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The Feministing Five: Mia Birdsong

Mia Birdsong is redefining how we value families with the project Family Story. We spoke with her to learn more about why it’s crucial to expand beyond the increasingly antiquated concept of the nuclear families and how we can use our imagination and creativity to create new, more inclusive communities and loving networks.

Mia Birdsong speaks at TEDWomen2015 - Momentum, Session 5, May 28, 2015, Monterey Conference Center, Monterey, California, USA. Photo: Marla Aufmuth/TED

Mia Birdsong

Family Story is a new national communications hub that shifts the conversation about families away from judgement to one that embraces the dignity and value of different family arrangements. They aim to create  research and share aspirational narratives about what it means to have a family today in 21st America and how it’s time to stop privileging only a specific and increasingly outdated model.

Mia Birdsong co-directs Family Story along with Nicole Rodgers. Mia is an established leader in economic justice and has highlighted the innovation and power with low-income communities.

And now, without further ado, the Feministing Five with Mia Birdsong!

Suzanna Bobadilla: As a co-director of “Family Story,” you are creating a platform to celebrate all sorts of families. Why was this important to you? 

Mia Birdsong: Family Story is joining a movement that was started many years ago by black women and women of color who created a reproductive justice framework. The movement is about expanding our understanding of what family is so that we can offer as a nation the same rights, protections, benefits, and sense of dignity and wholeness to folks who live in the majority of families.

Marriage rates have declined dramatically in the last 50 years. If you took a snapshot of adults in the 1960s, 70% of them were married. Now it’s just 50%. Not surprisingly, people still prioritize being parents so there is an increase what academics call “non-maternal births.” In 1960, only 5% of births were outside of legal marriage. Now it’s around 41% percent and around millennials it’s 51%.

Now there is no one family arrangement in which you will find the majority of children. There has been an explosion in diversity of families, but the nuclear family is still generally viewed as the most healthy, functional, and supportive for the well-being of its members, especially children. Conservatives have peddled this version of family as “traditional,” even though it’s not. Because progressives had not largely had a counter-narrative, the conservative perspective has really infected the mainstream discourse. It’s not a coincidence that black people, poor people, and queer people are most likely to live in non-nuclear families.

The struggles that those non-nuclear families face is not because their are deficient in any way. It’s because the current structures, policies, and social conventions aren’t actually fully serving all families.

So when Nicole Rodgers, my co-director, approached me about partnering with her on this work, I was very excited. I had been working in the economic justice space for almost a decade, and I saw this work on families to be so intersectional. It’s where race, gender, sexuality, and class collide.

SB: What you define as “family”? 

MB: Family can be fluid. As we go through our lifetime, we tend to have a whole bunch of families. It’s people who are you care for, who care for you, who you love, and who you mutually support. You might be connected to them by blood or law, or they can be chosen folks. You can just end up with each other because of circumstance. The lines between family, friends, and community are blurred.

Families can also come in and out of your life. My kids, for example, have hella aunties even though my husband has just a couple of sisters. My kids’ aunties are my best friends who help me raise my kids, and I know that some of them are going to talk to my kids about sex when they don’t want to talk to me.

But who knows what it will be like when my kids are 30? Maybe things will change.

That’s what I love about this work. Families are fluid, but not in a scary way where you can’t count on folks. You gather folks together in the time of your life when you need them. As you grow as a human, that’s going to shift.

Acknowledging that families can shift allows for your families to grow up with you. If your relationships or marriages end, that’s not failure; it’s time to part ways and to move onto other things. You’ve grown, that’s okay!

SB: You’ve spoken before about the power of marginalized people and how the idea of meritocracy is deeply flawed. Could you share more about that? 

MB: There’s a wrong idea that poor people, black people, or trans people and folks who live in those intersections face certain challenges because of our individual actions. It’s the false idea that poor people are poor because they don’t work hard enough or because they don’t manage their money properly — when actually, there is an economic structure in the US that makes it impossible for them to not be poor.

There is also a false idea that as black people all of the stuff that we are dealing with is because we are lazy, stupid, or greedy, as opposed to the reality that there is white supremacy baked into everything. I also think about how trans folks are being killed, how they face depression, and are economically discriminated against. This isn’t because of anything that they are doing. It’s because they don’t have legal protection or access to medical professions who have their shit together and who know how to treat and support people.

I want the narrative around marginalized people to focus on the ways that we can solve the problems that they face. It needs to change from fixing them as individuals. We need recognize how marginalized people are amazing because we have survived and we innovated.

SB: Especially during an election season, it seems like the idea of “family values” is used to frustrate progress on tons of issues that our Feministing readers care about. How can we help to reclaim the idea of family away from the right? 

MB: We have to start examining what we actually value about family. Right now, “family values” is short hand for not getting divorced and abstinence only education. It’s this weird buttoned up conservative stuff. It’s not what we actually value about family. We value family for its love, connectedness, and caring for each other.

Conservatives created this weird structure and window dressing for “family values,” but we on the left still need to discuss what we value about families and what it can look like for us.

Even for folks who have families with two adults and children, it’s still really hard. They think that this is supposed to work, but they don’t know why they are still so miserable. Well, it’s because there aren’t enough of you. The argument between single parents and dual parents is ridiculous because you need like twelve people to raise children. You need community to be family.

The story that we need to start telling is about connection and support. The barometer that we use to evaluate families isn’t about structure; it’s about love and caring. Once we can identify what those things mean to us and we can let go of our inherited biases, it will be better for everyone. You can create a family of your own — you can find your own ride or die people and build community out of them. You can do this by looking out for each other’s children and it’s not a transactional thing. People are really happy to be there for each other. We can make our own tribes.

We have to collectively re-imagine what we want our families to look like and we can build them with each other. It’s not like this hasn’t been done before. Black people since they have been in this country have been re-making family in all kinds of ways because we had to. Queer people also built families in new ways for survivals. There is a lot to learn from that history, wisdom, and practice.

SB: Let’s pretend that you are throwing a great party. What kind of food would you serve and who would be your feminist guests of honor? 

MB: I would serve Jamaican food and drink and I would invite Courtney Martin, C.M. SamalaSabrina Hersi Issa, and my husband.

Images provided by Mia Birdsong. 

San Francisco, CA

Suzanna Bobadilla is a writer, activist, and digital strategist. According to legend, she first publicly proclaimed that she was a feminist at the age of nine in her basketball teammate's mini-van. Things have obviously since escalated. After graduating from Harvard in 2013, she became a founding member of Know Your IX's ED ACT NOW. She is curious about the ways feminists continue to use technology to create social change and now lives in San Francisco. She believes that she has the sweetest gig around – asking bad-ass feminists thoughtful questions for the publication that has taught her so much. Her views, bad jokes and all, are her own. For those wondering, if she was stranded on a desert island and had to bring one food, one drink, and one feminist, she would bring chicken mole, a margarita, and her momma.

Suzanna Bobadilla is a writer, activist, and digital strategist.

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