Planting Seeds — NYC-DSA's Red Sprouts Childcare Collective Takes Root
NYC-DSA’s Red Sprouts Childcare Collective Takes Root
What were you doing as a 7-year-old from 7-9pm on a Wednesday night? Probably eating dinner and getting ready for bed, maybe watching TV—most likely not listening to your parents talk about bylaws at a DSA branch meeting.
There are many reasons why DSA is not welcoming to parents, but weeknight meetings and lack of childcare stand out as the most obvious. Getting a sitter on a potential work night is difficult, and anticipating one’s schedule in order to request childcare in advance is often impossible. This is why we need free childcare at every single DSA event, regardless of whether or not it is requested.
DSA is bigger than we’ve ever been. These growing numbers are exciting, but they require us to build infrastructure to keep up. We need to welcome people who rely on childcare in order to attend meetings, and we need that labor to be equitably distributed among our membership. As we work to become better organizers, childcare should be a skill that we alldevelop.
Organizing a childcare collective in DSA will advance our efforts to build a base for socialist politics in New York City in several ways. For starters, it will aid in building a more inclusive organization and community that welcomes all of the very many people who would like to organize with us, but aren’t able to due to childcare obligations. This will exponentially broaden and deepen our reach.
Second, we will be able to encourage socialist values among the children we are caring for. We hope to someday treat childcare like Socialist Sunday School—a chance for kids to learn a version of what their adults are talking about in a meeting, but in a fun, engaging, and accessible manner.
Last but not least, our collective can aid in building capacity and developing leadership among newer or less engaged members by providing them with a fulfilling activity through which to engage in DSA’s work and community. We’ve received a lot of interest from new DSA members who are looking for ways to contribute to the larger organization. There were a few concerns that we ran into right off the bat. Luckily, we’ve had nearly six months of meeting as a collective to debate, discuss, and figure out how best to tackle them:
Isn’t this a huge liability? Shouldn’t we be using professional childcare services?
Under our current capitalist system, liability often dominates the way that caregivers are trained. As a political organization, rather than a school or company, DSA is positioned to push back against the professionalization of childcare. Anyone who grew up in a big family can tell you that providing childcare is often just another shared community duty, not requiring professional training or certification. We thus view providing volunteer childcare in DSA events, meetings, and reading groups as a form of mutual aid, as it has been in working class communities for a long time. Red Sprouts is inspired by a long history of radical childcare collectives on the left.
We do want to make sure that we protect our volunteers, or “gardeners” as we call them, so we created a waiver that parents will sign before dropping off their kids (if you’d like a copy of this, or any of our materials, please contact us!). And, of course, to ensure that the sprouts are receiving excellent care, we developed a training based on conversations with current and former childcare professionals on our organizing team, that all caregivers will be required to complete before signing up for childcare shifts. We also made a commitment to always provide childcare in pairs, as is the practice in many afterschool programs and summer camps.
None of this means that we shouldn’t use professional childcare services when necessary. For example, when the organizers of the No Amazon Town Hall reached out to us about providing childcare for a massive event, which was a collaboration with several other organizations, we referred them to a co-op of childcare workers. However, we believe that for many internal DSA events, meetings, and reading groups, caring for our comrades’ children presents a more viable and accessible option.
Care work is systemically devalued under capitalism. As Socialist Feminists, shouldn’t we be paying people for their labor?
Much of the nitty gritty work that we do as organizers is feminized labor—whether it’s taking notes, coordinating food for a potluck, or administrative tasks such as sending out Doodle polls and frantically hunting for affordable meeting spaces (which in New York City is quite a nightmare—ask any branch OC member). We all do this work, not because we’re expecting compensation, but because it’s a part of being a good organizer. How is care work any different?
How do we avoid this project becoming SocFem members providing childcare for the rest of DSA?
We’ve been especially attuned to the gendered nature of childcare from the beginning. The people excited about providing childcare were, naturally, the ones with pre-existing experience. And since care work is an overwhelmingly non-male field, we were worried that our volunteers would be made up of folks who were already doing a great deal of the feminized labor, such as notetaking or administrative work, for the organization. This is why we’ve been targeting cis men specifically. In our pitches at branch meetings and in emails, we’ve called on cis men who are looking for a way to become more deeply involved in DSA’s organizing work to do so by becoming childcare providers, which we think is an especially fun and rewarding organizing activity!
But I’m a cis dude, and I’m really not good with kids...
Back to the admin labor analogy—most of your fellow organizers are not going to have a lot of sympathy if you tell them that you’re “really just terrible at sending out Doodle polls!” Childcare, like scheduling, is a skill that people learn and develop, with guidance from more experienced comrades (of course, caring for a child is a much more difficult and higher stakes endeavor than creating a poll, as any parent can attest). We reject biological determinism in all forms, but particularly the idea that some people are “naturally” better with kids.
Some folks have had more experience because they became the de facto unpaid babysitters in their families, were encouraged to apply for after-school care jobs, taught Sunday School—the list goes on. We encourage our comrades who feel intimidated by childcare to examine that fear, and then face it head on!
It’s urgent that our cis male comrades develop and hone these skills, because in order for our movement to be successful, we need women and nonbinary folks in positions of leadership, which can be difficult if we’re also doing the lion’s share of socially reproductive labor. It’s no coincidence that some of the most successful workplace struggles of the past year, such as the LA Teachers’ Strikes, or last summer’s Nurses’ Strike in Vermont, were in the realm of social reproduction. Winning movements are led by caregivers and care workers, and we want to give them a chance to lead.
How do we get started?
Thus far, we have been working as a group of about a dozen core organizers, developing training materials and logistical frameworks for providing childcare. We began by soliciting interest from potential caregivers through an online form, while holding meetings with our core organizing team every few weeks.
Two decisions were crucial in our early development. First, we decided to take our time in developing our systems, as not to extend beyond our capacity. It would have been easy to feel like providing childcare was too important to wait, and we did receive some requests from large events before we were ready. In those cases, we recommended professional childcare services. The second strong decision we made early on, mostly on instinct, was to divide into two separate subcollectives: one for developing training, and the other for logistics. Dividing work like this allowed us to multitask, and led to greater leadership development. We plan on adding more divisions of labor, and perhaps forming a subcollective devoted specifically to long term projects like a Socialist Summer Camp or a DSA babysitting network for parents.
In January we reached out to our large list of over a hundred interested gardeners to enroll people in a training. We got about forty people to attend a two and a half hour training, after which we received very positive feedback! We’ve started taking childcare requests from several working groups and branches. Ultimately, we want to provide care at every DSA event, regardless of whether or not it is requested in advance. Our long-term goal is to make childcare skills widely held in the organization, so that volunteering to provide childcare at your working group or branch meeting is akin to taking notes or bringing food. At that point, a specialized childcare collective will no longer be necessary for day-to-day childcare, and we will have the opportunity to move on to larger projects.