Detroit Childcare Providers Lead with Social Justice Values

Not your typical babysitters.

Julia Cuneo, member of the Detroit Radical Childcare Collective, at work. (Credit: Detroit Radical Childcare Collective)

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Julia Cuneo, a youth organizer in Detroit, yearned for a break from her intellectual work — heavy thinking about theory and politics. She had her own small childcare business as a teen, graduating from high school with over $2,000 in savings. While she stopped babysitting during college, she felt drawn back to it. “Some days I just want to play with a baby, just hang out with a baby,” she says.

So Cuneo and two friends drew up operating principles and created a Facebook Page in December of 2016 for the Detroit Radical Childcare Collective. Clearly, the word “radical” didn’t scare parents away.

“All of sudden we were a group, and people started contacting us. It got huge almost immediately,” says Cuneo. Right away, the collective’s Facebook page had 500 likes.

Today, the collective is a group of childcare providers, mostly 20 somethings and mostly organizers, students and artists, who bring a social justice bent to their work with children. Providing care for kids at organized events and meetings, and in family homes, this group of Detroit progressives are not only principle driven, but filling a gap in quality childcare needs for groups and families.

Part of the draw for both members and clients of the collective is its guiding principles.

Caregivers earn a living wage, with a rate of $15/hour, promoting economic justice. Providers accept bartering/trade from clients who can’t afford it on a situation-by-situation basis; so far, as payment, members of the group have accepted prepared meals, reiki services and professional development training. Collective work, where caregivers and kids share in work and are collectively responsible for spaces, is another guiding ideal.

Not surprisingly, there’s no yelling, spanking or time outs; instead, a restorative justice approach focuses on reflective language to create a safe, trust-based environment.

The collective also strives to be gender-affirming, believing that kids’ gender expression is valid. That was important to Adela Nieves Martinez, who started using the collective for her six-month-old baby after seeing members caring for children at group events. She was deliberately seeking caregivers who would respect and honor her traditional healing and social justice work, “and not impose gender norms that pink is for girls and blue is for boys, and girls must be calm and never say too much, and boys are the wild ones that get to run around and use their voice,” says Nieves Martinez.

“Child-friendly activism” is another guiding principle of the collective. When caregivers work in spaces with activists, the childcare is relevant to the work being done; kids are included in conversations and activities.

“If they bring a coloring book, it’s going to be a social justice coloring book,” says Jackson Koeppel, executive director of Soulardarity, which organizes communities in Highland Park and Detroit around clean energy work.

On the cusp of forming a childcare committee for Soulardarity, Koeppel learned about the Detroit Radical Childcare Collective on Facebook. Koeppel’s group started using the collective for its events and meetings to make it more accessible for parents.

“There are a lot of single parents in our community, especially in our organizing community,” says Koeppel. “Having [Detroit Radical Childcare Collective] there has allowed a lot more people to participate in a way that doesn’t strain their capacity, and it’s allowed us to basically do our work in better alignment with our values.”

About half the collective’s work is through organizations, such as Soulardarity, First Unitarian Universalist Church of Detroit, Mothering Justice, and East Michigan Environmental Action Council.

The same ideals important to groups often carry over into homes. Shimekia Nichols works for Soulardarity; after engaging Detroit Radical Childcare Collective for childcare at community education events, she began hiring its caregivers for her one- and five-year-old sons during work hours.

“It wasn’t necessary for childcare providers I’ve used in the past to have liberal ideals,” says Nichols. But after using the collective, she realized that those shared ideals made her more comfortable. “I seldom wonder if a [Detroit Radical Childcare Provider] provider is teaching my children something that isn’t keeping with what I am teaching them at home,” Nichols explains.

Promoting learning at all levels, the collective held its first official training for members this year on restorative practices and plans for future training on other topics. Cuneo would like to conduct external trainings too, “where the community can learn from us, as well as where we can learn with the community.”

Members also build skills by shadowing each other to learn how to care for different age groups.

While most of the collective’s members are in their twenties, they span in age; there’s a new member who is 18 and a 40 year-old member who is in law school. “And then we have people who are activists who are just trying to get work that fits with their values, which is so hard,” says Cuneo.

She says that while most babysitters are not advisors lauded for their knowledge of child development, “the childcare collective gives us a little bit more authority to interact with our community on another level.”

Collective members are also tech savvy, with Facebook, Google Forms and GroupMe part of the mix. Requests are easily completed by groups or parents online. From there, job notices are dispatched via email and group messaging. Once a collective member accepts a job, the communication is private between the childcare provider and the person who booked it. Future jobs can be arranged directly with the provider or through the online process.

The collaborative measures much of its success by repeat business. Cuneo often receives texts from people who originally booked her through the collective, asking her to come back because she knows their family and they know her. “Each of us is developing our own little pod of clients that we work with the most,” she says.

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Melinda Clynes is a Detroit-based journalist who writes about children’s issues, equitable food systems work, food, travel, beer and all things Detroit. 

Tags: detroitschools

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