one of the largest women’s rights marches in history. We discovered the compelling, knife-edge corner of the East Building, like millions of people before us. I left my own slick mark on the building that day, but even more powerful was the one my mother left on me.

That women’s march, with its chaos and beauty, revealed for me the breadth of choices I would eventually make about my own life, and those I would defend for others. I realized then that I had both the responsibility to plot my own course and the legal privilege to do so with precision. Even as a child, I could feel that there was dignity and pride in holding those rights—would that each of us could hold them for ourselves, always.

With that in mind, I gazed out at my personal timeline and set a placeholder sometime around my thirties—I saw my own children popping out of the margins then, as though filling the blank space in a puppet theater.

Recently, I took those three children to the Women’s March—a sister march to the one on Washington, located in Montpelier, Vermont. I didn’t think about why I was taking them with me—but I knew I must.

My daughter, though intrigued, was skeptical.

“Is it going to be dangerous?” she asked, worried about the horrible things she had heard at school about our new administration. She also worried about gathering in a city en masse—something I wish we all didn’t feel, but we do.

To me, attending the march with my children was important despite any fears—not only because I have a daughter, but especially because I have two white, middle-class sons. I wanted to begin teaching them, even now, at 9 and 4 years old, that this matters to them: not only are their lives and those of many they love directly affected by any potential laws that restrict access to basic human rights, but they will be responsible for any solutions to come. I want this feeling of responsibility to become part of who they are, the way it became part of me.

“No,” I answered my daughter firmly, “It’s not dangerous. There will be a lot of things you don’t understand, but it’s okay to ask questions.”

We parked the car and walked for miles with other kind, smiling, like-minded people, swarming the streets like magnetic particles in a doodle board.

My four-year old was skipping along next to me, holding my hand, wearing knee-high, American flag-patterned ski socks. Suddenly, his hand slipped from mine and he tripped, flying Superman style into a three-inch mud puddle. Someone handed me a tissue for his hands. I picked him up and slung him onto my back. My daughter looked at me, horrified by the mud streaked all over my side, and I shrugged. Activism is not tidy.

We stood on the sidewalk when the march began, as if we were watching a parade. There were drums, hippies, and purple-stained dreadlocks. Most of all, there were many other children—a colorful stream against the bleak backdrop of the winter day.

I was standing there, thrilled that I had brought my own children, when my daughter turned to me.

“Mom, what’s a ‘pussy’?” she asked. I turned to face her, open-mouthed.

Had I opened Pandora’s Box? I wondered. Maybe so, but hiding a word, a concept, or an idea does not mean your kids won’t learn of it on their own.

I explained many things to my children that day, and they puffed up, fueled by the privilege of information. When a group of older women walked by, chanting, “Get your tiny hands…outta my under-pants!” My children began to giggle, but then they quieted down. They were beginning to understand.

The value in generating any kind of moderate shock is that it creates a conversation—an organic education—without the need for mindless lecture.

“Mom, when can we join the march?” my older son finally asked. That’s when I took his hand and together my children and I joined the tide, heading toward the state Capitol. We sloshed through the wet snow, making our way, singing with the crowd until our knees began to buckle and it was time to go home.

I do not ask my children to share my exact beliefs and values, although I certainly would like that. Instead, what I am trying to do is to give my children the tools to be able to feel empathy. That, combined with the ability to articulate what they believe and why, will give them both a heart and a voice. Only then will they have the power to take action—and that, I can only hope, will be for the benefit of others.

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