Show Me What Democracy Looks Like: Raising Activist Kids

When Trump was elected, I worried how spending four years of their childhood living in a distorted, damaged reality would change my children. Then I remembered what my five-year-old daughter said just the day before: “Well mom, if Trump wins we will just have to have hundreds and hundreds of rallies. We will be so loud we won’t even hear his voice anymore.” My children were more prepared for that moment than most adults I know. They were already seasoned activists. My daughter understood that we might not get our way and that if we didn’t there was work to do. More importantly, she believed in the power of the people. 

My children have been raised in activism the way some children are raised in church. Showing up on the frontlines of social justice movements through organizing and direct action is where I find people who are asking the same big, difficult questions I’m asking. It’s where I find people who want to show up for one another in the ways that matter to me. It provides a set of guiding principles that make the world a better, stronger place. I believe that occupying activist spaces and participating in justice movements provides my children with the tools they need to fight for what they believe in. I have also learned that how we engage matters as much as that we engage. We don’t even consider attending an action unless we’ve done the work to understand why we are going, prepared ourselves and our children for what we may experience, and made sure they want to be there. Activism is about empowerment and agency. Consent is essential. 

Last summer as part of an effort to shut down the largest for-profit child prison in the United States, they helped get presidential candidates to show up and draw attention to the issue. My daughter spoke truth to power, asking Senator Warren directly to go witness. “I’ve just come from Homestead and those children need you,” she said. “I think you should go.” Warren’s visit ultimately helped shut the facility down. My teenage son filmed and photographed what he witnessed on that trip. “Most people aren’t going to see this,” he said. “I want to use my photography to move people to act.” His documentary called Homes Instead was selected for the Boston International Youth Film Festival and later won a Peacemaker Award. 

Sometimes people ask whether activism spaces are ‘kid-friendly’ and I’m not sure how to answer. My kids often participate in actions in the offices of Senators and Representatives and in demonstrations at the Supreme Court and Capitol buildings in DC. Last year they attended a Ways and Means hearing. During the primaries they attended events for every democratic candidate and spoke with several, asking them to address things we care about. When I remarked that they are having an unusual childhood, my son responded, “Yeah, thanks for that.”

At age 5 my daughter marched the streets of NYC, chanting “Show me what Democracy looks like?” and the crowd shouted back “THIS is what democracy looks like!” At 8, she was handed a megaphone and called the chant at a giant civil disobedience action. My son is less likely to yell and more likely to watch and listen. He is often behind the camera, thinking about how to translate art into impact. When he speaks publicly, he chooses his words carefully and speaks from the heart with unnerving clarity and vulnerability. Both children know the language of activism and can read a protest with surprising accuracy. They see no barriers between themselves and people in positions of power. They take pride in their participation.

My children understand the uprising we are experiencing right now because of their activism. When George Floyd was murdered by police and we attended another Black Lives Matter rally, my son remembered previous actions for Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Trayvon Martin, and a long list of Black trans women. I reminded him how he prepared his toddler sister for a giant BLM march in NYC many years before: “You will see people who are very angry, but they are not angry at you. They have a right to be angry because they are fighting for their lives.” They understand righteous anger so they experience it as powerful, not scary. They recognize the importance of following the leadership of those most impacted—that while sometimes we lead and speak out, this is a time for listening and following. They see this uprising as a progression toward justice, an amplification of voices that have been silenced. It is part of a story they’ve grown up in and part of the future they will create. 

Ali Wicks-Lim lives in Western Massachusetts with her wife, son, daughter and an assortment of pets. As a home-educator she designs classes and curriculum for children and teens, often with a focus on engagement in social justice work. As an activist she organizes and works/ fights for deep social change in a variety of sectors. As a mother she believes that raising anti-racist, empowered, engaged children who understand the value of showing up for what matters is a crucial and rewarding part of that work. 

Cover image by Mason Wicks-Lim, who is a fifteen-year-old activist, photographer, and filmmaker. He lives in Western Massachusetts with his two moms and younger sister. He likes to create art that “moves people to act.” In addition to documenting the activism he’s involved in he likes to do nature and street photography and sometimes portraits. When he isn’t taking pictures or editing video he can be found rock-climbing, hiking, practicing kung fu or playing games with his family.