As the truism goes, the personal is political. For many activists and organizers, the political began with their moms. For a special Mother’s Day tribute, Colorlines asked eight racial justice activists and organizers about life wisdom and political lessons their moms imparted to them. Whether it was the example they set for their children in the way they moved through the world, or concrete political values they handed down, these moms have been a guiding force for their kids.
Dawud Walid, executive director of Council on American-Islamic Relations-Michigan, on his mother Lucinda Johnson
My mom used to tell me about growing up in the Jim Crow South—her high school didn’t begin its desegregation process until she was in her junior year. She explained to me the struggles and sacrifices of people in her parents’ and grandparents’ generation. So I’ve always known that I stand on the shoulders of my family members and other black Americans who struggled so we could have a more dignified existence in the United States of America. Likewise, she also always told me that the struggle wasn’t over. Now, I see this from two perspectives: one as a black man in America and another as a Muslim. I always tell people—I drive while black and fly while Muslim. I know many people who are doubly profiled. We recognize that Islamophobia is only a branch on the tree of racism in America that’s rooted in white supremacy.
Tanzila Ahmed, artist, writer, and voter engagement manager at Advancing Justice-LA, on her mother Makhfee Ahmed
My mom called me a few months after 9/11 happened, and said that the FBI had come to our house looking for my male cousin who was a year older than me. My mom was really hesitant to tell me because she knew I’d get mad. And she said then that it didn’t matter what she did in this life, she was always going to feel like a second-class citizen. That’s the story I carry with me in doing this work. Since she died though, it’s been difficult. If my life was about making the world a better place for my mother, then what’s the point now that she’s gone? How do you do keep going?
I feel my perspective changing a lot now, though. Before my mom passed away, she and I started connecting over words. I’d send her books by Jhumpa Lahiri and Monica Ali, and for the first time she could hear herself in these narratives. After a while I started sharing my writing with her. If I was traveling, and I knew she couldn’t be with me, I wanted to be able to share my activism with her. My work now as a storyteller started with me sharing my life with my mom.
David Miller, founder of Raising Him Alone, on his mother Carole Miller
I am a reader, and that comes from my mom. She was a teacher, and she loves books. She’s always been on a quest for knowledge. And she’s been very clear that no matter what neighborhood you live in or where you come form, you always have to be willing to learn. You will never run into Carole Miller without a book, and that has grown on me. I always have books, my children always have books. My mom took us to the library every other weekend, even when she was very sick.
She was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis when I was very young. It was tough because I was 9, 10, and she was in a wheelchair. I learned the value of resiliency and not giving up from her, because she’s still alive, still fighting the good fight. And to this day, even in the emergency room, when she’s being admitted, in rehabilitation, she’s always talking about how she needs at least two books with her.
Marisa Franco, lead organizer of the #Not1More campaign for the National Day Labor Organizing Network, on her mother Mary Franco
There’s a phrase in Spanish, el qué dirán. It literally means, “What will they say?” We’re driven to make decisions based on how they will appear to others. Seeing my mother during a period of her life when she had to make difficult decisions for herself as a woman left an impression on me. When you become a mother, or someone’s wife, that identity and those responsibilities can swallow you up. I got to see her when she just f-cked the el qué dirán, and decided based on what she needed. I saw her take some sh-t for her decisions, but she made them. And that’s something that I really hold onto, especially in my work as an organizer. In organizing there are calls you have to make that are sometimes based on strategy, and sometimes based on principle. My mom, and lots of people in my life have shaped my principles and that’s something that’s been a real compass for me in my work.
Adrian Lau, organizer for SEIU Local 721, on his mother Clare Yeung
I am an organizer because of my mom. I remember going home to San Francisco during college and seeing a letter from the principal at the high school where my mom was a cafeteria worker telling my mom that if she went on strike she would be fired. It was at a time when I was developing politically, learning about the Asian-American movement, the black movement. Learning about that in my classes and connecting that to her experience as an immigrant—that moment was the bridge.
My mom had three jobs. The first was having to deal with me, and I wasn’t the model son, to put it lightly. She raised me and my sister and she did everything in the house, and that invisible labor needs to be acknowledged. She also had a hair salon in our garage. And her third job was working at Lincoln High School’s cafeteria. I do know that they got healthcare out of that fight, and my mom was transformative in getting her coworkers involved in that strike.
Mattie Weiss, organizer and trainer about her mother, Pam Costain
My mom did a lot of Central American solidarity work, healthcare stuff, anti-war organizing, and a lot of her sharing her politics has been overt in a lot of ways. She’s just always been talking about things like U.S. foreign policy, but it’s also all these little things, too. My mom has one of the strongest backbones of anyone I’ve ever met. She takes political stances that she believes to be right even when they’re not the same things that everyone else around her is saying.
When I was in fifth grade, she sat me and my sister down and said, “I notice a lot of your friends look like you and talk like you.” We had a really long talk about how, in the end, if you only make friends with people who are really comfortable to you, you’re only around people who reflect you back to you, and that was a really profound conversation for an 11-year old! But it made a major difference in both of our lives.
Paris Hatcher, Better Together manager at our publisher, Race Forward, on her mother Gail Ross Hatcher
I was raised to be an independent, strong girl and woman, and I owe a lot of that to my incredible, dynamic mother. She never boxed people in, and she was all about me following my dreams. I played football in my little league team growing up and she supported me the whole way. She made me believe that girls could do anything, and that type of fearlessness has been an important part of my development.
She was a high school teacher, and she started one of the first African-American heritage clubs for her high school students. It transformed the school. She gave me and her students a sense of themselves as black people in the U.S., and made sure we knew how important it was to be civically engaged. She’d always pick us up on Election Day to go vote with her.
My parents instilled in us that as black people we need to have land, we need to have an education, and we need to vote. My mom really instilled in me this value of being autonomous and being able to be make decisions for myself, but also to use my voice to speak up for others. She taught me that I’m responsible for not only myself but that I’m part of something larger than me.
Bishop Tonyia Rawls, executive director of the Freedom Center for Social Justice, on her mother Josephine Elliott (photo at top)
There are three key moments with my mother, who has since passed, that helped frame my life. The first happened when I was 5 years old. Dr. King had been assassinated, and there were riots in Newark where we lived at the time. My mother had us stay home from school that day and said, “It’s important for you to sit here and watch this event because the world will never be the same again.” It was important for my mother, who was not particularly a politically oriented person. After King’s assassination she walked us around the neighborhood, and it had been decimated. That was a defining moment. I remember her tears. She said, “People got upset because Dr. King was killed, but [here’s] the thing I want to say to you all: When you’re upset, I don’t want you to ever tear up your own stuff. That’s not how you resolve things.”
The second was when I went to college. There were maybe only four classes of black folks who Duke had admitted before I got there as a freshman. There wasn’t a long history of black folks or people of color, period, on campus in 1976. I was a black kid coming from a black and Puerto Rican neighborhood and here I am with kids who had been reared in private and boarding schools. That first semester I got two D’s, an F and one C, and I was devastated. I visited my academic counselor who told me, “I can see you were a great student in high school, and clearly you’re struggling. If you went to another school, like a Howard, you would be an A student.” I had enough presence of mind to not let this white woman see me cry. But once I got my mom on the phone I just lost it. I said, “Mommy, I can’t ever make it here! Everyone here is so much smarter than me.” And she said, “Tonyia, if you decide to come home I want you to know I will be no less proud of you because I know you gave it your best. However, I also know that you can succeed at Duke University, so if you choose to stay I know you can make it.” And three years later I graduated with my class, with a double major, even after taking a semester off to take care of my younger sisters.
And lastly, when I came out as lesbian. My mother was much more traditional in her upbringing, a traditional Baptist. But she found a way of seeing the package of her daughter, in all its uniqueness, as a gift. What do you do when it’s not easy? And how do you do not-easy with people you love? Of course she had the fantasy—I was a freaking debutante—and that didn’t play out. What my mother taught me was you embrace truth in good. The truth was: I was a wonderful human being, and in her mind I was still her daughter and it didn’t matter if I loved differently.
All this has served me well in terms of the intersectional way I live my life. I don’t struggle in the margins, and actually it’s my dwelling place. Even though she never took me to a political rally, or showed herself to be interested particularly in politics, the foundational truths she imparted are ones that didn’t allow me to live my life not giving back in terms of all the lessons I gained every step along the way.