Activist, entrepreneur, performer, writer, and mother of three, Sarah Sophie Flicker is known for many things — though perhaps best for her role as a Women’s March national organizer. The march held on January 21st, 2017, advocated for legislative reforms on human rights such as women’s rights, reproductive rights, LGBTQIA rights, and immigration reform. With an estimated 4 million US-based participants (5 million worldwide), it became the largest single-day demonstrations recorded in U.S. history. Since then, Sarah Sophie co-founded Firebrand, a creative agency on a mission to create social change through art, fashion, and culture.
Sarah Sophie sat down with The Helm’s Julie Weber to explore the ups and downs of raising activist children and to unpack what lies at the intersection of parenthood and feminism.
Julie Weber: Thank you so much for taking the time to speak with me today. I know that parenting and activism are two things you’re passionate about.
Sarah Sophie Flicker: Of course. Parenting is a tricky topic to talk about because it really depends on your kids and your relationship to them. I don’t know that what I’m doing works, and I feel like I fail at parenting every day. I think we talk about things and we write about the things that we’re trying to work out for ourselves. And the intersection of parenting, and feminism, and all the things we’re about to discuss, certainly fall into that bucket.
JW: What does parenting with an intersectional lens mean to you, and how do you approach it?
SSF: There are age-appropriate ways to talk to your kids about almost anything. People say that they want to protect their kids from the painful truth of the world. But the majority of kids have to live with inequality, poverty, and racism, and all sorts of injustice every day. And if there are kids out there living through it, then certainly my kids can tolerate a conversation and some sort of activism. I don’t think we’re doing our kids any favors when we’re trying to protect them from the truth, even if the truth is painful. So, that said, I think it [intersectional parenting] can look like a lot of different things. Who’s the community you’re surrounding your kids with? What are the books you’re reading them? If you’re a white parent, do your books have kids of color in them? Do they talk about historical issues? How do the books and the content that your kids are seeing tackle gender and race? It’s funny, because I think we’ve spent so much time learning about how we are raising our girls, and there’s a lot of great content out there on raising feminist girls. But for boys, there’s not a lot out there.
There are age-appropriate ways to talk to your kids about almost anything... I don't think we're doing our kids any favors when we're trying to protect them from the truth, even if the truth is painful. Tweet
JW: That’s such an interesting observation. How do you reconcile the inundation of gendered cultural norms with feminist parenting?
SSF: For me, it’s seeking out books, toys, and content that neutralizes gender. I make sure that when I’m reading books to my boys, there’s a girl or female narrator as often as there is a boy. So often in stories, the protagonist is male. One of the things I’m focusing on is trying to work with people who are creating content for boys because I think the messages boys are sent are equally as bad as the messages girls are sent. And if we’re serious about tackling issues of consent, and sexual assault, and sexual harassment, and domestic abuse, and rape, and all these things, it starts with our boys. I don’t see the point in continually teaching our girls how to avoid that stuff. Why don’t we just teach our boys not to do it? We need to model different forms of masculinity.
The way masculinity is taught is that you need to have the answers. So much of mansplaining is an ego thing, being taught that you need to know. One of the most powerful things I can do for my kids is admitting when I don’t know something. There’s something really powerful in just being curious and admitting when you don’t know things. That’s part of the vulnerability that we want our kids to inhabit; especially boys.
So much of mansplaining is an ego thing, being taught that you need to know. One of the most powerful things I can do for my kids is admitting when I don't know something. Tweet
JW: How do you engage your kids in activism in a way that makes sense to them?
SSF: You don’t ever want to take them to something that they think is boring, you want to keep everything fun. For the big marches, they like to make signs. I’ve definitely found through trial and error that if you try to take them to too many meetings, or things that are really above their ability to understand, that’s not helpful and you can get a real pushback from that. I don’t force my kids to go to things they don’t want to go to. I don’t think that benefits anybody. I try to really listen and take them to things that they would be interested in.
Organizing around the Women’s March was a pretty hectic time, and I was mostly solo parenting throughout it. I would end up just taking my daughter with me to meetings, and she now understands things on a really nuanced, complicated level. But on the other hand, she has also been exposed to things that could have potentially turned her off of activism. Inevitably, things get heated, and in stressful situations, we don’t always treat each other as well as we should. Those have been good lessons because there’s nothing more striking than having your kids point out the ways in which you’re acting like a jerk. Things that inform our kids are obviously big things like the Women’s March, but also smaller things like the fact that we open our house up to our community and to political meetings. We don’t force them to sit and listen, but they have this awesome community of adults, who work in all different fields, who they’re all really close to. And I think they learn so much more from those relationships than being forced to do something that they might not want to.
JW: Yes, absolutely. You may have already alluded to this, but has there ever been a time where involving your children has backfired, or there was some kind of unintended consequence?
SSF: Not in any dangerous way. I will say over and over again: you can overdo it. I’m so proud of all the work we did, organizing the Women’s March, but we didn’t do it perfectly. There were certainly times at which we all could’ve been better to each other, and I do sometimes regret that my daughter, especially, was overly exposed to things that we had to unpack together. The cool thing about parenting is if you let your child be a teacher, they can educate you as much as you can educate them. She has been a really amazing force in calling me out on my bullshit and being outspoken when she sees things. And my middle son does as well. When they see that I’m unhappy, or overly stressed, or not giving back to the family as much as I’m giving to my work, they’ll call me out on it. And I don’t think that’s a negative thing. I’m really proud of them for doing that. But it’s painful when they do.
JW: You were very involved in the 2016 election, and I know you were in Philadelphia with your daughter on the night of the results. What was it like at that moment, when you realized what the outcome would be?
SSF: I didn’t really cry or meltdown. I just realized that this was a moment that we all really needed to show up and create more of a community than we already had. And we needed to go right into action. We knew early, and there were a lot of kids with us, and we were honest about it. One great thing that my friend Ben did, which I found incredibly helpful, was he made us all stop, and we did a meditation, and some breathing exercises, and some stretching. And I don’t know what it was about that, but it just re-grounded me. And at that moment, I thought of the saying, “Don’t mourn, organize.” And then the next morning Michael Skolnik called me and he said, “I’m calling everyone in my phone book who I think can be a leader at this moment, and we need you to lead.” And I was like, “Okay. I don’t know what that looks like, but let’s do it.” The next day I had 150 people at my house for a meeting, and then a few days later, I had joined the Women’s March.
JW: Have the results of the election changed the way that you parent?
SSF: No, I don’t think they have. None of these issues are new. It’s the same stuff I’ve been talking to my kids about forever. Regardless of how much you vocalize your dislike for Donald Trump, it inevitably confirms, in some sense, that powerful people can act like that. Even if we all know how hateful and harmful that is, they still see that that’s the person in the White House. It’s a specific, destructive kind of abuse of power and performative masculinity, and I don’t ever want them to think that that is how you get things done, or that it’s an okay way to be in the world. The hard thing was that my kids knocked on a lot of doors; my daughter especially. That week before the election, she knocked on 600 doors. She took the week off and worked with me, and then my son came for the long weekend and knocked on doors, too. I think we all have heartbreaking parenting stories from that day. The next day she handed me a valentine note. It was a note that she cut into a heart on a piece of paper, and it said something like, “I’m sorry. I thought I tried really hard, and I guess I didn’t try hard enough.” Explaining to them that you can work really hard at something and that doesn’t mean you’re going to win was a really important lesson. It doesn’t mean your work wasn’t valuable.
Explaining to them that you can work really hard at something and that doesn't mean you're going to win was a really important lesson. It doesn't mean your work wasn't valuable. Tweet
JW: It seems like what you’re saying is that the best way to teach your kids is by just being engaged yourself. And if you do what you feel you have to do, there will be moments of teaching (and learning) along the way.
SSF: Yeah, it’s not so much that you’re bringing your kids into activism, or that you’re grappling with difficult conversations. If you just make it a part of the fabric of your life, then it’s a part of the fabric of their life. And then it’s not like you’re ever having one conversation; it’s a lifelong conversation. My generation is so different from their generation that I feel like they have more to teach me than I have to teach them, and the best thing I can do is listen. Active listening and treating my kids with as much respect as I treat everyone else in my life is probably the best parenting tools I have in my toolkit. I’m constantly learning, and I’m constantly curious in my relationship not only to parenting but to my kids. The ways in which I show up change all the time.
JW: How do you manage, balance and flow between the pressures of parenthood, activism, work, etc?
SSF: We are conditioned as women to make it seem like we are able to do it all. And the truth is, you can’t. That idea needs to end. There needs to be absolutely no shame in talking about what your circle of care looks like. Who are the people who are uplifting your family so you can go and do your work, and how are you uplifting them and their work? Women are embarrassed to admit that we need help. It’s always shocking to me. People will be like, “Oh, do you have a babysitter?” “Yes!” There’s no way you could get anything done during the day if you didn’t have this awesome community—and it’s not even a community, a workforce—that allows you to go do what you’re doing. There’s no way I could’ve done all that work on the Women’s March without our babysitter. There’s just no way. I don’t know why we’ve gone to this place where it’s embarrassing to talk about it, but that has to stop.
We are conditioned as women to make it seem like we are able to do it all. And the truth is, you can't. That idea needs to end. There needs to be absolutely no shame in talking about what your circle of care looks like. Tweet
That’s another weird thing that has happened culturally. We expect that one or two people can raise kids entirely on their own and it’s almost impossible. There has to be an extended network and an extended family. And I do think in the face of feminism and parenting, we need to talk more about this. We can’t tell women to lean into work when there’s no support system set up for them. And then, what inevitably happens, is that privileged women can lean into work, and often only by engaging in the care of and work of lower-income women and women of color.
We can't tell women to lean into work when there's no support system set up for them. Tweet
We need to uplift everyone in our network of care. That’s why I love the work that Ai-Jen Poo (National Domestic Workers Alliance) and Alicia Garza (Black Lives Matter) are doing. Can we tell men and women, and everyone, to also [in addition to leaning into work] lean into nurturing, and caregiving, and community, and cooperation? And can we create some standards for the caregivers in our lives so that they’re treated with as much dignity and respect as we treat the other people who we work with? Those are all really important conversations. There is a privilege attached to being able to have taken a year off of my work to volunteer at the Women’s March. I could only do that because I was coming from a place of a lot of privilege. So as far as the adult conversation goes, that’s the direction I think it needs to move in. Asking women to be more vocal, and be more bold, and to lean into work—it doesn’t solve anything for any women until we ask men, and the people who we are sharing the responsibility of care with, to lean more into domestic care.
What inevitably happens, is that privileged women can lean into work, and often only by engaging in the care of and work of lower-income women and women of color. We need to uplift everyone in our network of care. Tweet
JW: What legacy do you want to leave for your children?
SSF: We’ve gotten to a place of worrying so much about how we parent, and what we’re telling our kids. And honestly, I think the best thing we can do is just to model the sort of belief systems we have and the values that we have and uplift a shared humanity. First and foremost, you have to walk the walk yourself. And then, hopefully, those values trickle down to your kids. Because the cool thing about kids is they really just are who they are. There’s so little that we have control over, so the best you can do is to listen to who they say they are and uplift them.
Sarah Sophie Flicker is an activist, co-author of Together We Rise, and the creative director at FireBrand. A mother of three, she is also one of the organizers and pioneers of the historic Women’s March.