Radical Love: Mother’s Day Lessons from the women of the Radical Grandma Collective
If it takes a village to raise a child, the backbone of the village has always been the mothers, grandmothers, aunts, and other wise women who understand the importance of raising the next generation. Nowhere is this more true than in Na Nong Bong, the hometown of the Radical Grandma Collective. In Na Nong Bong, mothers and grandmothers have taken to the frontlines to conserve the environment they depend on, and they are raising the children to value and preserve the home they inherit. Their cause evolves directly from their role as mothers.
As Mother’s Day in the U.S. approaches, I wanted to take the time to reflect on the lessons in motherly love I’ve learned from the Radical Grandmas over the past seven years. When I first visited the community in 2010, Mae Rote, the founder of the weaving collective, took my friends and I under her wing. From that day, I’ve been in awe of the work and the lives of the amazing women in Na Nong Bong and Mae Rote has become my adopted mother. Over the years we’ve had many long conversations on her porch and on the phone about everything under the sun, from family troubles, to organizing tactics, inequality, and love. I’ve learned so much from listening and working with the women of the Radical Grandma Collective and hope to share some of those lessons here.
1. Successful social movements are built in conversations on the porch, around a basket of sticky rice, not through power point presentations. Villagers in Na Nong Bong have been organizing for 10 years and have experienced all the ups and downs that come with environmental justice, including violence, trauma, sickness, community-conflict, and burn-out. You name it, they’ve seen it. If students of social movements have learned anything, it’s that constant threat is not enough to keep people organizing – it takes an extra bit of magic: relationships. The power of Na Nong Bong’s movement is a result of the strength of the friendships between members of the organization. The Radical Grandmas, as leaders in the movement, are able to organize best during the long conversations on Mae Rote’s front porch, where people constantly drop in and out to share some sour mango and chili with their friends. It is a casual setting, but the conversation often evolves into talk about the movement and helps normal folks connect their everyday life to the larger systemic issues that affect their experiences. Witnessing the organizing work of the Radical Grandmas has taught me that the most impactful education and consciousness-raising happens in personal conversations between friends, rather than in classrooms or human rights conferences.
2. It’s important to always be honest, even when it’s difficult. This is one of those universal mom-lessons that are so difficult to internalize. Birth-mom or host-mom, I know that when I come whining about a problem I’m having with a friend or a co-worker, that no matter how “unique” and “difficult” my specific issue may be, according to mom, the solution is always the same: Be honest and talk it out, even if it means giving bad news or saying something that’s hard to say. Mae Rote has been the moral compass of the community, often the person people come to when they hear of infidelity or if someone isn’t acting sincerely. They come to her because they know that she isn’t afraid to say what needs to be said. She speaks the truth and is able to do so in a compassionate way so that the person knows her words come from a place of love and respect. I’m working on this skill every day, but sometimes I think it’s a skill that can only come through the wisdom of motherhood.
3. Family has nothing to do with blood. I’ve probably been to Na Nong Bong 50 times, and I’m still unclear as to who is related. It is not uncommon to wake up and find someone cooking in the kitchen you’ve never seen before and four additional kids around the mat at meal time. In the early days, I used to always ask questions like, “Whose kid is that?, “Is she actually your sister or just your friend?” Eventually I realized, blood relations don’t really matter – you refer to everyone in Thailand with familial terms. All women older are older sister, mom, or grandma, and the way you refer to the woman who actually gave birth to you and the woman next-door is the same. It’s not just a language thing; it changes the whole dynamic between people when you call them family. People take care of their neighbors’ kids like they do their own, and respect all village elders the way they would their own grandparents. It’s this dynamic that has allowed working with the Radical Grandma Collective to feel so wonderful – the grandmas don’t look at the 5 of us American women like clients or business partners, but as their own daughters. They become attached to the bumbling American students who stay in their houses easily because they don’t see them as guests, but as additional children. Their inclusiveness and openness to other people has taught me about a pretty radical concept of love!
4. Compassion is the greatest form of resistance. This month, two years ago, the villagers in Na Nong Bong were attacked in the night by 300 armed men who tied villagers up, beat them, threatened the women with rape, and illegally hauled the already-extracted ore from the top of the mountain out of the village. A week later around 100 soldiers moved into the village to help mediate the conflict between the villagers and the company. The soldiers stayed for three months, keeping track of everyone who came in and out of the community, and intimidating villagers from organizing. It was the summer of Thailand’s latest military coup when the military declared martial law across the country and mandated that people not meet in groups of 5 or more to “discuss politics.” Any form of organizing was considered “discussing politics” at the time, so in the weeks following the traumatic attack, the villagers in Na Nong Bong were unable to meet with each other in private, because of their uninvited visitors. It was an eerie time in the community. Normally people spend most of their time with their neighbors, congregating on porches over sticky rice and fruit, with kids running up and down the streets, but when the soldiers were there, people spent most of their time inside.
Eventually, villagers like Mae Rote, began to talk with the soldiers, who were mostly from the nearby area, and barely over 20 years old. They offered the young men water and eventually began sharing meals with them. At first the soldiers were reluctant to engage, but patrols and monitoring quiet villages has to get boring, so they started to come around. Mae Rote told them about what had happened in the community since the mine was built and the young soldiers heard the stories in a new way – this time not from a group of rabble-rousers who were a threat to the nation, but as the experiences of mothers, not so different from their own, protecting a community. The dynamic shifted, the tension eased, and at least in the village, the soldiers began taking a deferential tone with the villagers they were supposed to be monitoring. Villagers began to meet again and visitors slowly came back into the community, despite the military presence. Eventually the soldiers left, despite not reaching an agreement between the community and the company, realizing that the villagers were not willing to compromise the fate of their land. The deference the soldiers showed for the villagers didn’t trickle up to the generals calling the shots, but it changed the dynamic on the ground, and allowed villagers to return to life as normal, with people like Mae Rote demonstrating that the soldiers weren’t to be feared. It taught me that sometimes when you respond to those who oppress you with humanity and compassion amazing things can happen.
5. Self-reliance and the importance of “doing it yourself. ” Mae Rote often likes to take my hands, comment on how soft they are, and make comments like, “Oh, you must’ve read so many books!” I think she means these low-key digs with love, just like her bemusement with my absolute inability to harvest rice correctly, cut open a pomelo myself, or weave 3 rows of cloth without messing up. I’ve always said that if the apocalypse strikes, I’m going to the village, because there they have everything they need and they know how to survive without supermarkets and Amazon Prime. They pick cotton grown from their fields, spin it into yarn, dye it blue with roots from their front yard, weave it into a beautiful pattern, and sew it into a skirt that they’ll wear the next 20 years. They grow their own food, build their own houses, and weave the baskets they eat sticky rice from every day. Their land is the source of their livelihood and their fight to preserve it is one of survival. In a time when the world is realizing how our convenience culture and overconsumption of resources is leading to our own demise, preserving the way of life of those who manage to live in harmony with the environment becomes all the more important. The ingenuity of these women never ceases to blow my mind, and the beautiful scarves they weave is only a small example of what they are able to create.
6. Invest in the future: raise your children to understand what’s important. The Radical Grandmas have been at the frontlines of the movement since the beginning, but their children and grandchildren have always been at the center of both the purpose of the struggle and its hope for the future. In Thailand, grandparents often raise their grandchildren, as busy parents work in cities, and grandmothers are closest to the next generation. They do not take their responsibility lightly, and in Na Nong Bong they are teaching an appreciation for land and community. There is an active youth group that also organizes for preservation for their home and they are mentored and encouraged by the older generation of activists. Children under 10 years old in the community will never know what life was like before the mine was built, and because of their grandmothers they’ve been brought up with an understanding of what’s important and the strategies to protect it. As an educator, this is maybe the most important lesson I’ve learned from the Radical Grandmas.
If there’s anything mothers appreciate- it’s other mothers. This Mother’s Day, take the time to thank all the women in your life who helped teach you what matters, and if you’re feeling generous, give them a gift from RadGram and share the story of the mothers and grandmothers who made it.