To put it simply, Gloria Malone is a rockstar.
Since 2011 she has used her blog Teen Mom NYC to build an online community to help empower peer pregnant and parenting teens across the country. Throughout Gloria’s writing, whether it’s a quick post about resources for parenting teen or an op-ed in The New York Times, her dedication to her community and her commitment to achieve greater justice for young parents powerfully resounds.
Gloria advocates for the importance of supporting, not shaming pregnant and parenting teens, as well as the necessity for comprehensive sexual education in all schools, birth choice, and reproductive justice. Just a few months ago, she joined activists at the steps of the Supreme Court to speak out for women’s reproductive rights as the Court began to hear Hobby Lobby. Along with all of this incredible activism, Gloria is also in the process of wrapping up her bachelors degree in Public Affairs from Baruch College in NYC. And to take her rockstar status to the supreme level, she’s the proud mama of Leilani.
She gives a special shout-out to family-friendly organizations as they allow her to bring her daughter to experience her mama’s success. As she says, “Society needs to realize that you aren’t just working with one person, but you are working with an entire family.” When I spoke with her this week even as she was caught in the midst of finals, I paused and thought, “Damn, this lady has It.” We wish her and all bad-ass mamas a great Mama’s Day! (Enjoy that brunch, mimosas, and sun, lady!)
And now, without further ado, the Feministing Five with Gloria Malone!
Suzanna Bobadilla: Thanks so much for speaking with us this afternoon. To get things started could you describe for us your path towards activism?
Gloria Malone: My father is a political commentator, he’s a Spanish writing political commentator journalist, so it has been in my blood. I’ve had to fight that urge to always know what’s going on in government because it’s so exhausting! I started writing my personal blog as my first public writing. I started it initially because I was bored. When I had my daughter at 15, I told myself I wanted to give back to other pregnant and parenting teens. But then I thought, “I’m not anywhere where I can do that right now,” so I threw those ideas out the window until I realized the blog I had could be a platform for that.
So I couldn’t travel around the country and give workshops yet, but I could post information on my blog. People started writing and emailing me, organizations and people on Twitter started reaching out. It was through my blog and through my writing that I was plugged into a greater network of social justice movement without really knowing that’s what I was doing. I remember I would read something in the news and writing something about it and give it to my sisters to read and they would say, “You should try writing!” So that’s how it happened, it’s a bit of cliche because it was sort of an accident, like the “accidental activist.”
SB: As you have covered in the past, national campaigns that seek to shame pregnant and parenting teens fail both communities and young folks. Since this month tends to be full of such campaigns, what do you think to yourself when you encounter such campaigns and what would you tell folks who are also contending with these messages?
GM: When I first see ads like this, my first reaction is, “Why?” All of the marketing money that goes into it, all of this think tank money, all of these resources that are available to do these campaigns or studies are never available to put in action on the ground. It really upsets me because there is so much more that can be done. These campaigns, many of them are all over the country, influence the cultural attitudes of how people perceive young pregnant people and sexuality. They make all of those things a bad thing. So if you are a young person who is sexually active and you are pregnant, you have the biggest target on your back. It’s a cycle of feeding this cultural narrative that people who fit X, Y, or Z are bad. If those people are bad they need to be used as examples and so the campaigns are made.
Personally I saw ads like this before I became pregnant and it didn’t work. They don’t. What the campaigns do in my mind is they otherize teenage pregnancy so much to the point where I as a fifteen-year-old girl having unprotected sex thought, “Oh well I’m not going to get pregnant because that doesn’t happen to the type of girl that I am.” I know it has an adverse effect. These campaigns also stop teens from wanting to ask for help. People don’t like to ask for help in general — teenagers absolutely not. We were all there and we all knew everything when we were teenagers. And then when you are pregnant and everyone is giving you negative feedback everywhere you look, it’s really isolating. Teens have the highest rate of postpartum depression. No one talks about that. I honestly feel like it has to do with that everywhere you go as a young parent there is no place for you to be happy, and if you are happy, you are sending a bad message.
We should also reflect on how the message affects our kids. To me the way that I see it, it plants the seeds of division within families. So when we see the babies crying on the billboard, my daughter asked me, “Why am I not going to graduate from high school?” And the billboard says I’m the reason. These seeds of resentment are set to bloom later in life. Then later when our children are sitting in middle or in high school, they hear that the “Teen Mom is Bad” is spoken to our children. It affects the whole family, not just me but my children today and tomorrow.
These messaging also affects teen dads who are and aren’t present. By erasing teen fathers from the narrative, it absolutely influences the way teen fathers are treated in family court. I know a few teen dads who were trying to get visitation rights who were doing all the right things, but they were teen dads, it was like no. It’s terrible, it’s affecting the way they can father and the way they can parent. It also lets those who don’t parent off the hook.
Young people who find themselves looking at these ads — know that you are so much more than people who have never met you say who you are. Stay stubborn and believe in yourself. I don’t know know any other way to say this, but sometimes you have just not care. It’s so easy to say that, but it’s really about practicing it. Keep your head up, speak out about these ads if you feel comfortable doing so, write your feelings down about them, and know that these ads don’t know anything about you. They cannot predict your future, only you can.
SB: What’s a question about your work that you wish you could hear less, and what’s one question that you wish people would ask more?
GM: One question that I’m sick of hearing is when people ask “What helps?” and I tell them “Support.” And they are like, “Oh no, what about campaigns?” And it’s mind boggling to me (I have written about this for Advocates for Youth before) don’t ask questions that you don’t want to know the answer to or that you aren’t going to listen to.
Any person who has “made it” will tell you “Support. Support. Support.” especially if they are a parenting teen. And these folks will say, “Oh well that takes too much time, what if we get these celebrities to say something?” No. So I’m sick of hearing that question for that reason. The question that also really bothers me, maybe not so much because I’ve found creative ways of dealing with it is, “Is that your daughter?” “How old is she?” “How old are you?” “Oh.” ”Is the dad around?” It’s like, don’t interview me. You wouldn’t do this to a 30-year-old walking around with a baby, don’t do it with me.
The question that I wish people would ask more would be: “How can we work together?” That’s for everyone, for organizations who do the “prevention work” or those who actually do prevention work (and there is a distinction there). The #NoTeenShame Team wanted to meet with the founder of the Candie’s Foundation, Neil Cole to help the Candie’s Foundation make more informative and less straining and stigmatizing ads. We had over 900 signatures on a Change.Org petition, we called and we emailed and we got no response. We weren’t telling them to stop running their ads. In fact, I think they are in a great position because they have all of these young people paying attention to them. They have shoes and underwear and al of this really great stuff. Let’s work together somehow and make campaign ads that are really awesome that don’t hurt people or families. I would love to hear “How can we work together?” more.
SB: So let’s pretend it’s 2019, what kind of game changing activism are you up to?
GM: 2019 — let’s see what I’m up to in five years. I will have my masters from an amazing university. I would have already worked and will continue to work with prevention and support organizations (important to give them a shout out) about campaign messaging, about programs that we can develop together to help pregnant and parenting teens. I would have like to have been working with and continue to work with policy makers. More important, I really want to be speaking, engaging, mentoring, and being present for my peers — present, past, and future pregnant and parenting teens. It’s the whole reason that I started what I’m doing, which is to share my story with other pregnant and parenting teens. I would love to get back to that.
I hope to be traveling and speaking about the nexus that people live in their lives. There are all of these social justice issues, and teen parents are living at the nexus of these awful issues and yet we are ignored because we are the yucky teen parent. I hope that people from the whole political sphere can begin to realize that families come in different shapes and sizes and orientations. I also want to have written two books by then. At least two books by then!
My biggest dream ever is to have a national annual conference for pregnant and parenting teens and for those who support us and want to learn more. You have these business conferences and these big social justice conferences, and I want that for pregnant and parenting teens. They can bring their kids with them. Traveling is awesome and learning from traveling is great! I would love to have an entire building here in the city and it’s all for pregnant and parenting teens. I had a small summit in Orlando and then we put on the No Stigma, No Shame Summit in NYC. I know that I learn a lot at these events and you feel revitalized as you think that “Yeah I’m going to change the world!”
Oh, and can we please have some goddamn comprehensive sex education? Like, can we have that tomorrow?
SB: You’re stranded on a desert island. You get to take with you one food, one drink and one feminist.
GM: Okay so my drink is whiskey. I would bring a Falafel Platter — it’s so much stuff and it’s so good. My feminist — I’m thinking everyone on Twitter — I would bring @AskAngy, @BadDominicana, and my daughter Leilani.
Suzanna Bobadilla is the proud daughter of Raquel Hurlong, the person who first taught her what feminism was and how to find her voice. She will be spending Mother’s Day with her mama; there will be many hugs and margaritas.