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Moms on Modern Activism—and How It Actually Works

Over the past decade, many of us have become really comfortable with the idea of voting with our wallets: We’ve shopped at farmers markets to increase small-scale, organic food production, and we’ve supported personal care brands that make their formulas without toxic chemicals. And it works: We’ve seen the market respond to our demands. But while smarter purchasing decisions can go a long way to instigate change, there are some issues (climate change, reasonable gun laws, and rights for families chief among them) that require more active participation to move the needle. And there is nothing like the righteous indignation of parents to get it going.

We asked six women who are making big-deal progress (the changing-legislation, educating-millions-of-people kind of progress) to tell us about the issues they care about—and what we can all adopt from how they get things done. What we learned: Calling your senators actually works—and we should all be doing it—and even in 2016, an old-fashioned get-together of like-minded people is still a great place to get started. As Kristin Rowe-Finkbeiner, co-founder and executive director of MomsRising explains, “Everyone should know that when women and moms work together, mountains move. Leaders listen to moms. Corporations listen to moms. We are over 50 percent of the electorate and make the vast majority of purchasing decisions in our consumer-fueled economy. We are powerful.” And then Shannon Watts, of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, puts an even finer point on it: “Women make up only 19 percent of Congress, 24 percent of state lawmakers, and 4 percent of Fortune 1,000 CEOS—but we are the majority of the voting electorate and we make 80 percent of the spending decisions for our families.” Below, they explain how to get involved.

Texas Competes

Jessica Shortall, Founder

Jessica Shortall‘s career spans many important issues—she’s been a Peace Corps Volunteer (Uzbekistan), a non-profit co-founder, a consultant, and the first Director of Giving at TOMS Shoes. Today she runs Texas Competes, a statewide coalition of employers making the economic case for an LGBT-welcoming Texas. She’s also a loud advocate for better workplace transition policies for new parents: Her book about surviving work and breastfeeding is a great crash-course for new Moms (and her TED talk is an excellent primer on the case for paid family leave, as is this goop Q&A with Shortall).

Q

What accomplishment are you most proud of?

A

Launching Texas Competes and growing it to more than 1,100 employers and chambers of commerce in just over a year. It’s a statewide coalition of employers and economic stakeholders that are making the economic case for Texas to become welcoming and inclusive of LGBT people. We’ve found a way to present the data in a compelling way, and created a space for businesses to have a unified voice in a way never before seen in Texas. I wasn’t born in Texas, but I am so proud of the business community here for speaking up for LGBT people in this state, where negative rhetoric and actions are still common.

Q

What’s the most effective way for an individual to make a difference on an issue they care about?

A

Switching gears entirely (because I have a very wacky career), I have wrestled with this question throughout my adult life, but especially in the past two years, when I wanted to speak up about issues around working parenthood, breastfeeding, and the workplace, and the dismal state of paid parental leave in the U.S. What a big set of problems, and only my small voice—it can be daunting. What I’ve learned is that no platform is too small, especially online. Find somewhere, anywhere to make your voice heard, and try to elevate the stories of others who don’t have the opportunity. If you can’t find somewhere, make your own space. Research who is writing, and talking, and acting on your cause and offer to guest write for them, or ask how you can help. Build each small platform up, and give each opportunity everything you’ve got, in terms of quality. Then leverage those small platforms into mid-size platforms, and on up the chain. (That’s what I did in writing my book. I started my own blog, then I offered to write for others covering related topics, then I ran a crowdsourcing campaign to self-publish my book, and then, at the eleventh hour, I had an offer from a publisher.) And, oh yeah—call your legislators. Like, all the time. Call them until their staff know your voice the minute you say hello. It’s your right, and it’s their job to listen to you. It’s okay if you don’t currently know who represents you; it’s super easy to find out, for both state and federal governments.

Q

What are you working on now, and how can we all help?

A

We are focused on growing Texas Competes to thousands of employers by the end of 2016. Every single business—no matter how small— matters to keeping Texas open for business to everyone. If you know a small business owner, or a big business exec, with operations in Texas, send them to the Texas Competes website, wouldya? It’s free to sign on—seriously—and it takes about 30 seconds.

Outside of Texas Competes, I am always looking for ways to support companies who want to support new parents in the workplace. There’s such a big difference between parental leave and parental support, or between a lactation room and a true lactation program, and it doesn’t cost much to do it right. If your company is showing signs of wanting to support and retain new parents, and recruit young talent who will start families one day, please send them my way!

MomsRising

As its name suggests, MomsRising is a mom-run organization that tackles the issues that matter most to women and families via grassroots movements, both IRL and online, i.e. affordable health care, paid family leave, and toxin-free environments for kids.

Beth Messersmith, North Carolina Project Campaign Manager

At MomsRising’s North Carolina chapter, Beth Messermith serves as campaign director, running a variety of state-focused campaigns that touch on state budget, environmental health, work, and voter policies. She’s also a co-chair of the North Carolina Families Care Coalition and contributes to the news sites Carolina Parent and WRAL’s Go Ask Mom. Previously, Messersmith, who holds a Master of Public Affairs degree, helped run a voting rights organization and worked as a consultant for nonprofits, advising on curriculum development, strategy, and planning.

Q

What accomplishment are you most proud of?

A

The most satisfying part of the work I do is helping other mothers find their voices and speak out. Motherhood is a time when many women see very clearly the impact that access to affordable child care and not having equal pay or paid family leave policies have on individual families, but too often moms feel like there’s nothing they can do about it. I love helping people connect their own experiences to broader policy conversations, and then actually take action. My proudest moments are when the moms I work with locally testify before Congress, speak at press conferences, or sit down to talk with their lawmakers about the issues impacting their families and communities. They are powerful, and it gives me a lot of joy to help them see that’s true.

Q

What’s the most effective way for an individual to make a difference on an issue they care about?

A

We all have a voice, the question is always whether we use it. Reaching out and sharing experiences and concerns with decision-makers is the most effective way I’ve found to create change. Moms’ lives are busy, but there are lots of ways you can connect with and educate the people who make the policy decisions that impact your life. I’m a big believer in finding a few friends or other people in your community who share your concerns and scheduling a meeting to sit down with your city council member, state legislator, or member of Congress. Sharing your story and concerns can be powerful! Even if you don’t have the time to organize an in-person meeting, making phone calls or sending emails or handwritten letters reminds decision-makers you are paying attention and can help them see a perspective they might have missed. It doesn’t have to take a lot of time, but it’s important that you make your voice heard.

Q

What are you working on now, and how can we all help?

A

The NC General Assembly just adjourned for the year, but that doesn’t mean our work is done. Across North Carolina, moms and people who love them are getting educated and engaged around the issues that impact our lives. Over the next six months, MomsRising will be in communities across the state hosting local meet-ups, movie screenings, voting parties, workplace rights and gun safety trainings, and much more. We’ll even be organizing coffees for our members to meet with their legislators while they are home from Raleigh in order to educate them on the issues most important to NC families.

Kristin Rowe-Finkbeiner, Co-founder and Executive Director

As co-founder and executive director/CEO of MomsRising, Kristin Rowe-Finkbeiner has been instrumental to the growth of the organization. (She’s also the board president of MomsRising’s education fund, which makes their outreach and public education work possible.) She has more than two decades’ worth of experience in public policy and grassroots actions—as a political director, policy analyst, and strategy consultant for nonprofits and foundations. Plus, she’s an author, public speaker, and the host of the radio show, “Breaking Through with Kristin Rowe-Finkbeiner.”

Q

What accomplishment are you most proud of?

A

Great question! For me, feeling proud and feeling thankful come from the same place in so many ways. I’m beyond proud of (and deeply thankful for!) the significant advances that the MomsRising team and over one million volunteers have played key roles in making happen, like: Expanding access to healthcare—now nine out of ten people in our nation have access to healthcare; like passing access to sick days and to paid family leave in more than 35 jurisdictions across the country; like opening the doors for every elementary, middle, and high school student to have access to healthier food in school and not be bombarded with junk food marketing during classes; like moving affordable and high quality childcare policies forward in red and blue states alike; like advancing fair pay for everyone; like drawing attention to the need to end mass incarceration; and so much more. I’m unbelievably proud (and also deeply thankful) that I’ve had the opportunity to be a part of the MomsRising team and to stand with volunteers across the country who are literally moving mountains. I’m proud that moms and dads, men and women, are breaking through the current political cynicism in our culture and making real changes that lift our families and our economy. I’m proud to be a mom. And I’m proud to be a mom rising.

Q

What’s the most effective way for an individual to make a difference on an issue they care about?

A

To start, too often people don’t get involved because they think they can’t make a difference. Well, I’m here to tell you otherwise: Everyone should know that when women and moms work together, mountains move. Leaders listen to moms. Corporations listen to moms. We are over 50 percent of the electorate and make the vast majority of purchasing decisions in our consumer-fueled economy. We are powerful.

So the most important tip is to believe in yourself.

And my next tip is to believe in our power together. Find a group of women who are working on issues that you care about, like MomsRising, and get involved in a way that fits into your schedule. Don’t be afraid to ask questions, to share your experiences with (or without) access to a policy area, to volunteer, to go to events. Also, don’t ever worry that you aren’t doing “enough.” Every little bit of help matters and adds up. Organizations like MomsRising are here to research for you the fastest ways to boost families and our economy in real time, to open avenues for you to make that difference with leaders, and to help you figure out how you can best make a difference in the time you have available. The beauty of a movement that’s a million people strong like MomsRising is that together we are a powerful force, so no matter how much time you have available you can still make a difference.

Q

What are you working on now, and how can we all help?

A

MomsRising is constantly working to increase family economic security, to decrease discrimination against women and moms, and to build a nation where businesses and families can thrive. This means that we have powerful campaigns moving right now to advance fair pay, affordable childcare, paid family leave, sick days, access to healthy food for all kids, healthcare for all, gun safety, as well as to end mass incarceration that separates too many parents from their children, and more. People can sign up on MomsRising and follow us on Facebook and Twitter. One of our biggest campaigns right now is MomsVote. A full 82 percent of women have children by the time they are forty-four years old and (again) women comprise more than 50 percent of the electorate. We are a powerful force!

This year’s election may be one of the most important yet and we need help ensuring that moms’ voices are heard and the issues that affect our families are addressed by candidates at all levels of government and in ballot measures. This is an “all hands on deck” moment. MomsRising and our members are educating other moms about the issues at stake, registering voters, and tracking the candidates’ stands on family economic security issues. Join us by simply signing up at MomsRising.org and we’ll keep you in the loop.

We also have a fun, high-impact project right now reaching out to city leaders all across the United States and sharing a new guide that provides information on how they can create and increase access to affordable, high-quality childcare/early learning programs in their cities. You can learn more and participate in this effort by signing on here.

Moms Clean Air Force

This team of 700,000-plus moms (and some dads), an initiative of the Environmental Defense Fund, is dedicated to cleaning up air pollution, advocating for a cleaner, safer environment for all of us. They also happen to be big believers in Naptime Activism—i.e. making it simple for parents to use that golden down time to enact real change.

Kelly Nichols, Field Organizer, Illinois

Moms Clean Air Force field organizer Kelly Nichols leads the charge for clean air in Illinois. Before she moved to the Chicago suburbs with her twin toddlers and husband, she was an entertainer/writer in NYC, and research assistant in epidemiology and public health at Mount Sinai School of Medicine. (Her projects there included an investigation of the effects of the WTC bombing on pregnant women and infants, and varied environmental effects on early puberty for children living in Harlem.)

Q

What accomplishment are you most proud of?

A

In the world of advocacy and activism, my proudest moment was a true “needle-moving” one. Part of our objective in Moms Clean Air Force is to reach out to legislators to bring our concerned moms and other members together to talk about why climate and clean air are important for us. There was one person whose office I’d met with so many times. He was more conservative and had made votes for and against climate initiatives, so there was a lot of uncertainty about whether or not he would support a very important upcoming vote in his legislative chamber. There were so many environmental organizations talking with his office, and everyone was giving him important information and support, and we waited with anticipation for the result of the vote. In the end, it was pro-climate, and on social media he referenced our platform of clean air and children’s health as part of the reason for his decision. His office even amplified pictures that we posted thanking him! Representatives in his office reached out to me separately to make sure I saw that our message was the one he was giving. I know we were part of a coalition that was working with him, and everyone providing support and engagement was so important, but it was a time when I really felt like a working, effective member of that coalition with something tangible to contribute that was helping the battle for clean air and climate protection. It also showed me how continuing this battle and being a part of the loud voices in the conversation can really make a difference. I was on top of the world for days. It was very empowering. Sometimes I look back and read the page in my journal from that time to get a boost!

Q

What’s the most effective way for an individual to make a difference on an issue they care about?

A

Really, this is something that I brought from my theater career. People underestimate the power of simply showing up. Being the face that is always at the rally, at the office of an elected official, at the press conference, at the community meeting, or the voice on the phone…I painted a picture for my office that says, “SHOW UP for the world you want.” I feel like I say it every single day to all kinds of people. I should probably put it on a t-shirt to save my voice. Honestly, whenever we’ve asked elected officials what they notice, or what makes them remember an issue, they say the people who are there and their personal stories.

I think people don’t realize that you can show up in different ways too. It means engagement and support in a way that’s helpful every day. Little things really do make a difference. Yes, turning off lights and water to conserve, but also reading electric bills and opting into energy efficiency plans that might already be in place in your community, or taking the time to vote on a school anti-idling initiative, or taking the (literally) three minutes it takes to call an elected official and tell them that you want clean air for healthier kids. It’s not scary, it’s not hard, and it can make a difference. Maybe pick one thing a week/month/year that you want to focus on improving if you want to increase your level of engagement. Paint a poster for your office wall that says, “SHOW UP for the world you want,” then do it!

Q

What are you working on now, and how can we all help?

A

We just finished our annual Play-In for Climate Action in Washington, D.C. It was an amazing event bringing together people from all over the country who care about clean air and healthy kids. We held a huge rally/press conference/family friendly party on Capitol Hill and then we spent the afternoon visiting legislators and talking to them about why clean air is important in our communities. We are in the middle of doing the local, state-focused versions of that national Play-In, and we will be holding ours in Illinois in a few weeks.

A huge part of this year is making sure that people remember that they must get out and vote. That is a critical way to show up. At every election, school board to president: You need to make your voice heard. Find out which candidates support a plan to act on climate and work toward a clean energy future so that we can keep the Earth safe for our kiddos, and, frankly, ourselves. You can help by spreading the word to let people know that we are in a place where our access to things like water and food and the way of life we’ve come to know is really on the chopping block, so if people care about, well, the future, they should make sure to pay attention and vote. We’ve started doing a pledge to remember climate and clean energy at the polls, and people can sign up on our website.

It’s like a promise to your kids, you know? My son made a picture of me taking him to the pool after I promised to do it when it got warm, and hung it on the fridge, and the mere fact that it exists, and that the stick version of me is staring real me in the face every time I go to make a meal, made me never forget my promise. It’s kind of like that with the pledge…if you commit to something, in this case by writing it down for yourself, you are now accountable and are more likely to do it.

Molly Rauch, Public Health Policy Director

NY-bred (she received her masters in public health from Columbia), mom Molly Rauch now lives and works in D.C., as the Public Health Policy Director for Moms Clean Air Force. She builds alliances with allied organizations, develops strategies for influencing regulatory and policy decisions, and writes about public health science and policy. She has authored reports on coal and clean air for Physicians for Social Responsibility, and her writing on environmental health has appeared on Huffington Post and The Green Guide, among other publications.

Q

What accomplishment are you most proud of?

A

In just five years, Moms Clean Air Force has become a thriving network of more than 800,000 moms and dads who want clean air and a safe future for our kids. I’ve been with the organization for four years, and I am humbled by the speed with which we have gained momentum. We are bringing the voices of moms into the climate change conversation. That is an organizational accomplishment that makes me so proud of our team. On a personal level, one of the things I do for Moms Clean Air Force is write fact sheets, web pages, and other materials that explain to parents why we work on these issues and why they should care. When I hear from our members that these resources have given them the confidence to talk to their lawmakers about climate change, I feel a lot of pride.

Q

What’s the most effective way for an individual to make a difference on an issue they care about?

A

Speak up! Talk to your friends and neighbors about the issue you care about. And then talk to your lawmakers about it, from your local city council representative all the way up to the president. Email them. Tweet to them. Call them on the phone. Ask for a meeting, and then go to their office in person to have a conversation. Ask them what they are doing about your issue. They work for you. It’s their job to respond to your priorities. Also: Vote. We are so lucky to live in a democracy, but change won’t happen unless people are engaged in the process. For society’s most complex, intractable issues, individual actions can go only so far. We need civic engagement to create pressure for society-wide solutions.

Q

What are you working on now, and how can we help?

A

Climate change is here, it’s happening now, and it threatens our children’s health and future. But many lawmakers continue to sit on their hands and deny the urgency of the issue. Many of them deny climate change is even happening! At Moms Clean Air Force, we are working every day to get lawmakers and policymakers to take action on climate change. You can help by joining us. You can take simple, easy actions on our website like signing a petition; or you can join one of our nineteen state chapters to get involved in local campaigns, attend our events, and visit your lawmakers. Your voice can make a difference in sparking climate change action.

Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America

Shannon Watts, Founder

Shannon Watts is a veteran communications executive—she worked for public relations agencies and Fortune 500 companies before she made the choice to stay home with her five children. She wasn’t an activist (or involved in gun issues at all for that matter) until she watched the coverage of the shootings at Sandy Hook School in December 2012. The next day, she started a Facebook page now called Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America—part of Everytown for Gun Safety, it has more than three million supporters and a chapter in every single state. (For more from Moms Demand Action on what we can do about gun violence, see this goop piece with the organization’s deputy director.)

Q

What accomplishment are you most proud of?

A

I was folding laundry in my bedroom with the television on when news broke of the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, on December 14, 2012. At the time, I lived in a suburb of Indianapolis and, like many Americans, I didn’t know much about my state or nation’s gun laws. However, after learning that twenty-six children and teachers had been murdered in the sanctity of an elementary school, I knew my nation was broken.

Both devastated and angry, I had a choice to make: leave the country or stay and try to fix it. I had never been an activist or very involved in politics, but I decided to create a Facebook page that I hoped would start a conversation among women about gun violence. As a mother of five, I was deeply shaken; Sandy Hook spoke to me as a mom passionately committed to protecting my children.

Women make up only 19 percent of Congress, 24 percent of state lawmakers, and 4 percent of Fortune 1,000 CEOS—but we are the majority of the voting electorate and we make 80 percent of the spending decisions for our families. By pulling those levers, I knew we could create change.

One year after our organization was formed, Moms Demand Action became the grassroots arm of Everytown for Gun Safety. Together we are the largest grassroots movement fighting for gun sense in America with a chapter in every state and more than three million supporters.

And we’re winning. Over the past four years, we’ve helped close background check loopholes in six states. We’ve pushed nearly a dozen states—red and blue—to pass laws that will help keep guns out of the hands of domestic abusers. And we’ve influenced major restaurants and retailers—like Starbucks, Chipotle, Target, and Facebook—to adopt gun-sense policies to keep customers safe.

The momentum we’re building in statehouses and corporate boardrooms is pointing Congress in the right direction. We demand a national solution to this national crisis.

Q

What’s the most effective way for an individual to make a difference on an issue they care about?

A

Gun violence is a women’s issue, full stop. It affects ALL women: married, single, with children—or not. Some fifty-one women are shot to death by a spouse or intimate partner each month. More women are killed each year by dating partners than by spouses, yet the “boyfriend loophole” in our current gun laws allow these abusers to remain armed.

It is for these reasons women and mothers with gun sense will be the force in making sure that gun violence prevention is the defining issue in this election.

To reduce the gun violence that kills ninety-one Americans and injures hundreds more each day, we must use our voices and our votes to demand lawmakers act and work to keep guns out of dangerous hands by making sure that every gun sale includes a background check. And Congress must work to implement common-sense gun reforms, including closing the terror gap and making sure that people convicted of hate crimes can’t pass a background check.

Volunteers with Moms Demand Action have become a fixture in state legislatures, beating back bad gun bills and supporting gun safety legislation. Just this year, we helped defeat dozens of dangerous NRA-supported bills to allow guns in schools, guns on college campuses, and guns without permits. And in November, we will pass critical ballot initiative victories in Nevada, Maine, and Washington state to help keep our families and communities safe from gun violence.

Getting involved in the movement for gun sense is as simple as making a call or sending an email, but we also encourage women to get involved in the Moms Demand Action chapter where they live to help fight for changes to local, state, and federal policies that will help save American lives. To find a chapter near you, go to Moms Demand Action.

Women and mothers can no longer afford to stand on the sidelines—gun violence is endangering families everywhere.

Q

What are you working on now, and how can we help?

A

Our volunteers are laser-focused on the elections—we are working to elect gun safety champions Hillary Clinton and Tim Kaine to the White House, pass gun safety ballot measures in Maine, Nevada, and Washington State, and to support gun safety champs (and defeat gun lobby candidates) in states across the country. Additionally, we are broadening our movement. As the mother of a gay teen, I am heartbroken, shocked, and furious about what happened in Orlando—the worst mass shooting in modern U.S. history. And I’m outraged that, despite 154 mass shootings since 2009, our federal lawmakers have done exactly nothing in response.

With every new gun violence tragedy, we respond in a similar fashion. We mourn. We send our thoughts and prayers. But it’s high time that our lawmakers finally act to prevent gun violence.

Thankfully, we’re starting to see a groundswell of support for gun sense among lawmakers. The recent historic events—the filibuster in Senate and the sit-in in the House—reflect the outrage and urgency that Americans are feeling around the country. And outside the Capitol this summer, gun violence survivors and our volunteers came in from out of state—and stayed overnight in the rain—to support the House sit-in led by civil rights hero Rep. John Lewis. And in the weeks since Orlando, we enabled Americans to make nearly 260,000 calls to Congress urging members to #DisarmHate.

We won’t give up—that’s why our lawmakers are hearing directly from us whether at home or in D.C., and why we’ll continue to demand action this election season for the ninety-one people killed by guns and hundreds more injured every day in America.

We should not fear the threat of gun violence at nightclubs, in movie theaters, or in the sanctity of our houses of worship. Lockdown drills should not be part of our children’s school day. We shouldn’t have to encounter the crossfire of bullets on our city streets or assault weapons in the aisles of our grocery stores. There is only one reason our nation has twenty-five times more gun homicides than any other developed country in the world: Because we make it far too easy for dangerous people and criminals to get their hands on guns. Text JOIN to 644-33 or go to Moms Demand Action to learn more.

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