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To Resist Right-Wing Push for “Parents’ Rights,” Let’s Focus On Youth Liberation

Community organizer zara raven shares wisdom on creating a world where children can flourish.

Raemonn James stands with their child Marlowe during a demonstration against anti-LGBTQ bills at the Texas State Capitol on April 15, 2023, in Austin, Texas.

In this season of parent-celebrating days, many of the parents making top headlines are those pushing violent agendas under the mantle of “parents’ rights.” Deep-pocketed groups like Moms for Liberty and Parents Defending Education are asserting the rights of parents as a justification for their right-wing, anti-trans, anti-Black, anti-immigrant, ableist onslaught.

The Republican “Parents Bill of Rights Act” that passed the House this spring combines an attack on students’ right to gender self-expression with measures targeting curricula and libraries. As Amy Nagopaleen wrote for Truthout, the bill (which, thankfully, is unlikely to advance in the Senate) had “nothing to do with empowering parents, and everything to do with bringing the mounting Republican moral panic over schools to the national stage.”

Meanwhile, “parental rights” bills in many states are similarly attacking trans and queer youth while instating book bans and interfering with discussions of sexuality in schools and the teaching of racial justice curricula. And beyond legislative attacks, “parents’ rights” activists on school boards and library boards — and in their own homes — contribute to the less-visible but, in some ways, even more influential everyday acts that constrain education, severely restrict gender-affirming health care access, and censor vital books and information.

The term “parents’ rights” has been used to various sordid ends throughout U.S. history. It was used nearly 100 years ago to oppose child labor laws, and nearly 30 years ago to justify public funding for anti-gay and racist religious education, as the “Citations Needed” podcast recently noted.

Conversely, the phrase “parental rights” also refers to a legal tool that can prevent children from being permanently taken from their parents or caregivers. Retaining legal parental rights can be a vital goal amid the horrific system of family policing (otherwise known as “child protective services”) that regularly tears Black, Indigenous and low-income families apart. Yet right-wing “parental rights” activists are advocating steps that directly serve the interests of family policing. As Gabriel Arkles pointed out last year, right-wing champions of “parental rights” now “want the government to kidnap trans children if their parents choose to love and support them.”

What is the path forward for parents and caregivers who reject the violent right-wing measures pushed by some “parents’ rights” groups — and also seek a world where youth have the power to live their own lives, to learn, to flourish? Beyond the limited sphere of the law, what can caregivers do to foster more liberatory spaces for youth? To explore these questions, I reached out to zara raven, a Caribbean queer mama and community organizer who works to promote collective responsibility for the safety and well-being of whole communities. zara raven coordinates Queenie’s Crew, a program at Project NIA engaging children in learning to build communities of care without prisons or policing. In this interview, zara raven shares a vision of parenting and caregiving that challenges hierarchies of all kinds, and prioritizes listening to youth themselves.

Maya Schenwar: We’ve been hearing about these organizations like Moms for Liberty and other monied groups that are pushing right-wing, oppressive agendas under the banner of “parents’ rights” or “parental rights.” I’m wondering if you could talk about some of the problems with that framing.

zara raven: The problem with “parental rights” is it perpetuates this idea that children are property and not autonomous human beings with their own feelings, needs and experiences. I personally prefer to talk less about parental rights and more about youth autonomy and youth liberation, and children’s safety and wellness.

Those are the movements that I want to be a part of because then, we’re asking questions like: What do kids need to be safe, happy, well? We’re looking to and listening to kids themselves to answer those questions.

I also recognize that parental rights can be a legal tool. Obviously, I think we should use every single tool at our disposal to protect Black families and Black children who are most at risk of family separation by the family police. But I think that tool is limited, especially when I think about queer and trans youth, who experience high rates of violence in their families of origin and within the family policing system.

What I’m interested in is a movement for children’s safety and wellness that centers the needs and experiences of Black queer and trans youth.

In terms of the right-wing framing of “parents’ rights” — I think one thing that strikes me as so bizarre about it is this idea that all parents are coming from the same place, that “parental rights” equal this one thing that all parents believe. How does your own parenthood inform your politics and your organizing?

The term “parents’ rights” … was used nearly 100 years ago to oppose child labor laws, and nearly 30 years ago to justify public funding for anti-gay and racist religious education.

Not all parents and caregivers have the same beliefs or desires for our families. Becoming a parent brought so many issues to the forefront for me…. Child care costs more than rent. There is employment discrimination against pregnant people, lack of accessibility in most public transit for strollers and wheelchair users, a general lack of accessibility of public spaces in general. There is the fact that racist neighbors will call the police on you or report you to CPS [child protective services] if they don’t like you. There’s the fact that airport security will suspect you of trafficking if your child’s gender and name don’t match what’s on their passport. A lot of issues came to the forefront for me in a very real way….

And it’s less about my parenthood informing my organizing and more about my relationship to kids as a caregiver — both the child that I gave birth to and the kids that I care for in my community, because I believe in collective care. And it’s also about my own experiences as a young person, because I was in the foster system and I was a street kid, thinking about meeting safe adults in my life at that time. That’s what informs the way that I move now.

How can parenting and caregiving be a jumping-off point for political movements in ways that are liberatory and meaningful?

There are two groups that I think of right off the bat. There’s Moms 4 Housing, who occupied and worked to reclaim housing in Oakland. Also, here in Philly, there are a lot of working moms who are part of the movement to protect the UC Townhomes [which have provided low-income housing to families for decades].

What a lot of parents and families need is housing. A lot of parents and families need to have their material needs met, and so a lot of people — a lot of working moms in particular — are mobilizing toward those ends and in those movements.

In general, I would say that community caregiving in itself, care work, can be the movement. It can be the work.

I love that you are lifting up care as movement work. I’m wondering if you could talk about that a little bit more — this work that’s happening that is not seen, that is not named as a movement or as a campaign, but is absolutely political work.

In my own immediate community, I have these two other solo parents that I spend a lot of time with. We had a dinner party on Friday, and we had three different kinds of lasagna and pasta to eat. Most of the kids are disabled, and most of the adults are too, and so we did three different textures of pasta to meet everybody’s texture needs or sensory needs. We host slumber parties, or we vent to each other when we as adults are having big feelings, or when kids are having big feelings and our needs are conflicting. There’s that piece: just building a community of care in your immediate life, but then also in relationship with our own children.

I think a lot about the book by Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha, Ching-In Chen and Jai Dulani, The Revolution Starts at Home. Revolution starts with how we practice our values in our everyday lives, in our everyday relationships, and we can choose as parents and caregivers to practice values like respect and accountability.

Patricia Hill Collins has an essay, “It’s All in the Family,” about how family is an important site of resistance against hierarchy because it’s a space where violence to maintain hierarchy is normalized. It’s on that basis that the nation-state is conceptualized, as a national family maintained by borders. Practicing something different in our own homes can be how we practice building a different world.

Yes! You are the coordinator of Queenie’s Crew, a Project NIA program that supports 6- to 10-year-old children in learning to build communities of care without prisons or policing. Can you talk a little bit about Queenie’s Crew and the work you’re doing to support kids and parents and caregivers in that capacity?

With Queenie’s Crew, the idea is to connect people — caregivers, educators, parents — to resources, to talk to their kids about building a world without prisons or policing. A lot of that doesn’t even involve taking actions outside of their home, although sometimes it does — like, we made Mother’s Day cards for incarcerated mamas. A lot of the activities that we’ve done are just supporting kids in thinking through and planning how they want to be different in the world that we have.

We did pod-mapping to figure out who’s going to support us when we cause or experience harm. [See a worksheet for exploring pod-mapping, written by Mia Mingus for the Bay Area Transformative Justice Collective, here.] We did zine-making last month to express our feelings and needs as we work to transform conflicts. That one I’ve been doing at home with my little one for a while, and it’s just been a really lovely way to work through conflicts. We’ll each make a comic strip after the conflict and then share our comic strip with each other. It turns really heated situations into hilarious ones because of the way that we’re drawing each other!

A lot of the kids made zines in that workshop. We had different prompts. The prompts were like, “What happened? What were you feeling at the time? What can you take responsibility for?” It’s about supporting kids in thinking through self-accountability.

Revolution starts with how we practice our values in our everyday lives, in our everyday relationships, and we can choose as parents and caregivers to practice values like respect and accountability.

One of the kids shared, and I have permission to share this one. Her zine was like, “My mom asked me to clean my room, and then she went to make dinner. I was supposed to be cleaning my room, but I started doodling. Then she came in and she was like, ‘You’re not cleaning your room!’” The kid wrote something like, “Next time, I’m going to communicate if I’m feeling overwhelmed and I need a doodling break.” Kids are thinking about how to engage in conflict better than adults in some situations.

Also, they’re brainstorming how they would spend community funds. Kids are so creative. They’re just imagining a different world here and now, and we should listen to them.

Oh, that’s amazing! I love it when they get ahead of us. My last question was about youth autonomy. There are often these conversations in the mainstream political sphere about children, and they’re about who should have the most control over children, and how they should be controlled. That includes parents, but it’s also schools and other institutions. I am wondering if you could talk about the kind of world that you envision that would uplift youth autonomy in a different kind of way.

It’s about listening to and believing kids. Also, for me, supporting youth autonomy is so intertwined with disability justice, and gender justice and racial justice. When we practice community care and we learn to attend to different people’s needs, abilities and developmental stages, while also valuing and respecting their feelings, their needs, their experiences and their unique contributions, that’s a world where kids can play with gender, where kids of all abilities can have big feelings and not be suspended or even arrested for having big feelings in class, and where kids are supported in learning their own histories and given the freedom and the space to imagine new futures. That, to me, is what youth autonomy and youth liberation are about.

This interview was edited slightly for length and clarity.

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