We Made a Village for the Kids: Reflections on the Prairie Fire Organizing Committee

Chil­dren of the Prairie Fire Orga­niz­ing Com­mit­tee protest impe­ri­al­ism.

When I tell oth­er activists in the San Fran­cis­co Bay Area that I was a mem­ber of Prairie Fire Orga­niz­ing Com­mit­tee (PFOC or PF) in the 1970s and 1980s, they often say, “Oh yeah, you’re the peo­ple who always had child care at your events.” Peo­ple who knew us bet­ter knew that we also shared child care among our mem­bers and had a polit­i­cal kids group that was most­ly our chil­dren but includ­ed a few oth­ers. Our small orga­ni­za­tion was a vil­lage that raised almost forty chil­dren over twen­ty years. We didn’t do a per­fect job —our grown kids are quick to tell us where we blew it, but also to acknowl­edge how it made their child­hoods rich­er, more mean­ing­ful, and more secure. At the same time, we made it pos­si­ble for par­ents to par­tic­i­pate ful­ly in our col­lec­tive life and for all of the adults to have mean­ing­ful rela­tion­ships to chil­dren, rela­tion­ships that trans­lat­ed our com­mit­ment to fem­i­nism into the prac­ti­cal work of social repro­duc­tion.

In this peri­od, when pro­gres­sive activists are try­ing to fig­ure out how to orga­nize our­selves to deal with the chal­lenges ahead, it’s impor­tant to think about where chil­dren fit in. How can we nur­ture our com­mu­ni­ties’ chil­dren while ensur­ing that par­ents, and espe­cial­ly women, are able to par­tic­i­pate ful­ly?

For much of record­ed his­to­ry, chil­dren have grown up in vil­lages or towns with tight-knit social rela­tion­ships, where every­one knew them and had a role in their upbring­ing. The kids knew the bound­aries, and expect­ed to be sup­port­ed and chas­tised by every­one. The myth of the ide­al­ized nuclear fam­i­ly, two par­ents and one or two chil­dren, was wide­ly prop­a­gat­ed in Unit­ed States after World War Two. My gen­er­a­tion, born in the 1940s and 1950s, were par­ent­ed by that gen­er­a­tion of nuclear fam­i­ly par­ents.

My gen­er­a­tion became active sup­port­ing civ­il rights, oppos­ing the war in Viet­nam, and devel­op­ing a fem­i­nist con­scious­ness. Like many oth­er rad­i­cals, we orga­nized a small, dis­ci­plined orga­ni­za­tion of a type that flour­ished in the 1970s but is rare on the Left today. We con­sid­ered our­selves com­mu­nists, an orga­ni­za­tion of ded­i­cat­ed cadre for whom over­throw­ing the US empire was our high­est pri­or­i­ty. We stud­ied the Marx­ist, Lenin­ist and Maoist clas­sics, but were not aligned with any for­mal com­mu­nist ten­den­cy, and looked to nei­ther the Sovi­et Union nor Chi­na for direc­tion. Most of us were mem­bers of Bay Area pub­lic activist move­ments. Some end­ed up in prison for our actions and beliefs, and oth­ers were under­ground for years.

We were unit­ed by an anti-impe­ri­al­ist pol­i­tics that saw white suprema­cy as foun­da­tion­al to the U.S empire, shared the rudi­ments of a strat­e­gy for over­throw­ing U.S. impe­ri­al­ism, and adhered to a high lev­el of col­lec­tive account­abil­i­ty in our per­son­al lives that includ­ed a com­mit­ment to rais­ing our chil­dren.

We hat­ed how the nuclear fam­i­ly fore­closed women’s oppor­tu­ni­ties, and when we found­ed PFOC we want­ed to do it dif­fer­ent­ly. It was the 1970s. We were most­ly in our 30s and had ded­i­cat­ed our lives to over­throw­ing the U.S. empire, but we also intend­ed to raise fam­i­lies. We were most­ly first gen­er­a­tion home­grown rad­i­cals and some Red dia­per babies, look­ing for new ways to live in the world. As one of our mem­bers explains:

We didn’t want to repli­cate the expe­ri­ence of the Com­mu­nist Par­ty, where women were either com­plete­ly over­bur­dened or they were nev­er around and the chil­dren felt aban­doned. There are many chil­dren of the Com­mu­nist Par­ty who felt that their par­ents were lunatics, or women who felt like they couldn’t par­tic­i­pate in polit­i­cal activ­i­ties, because, of course, it was their job to take care of the chil­dren.

Women’s lib­er­a­tion was cen­tral to our pol­i­tics. We were led by women and saw fight­ing male suprema­cy as essen­tial to over­throw­ing impe­ri­al­ism. We wrote these ideas into our found­ing polit­i­cal state­ment in 1977:

Under impe­ri­al­ism, women’s oppres­sion has become defined with­in the frame­work of their dou­ble func­tion: as unwaged repro­duc­ers, social­iz­ers and main­tain­ers of the labor force in the home; and as super exploit­ed mem­bers of the wage labor force, pri­mar­i­ly in the reserve army of labor. These oppres­sive func­tions are main­tained and rein­forced by male suprema­cist insti­tu­tions, ide­ol­o­gy and priv­i­lege which extend into every area of women’s lives: polit­i­cal, social, cul­tur­al, psy­cho­log­i­cal, and sex­u­al (p. 29).

Our women’s cau­cus was both a polit­i­cal and a per­son­al sup­port. We sup­port­ed gay lib­er­a­tion when much of the left con­sid­ered being gay a dis­ease of empire. We always sup­port­ed, argued with, and par­tic­i­pat­ed in the autonomous women’s move­ment. Fur­ther, we were deter­mined to prac­tice fem­i­nism in the dai­ly life of our orga­ni­za­tion. Par­ents, espe­cial­ly women, were full par­tic­i­pants in our collective’s very demand­ing array of tasks and activ­i­ties. Col­lec­tive child care was a prac­ti­cal expres­sion of our fem­i­nist pol­i­tics and a polit­i­cal respon­si­bil­i­ty, as impor­tant as par­tic­i­pa­tion in our stren­u­ous sched­ule of meet­ings and actions.

Our col­lec­tive child care was more than a prac­ti­cal mat­ter, and more than just a belief that “the chil­dren are our future.” We saw social repro­duc­tion, “women’s work,” as the work that knits human com­mu­ni­ties togeth­er. We want­ed all of our mem­bers to par­tic­i­pate in work that we saw as cru­cial to build­ing rev­o­lu­tion­ary con­scious­ness and mak­ing rev­o­lu­tion.

As a new gen­er­a­tion of activists is wrestling with ques­tions of orga­ni­za­tion and strat­e­gy, I would argue that we need to look at how to build our move­ments to pre­fig­ure the world we want to see while we are fight­ing for racial jus­tice, immi­grant rights, women’s lib­er­a­tion and the rights of gen­der non-con­form­ing peo­ple. This essay describes what we did in PFOC in the San Fran­cis­co Bay Area and reflects on its rel­e­vance to today.

Child Care Teams

Child care teams were orga­nized for every fam­i­ly, and every mem­ber of PFOC par­tic­i­pat­ed. Our prac­tice evolved over the two decades of our orga­ni­za­tion­al exis­tence, but the basics stayed pret­ty much the same. A child care shift, usu­al­ly week­ly, could involve pick­ing up one or more kids from school or after school activ­i­ty, help­ing with home­work, mak­ing din­ner, over­see­ing bath and bed­time. The teams usu­al­ly had from three to five mem­bers depend­ing on the adult/child ratio at the time, which meant that par­ents were free three to five times a week to go to meet­ings or oth­er activ­i­ties of our lives. We helped man­age week­end activ­i­ties; when we had pro­grams or activ­i­ties we always pro­vid­ed child care, not only for our­selves but for any­one who par­tic­i­pat­ed.

The child­care teams were our effort to cre­ate a vil­lage for the kids. When I picked up my charge from school or day camp I would joke that I was part of her “vast entourage.” We want­ed the kids to know that they had peo­ple they could call on, talk to, ask for help. The tes­ti­mo­ny of the grown chil­dren con­firms that most of them felt that sup­port, felt wel­come in the world. They crit­i­cize us for our short­com­ings, but also rec­og­nize that they had more sup­port than most of their peers. They are a pret­ty con­fi­dent, com­pe­tent bunch, most have warm rela­tion­ships with their par­ents and have kept friend­ships with many mem­bers of their child care teams for more than 30 years.

For the twen­ty years PFOC was part of the Bay Area Left, about fifty of us raised almost forty kids. Today the old­est are approach­ing fifty, the youngest are not yet in their teens. We have a hand­ful of grand­chil­dren, and in a lot of ways resem­ble any oth­er crew of aging white rad­i­cals. Many of us are teach­ers, writ­ers, and still activists. We still par­tic­i­pate in sol­i­dar­i­ty work with Haiti and Pales­tine, march with Black Lives Mat­ter against police ter­ror and for women’s repro­duc­tive jus­tice and LGBTQ lib­er­a­tion.

As a par­tic­i­pant in today’s move­ments, I see that par­ents, espe­cial­ly women, are fac­ing the same obsta­cles to full par­tic­i­pa­tion that we saw in the 1970s. Left groups do not have a per­spec­tive that includes child rais­ing.

Although I was con­vinced that our efforts at struc­tured col­lec­tive child rais­ing were pos­i­tive, I want­ed to find out what all of us, adults and chil­dren, thought of our child care prac­tice. How did the kids under­stand what we were doing? How do the adults remem­ber their years of par­ent­ing in a col­lec­tive or being on child care teams? I inter­viewed every­one I could find who was will­ing to talk to me for an hour, about fifty inter­views in all. There were a few adults who I could not track down, and a few who declined to be inter­viewed. I was able to inter­view most of the grown chil­dren. This infor­mal style of inquiry raised three themes to which peo­ple kept return­ing: the kids most­ly liked their child care teams and hat­ed it when peo­ple left them; the par­ents appre­ci­at­ed the help, although were often ambiva­lent about shar­ing deci­sion mak­ing about the kids; and the non-par­ents were per­son­al­ly trans­formed by build­ing rela­tion­ships with chil­dren.2

Impact on the Children

The kids most­ly loved the child care teams, although they were less thrilled with how many grownups felt enti­tled to know what they were doing and to have opin­ions about it. From one of our old­er chil­dren, the third of four raised in a big col­lec­tive house in San Francisco’s Haight Ash­bury:

One of the great things about hav­ing a child care team was for kids to hang out with adults that are going to expose them to things and talk about things with them and take them on adven­tures and have ener­gy for them that their bio­log­i­cal par­ents might not. Being around adults who said I have ener­gy for you and I have time for you and I want to focus on you and take you places and hang out with you.

Most of the for­mer kids I inter­viewed con­curred, remem­ber­ing par­tic­u­lar mem­bers of their team who they enjoyed. For exam­ple, anoth­er grown child shared:

Annie would tell these epic sto­ries about the Roman bour­geoisie who were glut­to­nous and would go into the vom­i­to­ri­ums and throw up so they could eat more. And then the maids had to go in and clean up these hor­ri­ble vom­i­to­ri­ums and found these pre­cious jew­els and ran away and lived for­ev­er on these rings. Real­ly cre­ative won­der­ful sto­ries that were very polit­i­cal that I just ate up.

Of course there was a down­side to hav­ing so much adult atten­tion. The same per­son con­tin­ues:

A lot of peo­ple talk­ing about how you did on your math test and whether you can tie your shoes or the age you were pot­ty trained, it puts a lot of pres­sure on you. The lev­el of aware­ness of oth­er people’s opin­ions about me from a very ear­ly age. I’m a very pri­vate per­son because I’m very aware of oth­er people’s opin­ions and crit­i­cisms and judg­ment. I real­ly keep things very close. I don’t expose myself very read­i­ly. Pri­va­cy that I’ve clung to as secu­ri­ty.

On the oth­er hand, they hat­ed it when peo­ple went away. As adults the kids most­ly praise us for our efforts to sup­port them. But they all have mem­o­ries of loss, of peo­ple leav­ing the child care teams, some of them of peo­ple going under­ground. They hat­ed peo­ple going away and hold us account­able for not find­ing a way to help them under­stand what was going on. When some­one left our tight-knit polit­i­cal cir­cle, they often left the kids as well:

We lost [one per­son] because he left the com­mu­ni­ty. I remem­ber ask­ing about it. I remem­ber my mom say­ing he’s not going to be a part of PFOC any more and her say­ing he want­ed to be more with the gay com­mu­ni­ty. Some part of me got that, but I asked if he was going to be around for us. And she said yes, but I don’t think he was very wel­come in the scene any more.

But the kids knew they had some­thing spe­cial. Our kids knew the teams were an asset their friends did not have. Even when they did not know how to say it, they could tell that their con­nec­tions ran far­ther and deep­er than a “tra­di­tion­al” two par­ent house­hold and that their team were not babysit­ters. More than one of the kids not­ed that it was their friends of col­or who rec­og­nized our extend­ed fam­i­ly style arrange­ments:

I grew up with a lot of black kids, and this way of hav­ing fam­i­ly wasn’t that dis­sim­i­lar from the way that their fam­i­lies were. The peo­ple I felt most uncom­fort­able with were oth­er white kids, because there was still such a pres­sure for het­ero fam­i­lies. But the black kids I hung out with would say, oh this is my play cousin. And I could say I have some of those too. It was a lan­guage for me to express what you all were. I remem­ber beg­ging my par­ents, ‘what are these peo­ple to me because they are not just my friends?’ I couldn’t use the word com­rade, but that was anoth­er way to say it. That was my play sis­ter.

The part­ner of a woman close to us inter­viewed some PFOC par­ents and chil­dren for her master’s the­sis in social work. She sum­ma­rizes:

The kids I inter­viewed had a sense of being wel­come in the world. Their con­fi­dence arose from their sense of being wel­come in mul­ti­ple house­holds. They had a sense that by and large they were raised by peo­ple who lis­tened to them, that were in their busi­ness. Some kids didn’t like that there was a lack of pri­va­cy at times, but they also learned how to speak their minds with adults at a young age because they had to. And there was actu­al­ly sup­port for them speak­ing out. The folks who raised them were rather remark­able peo­ple in them­selves, and I think that some of that rubbed off.

Children’s Political Education

We orga­nized polit­i­cal edu­ca­tion for our grow­ing pack of school-age chil­dren. They called it the Red Drag­ons. We showed them movies like Roots and Eyes on the Prize. The kids dis­rupt­ed Toys R Us dur­ing the hol­i­day shop­ping sea­son with a demon­stra­tion against war toys. Red Drag­ons was our effort to engage the kids in our polit­i­cal work, led by PFOC mem­bers who worked in child care cen­ters or the pub­lic schools. When we look back on it now, I think many of us agree that we were pret­ty top down and dog­mat­ic, and that if we had it to do over again we would have lis­tened hard­er to the kids.

Our most suc­cess­ful cam­paign with them was Pen­nies for Pen­cils. Peo­ple had just returned from a del­e­ga­tion to El Sal­vador in 1984 and told the kids how poor­ly equipped the schools were, men­tion­ing that the kids there didn’t even have pen­cils. Our kids respond­ed: “We brain­stormed what we would want to give the kids in El Sal­vador, and we prob­a­bly got help with that. Some­body helped us learn about the lack of school sup­plies … I remem­ber being real­ly excit­ed about that.” We mount­ed a cam­paign with the idea of col­lect­ing mon­ey for pen­cils. They had a booth at neigh­bor­hood fairs (pin the tail on Rea­gan) and can­vassed door to door. The kids raised more than $1,500 in three years and sent tens of thou­sands of pen­cils to El Sal­vador.

Fly­er for PFOC children’s sol­i­dar­i­ty project.

The reac­tions of the grown chil­dren to their mem­o­ries of the Red Drag­ons ran the gamut from neg­a­tive to pos­i­tive, with polite ambiva­lence a com­mon response.

The most neg­a­tive:

I do under­stand the parental com­pul­sion to give chil­dren a world­view that incor­po­rates one’s own val­ues, and you guys had sol­id ones, for the most part. I just don’t think most of the adults involved knew how to han­dle the respon­si­bil­i­ty in a way that was con­ducive to a child’s under­stand­ing and devel­op­ment.

Oth­er assess­ments were more ambiva­lent:

No one on my child care team was part of Red Drag­ons, so nobody was invest­ed in my emo­tion­al well-being except to make sure I came home with all my teeth and wasn’t hauled off to juve­nile hall. I don’t blame them. We were thrown togeth­er in ways that weren’t very organ­ic. I have real­ly fond mem­o­ries of play­ing with all of these kids; we have some great pic­tures of all of us. But as we got old­er it got a lit­tle mean­er. And as we per­ceived the larg­er social set­ting we were in, we also reflect­ed the social struc­ture of the orga­ni­za­tion and of our par­ents. It wasn’t that we were friends and had a play date. It was that our par­ents were doing polit­i­cal work, and we were doing polit­i­cal work.

The most pos­i­tive assess­ment of our kids group came from peo­ple who them­selves became orga­niz­ers as adults:

I loved the Red Drag­ons. I remem­ber a lot of kids. Me and [my sis­ter] would tease each oth­er, oh boy are they real­ly train­ing us for some­thing, indoc­tri­na­tion, con­trary to what our par­ents might say now. I loved being around all these kids, I felt like we were a fam­i­ly, we were learn­ing some­thing in a pret­ty fun way. We went on camp­ing trips, we did all this pret­ty cool stuff.

We learned real­ly impor­tant things about race and gen­der in the Red Drag­ons, and about what it meant. We didn’t have to unlearn the myths about the per­fect U.S. democ­ra­cy lat­er on.

We vis­it­ed polit­i­cal pris­on­ers on a reg­u­lar basis and took the kids as a mat­ter of course. We were close to a cohort of Puer­to Rican, Black and white polit­i­cal pris­on­ers: mil­i­tant activists for Puer­to Rican inde­pen­dence, Black nation­al­ist rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies, white anti-impe­ri­al­ists con­vict­ed of armed actions. As I inter­viewed our kids, I real­ized that with­out my ask­ing they were all telling me about going to vis­it polit­i­cal pris­on­ers and how impor­tant those vis­its were for teach­ing them about injus­tice:

Vis­it­ing pris­ons and vis­it­ing the peo­ple that I knew in prison were prob­a­bly some of the most pow­er­ful expe­ri­ences I had when I was a kid. It made me real­ly angry because they couldn’t walk out with us at the end.

I think kids real­ly want to fig­ure out what’s fair or not, and it didn’t seem fair that these peo­ple who were so amaz­ing and who either did noth­ing or did some­thing that I thought was jus­ti­fied were in prison for the rest of their lives instead of out with us.

Talk­ing to the grown kids con­vinced me that our child care prac­tice gave them an over­all under­stand­ing of social jus­tice and con­fi­dence in their capac­i­ty to par­tic­i­pate in social change. None of them has whol­ly reject­ed our polit­i­cal per­spec­tives, although they are not all activists or orga­niz­ers by any means. And as they have their own chil­dren, they echo some of our child care arrange­ments, although they tend to be struc­tured along more tra­di­tion­al lines (call­ing on us as grand­par­ents, etc.).

Impact on the Parents

The par­ents were of course glad to have the sup­port of child care teams. Some felt they didn’t get enough sup­port, espe­cial­ly the ones who had chil­dren lat­er when we had more kids to take care of and were less tight­ly orga­nized. And some admit­ted to wish­ing they could spend more time with their chil­dren and resent­ing the chil­dren hav­ing oth­er sig­nif­i­cant adults. As one par­ent put it, “I want­ed those lit­tle arms reach­ing out for me.” Every­one talked about the chal­lenge of find­ing a bal­ance between col­lec­tive dis­cus­sion of the kids and the need to make final par­ent­ing deci­sions.

A long time mem­ber, a child care pro­fes­sion­al, sums up:

I knew that in the long run most of those par­ents were going to be with those kids, but that many of the peo­ple on the child care team were there for this year or that year, as long as their assign­ment last­ed and as long as they were involved with Prairie Fire.

It’s what I under­stand about my role as a pro­fes­sion­al child care provider. I can be with kids 40 hours a week, but I’m going to be with them for a cou­ple of years. It’s their par­ents who are going to be with them for the long term.

On the oth­er hand, our child care teams were an oppor­tu­ni­ty for both par­ents and chil­dren to have a broad­er view of the val­ue of rela­tion­ships between adults and chil­dren. One of the par­ents explained it this way:

I became a par­ent kick­ing and scream­ing. But then I got to the point where I didn’t want our daugh­ter to go to anoth­er house, I didn’t want her to go for two weeks to Maine with peo­ple on her child care team. I want­ed to be with her. But that wasn’t what peo­ple signed up for. If I want­ed this to be a child care team, I had to give up my priv­i­lege or my pow­er or my posi­tion as pri­ma­ry par­ent. Let­ting go of that was hard, it wasn’t some­thing I want­ed to do, but I knew it was what was best for her.

These unique famil­ial units had oth­er unin­tend­ed effects. For instance, they mit­i­gat­ed the pain for the kids when par­ents sep­a­rat­ed. Because we tend­ed to cou­ple with­in the col­lec­tive, our kids did not usu­al­ly lose a par­ent when the par­ents sep­a­rat­ed. (Col­lec­tive sup­port and pres­sure for the grownups was also a fac­tor; our breakups were for the most part very civ­il.) If any­thing, the child care teams grew and changed as the kids rotat­ed between hous­es. But to a remark­able extent, the secu­ri­ty of our chil­dren was not depen­dent on the per­son­al rela­tion­ships of their par­ents.

One of our for­mer mem­bers:

The child care team was an invalu­able asset in man­ag­ing divorce. Not just because we saw oth­er peo­ple break up and still have this fam­i­ly struc­ture, although that’s a big thing that I got out of the whole thing, but also because you need help some­times. My breakup with [my part­ner] was in part a prod­uct of some of the dys­func­tions with­in Prairie Fire. But in the same way that a col­lec­tive struc­ture put a lot of pres­sure on a fam­i­ly, the sense that we were a fam­i­ly even if we weren’t togeth­er was nev­er ques­tioned for us because we had this struc­ture.

And one of the grown chil­dren:

I def­i­nite­ly noticed that my par­ents get­ting along bet­ter after they were sep­a­rat­ed was very ben­e­fi­cial and that was the most impor­tant thing. They seemed to get along bet­ter after they were sep­a­rat­ed than when they were togeth­er. I remem­ber as a young child, 7 or 8, oth­er friends say­ing I was rich because I had two hous­es, espe­cial­ly since they were liv­ing so close to each oth­er.

Col­lec­tive child care posed chal­lenges for the par­ents, as peo­ple not bio­log­i­cal­ly relat­ed to their chil­dren formed rela­tion­ships with them and had opin­ions about them. We did not have clear guide­lines, so one team might decide it was appro­pri­ate to argue about what mid­dle school a 12 year old should attend, while on anoth­er team, the par­ents might be com­plete­ly in charge, with the rest of us viewed as helpers. At a min­i­mum we relieved our par­ents of the bur­den of being the only adult mod­els for their chil­dren; some par­ents actu­al­ly con­struct­ed fam­i­lies of a new type with non-par­ents, fam­i­lies that have last­ed to this day.

Impact on the Non-Parents

The most sur­pris­ing trans­for­ma­tive impact of our child care prac­tice was for the non-par­ents. For me, as for many of the non-par­ents, col­lec­tive child care not only deep­ened my fem­i­nist pol­i­tics, it changed my life. I come from a big fam­i­ly, saw my moth­er give up her per­son­al ambi­tions to raise us, and was unwill­ing to be some child’s only or even pri­ma­ry role mod­el of moth­er­hood. Nor was I inter­est­ed in becom­ing a preschool or ele­men­tary school teacher. But I like kids, care about them, and knew that rais­ing chil­dren was vital­ly impor­tant work in the world. I did child­care for sev­er­al of our old­er kids, and became a third par­ent for our daugh­ter, who I have known since she was con­ceived almost 40 years ago.

Ear­ly in the inter­view­ing process for this project, I real­ized that many of us non-par­ents had our own ver­sions of my trans­for­ma­tive expe­ri­ences. Some of us made new fam­i­lies that includ­ed the non-par­ents (at least three such fam­i­lies). Oth­ers went from the child­care teams to bear or adopt their own chil­dren: a dozen het­ero­sex­u­al cou­ples, and half a dozen les­bian cou­ples in and around PFOC. Two sin­gle men, on straight, one gay, and one woman adopt­ed.

One man, now a par­ent of two chil­dren, describes his trans­for­ma­tive expe­ri­ence:

When I took the step of join­ing PF I knew this would be part of my duties, and I saw it as a duty. …It takes about half a sec­ond before you real­ize this isn’t a duty, it’s about devel­op­ing a rela­tion­ship with this kid, with chil­dren. Once that shift hap­pened, it’s mag­i­cal. Once you make that shift and you’re real­ly relat­ing to a kid, then you can relate to any kid…you can become a teacher!

Where’s the pay­back [for us]? PF’s not around any more, I have these two young chil­dren, but real­ly the pay­back, the reward was intrin­sic, at the moment.

A gay man who became a par­ent as well as a leader of the Red Drag­ons offers this:

It didn’t occur to me to have a rela­tion­ship to chil­dren, because one of the things about being a gay man is that you didn’t have a rela­tion­ship to chil­dren…. One of the great things that Prairie Fire’s col­lec­tive child care and the Red Drag­ons gave me was the knowl­edge that I loved kids. I didn’t know that because that wasn’t a think­able thing before.

He attrib­uted his own even­tu­al adop­tion of a daugh­ter to his time with kids in the PFOC:

I high­ly doubt that it would have hap­pened if I had not had the expe­ri­ence I had with kids in PF and learned, a. I liked it, and b. I could do it. …A lot of peo­ple I knew were dying. A whole set of gay men that I had come to find myself with were dying. And in that way that death and new chil­dren are part of a cycle….

A straight man who went on to be one of the three par­ents of our daugh­ter explains:

I had zero expe­ri­ence of kids before PF… had no inter­est in being around kids and no expe­ri­ence rais­ing or help­ing with that.…One of our agree­ments [in my rela­tion­ship] was that we weren’t going to have kids, because I didn’t want to have kids. She agreed polit­i­cal­ly but not personally…I couldn’t say no, but my con­di­tion was that we were going to live col­lec­tive­ly. I don’t think I would have want­ed to have kids in a dif­fer­ent con­text at that time. Hav­ing the col­lec­tiv­i­ty allowed me to be open to that possibility…It wasn’t just the polit­i­cal line, the project, we all do child care.

It wasn’t just open­ing up time for women to be out in the polit­i­cal world because they didn’t have to be with the kids all the time. It also allowed me to not be tak­ing such a per­son­al risk to the rest of my life goals.

Our child care mod­el worked because we were ded­i­cat­ed to a larg­er polit­i­cal goal and child­care was a con­di­tion of mem­ber­ship. Many of us were not our­selves par­ents, and we sub­scribed to a fem­i­nist pol­i­tics that defined col­lec­tive child rais­ing as essen­tial fem­i­nist prac­tice. Our mod­el became a chal­lenge as more of us decid­ed to become par­ents and there were few­er non-par­ents to pop­u­late the teams. Our lat­er par­ent­ing mod­els look more like today’s par­ent co-ops and play dates. By the mid-90s our orga­ni­za­tion had failed to grow; we dis­band­ed in the Bay Area.

Yet some of the next gen­er­a­tion of par­ents in the Bay Area rad­i­cal move­ment were direct­ly inspired by our mod­el to con­struct some­thing sim­i­lar involv­ing sup­port for the par­ents and a big­ger cir­cle of adults for the kids. An envi­ron­men­tal jus­tice orga­niz­er in her 40s told me how her obser­va­tion of the PFOC child­care teams influ­enced her to try the mod­el:

We lived with some­one on a PFOC child care team. The child spent the night at our house once a week and we got to know the whole extend­ed fam­i­ly, her mom and all of them. They intro­duced us to the Prairie Fire mod­el of the child care team, so we had a lit­tle gath­er­ing of folks who were inter­est­ed in this idea. Some of the Prairie Fire folks told sto­ries about what it was, what they did and how it worked. Then we start­ed a child care team for our first child.

We had a fair­ly big crew in the begin­ning, that whit­tled down to four or five. Many of them have stayed real­ly close in our lives. They would take her out for walks, or come over and spend time with her. That would give us time; it was a foun­da­tion for us. And also for her. It was a way to pro­vide her with oth­er adults.

Anoth­er cou­ple that had been part of one of our teams orga­nized a team of their own when their child was born, and impro­vised some oth­er col­lec­tive child­care ideas on that basis:

When the baby was born we didn’t cook for a month. Peo­ple would come over, hold her, do our dish­es. It was about peo­ple com­ing over and being help­ful, but also hav­ing a rela­tion­ship.

It start­ed with orga­nized child care, and as she’s got­ten old­er it’s trans­mut­ed into a large fam­i­ly. She’s got a lot of aun­ties and an uncle. Some of them don’t see her as much but they’re still her aun­ties and uncle. They will take her and a friend and go do stuff with them, so that they have become part of her fam­i­ly.

The oth­er thing that we did was … [at her preschool] she became friends with these girls and we became friends with their fam­i­lies. We have sup­port­ed these girls since they were two years old to con­tin­ue their friend­ship and to con­tin­ue our rela­tion­ship with these fam­i­lies. We helped one fam­i­ly when her dad died. The girls go to dif­fer­ent schools but they see each oth­er every sum­mer. They have birth­day par­ties togeth­er.

I recruit­ed the fam­i­lies to start a coop­er­a­tive day camp. Since kinder­garten we have spent one to three weeks each sum­mer tak­ing turns hav­ing a day with the kids in a mod­el that’s not so fun­da­men­tal­ly dif­fer­ent than a child care team.

Still, for most activists, the deci­sion to become par­ents tends to dri­ve them out of the move­ment. And yet, these par­ents are pre­cise­ly the ones who come to under­stand the need for new ways of think­ing about child­care. A vet­er­an activist in her 40s with a teenage daugh­ter sums up the dilem­ma:

We all pay lip ser­vice to the impor­tance of the next gen­er­a­tion, the impor­tance of edu­ca­tion, safe­ty for chil­dren, blah blah blah. But it’s not until we our­selves become par­ents that we actu­al­ly start to want to do things about it, but then because it’s just us, we are peeled away from the main­stream of the move­ment and have to fig­ure it out on our own. And that hap­pens over and over again. It was prob­a­bly hap­pen­ing in your gen­er­a­tion, it’s hap­pen­ing with peo­ple younger than me.

And because we each decide to have a child when we decide, the peo­ple who become acute­ly aware of the need to change how we raise chil­dren are the peo­ple who do not have the capac­i­ty to make that change hap­pen.

A cre­ative adap­ta­tion of the team approach was a child care col­lec­tive that flour­ished in the Bay Area in the ear­ly 2000s, orga­nized by a group of white activists look­ing for a way to do con­crete sol­i­dar­i­ty work with orga­ni­za­tions led by women of col­or. Its mem­bers built rela­tion­ships with par­tic­u­lar orga­ni­za­tions, pro­vid­ing child care for their meet­ings and activ­i­ties. I inter­viewed one of their orga­niz­ers:

One of the pri­ma­ry goals of the child­care col­lec­tive is to pro­vide sup­port for work­ing class women of col­or lead­ers in the move­ment through orga­ni­za­tions like Peo­ple Orga­nized to Win Employ­ment Rights (POWER), Causa Justa/Just Cause, the women’s pro­grams of the Day Labor Cen­ter, and sim­i­lar orga­ni­za­tions that have their base in work­ing class com­mu­ni­ties of col­or.

Child­care is a way that peo­ple with dif­fer­ent forms of priv­i­lege around race or class or gen­der could be act­ing in sol­i­dar­i­ty with com­mu­ni­ties that are most impact­ed by het­eropa­tri­archy and cap­i­tal­ism and as a way to sup­port fam­i­lies more broad­ly to come into move­ment spaces, and to sup­port women’s lead­er­ship in par­tic­u­lar.

Still, this par­tic­u­lar child­care col­lec­tive is an excep­tion with­in the broad­er move­ment land­scape:

The flip side is that there is still a lack of com­mit­ment to child­care in the left and in our move­ment. Even some of the women that we would be work­ing with would have to strug­gle with­in their orga­ni­za­tions to get resources for child care.

Child care is the first thing that peo­ple cut out of their sched­ule when they get “too busy,” and you would have a lot of con­ver­sa­tions with peo­ple about well, you’re not too busy, it’s a mat­ter of pri­or­i­ties. You’re mak­ing a polit­i­cal deci­sion to depri­or­i­tize it. Once a month? Almost any­body can do that. But it has to be a pri­or­i­ty. And why is this not a pri­or­i­ty?

Like many of the orig­i­nal PFOC activists I inter­viewed, this orga­niz­er empha­sized how this sort of child­care work con­tributed to the strength of the strug­gle in the long term:

It was not just about sol­i­dar­i­ty work. It was about build­ing with these young peo­ple. I got to work with young peo­ple over the course of many years and then see them grow up and turn into youth orga­niz­ers. I learned a lot around how impor­tant it is not just to sup­port women’s lead­er­ship but to cre­ate spaces where entire fam­i­lies can be a part of move­ment work in dif­fer­ent ways.

Building a Broader Movement

If we want to build move­ments that are broad as well as deep, and that reflect our com­mu­ni­ties, we have to pro­vide for our chil­dren in deep and mean­ing­ful ways.

Par­ents feel tremen­dous respon­si­bil­i­ty for chil­dren, and will not light­ly entrust them to a col­lec­tive process of any kind unless they are con­fi­dent that the chil­dren will be safe, nur­tured, appre­ci­at­ed. This means dif­fer­ent things in dif­fer­ent com­mu­ni­ties, but includes safe­ty from the police, know­ing about food aller­gies and oth­er health sit­u­a­tions, and appre­ci­at­ing each child’s unique mind and spir­it. A sense of humor and will­ing­ness to learn are a basic require­ment.

What insti­tu­tions can inspire this lev­el of trust? First, there must be com­mon goals besides care for the chil­dren, some kind of col­lec­tive inten­tion to which peo­ple feel and are held account­able. That is nec­es­sary, but not suf­fi­cient. Many rad­i­cal orga­ni­za­tions in the 1970s and 1980s had com­mon goals (the usu­al lan­guage was “prin­ci­ples of uni­ty”), but most did lit­tle or noth­ing to deal with child rais­ing as either a prac­ti­cal or a polit­i­cal prob­lem.

The les­son we take from our expe­ri­ence in PFOC is that the col­lec­tive inten­tion must be fem­i­nist and focused on com­mu­ni­ty build­ing as well as nar­row­ly “polit­i­cal.” Com­mu­ni­ty build­ing involves a lot of tak­ing care of each oth­er and a lot of mun­dane work: help­ing with each other’s liv­ing con­di­tions, deal­ing with unequal incomes, accom­mo­dat­ing dis­abil­i­ty. It’s a lot of the work that has tra­di­tion­al­ly been “women’s work,” and it needs to be the work of every­one in the com­mu­ni­ty if we are going to be prac­tic­ing fem­i­nists— which is anoth­er way of say­ing car­ing human beings. If our polit­i­cal work makes us “too busy” to build our com­mu­ni­ty, we can be sure that tak­ing care of the chil­dren will be seen mere­ly as one task among oth­ers, and that peo­ple who are not par­ents will find them­selves “too busy” to ful­fill their child care respon­si­bil­i­ties. Yet if we see the direct link between build­ing strong com­mu­ni­ties and our broad­er polit­i­cal goals, we can appre­ci­ate the impor­tance of col­lec­tive child­care.

If the col­lec­tive is com­mit­ted to the kids, then par­ents face the oppor­tu­ni­ty to let oth­er adults into the lives of their chil­dren. Some will wel­come this; for some it will be a chal­lenge. Cur­rent “attach­ment par­ent­ing” ide­ol­o­gy rein­forces par­ents’ under­stand­able anx­i­ety about their chil­dren and dove­tails with the per­va­sive cli­mate of fear fos­tered by our increas­ing­ly militarized/policed soci­ety and its media min­ions. Par­ents may not real­ize or pri­or­i­tize how much shared child rais­ing means for the adult non-par­ents. The fem­i­nist pol­i­tics of the col­lec­tive neces­si­tates dis­cus­sion of how much non-par­ents and par­ents and their chil­dren can gain from the sup­port of a big­ger com­mu­ni­ty.

And then non-par­ent adults have to sign on and step up, to see our­selves not as “help­ing the par­ents” (echo of men “help­ing with house­work”) but as estab­lish­ing seri­ous rela­tion­ships with par­ents and chil­dren, for our­selves as well as for them.

Our col­lec­tive com­mit­ment to our chil­dren in PFOC has made us all, women and men, gay and straight, much more con­scious of the impor­tance of the work of social repro­duc­tion and the val­ue of com­mu­ni­ty. We strive for egal­i­tar­i­an rela­tion­ships in our fam­i­lies. We have a web of com­rade­ly rela­tion­ships with each oth­er based on mutu­al respect. We are car­ing for grand­chil­dren and help­ing each oth­er with the hard­ships of aging; we do child care as sol­i­dar­i­ty work with oth­er orga­ni­za­tions; and we see our­selves as part of the project of envi­sion­ing a world worth liv­ing in.

  1. After the then-pop­u­lar quo­ta­tion from Mao Zedong, “A sin­gle spark can start a prairie fire.” 

  2. Although I talked to many for­mer mem­bers of PFOC and our chil­dren, this is my per­son­al sum­ma­ry and not a col­lec­tive assess­ment. 

Author of the article

is an activist in Oakland, California. She has taught college classes and worked in a print shop, as a system administrator, and a freelance writer.