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Mary O's picture

If you’ve had a kid in high school, you know this. If you have a little one, you’ll know it soon enough. It’s the lunchtime ritual. When that noon bell rings, the teenagers come barreling out of their classrooms, divide up, and head to their group’s designated spot to eat lunch. Well, maybe they actually eat something, but mostly they just hang out together.

When they look back on their high school days, it’ll probably be these lunch spots and the memories formed there that they remember most.

For my daughter here in California, it’s this particular tree across the street from the school where there’s a bit of shade on a nice little patch of grass. Across the country in Jena, Louisiana, there was also a tree where high school kids ate their lunches.

First a group of white students sat under that tree. Then some African American students started sitting there as well. In a couple of days, a noose was hanging from the tree.

You’ve probably been reading about this -- the fights that ensued and the trial and then the sentencing and the marches last week. In case you want to read more, is a helpful site.

What I want to talk about here isn’t so much about what happened in Jena after the nooses where hung, but rather this: how do we and the many organizations involved in the motherhood movement relate to the nooses being hung in the first place?

Flashing back to California, I can’t stop the shivers I get each time I imagine my daughter coming out for lunch with a smile on her face and seeing a noose under her tree, and thinking, this means they want me dead. Would it ever actually happen to her? Probably not – she is of a multiethnic heritage, but she is not African American.

That’s always our first thought as a parent: could it happen to my kid? Very natural. But since I’ve been involved with the motherhood movement for a bit now, two other questions were catalyzed by the situation in Jena. No sure answers today, just questions, and I would love to hear your thoughts as well.

My first question is: Would the motherhood movement benefit by focusing on one or more of the particular concerns of mothers of teens?

Although many of the issues that our various organizations address touch mothers raising children of all ages, we also tend to emphasize the needs of the youngest. Perhaps this is because we see them as most vulnerable in terms of physical health and emotional well-being.

But what about the vulnerability of teenagers? Is the right to nourish our babies’ bodies with breast milk any different than the right to expect our teens to be safe in a world where homicides and suicides are two of the leading causes of injury and death? Don’t we need campaigns to ensure quality, affordable preschool just as much as campaigns to reduce the alarming high school drop out rate?

Certainly the motherhood movement does not have the resources to take on all adolescent issues, just as we cannot take on all of the issues affecting younger children. But perhaps we might work in parallel with other social movements that are addressing these issues. Bringing the organized voices of mothers to these causes may further the grassroots mobilization for policy and social change.

Mothers know that we are in for the long haul. When our movement speaks to some of the particular needs of mothers of teens, I wonder if this will encourage the continued engagement of mothers who joined in when they were pregnant or cuddling that tiny one.

My second question is related but also distinct: Where does targeting teen violence, especially in high risk communities of color, fit in with the motherhood movement?

When my daughter was young I fretted over every aspect of her health. Granted, I was an overboard worrier, but what mother doesn’t watch their baby for the first signs of a sniffle and has sleepless nights listening to a raspy cough? Keeping their little bodies healthy is Job Number One.

My daughter now has an almost grown-up body. But guess what one of my big fears has been in the past four years? That she would be beaten up or sexually assaulted at or near her school. Although this doesn’t happen as often in our school district as it does in some others, it does happen with enough frequency that the parents taste fear from time to time, and not a few transfer their kids out if they have the resources.

This is my small window into wondering what it must be like for mothers who are afraid for their teenagers every day because of the horrific level of violence that lives just outside their front door. What is more basic to mothering than taking care of our family’s health and safety?

For all parents of teens, the concern of violence is an issue. But for mothers in some communities, it may be THE issue. It is likely to be difficult to think about any other issues if you are worried about keeping your child alive.

The motherhood movement might have a profound opportunity to work in tandem with other groups addressing the economic and racial justice issues at the roots of violence affecting teens in high risk communities of color. If our movement included a large number of mothers whose children were in daily risk of harm to life and limb, would our slate of priority issues extend to include social policies to prevent violence?

Back to Jena, and back to my daughter. In my involvement with the motherhood movement, I’ve thought like this on key issues: I am lucky that my child has health insurance -- all children should! Same with having had paid maternity leave and good childcare for her -- I get fired up thinking of others who don’t.

Then when I was reading about the situation in Jena, I started thinking: although my daughter seems to be making it through the teen years relatively unscathed, what about others? Where does the motherhood movement intersect with the challenges of all mothers of teens, and specifically for mothers in settings where violence is prevalent? I find myself talking with friends about this. And I am wondering how the mothers of the Jena 6 would contribute to this conversation.

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