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first became interested in the politicization of childcare after reading Mariarosa Dalla Costa and Selma James’ “The Power of Women and the Subversion of the Community.” The 1972 pamphlet is about the necessity of including household and other reproductive labor in understandings of capitalist exploitation as well as the necessity of organizing that labor power to challenge capitalist social reproduction.
The central premise of the pamphlet, and the arguments of other Marxist feminists, lead me to join a childcare collective in Baltimore. The collective, Kidz City, provided childcare at activist meetings and conferences. Our goal was to draw attention to the importance of making space for caregivers and children within social movements, something that is often ignored or marginalized in leftist and radical political scenes. Another key goal was to bring caregiving out into the open, to make it a communal responsibility, and to therefore liberate it from its place as a privatized, exploitative, and unevenly distributed labor.
Although ‘childcare collective’ could refer to multiple ways of organizing collective care, Kidz City, and the childcare collectives discussed in this piece, organize childcare in partnership with activist organizations. They work with local community organizations to provide childcare at meetings, events, trainings, and conferences with one of the most immediate goals being to increase parental and caregiver participation in political organizing. The partner organizations are social justice oriented and are often organized by historically marginalized groups: women of color, queer and trans people, low-income workers, and immigrants. The collectives refer to themselves also as radical childcare collectives because beyond just providing childcare, they seek to change the way carework is valued, the way parents and caregivers are treated in their communities, and to build “a multi-generational movement for collective liberation.” The collectives here share Kidz City’s goals of making what is privatized, public, what is individual, collective, and what is exploitative, revolutionary.
My continued interest in theoretical questions of caregiving and its potential power to upend capitalism, caused me to take up childcare collectives as the subject of my master’s thesis. While I discuss some of the ways collectives are creating radical and reflexive spaces of care in my thesis and possibly prefiguring a post-capitalist future (Stinard-Kiel, 2013), what I want to focus on in this piece is a particular dynamic that came out in my research in ways I had not anticipated. This dynamic threw the racialized politics of caregiving into tension with many of the collectives’ attempts to challenge racial inequalities through social reproduction. In particular, the research indicates that having majority white collectives performing childcare for majority non-white caregivers and children may actually re-inscribed existing relations of privilege and power within social reproduction, rather than subverting them.
I approached the research having mostly taken for granted the fact that many childcare collectives have majority white membership, while they seek to support groups lead by people of color, who raise or care for children of color. An important aspect for many childcare collectives was having a political analysis of the exploitation, devaluation, and marginalization of reproductive labor, particularly the reproductive labor of women of color, black women, and immigrant women. Histories of black women’s reproductive enslavement (Davis, 1993), the devaluation and exploitation of women of colors’ reproductive work (Glenn, 1992), and immigrant and third world womens’ caregiving labor being made invisible (Enloe, 1989; Pratt, 2012) were all shared understandings within the collectives. Although they were not spelled out in academic terms, these ideas were reflected in the collectives’ mission statements. However, the desire to challenge the way social reproduction is extracted through people of colors’ bodies by having white collective members perform childcare for people of color, proved problematic. It appeared to reinforce existing hierarchies and exacerbate racial tensions in unhelpful ways, offering an example of how merely inverting a binary within social reproduction will not actually transform broader dynamics.
How tensions were brought to light
My research consisted of interviews with activist caregivers who utilized childcare collectives, members of organizations who partnered with childcare collectives, and the collective members themselves. It also consisted of a participant observation of a day-long Network Gathering (NG) of childcare collectives from six cities all over the US which convened during the annual Allied Media Conference in Detroit in 2012. The NG happens every year and is designed to bring collectives together to learn and share from each other’s organizing and caregiving experiences.
It was during an NG activity that different approaches to the racial politics of caregiving came to the fore. The activity was called “Growth Edges” and involved pieces of paper arranged in the shape of a sun (see Figure 2). We began with a giant paper circle, the center of the sun, onto which participants wrote beliefs and tactics that the collectives all shared. Some of these similarities were about organizational structure including, “Volunteer led and run: not non-profits” and “direct action model.” Some were about larger political values including “Intergenerationality is transformative to movements.” Another unifying political concept that echoed throughout the NG was about who the collectives seek to serve. This was written in the center of the sun as “Provision of care for low-income women of color,” and reflects an attention to the ways reproductive and caring labor is unevenly extracted and appropriated from people of color. It also reflects an understanding that without intentionally addressing the ongoing exploitation of women and caregivers of color in practice, racial inequalities would continue to reproduce themselves even within activist social movements. For the collectives, to subvert these dominant tendencies means to be specific about who the childcare collectives partner with and provide care for.
The second part of the Growth Edges activity involved the “rays,” triangular pieces of paper placed around the circle which represented “the more particular localized things that people are doing that all come from this central light source.” These were not necessarily complete differences, but aspects that certain collectives chose to place more emphasis on. Some examples were “attempt to develop curriculum…that relates to what the parents in the partner organizations are doing,” and “seek to be grounded in/supportive of the queer community.”
However, one ray represented what proved to be a somewhat oppositional approach within the collectives. It was written by a member of the oldest and most diverse childcare collective in my research. They wrote, “Childcare work provided by people of color as intention.” This stuck out to members of other collectives and ended up guiding many of my interview questions after the NG. The reason this “ray” was so generative of conversation, and in some cases tension, was that it went against the logic of many childcare collective members, particularly about their role as allies to communities of color. This idea of ally-ship stems from an understanding that people with access to more resources, whether time or money, should be using their positionality to provide care for those with fewer resources. This extends to beliefs about white privilege. A member of a collective with only one non-white member told me that her reasoning for getting involved in a childcare collective came from an anti-racist analysis and a desire to be an anti-racist ally. She said:
I went to an “anti-racism for white people” training, and they were talking about leveraging white privilege for social justice and organizing. One of the people there [said that] one of the things white people can do is offer childcare for people of color who are organizing, and I was like, yeah, I should do that.
This understanding of white ally-ship is what lead some childcare collectives and their members to become comfortable with being all or mostly white. They were not focusing on recruiting collective members who might reflect the identities of their partner groups. However, after this came up during the NG, it caused members of all, or majority, white collectives to reflect on whether merely inverting the racial dynamics of caregiving was actually helpful to the communities they were partnering with. It also led me to take up the problematic of white ally-ship in the face of the racialized politics of caregiving during my interviews with collective members and members of their partner organizations.
The limits of caregiving as white ally-ship
After the Growth Edges activity, members from three collectives broke into a small group to discuss among themselves the lack of racial diversity within their collectives. During my interviews afterwards, several of those members related to me how the discussion made them feel. One spoke of “angst” that her collective was all white and worked mostly with people of color. A member of another collective admitted that he was at first “a little put off” by the thought that the ally-ship model might be damaging to the people they work with. Another member I spoke with, who was not part of the small group, but was a member of a collective with all white members, talked of her discomfort with being in an all-white collective. She said:
Sometimes it does feel like we’re doing charity work or we’re some kind of fucking AmeriCorps volunteers. Sometimes there are, not conflicts, [but] there can be uneasiness between our volunteers and the parents and I think it would be ignorant to ignore some race issues there.
For the member interviewed above, their collective sometimes mirrored the institutionalized AmeriCorp program which often recruits young privileged white people to do paid service in underprivileged areas they are not from or familiar with. While the collectives sought to use childcare to subvert how caring labor is exploited through racial difference, they actually ended up reinforcing another potentially dangerous dichotomy, that of “in need of help” and “helper.” This understanding elucidates why the “ray” about providing care by people of color was so important and struck such a nerve. By failing to recruit collective members who shared identities and everyday struggles with the people they hoped to support, it’s likely the collectives were creating tense childcare spaces where racial/ethnic difference was not radically transformative, but potentially dangerous.
An example of this came up during my interview with the member who spoke of her “angst.” While the collective was doing childcare for an immigrant rights organization, a child was hurt during a ball game. When the parents wanted to know what happened, none of the collective volunteers could speak fluent Spanish, and failed to fully communicate to the parents why the child was crying. Although she wasn’t sure, the collective member I interviewed felt that this situation impacted the collective’s relationship with the group. Eventually that organization decided to discontinue their partnership with the childcare collective.
I was fortunate enough to be able to interview a former organizer with the immigrant rights organization, who is himself Latino, about the racial dynamics and what impact it had on the split. He cited several internal reasons for why the partnership was discontinued, however, he also cited cultural differences with the collective as being another significant reason. He said:
I think everyone except one person in [the collective] was white, and it wasn’t so much a race issue as an image issue. A lot of people in the collective were pierced and had dreads, and didn’t necessarily come to take care of kids in the cleanest clothing…They did a good job with the kids and were respected by the parents, but the new director felt like, which is true, that Latino culture, specifically working with people from rural communities that tend to be conservative, focuses very much on physical presentation…I’ve worked for many years in Latino and Black communities and there are some more conservative ideas of self-presentation on the whole.
While he attributes the tensions to culture, rather than specifically race, he later acknowledged that the racial difference was, at the very least, awkward. He said, “I think it can look weird because you have all these Latino mothers and all these white people with tattoos showing up to do childcare.”
This echoes the awkwardness and discomfort of the collective member quoted earlier who felt like their collective was doing “charity.” Rather than challenging the power dynamics, they were reinforcing and magnifying their own power, privilege, and disproportionate access to social capital. This is not an unfamiliar critique of non-profits, charities, and other NGO’s that rely on young, white people to serve communities of color. As with these more mainstream, neoliberal structures, the childcare space created by some of these collectives created a site that reinforced white dominance (Henry & Dixon, 2016). Moreover, while mostly white collectives were sharing space with people of color, they were keeping their distance in terms of cultivating a common political subjectivity. It was clear from my interviews that collective members were aware of this, even if they didn’t always articulate it in these terms, and even if they weren’t sure how to change it.
From Ally-ship to Solidarity
The obvious solution would be for white collectives to actively recruit more members of color, or members from partner organizations. However, because many of these collectives continued to understand their role as that of ally-ship, it appeared that creating more diverse collectives was not a high priority. To understand how this might be changed, I turned to the collective who wrote that they intentionally provide childcare by people of color. During the NG, a member expressed that they “moved away from using the word ‘ally’ as an identity” and that now they thought of themselves as being in solidarity, rather than ally-ship, with their partner organizations. During an interview, I asked a member of the collective to explain why they shifted their language and what it had to do with the fact that their collective is majority non-white. The collective member, a person of color, told me:
I think in a lot of modern discussion of ally-ship there’s a give-get, almost transaction. To be an ally…you’re exchanging your good politics to be let into a group…And I think we moved away from that because for a lot of our work we’re working with primarily people of color and women led organizations, and that’s primarily the makeup of our collective as well…we’re not doing this work in a way to rebuild a connection that’s been lost, which I think is what ally-ship tries to do…We’re trying to acknowledge that we’re actually part of that group.
This demonstrates how this collective did not view themselves as outside, or beyond, the political struggles of their partner organizations. The collective members are directly impacted by some of the same political, economic, and social forces that their partner organization members face, and they grapple with them on a daily basis, not just when they show up for childcare. This is not to say that this collective does not have white members or volunteers, indeed they do. However, by understanding their relationship to their partner organizations as being one of solidarity, rather than ally-ship, they were not enlisting young white people to help non-white caregivers. It’s important to recognize that there were other factors that played a role in how the collective developed its identity. They had been around for at least two years longer than the second oldest collective in my research and five years longer than the youngest collective. They also had twice as many permanent collective members, and many of the founding and longer term members were people of color.
Ultimately, I would argue, the tensions that played out in the Network Gathering and in the collectives themselves, offer an empirical example of how having an analysis or critique of an exploitative dynamic is only a starting point for liberatory action. Indeed, recognizing the importance of social reproduction, and how its labor is unevenly exploited, was the beginning of analysis for many collectives, as was recognizing the importance of foregrounding care, pushing it to the center of an agenda rather than allowing it to be marginalized. As Rosie Cox suggests though, the radical possibilities of an ethic of care often ignore or are blind to the fraught relationships and racial tensions that are present in the lived realities and on the ground practices of caregiving (2010).
Although the goal was to create stronger more inclusive social movements, the way care was practiced by majority white collectives who worked with majority non-white organizations actually came closer to mirroring neoliberal institutions like non-profits and charter schools, rather than enacting non-hierarchal ways to share political subjectivities. While I do believe providing any kind of childcare is a bare minimum to sustaining social movements and creating lasting radical change, it’s clear from this research that just showing up is not enough. What is necessary to create truly revolutionary counter-institutions, is to rethink how deeply caregiver, child, and childcare provider are implicated in each other’s lives and struggles.
Although radically transforming the existing relations of social reproduction is an ongoing process, I would suggest that there is both warning and hope in the empirical example offered in this paper. On the one hand, the practices of some childcare collectives were potentially hindering their larger political goals. However, their act of reflexively sharing their practices and policies at the Network Gathering helped the collectives learn and grow from one another. Here I am reminded of Iris Marion Young’s “inclusive political communication” because the members of the collectives at the NG entered into “an ethical relation of responsibility” for one another (Young, 2000: 58). They share their tactics and techniques in ways that find commonalities without disregarding differences and foreclosing change. The Growth Edges activity generated conversation because of collective difference, not in spite of them. Entering into an ethical relation of care, not just with the communities they partnered with, but also with collective members across race, gender, class and geographic space allowed collectives to reflect on how they should be interrogating their own organizing. In this way, childcare collectives, while not free from problematics, are finding ways to cultivate shared affinities, build solidarities, and be in continual reflexive caring practice.
 Quoted from an NG organizer who was leading the activity.
 For more on the struggles of activist parents and caregivers, please see Don’t Leave Your Friends Behind (Law & Martens, 2012).
 Quoted from a mission statement written by a collective who participated in my research.