Dependence, independence, interdependence

A fascinating article in the New York Times describes how some single mothers identify as Republican. Here are people who have not created traditional families, or for whom the traditional family structure has failed, and who are disproportionately in need of government supports like food stamps. And yet, about 25% align themselves with the party of “traditional family values” and small government. singlemom

Why? As a single mother friend of mine says “I am not looking for more independence” as she raises her young son; and sometimes it seems like that’s what progressives/Democrats have to offer. The emphasis on equality in work and educational opportunities leaves some of us feeling as if we should achieve economic success while at the same time providing a fulfilling family life for our kids, too—all by our liberated selves. The bar is just higher and higher, and that does not feel liberating.

My friend knows she needs interdependence—neighbors she can count on to watch her child so she can run to the store or work late (and vice versa); people to bring her food and help care for her little one when she is sick; involved grandparents who will help nurture a strong sense of family. The fact that she has someone dependent on her makes interdependence necessary, and more that that, attractive.

I think mainstream feminism has missed the boat on this point. The emphasis on equality in public life: politics, workplace, finances, on women having access to the social goods and opportunities men have has put the movement at risk of devaluing the work traditionally done by women: nurturing children, caring for the frail and elderly, building community networks. Too often, progressives and feminists have let conservatives “own” these issues in public debates, or make it sound as if prioritizing caregiving and prioritizing women’s liberation are at odds with each other.

A lot of social policy is based on the idea that everyone is an independent, rational adult who can choose whether or when to connect with other people. What a fascinating fantasy. This assumes no pregnancy, no children, no frail elders, no dependents, no dependency. Just as medical research that assumes everyone is a male aged 18-40 isn’t particularly useful to women, social policy constructed on the assumption that we are all independent atomistic individuals doesn’t tend to work too well for infants, single mothers, parents, adult children taking care of elderly parents, and those who need assistance from others to live their lives.

The fact is everyone starts out a very fragile, vulnerable baby. And as parents know, carrying a pregnancy and giving birth is exhausting, challenging and even dangerous, and just about everyone needs help with the process in order to live and have the baby live. And most of us are going to spend the end of our lives in need of profound assistance from the people around us. In between, we may have periods of illness or injury where our survival depends on others.

In reality, dependence and taking care of those who are vulnerable are deeply integral to the human experience and should be finely woven into everything about how we think of organizing every part of our society. For example, this hospital emergency room.

Conservatives claim ownership of “family values” yet their vision involves enforcing traditional gender roles. But liberalism and feminism leave some feeling like they have to do it all on their own, and they are not measuring up if they can’t. So here is the challenge for all of us as we shape public policy:

  • To always keep in mind dependents and the people who care for them. Whatever choices we make or aspirations we hold must take into account and work for them.
  • To find ways to support caregiving that do not rely on oppressive gender roles and do not require caretakers to sacrifice their economic well being, social connections, or status.
  • To realize the deeply human task of caretaking requires qualities and skills our public lives sorely need: patience, thoughtful observation, empathy, and respect for the dignity and value of those whose abilities differ from our own.
  • To keep in mind that liberation actually means that everyone, men included, gets to participate in the important task of caregiving—because it is only then that the full range of humanity is available to them.
  • Not all equality has economic measures—some of it happens in places where the rewards and challenges are immeasurable, yet profound, like parenting or helping an elder die with dignity.

The most recent wave of feminism had many tasks. Two big ones were to secure equality in the public sphere and to redefine the very nature of what it means to be human. To do the latter, we must embrace and affirm the fact that we are all dependent at different points in our lives, and the profound and loving work of taking care of dependents (traditionally women’s work) should be valued and shared among men and women.

To create beloved community, our vision must include non-oppressive, liberatory ways of maintaining connection, dependence, and interdependence.

Lunch at Nordstrom

Our executive director’s  first job at a domestic violence agency was at New Beginnings in Seattle. On Wednesday, she was invited to speak at their benefit lunch at Nordstrom. Here is the speech she gave at this event.  

New Beginnings is my alma mater, and I mean that in all seriousness. While I could say, simply, that my first domestic violence “job” was at New Beginnings, what is more important to say is that my education about domestic violence, my learning about the impact of violence in the lives of women and girls, my commitment to ending violence—perhaps not in my lifetime, but most definitely in my son’s lifetime—my trust that our collective humanity will prevail, and my gratitude for those moments when survivors experience justice and freedom and hope . . . all of that is rooted for me at New Beginnings, when I was hired 30 years ago for the graveyard shift (which I believe is now called the “sunrise” shift).

To say that the times have changed, and that New Beginnings is a different organization now, would be a tremendous understatement. The stories about our early days of working 35-hour shifts in a dilapidated house are best told over cocktails, but that formative time is the backdrop of my remarks today.

I have the privilege now of the long view. In 1982, we did not imagine that domestic violence would be everyone’s business. I had no idea that, one day, I would be in the flagship Nordstrom and, I should say, wearing an outfit purchased at Nordstrom, talking with hundreds of concerned and supportive people about what WE can do to stop domestic violence. In 1982, there were no events. There was no money. There was nothing like this.

For me, the past 30 years have been both challenging and deeply rewarding.  I have witnessed the worst and best of human behavior. I carry with me the names and faces and stories of brutality, the lists of the dead, the courtroom proceedings, the fear and grief and rage. But I also carry the courage of women, the pride and love of mothers, the resilient laughter of children, and the voices of men who call for a better manhood.

I try to hold all of it. Not one and then the other. All of it. All of the time. I don’t think of it as a burden. No. I think of it as a privilege and a promise.

In this country, we now have over 3,000 organizations that provide support for domestic violence survivors. We have state and federal laws that make domestic violence a crime and that authorize important funding for shelters and other community programs. We have innovative school curricula that teach young people about healthy relationships. We have thousands of advocates and tens of thousands of allies who work hard to save lives and change communities. There is a great deal to be proud of, and yet . . .

And yet. On February 5th of this year, Josh Powell killed his 2 sons, 7-year- old Charlie and 5-year-old Braden, and then killed himself. Josh Powell’s estranged wife, Susan Cox Powell, is still missing and presumed dead.

There are certain events that stop time. When we are left with the questions of: Where did we go wrong? And how on earth could this have happened?  That was my experience on February 5th.

Josh Powell and his father, Steven Powell, had been in the news for quite some time. Josh was considered a person of interest in the disappearance of his wife, and Steven had been arrested on charges of voyeurism related to his sexual abuse of young girls and consumption of child pornography.  Charlie and Braden were in protective custody and CPS was involved.

The Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS) has conducted a child fatality review of the case, and recently issued its findings and recommendations. After a review of the available facts, DSHS concluded that the deaths of Charlie and Braden Powell could not have been anticipated.

I and many of my colleagues have a different conclusion. Early on, we whispered that Josh Powell had killed his wife. With his father in jail and his world falling apart, we whispered that he might kill himself and take his children with him. We whispered because we had no proof. We whispered because we don’t want to be too cynical or negative. We whispered because we understood that Josh Powell was innocent until proven guilty, and we worried that Charlie and Braden would be innocent until dead. We whispered because we might be wrong or, worse, we might be right.

Whispering is only slightly louder than the silence that we at New Beginnings 30 years ago vowed to end. Charlie and Braden Powell have reminded me of my obligation not only to pay New Beginnings back, but also to pay it forward. Charlie and Braden demand that I use my voice. And so I want to ask you for 3 things.

First, when you are asked for your contribution to New Beginnings, please dig deeper than you think you can. And after you have made your gift, tell someone about it. You don’t have to say how much. Just say that you did it and why. Not in a whisper, but with all the clarity and purpose you can muster.

Second, vote with all of your conscience. Use a Sharpie. March your ballot to the mailbox and pray for a good outcome.

And third, join me in going to the theme of this luncheon and beyond. “It’s Everyone’s Business to Stop Domestic Violence.” Make it your professional business by having good policies and practices that support and help those who experience abuse and harassment. Think about what you can do in your job, both formally and informally, to make a difference. As I was coming up the escalators, I was thinking about how much access Nordstrom has to people. And how much influence. My own experiences here of marketing, customer service, fitting, alterations, and dare I say returns, as well as the friends I have who work here, mean there are so many opportunities for what we know about domestic violence and what we know about Nordstrom to intersect. And this is true in every business and workplace.

Make it your personal business by going further. Take a chance. Take a chance with your family and with your friends. Take a chance in your neighborhood and at your school. Take a chance with your team, in your congregation, at the grocery store.

Take a chance on compassion. Take a chance on hope. Take a chance on who we really are and the power we have when we call and work and live for an end to the violence.

Don’t whisper it. Say it. Shout it. Sing it. Bring it.

A change is gonna come, yes it will.