Mama Muses with Sarah Sophie Flicker, activist
Sarah Sophie Flicker is an activist, creative director, performer, mother of three, co-author of Together We Rise, she is a partner at Firebrand with Paola Mendoza, an agency creating content at the intersection of art and politics, and one of the organizers of the Women's March. She's a force of nature, she's grounded, she's passionate, she's really damn smart, and on top of all that, she is making real change with her activism work, and helping all of us along the way figure out how we can help and make a difference too. In case you slept through January of 2017, the Women's March was the largest protest in US history with over 5 million women marching worldwide. It was an inclusive, peaceful, intersectional protest to advocate for issues like women's rights, reproduction rights, racial equality, immigration reform, healthcare reform, LGBTQ rights, workers rights, and freedom of religion.
I sleep better at night knowing that women like Sarah Sophie are passionately and successfully affecting change with their tireless efforts to put that passion into action, all the while being inclusive, giving credit to others where credit is due, and truly making a difference for the betterment of the entire country. I'm reminded that we don't have to be perfect in our own personal activism, however that looks, and that when we gather together for a common cause we do, in fact, see the world change. What matters is that we do it. That we make the phone call to our representatives, that we show up for that march, that we listen to other people’s stories, and that we are open to widening our perspective—even just a little.
interview by Kacy Byxbee, editor, Your Zen Mama
YZM: Can you tell us a little bit about where you're from and how you ended up in New York?
SSF: I was born in Denmark; my mom is Danish, and my dad’s a New Jersey Jew, and we came to America (to the Bay Area in northern California) right before I started proper school. From there I went to Mill’s College where I immersed myself in intersectional feminism, and went to law school. Dorothy Tsuruta and Stephanie Widman were two of my teachers who had a huge impact on me. I was always a theater kid and a pretty serious dancer. I also always had a real love for social justice and activism- that’s something that I got from my parents pretty early. Then, I went on to Los Angeles where I acted, which was terrible, for a year and a half. I met my husband, moved to New York, and at that point I had already started doing work at the intersection of Art and Politics and Art and Activism. My friend Jorjee Douglass had the idea of a political theater group called The Citizens Band. So we brought it to New York!
YZM: Were you able to first merge art with activism and politics when you were in college?
SSF: It started pretty much in college. I had been really inspired by Act Up, as I was part of the queer community in the late 90's. The second I landed at law school I realized I wasn’t going to be a lawyer in the way that we normally think of that profession. I thought, I am definitely going to use all this incredible information and the privilege of having that kind of education towards something that's going to create some sort of narrative shift. That’s where my interest has always laid.
YZM: Were your parents activists? How did activism come into your life?
SSF: My mom is Danish and she grew up with her grandmother. Her grandmother was already a widow by the time she was born, and my great-grandfather was the prime minister of Denmark who brought Democratic Socialism to Denmark and was engaged in a lot of resistance work, specifically during World War II when the Nazi's came to Denmark. My dad is also a lawyer and started his work in the Justice Department and specifically working on the Voting Rights Act. They went on to do really different things, but I think that was just something I always understood; that that was the work that you do, and they did a good job of giving me a pretty solid moral backbone.
YZM: Now that you have kids, how do you communicate a sense of activism and being involved to them?
SSF: It's been interesting. With anything that has to do with parenting and mothering, both in our every-day acts and also as a verb in general out in the world, I think we have to create a lot of space for failure and know that there’s no road map. I am always reluctant to answer that question because when you’re raising kids you never know if you’re doing it right, and that’s why we all get stuck in a lot of judgment and defensiveness because the stakes are so high, and we want to think we are doing it right.
I can tell you what I do, and I don’t even know that I can say that it works for me, it’s just what I do. I think because activism is such a big part of my life, it's become very ingrained in my kids’ lives. In these times where I think all our engagement is so critical, the first thing I would say is just be engaged yourself.
I think so much of parenting is just being the kind of person that you hope your kids will be. We worry so much about what we say to our kids and what sort of activities we have our kids engaged in, and I'm starting to believe that the real solution or answer to all this may just be living it in your own life. And because you're living it in your own life in a natural and unforced way, it filters down to them. For better or for worse, as much as my kids go to protests, rallies, and get dragged to my boring meetings, they eye roll as much about this stuff as any kid does about anything. I think it’s just ingrained in them and especially for white parents, there's a lot of privilege that needs to be discussed and conversations need to be had about race and gender.
YZM: How do you address race, gender, and privilege with your kids who are 4, 7, and 10, and how does that differ depending on their age?
SSF: I think you have to meet your kids where they’re at and there are definitely age appropriate ways of talking to them about all of this stuff. But it's also about knowing who your kid is. My middle son is inherently empathetic and really sensitive and my younger son is inherently more boisterous and drawn to things that are typically gendered as male. So, the way I approach them about things is a little different. My seven-year-old naturally role models for my four-year-old, and I think they both really benefit from having an older sister. It goes down the line! The dynamic of every household is different. That said, one thing that’s important and can be a little painful for people to hear about is, when we are talking about these things it's totally normal as a parent to want to protect your kids from pain and the darkness of the world, but the truth is they hear about it at school, or if they have older siblings. And the truth is that there’s kids all over the world who have no choice but to survive this stuff and are struggling everyday with these realities, not because their parents talk to them about it, but because that's their reality.
It’s my belief that if there are kids that have to live through this, then my kids can certainly tolerate a conversation about it. I don't think we do anybody any favors when you try to over protect our kids from pain and don't give them the tools, even at really young ages, to grapple with important things.
For example, when we talk about gun violence we don't just talk about what just happened in Florida. We've been having these conversations for a really long time, and they understand that the issues of violence and guns (aside from being attached to violence), are also attached to the things that we watch and the things we’re messaged. It’s also attached to other movements like Black Lives Matter. They understand it in general; my ten-year-old really gets, my seven year-old kind of gets it, my four-year-old understands that there was a young boy who was playing with a toy gun and the police thought it was real, so they shot him and that's why gunplay is not something we mess around with. Not because that would happen to them, but because guns cause severance.
It can be really controversial and there are great books out there. If you're worried about talking to your tween or pre-tween about gender and sexuality, then there's a great book called "Sex is a Funny Word" that I really recommend. "Hello Flo" is good for tween and teen girls. "A Girls Guide To Joining The Resistance" by my friend Emma Gray is great. Although there needs to be more books for boys! If you're worried about talking to your kids about race there are like a number of books: "A is for Activist", "The Youngest Marcher", some of the "Magic Treehouse" books do a good job on race and gender. "Young Gifted and Black" by my friend Jamia Wilson. All the "Rad Women" books by my other friends Kate Shatz and Miriam Klein Stahl. There are so many! Books are a great entry point.
I think we talk a lot about protecting our kids from the media that they see. I have three kids, I've bene solo parenting a lot lately, and I know that I'm not going to be able to sit with all three of them and watch what they’re all watching. I have to trust them. We talk more about being culturally critical of what they are watching, and understanding that there's going to be things that they see that they’re going to need to talk to me about. With my older daughter, I will often tell her, “if you can tell me what’s wrong with it, you can watch it.”
YZM: Can you talk about what the intersection of Art and Activism looks like and why it is important?
SSF: Cultural work, art, and activism intersecting is so important because people may be getting different sources of news, but they aren’t turning off their TV’s. They’re still watching TV shows, they’re still listening to music, going to the movies, and that’s where hearts and minds are changed. I do really believe it's almost impossible to hate anyone whose story you know. We become invested when we hear each other’s stories, because we humanize each other. I think that’s especially true for kids. My older two kids really understand the DREAM Act and are pretty invested in what happens with the DREAM Act because they have young adult friends that have DACA protection. Beyond even talking to your kids, think about, who are your kids seeing in their community on a daily basis? Do they interact with people who look different than them or are in a different economic bracket than them? It sounds weird and fabricated to say that, but I think it's really important to open up the circle to not only who you hang out with, but also who your kids interact with.
YZM: How did you explain the results of the election to your kids?
SSF: We all got out the vote. My daughter took the week off and we went to Philly with a get out the vote group called MAP. We’ve been working together for about 12 years now and we go to swing states to try and get out the vote for both midterms and general elections. My husband and my sons came for a long weekend, but my daughter and I were there in Philly for a whole week.
So, she knocked on about six hundred doors with me. The night of the election my husband and sons had gone home, but she was with me the night of the election, and the next day she wrote me a note that said she was sorry and she had really, tried but she didn't feel like she tried hard enough.
It’s hard to think about how to talk about things if they’re really engaged with it to begin with because it's just part of a normal conversation. We all have different entry points and we all have different abilities; this news cycle is punishing we all get tired, and everyone should absolutely take breaks if they need to. There’s this quote that Grace Chen put up on her Instagram that really stuck with me. I think it's taken from somewhere else, and I’m paraphrasing, but part of it says, “the burden on us is not to finish to finish the work, but neither can we abandon it.” That, for some reason, has really kept me going because it’s a realistic expectation. Even if your entry point is committing to calling two of your representatives a week—if your kids are in the room, explain to them what you're doing or even if it's going to a rally for 10 minutes or encouraging your kids to do a walk out on either March 14th or April 20th or going on March 24th and marching somewhere. They’re the closest things I can think of. Or doing something for immigration and the DREAM Act. Look at what communities are on the frontlines and who is most vulnerable. Then, find a way to show up for them! If you're doing it and your kids see you doing it, it's a really natural discussion.
You can also try to find books that aren’t just your race or your economic breakdown. I really try to read my boys books with female protagonists. That’s great advice that my friend Cecil Castellucci, who’s a YA author gave me. When my daughter was just born I asked her what advice she had. She said, “I actually don't have great advice for girls but for boys, read them a lot of stories with a female protagonist.” For white parents, read them books where the protagonists aren’t white and talk to them about that.
We have a Resistance Revival Chorus and I didn’t have a babysitter this week, but our friend came through at the last minute and took my older kids to see Black Panther, and the conversation I had with my seven-year-old was riveting about that. And his insight was awesome. For some reason we get ourselves worked up about these conversations but maybe the hardest part is overthinking it, and the easier thing it to just do it.
YZM: How did you get involved with the Women's March?
SSF: It's all in the book "Together We Rise". Jamia Wilson did a beautiful oral history of some of the March organizers. We all came together very quickly, many of us had never met. It's a real testament to showing up with what you are skilled in, whether it's organizing, parenting, filmmaking, or fashion! We all have something to contribute when we have passion, heart and compassion. I become involved pretty early, the process hasn't always been easy. I try to remind myself that if a truly intersectional women's movement was easy, it would have happened a long time ago. We all come with our personal and collective histories, our biases, and varied experiences.
When we first came up with the oral history idea for "Together We Rise" I was nervous about it and then it ended up being not only really fun and easy to read but also really instructional as far as intersectional organizing and intersectional feminism. So go read it!
Paola Mendoza and I worked together solidly since the beginning of the March. Now we are starting our own company creating content at the intersection of culture and politics. The Women's March really brought us together. It is another gift of this great community of women coming together.
YZM: Can you talk about intersectionality and why it is a cornerstone of the Women’s March?
SSF: Feminism has not historically done the best job of speaking to all women, even though it's foundation is in the work of black women and women of color. When you’re talking about women, you're talking about 52% of the population. That is a mass movement with all different kinds of women. Women aren’t a monolith—we’re rich, we’re poor, we’re white, we’re black, we’re Latina, we’re trans, we’re Muslim, we’re undocumented, we’re immigrants, we’re all of the above and so there's no way to talk about 51% of the population unless you’re also addressing reproductive justice. Not only reproductive rights, but also reproductive justice. And not just equal pay for white women, but equal pay and the way that breaks down for all women and gender non-conforming folks.
You have to be talking about immigration. When we talk about deportation, we’re talking about families being ripped apart. We have to talk about Black Lives Matter because what is the point in fighting for a right to plan our families and choose if we can't raise our children without the threat of violence, racism and poverty? We have to talk about disability rights because there are disabled women whose issues aren’t getting addressed if we aren’t talking about that.
That was a really important and critical part of organizing the march and ultimately what made it so successful. We like to say we midwifed a movement. It was the people who birthed it and have done the work throughout the last 17 months in this iteration of this movement. We stand on the shoulders of giants and certainly never would have understood as a culture what it meant to be out on the street everyday if Black Lives Matter had not preceded it, having been out on the streets for years preceding this election. We stand on the shoulders of ACT UP and the work that was done in the 60’s and 70’s and the feminists that came before us. The civil right movement was a decade that informed all of this. That is all a part of it.
We put out the Unity Principles before the Women's March and those continue to be guiding principles for us. Even if you see what’s happening with the gun violence work right now, or what's been happening with #MeToo and continues to happen. We aren't doing the work if we aren’t talking about all the ways in which gun violence affects people, not just in schools, not just in predominantly white communities but also we're talking about the violence that happens everyday, the violence that disproportionately affects communities of color and were talking about depression and suicide as well. To tie it together further, most mass shooters have a history of domestic violence and violence against women. It's all connected.
YZM: How would you advise people that are tentative to attend a protest due to safety concerns?
SSF: It’s our right to protest. Protest is an act of love and an act of patriotism. We do it because we strive for something better and because we love our country and communities. Also, the ACLU puts out great information. They’re putting out excellent information right now about student’s rights. At the end of the day, our liberation is bound in each others, if we care about women's rights then we have to care for all women and show up for communities outside our own.
Having children is ultimately fraught with uncertainty and risk and fear. Lean into that and give yourself a break! If you are new to activism, be smart, level-headed, and thoughtful about how you show up in spaces. If you're showing up in a community that isn’t your own, it's absolutely enough to show up and silently support. Sometimes the most revolutionary thing you can do is listen without judgment. Show up and use your platform, whatever that might be, to pass the mic to a person directly impacted or a vulnerable group that doesn't have the same platform you have.
Even getting arrested and civil disobedience is a pretty low risk. Be thoughtful, be careful, kind, and aware of your surroundings. I don't really know of too many circumstances of adults, children, anybody… especially when protests and rallies and marches and sit-ins have become so run of the mill - I think that they’re pretty safe. Choose wisely, and trust that people want you there. Putting your body in that space is a really awesomely, revolutionary, great act. Feel good about it.
YZM: Between your work, your work with the Women’s March, and having a family you have A LOT going on. How do you balance it all?
SSF: I'm really bad at that. I'm also pretty sure that balance doesn't exist. I think the awesome thing about being a parent is, it sets the bar really low. You don't find balance, and you have to create your own boundaries and pay attention to what feels good. I think as long as our kids are under our wing and in our household that balance probably won't ever feel really solid. I’ve made peace with the idea that I'm going to feel overwhelmed. Today I had a meeting that I really didn't have to do, and it wasn't going to be especially productive, so I thought, you know I am going to bow out of that meeting, turn it into a phone call and I’m going do an exercise a video. I think it’s stuff like that. Singing with the Resistance Revival Chorus is something that feels really good to me, so I went out of my way to find a sitter last night to make sure I was able to do that. I think it’s making good choices for yourself and your family and knowing that you’re going to fail probably everyday and that’s okay too.
YZM: What is the Women’s March doing to protest gun violence?
SSF: That is led by the Women's March Youth Empowerment, which is a group that’s been functioning for about 17 months now. Young people called for the walk out and we are really letting them lead. Tabitha St. Bernard is the one adult at the helm of the WM Youth Group. She has done a really beautiful job of giving them agency and letting them lead. There was a 17 minute walk out on March 14th. Then there’s the big national marches, the main one being in DC, with March for Lives on the 24th. Then there is a full day, potentially longer walk out on April 20th that's also being led by a youth group called National School Walkout.
The amazing thing about this is that the kids are doing the thing that adults never could. You sit there and think, why couldn’t we have done this? But I think maybe it ultimately had to be them. For the resistance, in general, these kids stand on the shoulders of giants; Black Lives Matter has absolutely been led by the youth. DACA, the fight for the DREAM ACT, and all the DREAMERS are all young people that have been in the halls of Congress and protesting solidly for over six months now. When we talk about protecting our youth, we have to remember that these kids have done a remarkable job of harnessing our attention. When we talk about protecting young people, it has to be ALL young people. I see that they’re becoming more and more intersectional everyday.
As adults, I think we just have to let them continue to lead, sometime help guide the conversation, but mostly give them agency. It’s not just these amazing kids that you’re seeing from Florida, who happen to be predominantly white. There are kids who have been leading in the anti-violence space for years and years, which does call into question, why are these kids getting so much more attention than the kids in Flint, Michigan or the kids who were out on the street in Ferguson and why are schools suddenly making allowances for activism, which definitely went by a different name, even a few years ago? I think it’s important to keep it intersectional and also understand where so much of the momentum for these movements come from and make sure that when we were talking about protecting kids were talking about all kids and all communities.
YZM: How does the work of the Women's March continue for you throughout the rest of the year?
SSF: Women's March launched the Power to the Polls initiative that's pretty awesome and the goal is to register a million voters. There a swing state tour going to 10 different states that will include everything from get-out-the-vote training to registration, to youth –led campaigns, to delving into our daring discussions toolkit a bit more because as we all know, face-to-face interactions work far better than anything else.
Women's March is working with organizations on the ground in these communities and letting the communities lead and lending support and whatever resources we have to help elect not just the big national candidates but also local candidates up and down the ballot that really stand for progressive values and protecting everybody.
Paola Mendoza and I, in launching our company (still looking for a name!!), have a whole bunch of creative projects that were working on, including continuing all the book stuff we are doing with the Women's March. Also, for everyone, everyday you're kind of shot out of a cannon. For example, earlier today there was a huge DACA decision made and it was good. That doesn’t mean the work ends, but it definitely shifts the way you are focusing on it. So, it is always in flux.
YZM: How can people get involved?
SSF: For Youth: Youth Empowerment Arm
To find a Chorus near you or get information on starting your own: Resistance Revival Chorus
To help get the vote out: Power to the Polls
To learn more about the Women’s March and Intersectional Organizing: Together We Rise: The Women’s March Behind the Scenes at the Protest Heard Around the World
For parents who are having a hard time talking their kids about challenging topics, or have some uncomfortable conversation they need to have: Daring Discussions
“Agreement on every issue is not the goal; in fact, that can be dangerous. But Regardless of issue, our agreement must lie in the recognition, respect, and primacy of each person’s basic humanity. This fundamental truth is at the heart of every spiritual tradition and tolerating anything less is the greatest threat to our movement”
Cassady Fendlay, Sarah Sophie Flicker, and Paola Mendoza in Together We Rise: The Women’s March Behind the Scenes at the Protest Heard Around the World
This interview has been edited and condensed.