Teaching Children About Activism

As the child of immigrants, I got to see the struggle firsthand. My parents immigrated to the United States from Mexico in 1966. They had only the clothes on their backs, a bit of hard-earned money, dreams and a lot of determination. Against all odds, they persevered and ultimately succeeded. Their plight as immigrants in this country fueled my passion for activism. When I became a mother, that passion only grew. I wanted to continue to help effect change, with my little one by my side. 
Strapped into a baby carrier, my daughter picketed with nurses for safe staffing before turning 1. Quite literally, she learned to protest before she learned to walk. At 16 months of age, she marched for women’s rights in the historic 2017 San Francisco Women’s March. She wore a fuzzy pink hat and carried her pink pacifier, the rain drizzling on us as we marched. We participated in protest playdates at U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, San Francisco City Hall and Nancy Pelosi’s Congressional office, calling for a stop to immigrant family separations. 
At one particular family separation protest playdate when she was 2½, she helped make a chain of love with paper kid and heart cutouts before marching down Sansome Street to see it hung above the entrance of San Francisco’s ICE building. Carrying a “DREAM Act Now” sign, she marched in support of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. She insisted on wearing a Batgirl costume because she wanted to use her special powers to help. 
Riding along in a little red push truck, she participated in a march to celebrate the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. As we marched, the organizer leading the way chanted, “Who’s got the power?” By the end of the march, my daughter would answer, “We got the power!” When I’ve served as a volunteer interpreter at ICE check-ins, my daughter has come along. She understands we are helping someone, and looks forward to the post check-in cookie and hot chocolate celebrations at a nearby coffee shop. 
We started reading children’s books about activism to her early on, starting with Feminist Baby and The Little Book of Little Activists. Still, each time we participated in a protest or march the same questions would arise for me: How can I facilitate the development of her own relationship with activism? How can I empower her to advocate for herself and others? How will she connect with the struggle, when she is so far removed from it? 
My answer came at a Mother’s Day family separation protest we attended together four months shy of her third birthday. An immigrant mother shared her harrowing journey to the U.S. from Central America. I teared up, her story moving me to my very core. I couldn’t help but think of my parent’s struggles as immigrants. And deep down I knew that if my parents hadn’t immigrated to the U.S., my daughter and I could very well have been in the same predicament as this mother and her children. My daughter asked why I was crying. What followed was a short talk about my immigrant roots, privilege and our role in advocating for separated families. 
There was a moment of silence. I wondered if I had shared too much, or too little, and just how much she had understood. Seconds later, she matter-of-factly said, “I never want to be separated from you. The niños should be with their families.” She understood. And in that moment, a fierce little activist was born. I’d spent so much time worrying about the how that I’d forgotten to trust in the power of connection and empathy. And most importantly, in her heart. Watch out, world! She’s listening, she’s learning, she’s generation Alpha.
The biggest lesson I’ve learned is that if you speak from the heart, your little one will listen and understand no matter how complex the issue is. There’s no perfect way to have these conversations with your child. They’re beautifully imperfect, but they are heart talks that create space to be able to continue to talk about difficult topics. I’m learning just as much as she is as we talk about social and environmental justice issues. We are growing together, and making our voices heard. There’s no better legacy to leave her with to carry on.
To learn about Gabriela’s favorite books and media to inspire activism, click here.

Gabriela Wijegunawardena is a San Francisco nurse and mother. She blogs at rnactivist.com.


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