Thursday, September 14, 2006

Mom in the Movement: Lisa Russ of the Movement Strategy Center

How do you balance working for social change, with the work of being a mom? Lisa Russ, the Associate Director of the Movement Strategy Center, shares the joys and challenges of being a new mom working for social change.

The Movement Strategy Center is a nonprofit organization in Oakland, CA that is committed to advancing the next generation of leaders for a sustainable progressive movement. The Center helps to build local, regional, and national networks of young activists, across interests, constituencies and geographies.

You can listen to the interview on the Big Vision Podcast.

How do you balance your work at the Movement Strategy Center with the work of being a mom?

Someone said to me, before I had Zach, that every organization should be full of working mothers because they are the most efficient people around. I wasn't a working mother then, I wasn't exactly sure what she meant, but I knew from seeing her that it seemed true. It definitely has changed my sense of time. Being a working mother means doing everything as quickly, and well and efficiently as I can.

I was worried before I had him that I would be one of those mothers who is always late for day care because I'm not someone who has ever been able to leave work on time. But I'm not late to get him because you really cannot be late to get your kid at daycare, because they charge you, and also it means a lot to me to be there on time for him. He looks around for me, and gets excited for me to come. I have become a person who actually leaves work when she is supposed to. That's a big change. And I work at night, and I work on the weekends,and I feed Zach while I'm checking my email. There's a lot of multi-tasking, but I've always been a multi-tasker, so that comes pretty naturally.
How has being a mom changed your work?
Before I had Zach, I was definitely a busyaholic, you know a workaholic, busy-addict kind of person running around and running around and people were like, "What are you running away from?" and, "Why are you so busy?" and I was like, "Nothing, I'm happy, this is the way I am!" There was so much to do, and I felt driven by my work and really rewarded by it, and not just paid work, but also all these volunteer things and other community stuff -- feeling really involved and feeling engaged. Whenever I felt like I could do something that was going to have some kind of impact, that gave me a lot of energy.

Becoming a mother has meant that I don't have the time or energy to do that. It's a huge change for me to go from being out almost every night and from being busy almost all the time, and obviously as a mother I am still busy but it's a very, very different kind of busy. Being with Zach is tremendously rewarding for me in a different kind of way. So, I think that some of the things that, it turns out, I was running away from, have kind of caught up to me. Something I probably share with a lot of people who do this work is, feeling like I was doing something meaningful was my way of coping with fear about the world, and despair about the world. By working on whatever project, I could keep one step ahead of the fear and the despair.

Having Zach really brought into focus for me this tremendous stake in the future that I hadn't had in the same way before. Before I was like "OK, whatever, maybe we are going to burn this planet to hell and we probably deserve it, but who cares?" in a way. Not literally, but it's like what we are doing as a species to the place where we live is so unfathomable that in a way there was a throw up my hands aspect to it, even though I was engaged in what I could do to prevent that, or work against that tide. Within a few months of Zach being born, I was just getting all these really strong fears about him not making it to adulthood. He was born two months before Katrina, which sort of crystallized for a lot of people fears about global warming, and also fears about the inadequacies of our government and our systems to respond to needs.

I think that sort of started a wave of panic about the future, and of feeling like, really thinking about him not making it. And of course this year, after Katrina there also has been the bird flu scare, it has also been the 100th anniversary of the earthquake, the war in Iraq and then this war between Israel and Lebanon, and Israel's own war on Gaza, on Palestine -- so there has just been a lot of like Armageddon in the air and I definitely, for maybe six months of Zach's life, got preoccupied by this fear.

So, just having spent so much of my life managing that fear through work, it was really intense to all of a sudden sit with that fear in a new way. The other thing that happened as part of the transition to motherhood was understanding global life through the eyes of a mother and a parent. I think I'd always thought, whatever, you could certainly look into Palestine and think, "Oh my God, those mothers, how are they feeding those kids? And those fathers, and how do they feel?" But the level that it hits me in my stomach now when I imagine what it must feel like during the air raids in Gaza and Lebanon to not be able to keep your child safe, and to be laying there with your child and not be able to say, and mean, "Everything's going to be OK. I can protect you." That is so fathomable now.

I really empathize with what I can imagine people are going through and just get really horrified by it. So in terms of what this means about the work, my work at its core is about building movements for social change and social justice. I have to do that work, because I have always had to do that work, and now I am driven to do that work from an even deeper place because of feeling both a fear about the present and the near future. A hope about it, too -- my hope for what the world (although I have to dust it off and fan the fire) it's also there, and I want to feed that hope and I want to bring Zach into a hopeful world.

So keeping myself going and keeping myself engaged in the work is really important, and I can't do it in the same way I used to--going to lots of events and getting the same charge that I used to. A friend of mine is doing civil disobedience tomorrow, and when he first told me about it I was like "Yeah, of course I'll do that with you." It's about Israel and Lebanon and I was like, "I'll definitely do that, I'll definitely do that." And then I realized, "Oh the time it is, I will be in jail when I need to be picking my kid up from school, so I cannot actually do it." Which is just another example of -- engaging means something different now, and I think I'm still struggling to really know what that means, and I know on a heart level it's going to be a deep and rich kind of engagement, and it's a new engagement.

One aspect of this that people have been working on and thinking about, and it's pretty obvious, is just, "What do you do with your kids?" I just went through a funny experience of wanting to go to a training, a several day training, leadership training, that was on-site a couple hours away and didn't provide child care. So I was like, "How is a nursing mom supposed to go?" Being a nursing mother means that you have to see your kids -- if they are young, all the time, and if they are older like Zack, at least a couple times a day, or once a day.

Negotiating my autonomy and my closeness with Zach and how it relates to me going out into the world and doing other things -- I think it is really common for mothers in this work to struggle with that. I guess what I want to say is when Zach was first born it was like, "Oh, you have little baby, and of course you take time" and then it was just sort of, "OK, come back and be back and just do this stuff." That's what I would have expected of myself too, and not really realizing it's still really hard to go to events at night. It's still a huge thing for me to go away overnight to lead trainings, or be a part of workshops. It's all these underlying questions about creating the change that you want to see, and what that means in terms of what kind of house Zach grows up in.

I don't think that that means that Zach needs a mommy who's there all the time, but it also means to me that he feels a sense of safety and security that I am there when he needs me. I think for every person, finding that balance is one of the cruxes of this parenting puzzle. Everybody has to find it in their own way, and every kid is different. I think what's hard to realize -- what was hard to really know before I had a kid -- was that we all have ideas about what it's going to be like before we have a kid. "I'll always do this, and I'll never do that and only cloth diapers and no TV and no sugar" or whatever it is. I think everyone is transformed by parenting. I certainly was. So even who I thought I was, even while pregnant, is different than who I am now, and Zach is his own self. It turned out for example, I used to be the kind of person who definitely judged other parents as lame when they wouldn't go out at night. I thought that was really weird, or when they seemed like a slave to their kid's nap schedule or sleep schedule. And then Zach came along and it turned out that from a very young age, Zach needed to be home at night, and night for Zach meant by 5:00, 5:30 PM.

I'd be invited to an event that'd be from 5-7 PM and people would be like, "Oh this must be great for you. This seems like a really child friendly time schedule," and I'm like, "You would think so, and I would have thought so, but the truth is that Zach needs to be home and Adam's still working, and I'm still nursing and it's a real hard time for me to leave him, even with a babysitter, a friend or whatever, and so I actually can't go." And now that he's fourteen months that is much, much, much less true, but that's been a very long time in coming, and it's only really recently that I have a lot more flexibility in the evenings and at night to get around.

So in terms of this balance thing it's sort of this question thing about how much I'm there, how much I'm leading, how much I'm following Zach's lead, and I'm obviously still very much learning, but it's a lot more complicated and individual than I ever could have seen, or that I realized before I started
In addition to generous maternity leave and child care at events, how can nonprofits best support working moms?
That's a great question. Yeah, I can name a couple things. Generous maternity leave and child care at events is really important. Other things I would say are really important, or have been very important for me, have been a flexible work schedule. I came back part time and I work three quarter time. And I'm flexible about that too. That doesn't mean I'm never working, whatever, the off hours. But childcare is so expensive that it's really hard, basically on a nonprofit salary, even a generous nonprofit salary, it's almost impossible to pay for full-time childcare. Most people need to piece something together and have some kind of flexibility.

Being able to work part time at a schedule that I could make work around my day care was completely critical. We go to a wonderful daycare that is set up for working families that is actually not that flexible because they need to keep some things in place that works for working families. So I needed to be flexible on my side to be able to leave work early, to be able to get the kind of schedule that we could afford at the daycare.

The other thing that's really important for work, last week I got a call from the daycare that Zach had contracted a daycare virus and that I had to go pick him up right a way so he wouldn't keep spreading it. So I finished what I was doing, closed my computer, and left. And when I was telling someone, "Oh yeah, I had to run out and get Zach." They were like, "Was work OK with you leaving?" And I was like, "Well what would I have done if they weren't?" But it really made me think. Of course I had things I had to cancel and manage, but that was up to me to do.

It's both being able to set a schedule that's realistic for me to be able to parent and work in an ongoing way, and also to have flexibility when we need it to handle sick kids and other things that come up. I mean sick providers come up too. So I guess once, you're in the petri dish of group child care, things are really unpredictable, and just a workplace that to whatever degree rolls with those punches is really important.

Two more things I want to add to that list. One is about trave, and like I said, traveling with a kid for work is hard, and not traveling because you can't, because you have the kid, is also hard. But we at the Movement Strategy Center have tried to really take the heat off the parents to need to travel, and I mean one question that's huge that needs a lot of wrestling with is really what that means for the non-parents and how much more of the work their absorbing. I think that's a really important question, and we've been very mindful of that, or tried to be. I think we're still on a learning curve. We've tried to make travel schedules for parents as minimal and realistic as possible, and that's been very important.

The other thing that's been really wonderful here is just the work culture and welcoming the kids in, whether it's the kids stopping by the office, or just curiosity about the life of parenting and our children. I was the third, of the three of us, who had kids within a year. And I think when Taj had Kiyomi first, it was much more of a strange thing and a novelty, and now it's become more understood. I guess what I'm thinking is that our work culture has changed in a way, our whole organizational culture - the things that we talk about, the firsts that we share in staff meetings, or whatever, and just the way we think about like, oh we're going to go do something together as a staff. Is it a happy hour, or is it a lunch?

It's just sort of all these little things that have made it really wonderful to be here, and I've been able to really feel like a part of things, and I think so has Zach. But it's a subtle change. Like any sort of "diversity" issue, it is best addressed through numbers. There's three of us out of eleven or twelve now that are parents so there is kind of a critical mass. I've thought so many times about the things I've said and done before I was a parent, not understanding where the other parents were coming from.
Have there been other moms in the movement who you've been able to lean on for support?
Oh yeah. Right when I was coming back to work and I started having a panic, I sent an email out to about seven or eight people saying like, "Oh my god, oh my god. Daycare tomorrow," or I actually remember what it was. I was still at home with Zach, working part time, but I had to go to San Francisco and facilitate a full day meeting and be away from him for the first full day, which of course now sounds like nothing, but he was only four months old and it seemed really hard and I was in a real panic about it.

During each of these milestones I've been able to reach out to people, and working mothers, especially working mothers who have been working in the social change, social justice movement, have been hugely important to me. As each new things happens it's so overwhelming, and it's really hard to jump across the chasm of never having left Zach for a day, or never having left Zach for most of the week, and I still haven't done the leave Zach overnight, but I'm getting to the point where I need to do that for work.

Having these other moms with some perspective over time has been enormously helpful for me. I don't think I could be here right now without them having carved the way and shown that it's possible, and let me see them as really being vibrant, brilliant, amazing workers as mothers, even as they've been tremendously engaged parents who've had to make different kinds of decisions during their years as mothers. I'm thinking about two who have kindergarteners now, so that gives me a nice long view.
Do you have any advice for new moms working for social change?
The biggest thing on my mind right now is being gentle with yourself. I think part of what mothers have to offer other people in the movement is a slightly slower approach to life. I know for me that transition from really fast to pretty slow was a hard one, and I really needed to find ways to be gentle with myself, to adjust to the new pace, and to not try and push myself to hard either in work or things outside of work about what I should be doing, where I should be going, how I should be feeling. And I guess what I really needed for that was the support of my co-workers and my friends and other parents.

I guess the piece of advice that I can offer is, it's been the most intense transition of my life, and whatever you can do to make space for yourself to have that transition, and find the people and places that are supportive of you finding your way as a mother, rather than pushing the expectation that you should be the same, you should be delivering at the same level, the same kinds of things. Just chose wisely. Choose who is around you, and what you're listening to, because the pressures are really intense and you're going to need a lot of love and a lot of support for you to find your own new way.

I think part of the reason I even started with this story is about the intense fear and feeling about the world in a different way, is because for me, I really know that that is going to allow me to be even more valuable working for social change over time with this degree of feeling that I now have, and this connection that I have with mothers all over the world. As you change shape and pace and view, just recognize, you will be equally amazing and even more brilliant and gifted in ways that you never knew, and so just trust that process and enjoy it. It's amazing.


  1. Keep up the good work!

  2. Hi Lisa,

    Wow. I think I read that in one breath. Great stuff.

    You touched on many things my wife and I wrestle

    with. Thank you for sharing.



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