Sharing activism with your kids

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Bellamy Shoffner and her family collect coffee and eggs to help clients at The Haven, a downtown day shelter, enjoy a hot breakfast every day. Photo: Eze Amos Bellamy Shoffner and her family collect coffee and eggs to help clients at The Haven, a downtown day shelter, enjoy a hot breakfast every day. Photo: Eze Amos

In 36 years of moving up and down the mid-Atlantic, I’ve never lived in a city that didn’t carry the weight of a racist past. As a teenager, I heard news of white supremacists marching through my small Maryland town. As a young adult in Greensboro, North Carolina, I marveled over stories about ’60s sit-ins, and watched as the old Woolworth building was transformed into the International Civil Rights Center & Museum. Now, in Charlottesville, parenthood has taken what I knew to be true about racism and oppression in America and propelled it to the forefront of my consciousness. As the mother of two black children, I can’t pretend I’m raising kids who aren’t targets of hate. It’s a feeling I often describe as terrifying, but experience every day as motivating.

Any parent will tell you that everything changes when a kid enters the picture, but some of us will also tell you that our need to stand up against bias and discrimination is intensified. I’ve always had an interest in activism, but there is an undeniable urgency that accompanies parenthood, a compelling need to affect change and leave the world a better place for my children. Part of ensuring my kids grow up in a world that is increasingly equitable is embracing my own power as a social justice advocate.

In late 2017, with the contributions of friends and other writers, I launched Hold the Line, a magazine that explores social justice and parenthood. HTL’s essays and articles—about race and culture, gender and feminism, being a queer parent, and parenting LGBTQ children—now have a modest but worldwide audience. We start meaningful conversations through sharing personal stories, and encourage readers to make social justice an integral part of their parenting journey. HTL it is my way of railing against the countless malignant marches of those who wish children like mine didn’t exist.

Worthy as it is, the magazine is fairly abstract to my sons, and I don’t believe I can claim to care about the world around me without raising kids who care as well. It feels crucial to make my activism clear to my kids, and help them get involved, too. I want them to know that though we may find ourselves without much, we always have something we can give. Our contributions to social equity may be in the form of our time, our friendship, or our ability to organize, but we are never without ways to help.

Together, my family toured The Haven, a multi-resource day shelter in downtown Charlottesville, to see how we could contribute. We started the Coffee + Eggs Drive as a way to help reduce The Haven’s largest kitchen costs. We collect eggs and coffee from individual donors or purchase them ourselves and periodically deliver them to The Haven. In the summer months, our donations boomed, and visiting The Haven became a normal part of my children’s daily routine. Even in the slower cold months, most mornings when my sons stumble downstairs and start foraging in our fridge for breakfast, they see dozens of fresh eggs that are awaiting a trip to The Haven. I hope my kids value that literal holding of space for the needs of marginalized members of our community. To me, the eggs are an unusual but powerful display of the small ways in which we can each make the world more equitable.

In addition to our partnership with The Haven, we recently started accepting additional coffee donations for PACEM as we learned its guests are given a warm beverage upon check-in. PACEM gives people who are experiencing homelessness overnight shelter in local churches during the coldest months of the year. As a new member of PACEM’s board, I hope that my children will take notice of my involvement with both organizations and one day mirror my commitment to community.

Also under the umbrella of HTL, my family and co-organizers host When We Gather, free public gatherings where we welcome friends old and new to join us in community-building and shared discussions about socio-political topics. With age-appropriate books and activities for the kids, and time for adults to chat, these events are a crucial part of our sustainable, visible activism. We all learn from each other as families in search of ways to effectively combat hate and discrimination in our city, state, and beyond.

Just as we question what meaningful steps we can take to help others, parents often wonder how and when to address tough topics with their kids. There’s no easy answer to this, but if we are effectively diversifying our lives, we are met with natural opportunities to tackle conversations surrounding social justice. Fill your child’s bookshelf with stories representing varying communities and identities. Respectfully attend events that inform your understanding of marginalized groups. Be age-appropriately honest when helping your children understand inequality, both historically and in the present. When I discuss racism, sexism, politics, and the like with my children, I meet them at their level and remember not to overload them with details. Talking to them is one aspect of ensuring their support of social justice, but talking is not enough. My intention is to surround them with a life representative of the values we hold close.

Inequities exist on a continuum; my adversities may not be rooted in the same tree as yours, but injustice is all fed from the same soil. I don’t know what it’s like to be homeless, but when I show my children that we house food for strangers and go out of our way to drop off donations, I am showing them that every member of our community matters. When I talk to my sons about HTL and the inclusive identities the magazine presents, I am telling them that our struggles intersect and are intertwined with the hardships of others. When we gather with friends at the library or Belmont Park and share stories and strategies for coping with the frequent unearthing of bigotry in America, my children are hearing that there are many ways one can be an activist. Above all, I hope my kids are learning an everlasting lesson: that there is no triumph in this world unless you are holding others up with you.

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