At May Day rally, child care becomes a radical act

Beatrix Bowers, 3, of University City, attended the May Day event with her father, Andrew. Face painting was among the activities available to keep her amused.

For a hundred or so activists who crowded into tents to escape the rain Sunday afternoon, the May Day U.S.A. March, Rally and Family Celebration at Clark Park in West Philadelphia was a chance to speak out on issues from the Verizon workers' strike to the perils of gentrification to the need for a $15 minimum wage.

But for the handful of kids amid the sodden crowd, it was all about the face painting.

The stars and cat whiskers were courtesy of the Philly Childcare Collective, an eight-year-old grassroots organization that provides free child care for social and economic justice movements powered by low-income and minority activists.

"We call ourselves a radical child-care collective," said Robin Markle, 30, a West Philadelphia resident and one of the organizers. "Radical can mean a bunch of different things, but for us it's about supporting people who couldn't afford child care otherwise so that they can take on leadership roles."

Kristin Dator, 42, a social worker from South Philadelphia who brought her 4-year-old son, Brady Anderson, appreciated the kid-friendly fare at the May Day event, which was sponsored by the Philadelphia Area Project on Occupational Safety and Health and the Pennsylvania Labor History Society.

Dator had been involved in campaigning for Bernie Sanders, and had connected with the activist groups through that work.

"I'm a single mom and when I have time with my son, he's with me," she said, as Brady, a freshly painted Captain America logo on his cheek, huddled over an iPhone. "And, I think this is a really important movement, and I want to expose him to that."

This idea of child care as a radical act dates back to 2008 in Philadelphia; other child care collectives exist in New York, Chicago and Washington, D.C., linked loosely by an association called the Intergalactic Conspiracy of Childcare Collectives.

For organizers like Markle, the emergence of movements like Black Lives Matter reaffirmed the value of the work.

"I wanted to figure out how white people can support efforts led by immigrant groups or things like Black Lives Matter groups - in a way that you're allowing the people who should be leading that to take leadership," she said.

That support has been instrumental for DHS Give Us Back Our Children, a self-help and advocacy group run out of the Crossroads Women's Center in Germantown. Eric Gjertsen, a volunteer there, heard about the child-care collective when it was first forming, and invited them to watch the kids during the group's monthly meetings.

"We jumped on it. There was such a desperate need for mothers who wanted to be part of a meeting but couldn't without child care, so it's been a lifesaver," he said. "We couldn't have existed without them."

The collective also cares for kids during the bimonthly meetings of the New Sanctuary Movement of Philadelphia, a faith-based immigrant justice nonprofit.

"It's a really big impact for us," said Blanca Pacheco, a New Sanctuary organizer. "People don't have the money to pay someone to take care of the children while they attend the meeting. And the other option is to have the children there in the meeting, which can be really distracting."

Besides, though children may live with the daily reality of a parent facing deportation, she said, "It can be really hurtful for them to hear about what's happening or to hear people's stories."

The child-care providers let them just be kids.

At the May Day rally, volunteers Rachel Adler, 24, and Raina Satija, 25, arrived with face paints and a big bag of toys, balls and Frisbees.

At other events, though, Childcare Collective volunteers develop activities that let children participate in the action: coloring a banner for a Martin Luther King Day rally, or telling their own immigration stories for a New Sanctuary advocacy piece.

The Philadelphia group has about 20 regular volunteers who staff between one and five events in any given month.

Samantha Maldonado, 25, spent Thursday evening helping entertain a dozen kids during a Take Back the Night event at First Unitarian Church, then worked Saturday at a conference for Teacher Action Group. She said it's a small way to help out with a number of issues that matter to her.

"There's a lot of different organizations in Philly that are all doing awesome work, and it can be overwhelming. This is a way to put my skills to use and support a lot of groups," she said. "It's funny, too, with the kids: Some of them are a little shy, but 90 percent of the time, when their parents come to pick them up, they don't want to leave."