In 2018, I was part of an exhibition, temporary At the John Michael Kohler Center for the Arts, curated by Michael Grabner and Karen Patterson. JMKAC invited participating artists to come a few days in advance for installation. There was a group atmosphere. Some of the other artists were parents too, and we’ve been feeling the strange liberation that comes from leaving the kids with your partner to nail your work. I finished early and had time to explore the JMKAC groups.
I walked into a gallery and there was a young woman on her knees addressing a circle of squatting four-year-olds. “Why do you want to vote?” The children released their arms into the air, shook vigorously, their butts barely touching the ground. They were excited, and they all had an answer. “Vote means you can say what’s going on!” There is nothing like the idea of independence for a young child that adults dictate their entire existence. I don’t remember the last time I was in a room with people so excited about the idea of voting – maybe November 8, 2020? The children continued to discuss the process by which their voices transformed into the world in which they would live. I asked what was going on and was told that JMKAC has a program for preschoolers.
Something funny happened to me when I was thinking about my own experiences as a little kid squatting in a circle and asking me to participate in discussions. For me, this happened in Sunday school. “Who is the father of Jesus?” “Who values the three commandments?” “What happens if we don’t do what the Lord teaches us?” The indoctrination of obedience and shame begins early in the Catholic Church. These lessons about Hell and Judgment can last for years. I know now that my mom didn’t believe in what I was learning there, but she did provide something she desperately needed – free childcare.
On one of my long walks around the center’s Sheboygan neighborhood, I noticed a sign in the yard that had a silhouette of Wisconsin in red with a small blue circle in the middle to represent Milwaukee. Its text reads, “The beating blue heart of Wisconsin. Vote 2018. I knew I was in a bubble in the museum, but it’s a bubble seeping blue in the surrounding community.
It got me thinking, What if every regional museum could offer a free or subsidized daycare that teaches secular values about participatory democracy and culture? Young children are simultaneously taught how their government works and learn about art and craft. Use the churches model, offer free childcare in exchange for an opportunity to evangelize and educate.
Subsidized childcare is not an idea espoused by the United States. It is almost non-existent outside religious institutions, but it can greatly ease the financial burden on families. When my oldest daughter was two, we qualified for subsidized day care in our area. The neighborhood women started the day nursery in the 1970s and some were still there in the kitchen in their 80s, handing out hot lunches every day for young children. I paid $30 a week, and that was a lifesaver because you can’t pay a decent nanny with the paintings you haven’t painted yet. There were more such neighborhood programs in Bushwick and Williamsburg but their buildings were sold to developers and the programs had nowhere to go. The lack of child care is a problem everywhere in the United States. We know that children’s outcomes improve dramatically when they attend high-quality childcare early.
In the past couple of years in the shadow of the pandemic, we’ve seen what life is like for working mothers without childcare. Among my artist friends that I know who are also fathers, it was the women’s responsibility to do remote teaching. Their partners are not patriarchs, but it so happened that they work hard with regular income, and who would argue with a steady salary? Community childcare supports not only female artists but all workers, so why not come with a curriculum that comes from cultural organizations? Come on, giant Fox News is spreading misinformation 24/7 in every nursing home in the country; It’s time to start educating future voters early on about their importance, that their voices can be heard, and how the political and legal systems actually work. If we do that, we can help families and children while preserving this democracy by empowering its citizens in the future.
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