The sacrifices I was raised on: how empathy brings us closer to a radical politic of family

Originally posted at Strong Families and at the Community blog, by Shanelle Matthews 
My biological dad was in prison when I was little. My mom, single at the time, would drive me, my brother, and sister to see him. Because I was little, I don’t have a lot of memories of this time, but I do remember one thing. At the prison, an impassable glass partition separated my dad and me. I couldn’t touch him and he couldn’t touch me. We talked on a black, scratchy phone that connected the two sides of the glass. It was brief and sad.During the time my dad was in prison, my mom worked several jobs. She was a single parent to my siblings and me and was forced to work around the clock to support us. Because of this, her time with us was limited. When she was away at work—which was often—Dora and Betty and another woman whose name I can’t remember cared for us. My mom was committed to making sure we had food and clothes and somewhere to live, things I got to take for granted. Betty and Dora and the woman whose name I can’t remember were all undocumented immigrant women from Guatemala. They spoke little English and sometimes spent the night at our house. One of my brother’s first words was “zapato” (Spanish for shoe). It wasn’t until I became aware of the fight for domestic workers’ rights that I realized that these women from Guatemala were taking care of us so they could take care of their families. How maddening to recognize that the cycles of poverty that we face today are the same as those our parents experienced decades ago.Writing this I started over two and three and four times. It wasn’t until the fifth try that I understood that my mom, my biological dad, and the women from Guatemala shared a common thread—their lives were divided by partitions, literally and figuratively. But the fight for a living wage, to end mass incarceration, and to create comprehensive policies on immigration and a pathway to citizenship, all of these threaten to topple the barriers affecting our most impacted communities: immigrants, poor people, and people of color—often one in the same.My biological dad, my mom, and the women from Guatemala were kept away from their families by partitions, fences, glass ceilings, and social prejudices. What held these dividers in place was bureaucratic red tape; the kind that builds on outdated notions of what families look like and what they deserve. The kind of red tape that forces immigrant families to wait fifteen years for health care; the kind of red tape that keeps same-sex couples from marriage, second-parent adoption, and spousal benefits; the kind of red tape that limits access to comprehensive sex education, access to contraception, reproductive healthcare, and culturally appropriate resources for families of color; the kind of red tape that allows border patrol officers to shoot and kill families desperate for a better quality of life. This red tape is responsible for the deaths of millions. In the process, we’re becoming desensitized to empathy.No matter how hard we fight, when we are denied fair and just opportunities to care for our families and ourselves we can’t thrive. Erosive policies don’t just punish rather than protect—they break us. They break families who travel thousands of miles, leaving their homes, everything they’ve ever known, only to be slaughtered at the border; they break the mother who sold her last possession to save her dying child because health care policies failed her; they break the black teenage boy who before he’s old enough to vote is sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole; they broke my 25-year-old cousin, Candace, who died one year ago next month, her beautiful life cut drastically short, because of healthcare policies that erase the experiences and needs of poor people. Our families, my biological dad, my mom, and the women from Guatemala ask for basic human rights—healthy food, affordable healthcare, and the opportunity to make a living wage. It can’t be in good conscience that decision makers refuse us the rights, recognition, and resources we need to thrive.

As we approach mother’s day, I’m thinking about my mom and the women from Guatemala and the millions of other mothers who are undermined because of inhumane policies and practices. Our democratic processes are not enough; we must share our stories and create a culture of empathy, and we must make visible the invisible experiences of the poorest among us. By gathering and sharing our stories, we can build a culture that recognizes and respects the wide variety of strong families that build our communities.

The pathway to citizenship is not paved with chocolate. Breakfast in bed doesn’t replace affordable healthcare. Flowers won’t keep the lights on or cure hunger. This year give moms something they really need. Join Strong Families in celebrating Mama’s Day Our Way, a campaign set out to reach and highlight the mothers who are often overlooked in the mainstream celebration of Mother’s Day. Send an e-card that reflects what our families really look like. Add a message that calls out policies that punish rather than protect. Take action to support comprehensive immigration reform. Families are the basic building block of our society and the support of a strong family makes it possible for people to thrive. Help us make that a reality for all families.

Shanelle is a blogger, creative and all-around digital communications enthusiast. She is the Communications Manager at Forward Together, co-founder of Black Women Birthing Justice and co-editor of Birthing Justice: Black Women, Pregnancy and Childbirth, slated for print in 2014. She is a participant in the Strong Families project, Echoing Ida. Follow Shanelle on Twitter @freedom_writer.
This blog post is part of the Strong Families Mama’s Day Our Way celebration. You can read more posts in the series on the Strong Families blogStrong Families is a national initiative led by Forward Together. Our goal is to change the way people think, act and talk about families.

 

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