Mary Hooks and Porter
Photograph: Ingemar Smith
For Mary Hooks, raising her daughter and changing the world is all in a day’s work! She is an organizer for Southerners on New Ground (SONG) — an organization that engages in grassroots efforts with queer people, people of color, immigrants, undocumented people, people with disabilities, working class, rural and small town communities, and their allies throughout the South to make sustainable social change. Her 5-month old daughter, Porter, joins her on the road connecting with people who are redefining the region for vulnerable communities. At home, Mary proudly shares space with an amazing group of friends that infuse service to their neighborhood as a daily practice. In fact, they will hand out gifts to women living in the West End community of Atlanta, GA this Sunday for Mother’s Day.
We thank her for opening her heart and home for our Strong Families Mama’s Day interview! We asked this movement leader about family, motherhood and about policies that support families year-round.
SPARK: To start, who makes up your family and what does family mean to you?
Mary: Porter, co-parent Brian, my sisters, immediate and extended family members, play cousins, my SONG family, and my roommates — or as I say my partnas! Everyone who shares space with us is family to me.
SPARK: Can you say more about seeing community as family?
Mary: It’s about being able to connect with people who don’t live in your home. We have a shared identity or experience and we come together and share a loving space. We hang out, we create, and support each other. We engage each other. We look out for each other. We create a bloodline.
Porter has so much to learn, but I do not feel responsible for teaching her everything. I embrace my community as family, my partnas as family — and that is nothing new. It’s going back to the ways we have always done it: as a village.
SPARK: So what has been your favorite moment as a mother so far?
Mary: One is when I actually labored for two days in my house. As a mom in that position, I was obviously very uncomfortable, to put it lightly — but I realized it was a shared experience. Folks were at the house camping out with me. My Aunt Lorraine was hooking up a fish fry at 2:00 AM! I had so much support! And in that moment, I realized that this is how raising my child was going to be. I just felt so held. It was amazing.
The second moment is after I bathe her and I get her all smelling good. I hold her, put on our soundtrack of The Colored Purple vinyl, and I hum her to sleep. I loved this movie as a child and the story has been such a huge part of my development. It’s a gift to share those moments with her.
SPARK: What tips do you have for mothers?
Mary: One tip I received was from Kate Shapps, my fierce comrade, about having your sacred no. Letting no be sacred so when I finally say yes to something, I can give my best. I am not going to spread myself so thin that I don’t produce good work for my commitments. This is something I am being more intentional about doing.
Another tip, you only asked for one, but just in case — a tip that Paris Hatcher (former Executive Director of SPARK) and Shannon Miller (Founder of All My Children Project) told me is to mother myself. What does it mean as a mother to love on, to dote on, and to pour into yourself — to resist this idea that you have to be a martyr for your child? It is not healthy in the long-term, and Porter doesn’t get my best self. I don’t come from a background where I was mothered in the traditional sense. I got mothered in pieces by several phenomenal women. So now, I’m piecing everything they taught together in order to learn how to mother Porter and me. So far so good! She hasn’t run away!
SPARK: What is something the larger movement could be doing?
Mary: Be mindful of the little treasures in the movement. SONG has been so accommodating for Porter. I can bring her to the office and on trips. They take care of her as if she was a staff member on the payroll, and I totally appreciate that. Do the “work” in a way that doesn’t exclude families, or discourages people to have families. Folks shouldn’t have to leave the movement in order to have a life that can accommodate raising a child. Thank you to my SONG family and other organizations that are modeling how this can be done.
SPARK: What is a policy change that would help you as a parent year-round?
Mary: Ah, a policy change… Overall, I think people should be able to reproduce, and to set up agreements and boundaries with no connection to the government. It bothers me that my friends who are same-gender loving want kids but can’t because there are so many systemic barriers that deny them from creating the families they want. We should be able to decide how and with whom we make our families.
SPARK: Finally, expanding access to home birth choices is another policy issue that could be very empowering for people—yet, it is highly debated in Georgia.
Mary: I was going to break the rules, but after laboring for 2 days, I wasn’t dilating. The midwife made a judgment call, and I wound up birthing Porter at the hospital. However, our choice in the way we desire to bring about life is a sacred one and whether people decided to have babies in or outside of the medical industrial complex, is their right to do so. We have been doing this by ourselves for years.
SPARK: Any last words?
Mary: This is the best thing and the hardest thing that I’ve ever done. Really, I get the honor? The universe chose me to raise another human being—or to be the facilitator of her being raised? That’s amazing, I’m grateful for the village that is helping to make her livelihood possible!
We honor Mary’s work at SONG, which is a “home to LGBTQ liberation across all lines of race, class, ability, age, culture, gender, and sexuality in the South.” Become a member today!
Mary’s words bring to mind the importance of reproductive justice. Reproductive justice includes the right to define and plan your family with the ability to support them. To do that, we must promote progressive policies that affirm sexuality, gender, and access to abortion and contraception. Join SPARK as we fight for these rights on Mama’s Day and every day for our Strong Families!
Too often public discourse on the reproductive and sexual rights issues of women living in the U.S. South, as well as the Global South, describes women as perpetual victims of their location and circumstances—especially Brown and Black women. In an effort to highlight the gross social and economic disparities, these narratives lose sight of the fierce feminist organizing happening in these regions. Even well-intentioned reproductive justice leaders can forgo balanced remarks by focusing on the injustices. This is simply detrimental to our movement.
Read more from SPARK Organizer Bianca Campbell on the importance of recognizing and honoring the victories, resilience, and lived experiences of folks living in the South over at Flover Feminism!
Photograph: Ingemar Smith
Raised in South Carolina, Tracee McDaniel left the South seeking community as a transsexual woman to return years later more in love with her family and southern roots. The founder of Juxtaposed Center for Transformation Incorporated, an Atlanta based advocacy, consulting, and social services referral organization working to improve the quality of life for all Transgender and Gender Non-Conforming community members, Tracee shares her incredible journey, activism, wisdom for families, and newly published book Transitions: Memoirs of a Transsexual Woman with SPARK during our Mama’s Day celebration with Strong Families!
SPARK: What is family to you?
Tracee: Family to me is unconditional love, accepting our flaws and all. As a family, sometimes we disagree, however, we know that we love each other. A family is constantly working out the issues, and hopefully, there aren’t very many. Family is a support system for when I am tired and frustrated — I can talk to them.
I was born and raised in South Carolina and my immediate family still lives there. My spouse and I met in California but have lived in Georgia for ten years. I wanted to move closer to home because my mother is getting older, and I didn’t want to have to deal with the airport and all that other drama. I just wanted to be able to get into a car and drive to see her. So, we decided that Georgia would be the place.
SPARK: You seem to have a close relationship with your mom?
Tracee: Yes, definitely. We have had our issues, especially growing up as a trans woman. Now, it’s a totally different story. We just had a conversation about the book I recently published. She felt guilty about some things, and I told her — it is from a child’s perspective. I view things differently. And to be quite honest, if it wasn’t for my mother’s strict ways, I probably would not be alive right now.
SPARK: Navigating family issues is a balancing act that a lot of queer and Trans people encounter. Could you share more?
Tracee: Well, sometimes you just have to separate yourself, which is what I did. When I was old enough to be out of South Carolina, I was out of South Carolina. So sometimes you have to put some distance and space. Eventually, and hopefully, it will get better. If I didn’t put the space and miles between us, I don’t think we would have had the relationship we have now. And sometimes it’s okay to say, “This is all I can handle now. Maybe later things will go differently and we will both be open and willing.” But it has to be on both parts. People mature as time goes by.
SPARK: Could you tell us about your book?
Tracee: It’s entitled Transitions: Memoirs of a Transsexual Woman. It’s essentially the story of my life in South Carolina, the dynamics of my family unit, and the challenges that I faced growing up transgender — before I knew what transgender and gender non-conforming were. I wanted to tell my story in my own words — express my feelings about certain things and to heal from them. The process was very cathartic and healing for me because I got a chance to address some challenges and issues I faced growing up, and I am so happy I have a mother who supports that.
SPARK: It’s amazing, yet, unfortunately rare for many queer and Trans people to reconnect with their family after leaving.
Tracee: Oh my gosh! I consider myself blessed. And that’s what I told my mother. I just sent her a copy of my book and she was concerned about some of the feelings I expressed — and I wanted her to know, that although I felt that way as a child, I don’t feel that way now. I know she did the best she could with what she had. And although we had our challenges growing up, you better believe that there is no one in my family who would disrespect me in her presence.
Now, my spouse and I go home for holidays and stay at my family’s home. I love sitting out by the fire and having one on one conversations with my mother.
SPARK: You mentioned that writing the book was cathartic. Please share other ways that you center yourself and take care?
Tracee: I don’t start my day without meditation and prayer. I feel that it is very important to be centered and to have a spiritual foundation. I started visiting the Yogananda fellowship at the garden in the Palisades, California, and from there, I just started realizing the positive aspects of meditation. I dealt with challenges within and stopped looking to others to solve those challenges for me.
SPARK: What are some of the issues you work on and policies you feel need to change?
Tracee: I am currently working with other community activists to prevent a banishment of sex workers in Atlanta, GA. This city ordinance is an attack on low-income people, communities of color, and trans women of color especially. We are researching what other cities are doing that empowers these communities instead of cutting them out of vital resources located in the city boundaries such as HIV testing, homeless shelters, access to their children and family, etc.
In addition to blocking the ban, we need to end employment discrimination. Transgender job applicants repeatedly tell me that once their gender identity is discussed, they have been shut out of employment. This leads to a lot of the street-level sex work that keeps many queer and trans people fed: It’s about survival. Finally, I’d like to see protections for trans women in the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA).
SPARK thanks Tracee McDaniel for her dedication to uplifting our communities and sharing with us her path to healing, happiness, and love for her mother! During this Mama’s Day, Tracee reminds us the best gift we can give is compassion. “We’re all human beings — even mothers. Mothers aren’t perfect. They do the best they can with the knowledge that they have. It’s a blessing to have a relationship with your mother — so whatever is going on try and have a close relationship with your parents and to not give up.”
Transitions: Memoirs of a Transsexual Woman can be found at thejct.org, Createspace.com, Amazon.com and Kindle
Photograph: Ingemar Smith
We begin our Strong Families Mama’s Day campaign by honoring Marilynn Winn. Ms. Winn is the extraordinary strategist behind Atlanta 9to5’s Ban the Box campaign that ensures employment opportunities for Georgia’s formerly incarcerated family members. She is also starting a new organization called Women on the Rise led by women impacted by incarceration both in and outside of prison.
We celebrate Winn’s wisdom and loving energy with an intimate sit-down interview where we discuss family, tips for mothers, and how our society can support mothers and families beyond the holiday.
SPARK: How do you define family and who is in yours?
MW: Right now, my family is my mother, my daughter, my son and my 6 grandkids.
When I think of how a family should be, the way I would love for it to be, I think of my grandma’s family. She had 14 kids and they all stayed in the same house. They all used that one bathroom and ate at that one table.
I visited for months at a time in Tuskegee, Alabama. My grandmother worked at a fish market, but she couldn’t afford the fish. She bought the red snapper fish heads and made a stew with grits and pork & beans. I used to turn my nose up at her dishes, but I learned to enjoy what my grandma supplied for us.
I really enjoyed those days because I knew my grandmother, aunts, uncles loved me. Genuine connections with my family and friends are the most important to me.
SPARK: What keeps you smiling as a mother in the movement and what do you need from the movement?
MW: I believe one day we will make a difference in so many Black people’s lives. They will be able to apply for a job, to get housing, to get benefits, to start our own jobs. Some people who have records can’t even get a professional license for certain entrepreneurial jobs—in other words, we can’t even hire ourselves!
And I smile because I am a formerly incarcerated person and mother starting this campaign with other mothers, other families impacted by incarceration. I have served my time, so you can’t hold it over my head! I just feel unstoppable. I just need more formerly incarcerated people to feel that way.
200 people return to Atlanta alone from prison every month. If I can get those people to feel like there is hope, we can do so much! When they can see a room of other formerly incarcerated people who are working, making moves—they will say, “I want to be a part of this.” So, that’s what I am hoping for and that’s what keeps me going.
SPARK: How can Ban The Box help people have the families they want?
MW: It will stop recidivism, meaning families stay together longer. Children will also have parents who can supply their immediate needs, and I think every family deserves financial stability. http://9to5.org/blog-post-winning-the-battle-to-ban-the-box/
SPARK: What tips do you have for mothers or anyone leading a family?
MW: I felt guilty as a mother for being formerly incarcerated. There were times I should have put my foot down with my children, but I felt like I owed them something because I had been away. Now, I love myself enough to say “no” when I have to, to say I deserve dignity. I didn’t leave you by choice. I did what I had to do to take care of you. So my tip is to remember that you are always a mom.
Also, I wish that all mothers who don’t feel love, feel love by loving themselves first. Once you love yourself, you are able to receive love. Every day, learn to love you.
We end this interview with a quote from Winn reminding us that we must remain resilient and that change is always possible. “I used to say that my bad times outweighed my good times. Now, I can say my good times outweigh my bad times. I could have been in prison. I could have been dead. I could have been a lot of things, but at 62, I am still here, I am happy, and I am making a difference here in Atlanta.”
This year, consider supporting Atlanta 9to5’s Ban the Box campaign striving to put formerly incarcerated mothers and all people back in the workforce. Financial stability and emotional dignity are two gifts few would turn down this Mama’s Day. SPARK works to bridge the intersections between economic justice, reproductive justice and mass incarceration. Let women know that you support our autonomy and respect our leadership by donating to SPARK.