Lessons on Social Justice Parenting and Protest from My Kindergartener
The morning after the election of Donald Trump, I remember the heaviness in my body and heart. I had to tell my five-year-old, River, that Trump had been elected. River has accompanied my partner and I on marches, protests, and social justice organizing meetings since his first days of life.
This summer, our family participated in a local demonstration in Louisville, Kentucky led by Black Lives Matter and Showing up for Racial Justice (SURJ). I was asked to read off the names of Black people who had been shot and killed by the police. Holding the list of names, three pages in my hands, I began to tremble. My family stood close as my voice quivered in the microphone, and tears wet my face when I spoke about the trauma this country would continue to bear with every killing of another Black person. I talked about the importance of love and showing up for liberation.
River squeezed my hand and, after I was finished reading every name, I looked to him and whispered, “Do you want to say anything?” He nodded. As reporters pushed to capture this three-and-something-foot child, in a crowd of people triple his size, he stated simply, “We need peace and we need justice.”
Later, reporters asked River to repeat what he stated in the microphone, but he refused. We didn’t push him to talk, this wasn’t a circus; it was a ceremony.
My partner and I work for social justice in our professional, political, and personal lives; so we have not shielded reality from River. We talk with him about the violence in the world caused by racism, sexism, and homophobia. We talk with him about how we work for peace and justice, and how this value is the very foundation of our family.
The day after Alton Sterling was murdered, I couldn’t contain my pain. I sat down with River at the bamboo table in our kitchen. I told him another Black man had been killed at the hands of police. He looked at me with deep empathy, touched my hand, and said:
“Mom, we will change this.”
In these moments, I am not only surprised by his wisdom, I am also motivated to show up again and again, not as a martyr or a hero, but as a White person who knows that I am essential to creating a different world. Knowing that when I show up as I am, River gains confidence to do the same. When I show up in my pain and fear, I model for River that life doesn’t have to only be about feeling good and that there is power and healing in showing up to pain, too. When I show up imperfectly, I show River that we all have a choice and that each one matters when peace and justice is at stake.
River knows that his friends K and J are targets for the hate and violence of White supremacy in the world and he also knows that he can be a different kind of White person, one who works to build a better more equitable world.
So, on the morning after the election, I knew that River would take this news hard.
Mom: River, I have some really bad news. Trump was elected the president. (River looked at me and tears began to well at the corners of his eyes.)
River: What are we going to do?
Mom: That’s a question that many are asking and we all have to do our part.
The conversation continued to unfold, around what a Trump presidency would mean for his school, where the young people are mostly immigrants and refugees. Despite its diverse student body, his public school teaches and celebrates a Eurocentric and colonized curriculum, seldom acknowledging the cultural heritage of the Latino/a/x, Somalian, Vietnamese, and Muslim youth who attended.
That morning River expressed fear, anger, and despair. What bothered me the most was despair for him. “What could this five-year-old do that would help him embody what he believed?” I asked myself.
Chris, my partner, had shared with him the powerful protests of Colin Kaepernick, who refused to stand for the anthem during football games, in protest of the genocide of Black people in the US. As parents, it’s been essential for us that our children know that systems of oppression exist and that they have a responsibility to dismantle those systems, especially as White boys.
“River, during the Civil Rights Movement, many children marched and protested for equal rights, and some of those kids were only five.”
River’s face brightened. He had been given an example to which he could relate.
“Wow, children, just like me!”
The seed for what was possible had been planted.
And on the morning the US had elected a racist and misogynist president, the discussion continued around rights, protest, and the power of action. Over eggs, we assured him that we would support him to take actions that were founded in peace and justice and that it was his right to protest and resist racism.
That day, in Kindergarten, River refused to say the pledge of allegiance at the start of the school day. He explained to his classmates that Trump was a man who had done bad things and that he would not pledge to him because he represents racism and hate. That day, we were called into the principal’s office.
The principal explained that while she agreed with our politics and honored River’s right to protest, she was concerned that the River was scaring the other kids who were not “versed in politics at home.”
My partner and I exchanged a look. Of course other kindergarteners knew what was going on in the world, likely on a much more visceral level than our son…in example, current Executive Orders about immigration and Muslims impact my son’s peers directly.
Later that day, we checked in with River around how to talk about peace and justice in a way that didn’t use blanket statements as though every White cop was a killer or that every Black child would be killed. These are complicated discussions with a five-year-old.
One way we decided we could deepen his analysis was to expand our book collection. Some of our favorites have been: I am Martin Luther King, Jr., where Dr. King narrates the book as a young boy and Once There was a Boy, a touching story about a boy expressing feelings (a rare focus for male characters in children’s books).
The other night, we read Langston’s Train Ride in which Langston Hughes recounts his train ride through the Midwest to Mexico, passing by many rivers. During this joruney, the poem—“The Negro Speaks Rivers,” began to come to him.
I read my son, River, the poem:
Mom: What is that voice that speaks to you inside when you are very quiet, like the voice that spoke to Langston Hughes when he was writing this poem?
River: Is that God?
Mom: Yes, if you listen you can hear her.
River: Let’s be very quiet.
The sound of a train echoes through the night and we are transported to Langston Hughes’ train ride so many decades ago. River looked at me with wide eyes.
River: “God is every sound. She knows everything we do before we do it. God is also a fairy. She is Black and she has wings but the police cannot shoot her because she has wings.”
Tears fell from my face. The room was dim, the train chimed in the background and I held my redheaded child, River, on my lap. The conversations we share, the books we read, the ways he embodies his values in the world, remind me that we, the people, are so powerful—we just have to get quiet enough to listen in to the truth of our beautiful and painful hearts.
The morning after the holiday break, River looked at me as he stretched his Star Wars socks over his feet and paused:
“Mom, I have to talk with my teachers about peace and justice.” He was desperately earnest. I asked him why.
“Because every day when I don’t say the pledge of allegiance, I know they don’t understand that when you say that pledge, you support Trump.”
I took him in my arms and told him that we would talk to his teachers. I was surprised that he had continued his protest. We continue to make space for him to process the state of the world and how this relates to school, but he had chosen to keep this to himself.
That afternoon, I went the Kentucky State Capital for the swearing in of a good friend and the first Black woman to serve in the house in over two decades. When people stood for the pledge of allegiance, I remained seated. Later, I told River that he had given me the courage to show up for my values at the state house. He smiled.
We are enough, just as we are. We are the ones who will craft another world where River, and his friends K and J, will experience love and feel cherished.
I have a feeling they are the ones who will be leading the way.
Jardana is a writer, spiritual activist and founder of the Liberatory Leadership Project. Author and curator of the “Practice Showing Up Guidebook” an anthology for white people working for racial justice; this 2016 resource has been downloaded over twenty three thousand times. Jardana lives with her partner and their two children in Louisville, Kentucky. Stay connected with her here.