Mama Muses with Jennifer Garner | actor and activist
Jennifer and I spoke on the phone after school drop offs on a Monday morning. She is instantly disarming – her demeanor is warm and her passion for her advocacy work with Save the Children is palpable. She has a way of making you want to jump out of your seat and do something to help, and also leaves you yearning for more Jennifer Garner’s in this world. She wears a lot of hats between having a family of three children, an incredibly impressive career, and deep involvement with her philanthropic work. She is beloved on screen, but perhaps her most impressive role is as an advocate for poor children in rural America. Ten years ago, she started working with an organization called Save The Children, a highly regarded and effective organization whose mission is to do whatever necessary to give children in poor communities a healthy start in life, opening possibilities for their future that their circumstances may not have otherwise afforded them. This affects not only the lives of these kids and their families, but also the future for all of us. Here is our interview with Jennifer.
contributed by Kacy Byxbee, editor, Your Zen Mama
How did you get started with Save the Children?
I went looking for the organization that had the most efficacy in rural America because my mom grew up super poor in Oklahoma, my dad struggled, and he and my mom both were the first in their families to go to college and the only [ones] in their families to go to college, and never would have been able to without somebody giving them a leg up. I grew up in West Virginia and felt like while my family was comfortable, I looked around and thought, “what about these other kids? Who is helping them?” And that’s just always stuck with me so much. Who is doing this work? I started asking around and was led to Mark Shriver at Save the Children and first I just said, “could you educate me, please, on the issue” and then I sat down with him and I said, “Can I work with you? Would you mind?”. And that’s how it all started and that was ten years ago.
I read that you go to DC a lot to lobby and advocate on behalf of these children. Do you feel like you’ve seen positive change from your time there, and have you felt support from from the members of Congress and representatives you’ve met with?
Well, I have a lot of feelings about it. I have all kinds of feelings, but one of them is that people in public service constantly surprise me with their commitment to helping people [and] that they really are coming from the right place…I think we have come to expect very little [from our politicians], and I am constantly surprised by how seriously people take their missions in life and that is comforting. The other thing is that even given that; [the issue of] poor kids in America is something that I heard called once the “bobble head” issue because you go into anyone’s office, and people nod their heads. They say, “oh yeah, poor kids. We have to help them. Oh that’s right, kids are our future. Mmhmm.” But when push comes to shove, no one is pushing them financially to vote. Because poor kids don’t vote. Poor kids don’t donate money. Nobody is pushing them to put their money where their mouth is and vote on poor kids behalf.
Right. There’s no lobby.
Right. Which we’ve started. There’s now something called Save the Children Action Network, which is a lobbying arm. It’s really hard to raise money because it's not tax deductible but basically Mark Shriver, my colleague at Save, says “I want to be the NRA for kids.” If the NRA is strong enough to keep us from having gun control laws, then where is the organization that is strong enough like that for kids?
He’s actually been really effective in elections. In New Hampshire we were fighting so hard for the candidate who was all about full day kindergarten. We were fighting so hard for that candidate to win the governorship, and when he didn’t, we had put so much pressure around the issue that governor Sununu, when he took office, he said okay, I hear you loud and clear. And now New Hampshire is getting full day kindergarten. So, we lost that battle, but we won that war. And that’s fine, that’s great, we are all about that. As long as it’s happening.
That's amazing. What was it like the first time you went testify in front of Congress? Was it terrifying?
It is. I feel much, much, much more comfortable speaking about this now than I did then. The first time I testified in front of Congress I really didn’t know what to expect and while I like to write what I say most of the time, in that case I didn't because I was in the middle of the job and I just kind of flew in and did it and left. And I really learned something that day because I was with experts and I'm not an expert. So for me to be talking like an expert just really didn’t ring true. It really crystallized what my job is in the organization. My job is to go out, meet the people, hear their stories, and then tell them.
I am there to illustrate what the experts are talking about. At this point I know the statistics and I could rattle them off like the best of them, but I’m not the best of them. And I don’t have a degree to back me up, so I just try my best to see in all that I can, and I tell Save I need to balance site visits and going out in the middle of nowhere and seeing people, with fundraising advocacy work or anything else that would take place where I'm dressed up and in a high heel.
I feel like it can be difficult to wrap our minds around something when we are solely hearing statistics, but when we are hearing these real stories, it completely humanizes these issues. That’s what really helps people to understand the problem—it gets people to care.
Yes. One out of five kids growing up in Rural America are growing up in poverty. It’s a LOT of kids: over 15 million. But if you take that one kid at a time, it’s kids showing up for school in a bathing suit and their uncle’s shoes because they don’t even know where their parents are. Nobody got them up to dress them. They just walked our of their house, got on the bus, and that’s what they’re in. Or a chime goes off at school and a teacher says, its code cupcake and that means kids that know that they’re code cupcake get their backpacks and go to a secret room in the school where their backpack is filled with for their family to eat that night. Or if there is snow coming, its food for them to have over a snow days, or a weekend, or a holiday. And that an actual little kid who's thinking about, “I can't miss school because I can't miss code cupcake.”
Right, man that is so wild.
It’s wild. And it is something that we can address as a country. And it’s very, very hard to make changes in the way things are done.
What are the similarities and differences you’ve found between you and all the other moms you have met on your site visits with Save?
You know how the minute you have a baby you feel like, oh I just joined a club?
I know this sounds totally crazy and not relatable to so many people, but I remember that the first time I went to an awards show for something I felt like, oh I just joined this club. I just joined this club of people who all the other famous people recognize. I don’t know what that means, I don’t know if I like it or not, but I’ve just joined this club. Motherhood is that times a million billion. So, the reality is, any mom you meet, whether you are in Bangladesh or in a Native American reservation outside of Seattle where they are raising their kid in third world conditions—when you sit down on the floor with them, and you’re both playing with their child, you are both on absolute level playing field. And you can’t look at that situation and not see that that mom is getting a bum deal…you look at them and think, “no wonder you haven’t picked up the trash in here or outside, no wonder your kitchen table has been turned upside down for months and you can’t seem to have the oomph to turn it right side up and fix the leg, or take the fly paper that clearly needed to be taken down a year ago and is still hanging down at eye level.” Because that is how exhausted, stressed, and freaked out you are. Just like some days when you don’t get out of sweats. It’s the same thing. That’s the thing that I think is so hard for people to understand. They think, oh well if I was in that position, I would work hard, I would do this, I would pull myself up. The reality is, your brain shuts off. Your brain goes into fight or flight mode, and you are just trying to survive. You’re in survival mode. And you don’t say okay, how can I improve my situation by three percent? You know? That’s not where you are. We have all reacted the same.
I think it is impossible to truly empathize where these moms, dads and families are coming from psychologically until you realize that they are mentally operating under conditions completely different from our own and those conditions are both disabling and handicapping.
Exactly. Our knee jerk reaction is to judge them, and think, “well, get a job.” Oh really? Ok, so if this lady tries to get a job, then whatever job she has will pay her less than child care. She’s not close to her family, she has a child in another state that she is supposed to be paying child support for, she’s actually about to go to jail because she can’t afford the child support. So her husband, who gets up at three to get to Hardee’s 45 min away is going to have to quit his job, come home and take care of their children so that she can go to jail. I mean, where do you even start to figure that out? It’s too late for them to get a college degree. They’re not going to get one. So where do you begin? And the only thing you can really do is look at their kids and come in and say, let’s help get these kids to kindergarten ready to learn so that they have a shot of liking school and holding onto an education and pulling themselves up and out. That is what we try to do.
That thinking makes so much sense to me, and seems so effective. Is there legislation in the works that would help Save the Children make a bigger impact by enabling them to reach more families this way?
It’s constant. Everyone is trying to find different funding streams, get different bills passed, and I go to the hill for [anything] that would increase funding or help in some way. It’s just really hard to get people to actually vote. To vote for yes for kids.
Why you think that is? Is it because it isn’t financially motivating?
It is 100% kids don’t vote. And poor America, for the most part, doesn’t make it to the polls….They’re not talked about in the debate…It is just brushed over politically. And that is too broad of a thing to say. There are obviously people out there doing good work and they’re trying to do good work, but in the overall…scene of American politics, it is not something that [is being focused on]…We have a crisis happening and that crisis is then leading to an opioid epidemic because of the despair [and] instead of dealing with the base crisis: that all of these people have no job, no childcare, no hope, no way out…It’s hard. Government is really hard. I wouldn’t want to be running the country or be a senator, or figure this stuff out for anything.
Especially right now, which I suppose is when we need people fighting harder. With this administration have you seen any progress? As a liberal, I really admire your openness to working with this administration-- I think it is so refreshing and productive.
We have to! You can’t just say, sorry kids in Mississippi, but we’re just going to forget about you for four years and let your funding run dry…You have to get in there and work and do it with an open mind and a full heart and if we’re not being team members and saying, hey what do we need to do? Then how can we expect that from people that don’t think like us? It’s a really hard time for people who are left leaning, or people with common sense, but it doesn’t mean we can just shut off people who don’t think like us. And quite frankly, I’m a democrat and when I go to DC these days I mostly meet with Republicans because they are getting things done in this area. And there is power to getting things done, and so that is who I am talking to. And they’re great. You can’t just only look at one side of the coin.
Absolutely. Also, to circle back to the opioid crisis, have you seen that playing a huge part of this larger crisis?
Yes, absolutely, in West Virginia, in Tennessee. Big time. I was at a school in West Virginia earlier this year and close to half of the kids has been under the care of child protective services in the last year. Four kids at this school were currently in the process of being adopted by teachers. Man, teachers do the work of gods. Teachers are amazing.
Yeah and not exactly compensated for it.
Oh my gosh, not at all, but they will be. They are amazing. I meet teachers all over the country where I feel like, well, you just rocked my world. I can’t believe what you do.
How do manage all your advocacy work, your amazing career, and having a family?
It goes up and down. I do more with Save. I’ve taken a couple years where I have really stepped back from work. But that’s given me more time to devote to Save so I have had a really busy couple years with them. And then I will dial that back and work. And I really, I do what I can do. And I just do the best that I can. And it’s not balanced. Nothing is balanced. But you have to look at it over a 10-year period. Some years are really about work, and some years maybe you work less. I remember when my girlfriend and I were first starting out and we were out there auditioning and we wouldn’t get jobs for months at a time. She and I would call each other and say okay, how can we take absolutely the most advantage of this time right now. What book can you read? What museum can you go to? (We lived in New York). What can you do to make this time really count? Because sometimes you will be working and you feel like oh shoot, I didn’t take advantage. So how can we mindfully be doing that? So, it’s the same idea.
How do you educate your family to have a wider perspective of the world, even at a young age?
It’s a tricky thing because I don’t want my kids to feel guilty. They are kids of privilege and it’s not their fault that other kids [aren’t as lucky]. It’s a tricky thing. But they see me doing the work, they see me writing the speeches, I will read to them for practice, they know I go on the trips, [and] I will show them what I’ve seen and tell them stories of families. But I just tell them anecdotally this is my day, and then I can see that it is starting to catch. Now that my eldest is almost 12, I think this year I will start taking her with me to site visits. She’s ready and it’s probably time for that, so that’s great.
What is the best way for people that feel moved to get involved with Save the Children?
A great way to get involved is just go to the Save the Children Action Network and sign up so that if there is something happening in your area, if there is something that is really tearing it up and we are suggesting, hey if you really care about this issue, vote for this person...or on the national level, this is where people stand on this issue. You know, vote that way. It sounds small and how can I make a difference? But you have to believe you can.
And vote, vote, vote.
Vote, vote, vote. And then also, we’re a public private partnership so [for] the public money, we go to the state governments, the federal government, [and] we go to get all kinds of different grants. But the private part is very hard to raise. So, for anyone who wants to sponsor a child in Save the Children, especially in the US program. Or just to make a donation, we would take it!
In general, do you feel hopeful or discouraged most of the time?
Super hopeful. I feel super hopeful. Because I see that it is so possible. There are so many good people that are working, people who are super smart with their hearts in the right place. Like Mark Shriver and the people at Save, and the people at First Five Years Fund, and First Five, and Nurse Family Partnership. I go to speak on panels and to learn and listen and I am always just blown away by all the minds at work. And I feel like okay, there’s momentum. We’re going to get things done one little brick at a time.
There’s enough people who care and are doing things to make this happen.
You know how they tell you if something scary has happened and your kids see the image of it that you should always say to them, but look at all the helpers rushing into help—there are so many helpers. I feel like we are just some of the helpers. That we have a crisis in this country, whether we are talking about it or not. But there are so many helpers rushing into help and I am just proud to work for the team that I feel like is on the right side of it and I’m just a small cog in the wheel, but I am super psyched to be rolling along.
this interview has been edited and condensed