DC Childcare Collective

 Washington D.C.

Made for the collective by a group of  children they cared for

DC Childcare Collective started in 2005 to offer free childcare for social justice grassroots organizing meetings. They advocate to make childcare accessible for women of color and low income residents who are usually disproportionately affected by lack of resources. Providing a safe and engaging space for the children of activists allows them to focus on their important work.

June 20, 2020

Cooperative Journal

What inspired the creation of the DC Childcare Collective?

Meara O’Malley

The collective started 15 years ago. Empower DC  does a lot of work with housing, labor rights, and tenant advocacy. They were working on a childcare for all campaign in 2005, there they suggested that when having organizing meetings they should offer childcare, especially given the topic they were organizing around. A group of people within Empower started doing childcare at the meetings and then that group broke off and became the DC Childcare Collective.

Empower DC has remained our main partner throughout  history because we started with them and then we started doing childcare for other organizations in the DC area. The origins of the other organizations we got involved with were organizations that knew about Empower DC, and I wasn’t there but I would assume they asked who were the people doing childcare for them. There are one or two people in the collective that were involved then.

Empower DC flyer

Empower DC flyer

What inspired the creation of the DC Childcare Collective?

We do on site childcare and normally have 2-3 partner organizations, one is always Empower DC. It kind of ebbs and flows, before the pandemic we were mainly working with Empower DC because some of our other partnerships moved away from needing childcare or campaigns ended. Throughout my time in the collective there have been 2-3 other organizations, one of which was Many Languages One Voice that is based in Mount Pleasant, DC, they do a lot of immigrant advocacy.

Many voices one language

Many Voices One Language Protest

Almost every month we usually have a one off gig, an organization has heard about us and ask if we can do childcare for one workshop or event they are doing. In those events we send them an application that asks what’s the event, what are your needs, and what is the organizing that you are doing. Then we evaluate on a month to month basis whether it is a good fit for the organization, is it the kind of grassroots organizing work that we want to support from the people who are organizing on their own behalf. Sometimes we get requests from social service organizations or a charity model, obviously there’s great work being done there but we are a smaller volunteer collective. We let them know that we have to dedicate our resources to grassroots community based organizations that are organizing on their own behalf.

We have a monthly calendar, that's how we organize the childcare that we do. Normally the calendar is 3-4 events from our partners organizations and 1 or 2 one off gigs. Sometimes we do a one-off with an organization, we both thought it went well, and we like the work they are doing. That might grow into a partnership, if they have the same meeting every month they may ask if we could work on a more long term basis and we evaluate that as it comes. 

What kind of criteria do partners have to adhere to?

The big questions are: is it the kind of work that we want to support and could they pay for childcare. Paying for childcare is a big one, we also get approached by larger non-profits who might be doing great work but we take a look at their publicly available clients online and we suggest that they should really be paying people to do this work.

It’s really important for the collective that we are not undermining the work of paid childcare providers and that we are only doing childcare for organizations that really would not be able to do it without us. A pretty average event for us would be 2-3 hours on a weeknight or weekend. We have done larger conferences and events which takes more organizing on our behalf to make sure we have volunteers to cover the whole time. Those are the exception of the norm, we’ve worked with the National Domestic Workers Alliance for a couple years where they have a multi day conference and organize childcare. They pay for some childcare but we supplement with our volunteers.

How are you advocating for childcare as a social justice issue?

The collective as a whole is not so much a political advocacy organization as a unit, there’s individual members like my friend Lauren who’s just really good at talking about the importance of childcare. Organizations should be putting childcare in the budget initially rather than just saying “whoops, we forgot to think about childcare, let’s scramble to try to get someone to volunteer to do this.” You put in money for a caterer you should put in money for the budget for childcare as well, that should really be prioritized from the beginning.

The collective isn’t based around advocacy per say, it’s more so supporting other organizations as they do their advocacy. When we get a request from a larger organization, we do try to take the opportunity to say that an organization of your size and budget should be paying for childcare, it is an important aspect of organizing work and we hope that you will prioritize this. That is the most practical way that we advocate for childcare. The people who normally end up with childcare responsibilities are women, if you want your organization to be lead by women, make sure you’re meeting the needs of the people that you want to be represented by.

One of your philosophies is that childcare is a community responsibility, from that lens what does childcare collective mean?

In a more capitalist framework, if someone that wants to attend an organizing meeting has kids, that’s her responsibility and she has to deal with it. If we view ourselves as a larger community that’s trying to take care of each other, it’s more of a shared responsibility that there’s childcare to be done. A lot of people in the collective are people with some time and resources available to be able to donate their time to do that sort of community work.

Something that we really try to do is making sure that our partnerships with organizations are not just us showing up to do childcare and leave. Sometimes that's what it is because the reality is that people are busy, they don't want to sit and talk to us about their work because they have places to go. We want to understand the work that we are supporting and to let them  know that we care.  It’s a mutually thing, we are not just coming to babysit and not care about what is going on. Ideally, depending on the age of the kid, we try to talk to them about what  their parents are organizing for and talk to them about who we are. There have been kids that have graduated from needing childcare during the meetings to attending the meetings.

Beyond childcare, what other ways is the collective involved in the community?

A couple of years ago we did a fundraiser for Empower DC, which was actually like a house party fundraiser. We raised about $500 for them which was a lot for the collective but a drop in the bucket in some ways. We did that because we had a lot of active membership happening and we thought what more can we be doing, organizations will always need cash. We haven't done something like that since then, it depends on whether all of our energy and time is being taken to get the childcare done.

There was a guy who was in the collective that would say he always felt like he was active in the activist community, especially for men. He thought that joining the collective should be step one, you do the childcare once a month and then you do your other stuff. He thought of the collective as a baseline that DC activists should be part of as a reminder that childcare is always going to be important, it’s always going to be there. 

Since you are a volunteer run collective, what do you do with the donations you receive?

We do childcare supply drives, for toys, games, books and things every two years. We really don’t accept monetary donations at all. We don't have a bank account, there’s money that the collective has on hand that we use to reimburse people if they buy snacks or something. When people offer us money we tell them to give it to Empower DC  since they’re our main partner. We don't have operating expenses, it’s all volunteer. The only expenses generally are when we have our new member orientations because we sometimes pay a guest educator to come in and do a workshop and buy snacks.

dc childcare collective.jpg

Donations given during supply drive

How do members of the collective make decisions?

We have monthly meetings where we make decisions and the whole collective is invited to join. As with many volunteer organizations, we need to make sure we have enough people attending the meeting. There’s only so many people that are going to want to take the time to do that. 

We used to refer to the core a little bit more than we do now. The core was 3-4 people with a couple roles that would be expected to be at every meeting. I’ve let that terminology fly because I want everyone to feel like they can get involved at various times. We don’t have a formal process of elections for any role, it’s much more fluid than that. Whoever shows up will weigh in on the decisions that have to be made.

We do have a couple specific roles, someone who chooses the meeting time and emails it out and there’s one person that gets all of our one gig applications and processes them. We have a coordinator for each of our partner organizations and the one off gigs. They find out if we have enough people signed up to do childcare, if not they email the group and let them know there’s an event.

The person who makes sure what the address and time is communicates with the organization so that the volunteers who are doing the childcare don’t always have to do that as well. We also had one person who checked the Gmail account but that turned into a bigger role than the others, it was a little disproportionate. Now we rotate monthly who checks the email, it gets people involved in the admin side, they can see a bit of the behind the scenes stuff. It’s really not formalized, when someone says they don’t want to do a role anymore we figure out who else is interested. We don't have an election process or anything, someone just raises their hand and volunteers to do it. 

Sometimes that fluidity can be challenging when everyone is a volunteer, something needs to get done but no one volunteers to do it. That’s part of why I think not making the rules super formal helps because it’s easier to get someone involved.

What is the greatest challenge in nurturing a childcare collective?

People management definitely, the need is always there and sometimes the volunteer  motivation is not as much there. Sometimes we have an event and no one has signed up. Within any volunteer organization there are a couple people who we can fall back on, a lot of the management we try to do is making sure those same few people are not the ones picking up the slack. That’s a really good skill, I don’t have an official role in the collective but I’ve been actively involved in the past 5 years and that’s been a lot of what I’ve done, it can be kind of stressful but I’ve gained a lot from that.

What is the greatest benefit in nurturing a childcare collective?

Being able to maintain my involvement with an activist organization for over 5 years is something that i do feel good about. The steady level of involvement has helped me feel like I’m doing something and am a part of something. The skills of people, volunteer management, event organizing are very good skills that I can mention in a job interview. I’ve been involved with a new member organization at least 3 or 4 times so those are definitely skills I can use in other areas of my life.

Whenever we have a new member orientation, sometimes it feels like “ugh, we gotta organize this,” but then when we talk to the people who are trying to get involved we realize how great everyone is and they always have all these ideas, without a fail. It’s really nice to meet new members who are involved with a ton of activist work to people who were never involved in activist work like I was. I wasn't sure if there was a place for me, if I knew enough about politics, or if I was good enough. I like to think of the collective as a place for people who know they want to be involved with something but are shy or quiet.

What advice would you give to others who want to start a childcare collective in their community?

Since people management is often the biggest challenge in starting a volunteer organization, I would advise any new collectives to make sure they have a solid base of at least a few committed volunteers before they start to take on childcare commitments. If possible, a core group of people that have committed to do childcare at least once a month would be a good way to start, and I would begin by adding just 1-2 events a month, until the collective can be sure that the events can be covered. The DC Childcare Collective always has at least 2 childcare volunteers per event, which I think is a pretty important rule - so no one is ever going to be doing childcare by themselves.

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