I Just Do by Victoria Law

"I don’t know how you do it," my neighbor’s girlfriend commented. My five-year-old daughter Siu Loong was at her father’s house and I had taken advantage of my free night to attend and photograph a march against police brutality, then stayed out till midnight developing the film I had shot.
"I dunno. I just do," I mumbled, not knowing what else to say.
But that’s not entirely true. To simply say that leaves out the resources and community I’ve gained from years of being engaged in social justice work.
Let me backtrack a bit: I first got involved in organizing and political work as a teenager. I had no resources, skills or experience to offer, just an inarticulate urge to change the way things were. I plunged into everything I found with teenage enthusiasm: The summer I was eighteen was the summer that Mumia Abu-Jamal, a political prisoner on Death Row in Pennsylvania, had been sentenced for execution. With an ad-hoc committee of squatters, artists and anarchists, I leafleted and tabled, rode the subway till all hours putting up posters about his case, contacted media and organized direct action demonstrations (precursors to the Black Bloc that would later emerge and capture anarchist imagination in Seattle) to draw attention and support to his case.
ABC No Rio, a local community arts center, quickly became one of the focal points of my life. I had first started going there on Sundays to help cook -- eventually becoming one of--and then the sole -- coordinator for Food Not Bombs, an ever-changing group of volunteers who gave away free food in the nearby park. At the same time, the center was fighting eviction attempts by the City while continuing to host not only Food Not Bombs but also meetings, workshops and events by many of the political groups I was working with. I grew more involved in the space, using its first floor gallery to show exhibitions of squatter artwork, envelope art by prisoners and documentation by activists doing Zapatista solidarity work in Chiapas. My social circle expanded to include the center’s various volunteers, some of whom became my close friends.
My passion for social justice work literally engulfed my life -- I learned black-and-white photography not as a fine art form but to be able to document instances of police brutality. I socialized almost exclusively with people who shared not only my political views but also my passion for putting them into practice. On the morning that a neighboring squat was to be evicted and two hundred dollars was needed for court filing fees to stay the wrecking ball, I emptied my bank account and lived off one cheap meal a day until my next paycheck.
This was the way my life was for four years. Then, at twenty-two, I got pregnant and chose motherhood.
With that decision, I realized that my focus needed to shift. I could no longer put politics first and everything else, including my own needs, second. At first, I assumed that I would have to give up my activism. I would certainly have to stop going to protests against globalization or police brutality and avoid any other situation that might trigger the ever-so-eager NYPD to launch pepper spray, swing batons and crack heads. I would have to devote all my time to caring for this helpless little thing that just wanted to eat, sleep and be held. I assumed that I wouldn’t have the time, energy or inclination to continue my old life. Even my partner bought into the myth that mothering and social justice work were incompatible, although he still expected to be able to continue his own unhindered by the demands of a newborn. And, because I had no role models to tell me otherwise, I assumed I had no other choice.
Still, I could not let go of what had become, for me, an essential part of my life.
Luckily, my childless activist friends would not let go of me either. They invited themselves over to see the new baby and incessantly asked when I would be returning to this project or that -- with baby in tow. They enthusiastically offered to hold my newborn daughter not only so I could move about more freely, but because they were genuinely excited about the new baby in their midst.
Thus, instead of dissolving into memories of pre-motherhood nostalgia, I dove back into the projects and groups that welcomed both me and my daughter. During those early years, I took Siu Loong to virtually all of the weekly Books Through Bars packing sessions. The other volunteers offered to hold her and, once she became mobile, to help me look after her so that she didn’t crawl out of sight or eat the numerous dustbunnies hiding in corners. When she began to toddle around, they laughed rather than grimaced at her habit of pulling the George Bernard Shaw books from the bottom shelf and gleefully hurling them, one by one, into the recycling can.
Staying involved in organizing can be draining at times. Many other activists and organizers who had become parents had dropped out of these activities, leaving me -- and my fellow activists -- few examples of how to accommodate a new parent and child in the group. We had to learn -- and change -- together. I had to learn to identify not only when I needed help, but also how to ask for it.
There are still some projects and endeavors I had to walk away from when my fellow volunteers refused to acknowledge, let alone accommodate, my concerns and needs as a mother of a small child. I walked away from an infoshop I had helped start when the other collective members repeatedly refused to address my concerns about not only the space’s unsafe physical conditions but also the vicious dog that roamed freely and bit people without warning. When I brought these issues up, I was told, "Well, that’s not really our concern. You chose to have a child."
The most supportive response I ever got from that group was a non-committal, "Maybe one day we’ll have a childcare working group. But we can’t make that a priority right now." But I’ve also found other projects -- and the people involved in them -- that are willing to change to ensure that Siu Loong and I feel welcome. Staying involved -- and making connections with the ever-widening circle of people in the various social justice networks -- has increased the resources available to me both as a mother and as a person passionate about struggling for change. Being around Siu Loong during countless meetings, work sessions and events not only acclimated many to the presence and needs of children, but also allowed them to develop their own relationships with her.
Some of these people have agreed to watch her so that I would have time to myself without the distraction or constant interruption of a small child. They not only occupy her attention in the same room while I finish laying out a zine or scrawl revisions into an essay I’m working on, but also take her to visit friends or to walk along the beach in Coney Island. Sometimes, people I’ve worked with have gone out of their way to make sure that Siu Loong and I have the support we need: A few years ago, two childless friends drove a few hours from their family’s rural farm to Eugene, Oregon, specifically to help occupy Siu Loong so that I could give a talk on women prisoners’ resistance. They appeared at my workshop and, when Siu Loong became restless and demanded more of my attention, took her outside to run around so that I could concentrate on what I was saying. They ate lunch with us and then drove back.
When she was two, one of my friends began taking her on the monthly Critical Mass bike rides, which she loved and never would have experienced with two parents who don’t bike. When we needed a place to stay, a volunteer from ABC No Rio offered us his bedroom in a communal punk house and slept in the living room for several months. While we were there, Siu Loong developed friendships with the other house members, who showed her how to play their guitars, read her stories and took care of her when I had to go to the emergency room. After we moved out, they hosted a combined birthday party for her and two of the adult house members.
In talking with other parents, I realize that most don’t have these same resources. Continuing to stay involved has helped me form a support network for both me and Siu Loong -- so that I can not only continue to do political work, but also so that I’m not parenting in isolation. When I first got involved, I had no resources or skills to offer. As a mother, I continue to organize, sharing the skills I’ve acquired over the years with those who are newer to political work. And, these days, I’m finding resources not only for myself but also for my daughter, who is not only growing up but also taking part in my political work and my community.
Victoria Law is a writer, photographer and mother.