By GWEN OREL
Even with the risks of congregating due to the pandemic, mothers are organizing and taking to the streets for future generations.
Mom activist groups go back at least to 1980, when Mothers Against Drunk Driving, now called Mothers Against Drunk and Drugged Driving, was founded by a grieving mom, Candy Lightner, whose 13-year-old daughter had been killed by a drunk driver.
Across the nation and here in Montclair, moms are protesting for sensible gun laws, against President Trump, and to demand justice for students of color. Last week, mothers rallied in Montclair to push the school district to reopen for in-person learning.
Women are becoming powerful activists. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 55 percent of women voted in the 2018 midterm elections, compared with 52 percent of men. However, while the extent of women’s participation was striking, the 2018 midterms also showed higher voting overall, an 11-percent increase for men and a 12-percent increase for women compared to 2014, and a historic 79-percent increase for voters ages 18 to 29.
MOTHERS AGAINST DRUNK AND DRUGGED DRIVING
One of the first groups of mothers to organize was Mothers Against Drunk Driving, which has grown as a grass-roots organization since its founding and now has many men involved as well. The organization has helped hundreds of thousands of victims and their families, said Steven Benvenisti, chair of the New Jersey chapter.
Benvenisti got involved after his parents were contacted by the organization as he lay in a coma. Thirty years ago, he was struck by a drunk driver while on spring break in Florida.
Miraculously, he lived, and made a full recovery. He has been active with the group ever since, and has spoken at more than 500 high schools. Today, he’s a parent himself.
Families have a powerful motivation to “do everything they can to make sure that what happened to them doesn’t happen to other parents and other families,” he said.
S.M.A.R.T. VOTER USA
The women marching with S.M.A.R.T. in September in Montclair were marching to protect their families, they said. The newly formed grass-roots group, Suburban Moms Against Re-electing Trump Voter USA, were rallying to protect the environment, women’s rights, LGBTQ rights and more in their March for Unity. While they formed locally, they see themselves as a national organization, hoping to reach as many people as possible, and have an expansive “on the ballot” campaign on social media.
About 1,000 women wearing purple masks and organized by the group marched in a loop from Rand Park to demonstrate their desire to make Trump a one-term president. The organization has 22 people on its advisory board and more than 4,000 members in its Facebook group.
Organizer Laura Tressel described the group as “a diverse coalition of suburban moms and their supporters.”
“We believe nothing short of our democracy is on the ballot,” Tressel told Montclair Local.
Marcia Marley, president of BlueWaveNJ, state Sen. Nia Gill and others spoke before the march.
Several women at the event saw Trump as a threat to hard-won freedoms such as a woman’s right to choose.
Nora Murphy said she was walking for her daughter.
Jodi Brooks, marching with her daughter Phoebe, said she wanted to show her daughter how strong women can be “whether they’re working moms or stay-at-home moms.”
Trump’s claim to stand for suburban women is important to rebut, said Shirley Emelhu.
“The response is to say suburban women are pro-democracy, pro-women’s rights, pro-Black Lives Matter, and we’re staying together to fight for the soul of this country,” Emelhu said.
And then there’s COVID-19, said Kamala Murthy: “I lost my Dad, and my Dad would still be here if Trump hadn’t mishandled the pandemic.”
The group has since been working to turn the swing state Pennsylvania blue, with phone-bank sessions and in-person canvassing.
100 MOMS AND STUDENTS OF COLOR
Moms also marched for and with their children on Aug. 15, when a group called 100 Moms and Students of Color held a Black Kids Matter protest rally in Rand Park.
Natalie Hackett, who says her 14-year-old daughter Megan had been the victim of harassment, intimidation and bullying at Buzz Aldrin Middle School, is one of the organizers of the group.
Hackett’s attorney, Jeffrey R. Youngman, had filed a tort claim in July alleging that school officials did nothing to stop the bullying of her daughter, who had been called “blackie,” “tar baby” and other slurs, and physically assaulted.
In August, the family filed a formal complaint with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights and has since enrolled their daughter in private school.
After Hackett came forward, other parents and students who had faced mistreatment started contacting her, she said.
“Once they started reaching out to me, and it became more than a dozen, we felt the need to form a coalition with community leaders pushing for progressive change in the district,” she said.
At the rally of about 250 people, Kellia Sweatt, president of the National Independent Black Parent Association, told the crowd that she was angry interim Superintendent Nathan Parker had eliminated the paid position of student equity advocate. (The township Board of Education last week reposted the position, renaming it the student and family coordinator and largely retaining the advocate’s duties. Story, page 9.)
Joseph Graham Jr., the former student equity advocate, spoke at the event, as did Shayla George, a 2020 MHS graduate; Civil Rights Commission member David Toler; Lawrence Hamm of People’s Organization for Progress and others.
An Instagram page called SunriseMontclair has posted “A Response to the Hackett Family Lawsuit,” written by Analisa Faulkner, Evie Gillot and anonymous contributors.
They write about bullying on the school bus, about harassment from students and teachers.
“I’m finding that parents involved in organizing our event and the students too are moving our issue forward,” Hackett said. “We are not seeking to be activists, but we realize we all have shared concerns.”
MOMS DEMAND ACTION
Sharing concerns has been a theme of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America.
The group, which is part of Everytown for Gun Safety, seeks to enact sensible gun laws, said Montclair resident Jaime Bedrin. Everytown has a student wing as well, called Students Demand Action for Gun Sense in America.
Shannon Watts, a mother of five, started the group after the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut in 2012. Watts said she modeled the group after MADD. Within weeks it had 7,000 members. Today it has 6 million supporters.
Bedrin joined after Sandy Hook. “I was pregnant at the time,” she said, and remembers that she thought that it couldn’t be only victims who had to work to fix gun laws. She has two sons.
The group includes dads as well as moms, Bedrin said. Both moms and dads feel “that their kids are worth more than the right to walk around with an assault weapon.”
The organization is now the biggest counterweight to the National Rifle Association, Bedrin said.
They meet with lawmakers and committees about bills on protecting victims of domestic violence and other issues, she said.
“Sometimes people think we haven’t seen a lot of change at the federal level, but there has been a whole lot of progress in states, not just in New Jersey, where we have a history of strong gun laws,” she said.
One of the most important things Moms Demand Action does is work to support survivors.
Kerry Youmans of Montclair is one such survivor. At 19 she was held at gunpoint for 10 hours by a man who had shot and killed a police officer. She was rescued by a SWAT team.
She joined Moms Demand Action shortly after the mass shooting at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Fla., in 2016. She is now an Everytown Survivor Fellow, and shares her story with others.
As a mom of twin 10-year-old boys, she is always worried about how violence will affect them. “It’s important for survivor voices to be heard,” Youmans said. “When you tell somebody your own personal story and how gun violence has affected you so much, it’s easier for people to understand where you’re coming from, and why you want tougher gun laws.”
She said there’s a special camaraderie among the mothers, but added there are non-moms in the group as well, people with nieces and nephews, men and people who care. There are many people whose lives have been touched by gun violence, who have had children killed or family members who have committed suicide.
“I feel like I have this wonderful community,” Youmans said.
— Kate Albright contributed to this story.
In this article:
100 Moms and Students of Color
Moms Demand Action New Jersey