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Why This Grassroots Organizer (and Mom) Remains Optimistic

A conversation with Kristin Rowe-Finkbeiner of MomsRising about staying buoyant in turbulent times

Published on: March 09, 2017

Kristin Rowe-Finkbeiner at the Women's March in Washington 2017
On Jan. 21, 2017, Kristin Rowe-Finkbeiner spoke at the Women's March on Washington, D.C. Photo credit: MomsRising

Peek-a-boo and Paid Leave: Making Career, Child Care and Family Work

Join MomsRising founder Kristin Rowe-Finkbeiner for a lively discussion about making it all work for you and your family.

Tuesday, March 28, 5:30 p.m.; Town Hall, Seattle; FREE

Register here

I’ve been juggling parenthood, work and family for 15 years now. Throughout that time, I’ve often been discouraged by how little our government supports moms. Lately, I’ve also felt disgusted. 

When I do, I channel the optimism of Kristin Rowe-Finkbeiner, co-founder and CEO of grassroots organization and media outlet MomsRising. Every time I’ve talked with her — and we’re going on seven times — she reminds me that during her 20 years of grassroots activism, she’s seen more wins than losses.

On Tuesday, March 28, Rowe-Finkbeiner will discuss a few of these wins at Town Hall Seattle. The talk — which is free and open to the public — will cover on-ramping and off-ramping in the workplace, paid family leave and how Rowe-Finkbeiner personally stays sane while juggling work and family. The lecture is, full disclosure, hosted by ParentMap but regardless of my personal ties, I’m telling friends and acquaintances not to miss it. My pitch: “Kristin makes cynical me really believe I can help change the world.”  

How to balance work and family is such a personal decision. Why should it be a national issue?

Women make up about 50 percent of our labor force and moms are about 50 percent of our country’s primary breadwinners, but our public policies are still stuck in the Stone Age. That’s hurting our families and our economy. We know that most moms do sequence in and out of the labor force at some point. Access to paid family leave, affordable health care and childcare and paid sick days benefit our families and boost our economy. These policies are necessary to bring our country in line with our current labor force.

But because we don’t have those policies and because of implicit bias, being a mom is now a greater predictor of wage discrimination than being a woman. All moms face extreme hiring discrimination, with moms of color facing even more discrimination. While women in the U.S. make 90 cents to a man’s dollar, moms make 72 cents and moms of color make 46 cents.

Other studies show when we have economic security policies — paid family leave, paid sick days, affordable healthcare and childcare — the wage gaps between moms and non-moms close. Therefore, the wage gap between women and men closes, too.

Let’s talk about legislation. Why should I support family-related legislation if I’m not, say, a mom?

Legislation that furthers moms and families furthers all of us. When people say things like, ‘There’s only one mom that lives down the block,’ I tell them that 82 percent of women have children by the time they’re 44. [Not to mention that] we’ve all had a mom … This is a big deal.

Studies out of Cornell and Stanford show that moms are hired 80 percent less than non-moms even when the women have equal experience. Studies also show that moms are taken off the management track for fewer late work days. Moms are judged more harshly in work environments. The economic hits that moms experience are economic hits that the majority of women will face sometime in their lifetimes. This is what’s called a Maternal Wall [and it stands] in the way of many women [before they] even ever get into a room with a glass ceiling.

Part of breaking down this wall is simply talking and writing about it because women don’t know about it until they hit it. Part of it is passing the already mentioned policies while adding in paycheck transparency policies and fair pay legislation. All of these policies — paid family leave and sick days, affordable healthcare and childcare, paycheck transparency policies and fair pay legislation — will boost our economy and lift families at the same time. They are win-win-wins.

I recently had a conversation about the merits of paid family leave with someone who said it didn’t make economic sense. What would you say to that person?

Paid family leave is not just the right thing to do — it’s the smart thing to do economically and for businesses … 177 countries have some type of paid maternity leave policy. We’re the only industrialized country without it!

[Studies on the economic benefits of paid family leave] have unequivocally found that this is a money-saver for taxpayers. In fact, when there are paid family leave policies in place, people are 40 percent less likely to need food stamps.

For businesses, this policy saves money due to higher productivity and higher employee retention. For families, not only does this policy decrease infant mortality by 25 percent, it allows people to have that bridge moment in order to be able to later pay better for childcare.

It’s easy to get overwhelmed and to think one voice doesn’t make a difference. From previous conversations we’ve had, I know you believe the opposite…

First, I'm a firm believer that democracy isn’t a one day, one Oval Office, one election or one piece of legislation deal. It’s about being engaged over time, making sure that we bend the arc of history toward justice and so it matches the reality that the majority of people live. If we’re doing democracy right, we’re doing it continuously.

I started organizing at age 19. I’ve had time to see that we win more than we lose. Some days, particularly recently, I’ve seen that it’s not a bad thing that it’s hard to pass a bill. Through the swings that often happen in politics, the important thing is to hold on and keep on. Don’t give up!

I’ve been in Washington D.C. nearly once a week lately. I’ve seen that members of Congress are actually paying more attention and listening more to their constituents than before the election. We are in a time of crisis and flux in our nation, but I can tell you that the phone calls, the town halls, the marches, the strikes, all of that engagement is adding up and we are being heard. Democracy is about getting off the sidelines, getting engaged and staying engaged. I have absolute faith in the power of real people in politics. 

How do you stay so optimistic?

After this election, I had a moment of cynicism. If the Republicans have the House, Senate and Oval Office, are they just not going to listen to us? No, they are still 150 percent listening. I’ve witnessed this; the phones ringing off the hook are having a huge impact.

The evidence that peoples’ calls are having an impact is that the no. 1 policy that was promised during this campaign — that our president would repeal the Affordable Care Act (ACA) on day one in the Oval Office — did not happen. This is a victory. Because of people’s calls and actions, we moved from Congress talking about repeal of the ACA to repeal and replace. We have to keep the pressure on! It’s time to double-down! I want to thank everyone who is taking action and tell them to keep it up the continuous pressure. It’s working! 

How do you recharge outside of work?

I play on two soccer teams. One of them is a woman’s team called The Violent Femmes. I’ve found that avoiding burnout for me involves a lot of physical activity. I love being outside in nature. In the winter, I love getting up above the clouds and seeing the sun. I try to prioritize taking ‘brain refreshes’ and spending time with my family [Rowe-Finkbeiner and her husband have two children, Connor, 20, and Anna, 18].

I also stay sane because of my kids. They cheer me on. Last night I was feeling a little overwhelmed for a moment because sometimes politics these days isn’t the kindest environment to work in, particularly on social media. I was experiencing some momentary sadness about social media yuckiness and Anna said, ‘Mom, get over it! What you do is beautiful and you’re exemplifying the best parts of intersectional feminism. You're doing the right thing. It’s important. Don’t give in to the haters!’ 

I had to wipe away a tear after she said that. Then, I buckled in and kept going. 

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