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Everything I Learned about Activism, I Learned from Mom

5 May 2010 2 Comments

Vanessa Ortiz

Vanessa in Maldives with students working to end child abuse

“I grew up watching my mother’s daily displays of activism, courage, and perseverance.”

My mother made the trek from Puerto Rico to the Bronx at a fairly young age with nothing but energy, ambition, and a sense of adventure.  As a young girl in the South Bronx, I remember watching my mother in action at old-style PTA meetings – speaking up for the rights of Hispanic parents in the education policy-making process, or “patrolling” with other mothers in the lobby of our public housing project. My mother became a social worker, and I remember during those times thinking how brave she was. Her caseload of low income families took her to many high-risk neighborhoods in the Bronx and Harlem. She told us stories of families she met and the decrepit situation they lived in. I grew up watching my mother’s daily displays of activism, courage, and perseverance.

Today, my mom worries a lot about me. Sometimes, to be honest, I find it annoying! I am an educator and trainer of social movement organizers around the world, but my mother just sees me as her little girl. When she calls, she always asks, “Where are you going next?” or “Are you traveling soon?”  I respond, “Yes, to the Niger Delta,” or “to Kinshasa” or “to the West Bank.”  And I huff with exasperation when she pleads, “Why there? Be careful.”  That is often the turn that conversations about my job take. I can never get to the juicy stuff – the courageous people I meet, the injustices they fight for, the risks I take or avoid. Mom is my protector.

Vanessa's Mom Librada Ortiz

It’s interesting to juxtapose a mother’s protective action with a mother’s civic action. One instinct shields, while the other challenges and fights back.  I saw this every day, and in my career, I have gravitated to resistance rather than protection. I can proudly say that I learned activism from my mom.

Mothers don’t realize that their daily shows of bravery and seemingly small courageous actions grow another generation of female activists!  Yes, we sometimes take the lessons of cooking and cleaning, or studying and reading, or raising great kids, but often we watch with awe as our mothers take on the world. My mother raised five children, she worked as a social worker and a teacher, she kept an immaculate house, she was a community organizer, she was an educator, and she was politically and locally in touch. Today, I can’t even claim half of those achievements.

On this Mother’s Day, let’s celebrate our mothers’ activism and the examples they pass on. I love you, mom. And yes, I will try to be careful!

Vanessa Ortiz is Senior Director of Civic and Field Learning at the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict in Washington, DC.

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2 Comments to “Everything I Learned about Activism, I Learned from Mom”
  1. [...] came across a fun blog piece titled Everything I learned about activism, I learned from Mom by Vanessa Ortiz. It’s a great testament to the true historical roots of Mother’s [...]

  2. Thanks for that… my mum created a ratepayers and residents association that removed a corrupt council and shifted a community to a new game of transparency and honesty. She wore her woman hood with pride and power, always using her voice to support those that could not or would not speak… she tried really hard, and then stopped… imploded, and it is all that I can do to hope to inspire her to write… I think in the end she felt unsupported… her back broken, literally, and now medicated to a general fuzz that I rarely make it through.

    For all the women that make it to a life that feels powerfull and important to them and those around them, there are the many that don’t make it, who are lost to the numb at the side of the campaign trail, I honour every woman for doing what she can, when she can.



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