Building Black-Brown Unity: Rhode Island’s Home Daycare Campaign

Rinku Sen examines the Black-Latina dynamics in organizing publicly subsidized daycare providers in Rhode Island.

By Rinku Sen Jun 10, 1998

The State of Rhode Island owed home daycare worker Shirley Craighead $3,000 in back pay and provided no health benefits, and she wasn’t the only one.

Black, white and Latina — all Rhode Island’s public home daycare workers shared the same complaints against the state. Providence-based Direct Action for Rights and Equality (DARE) saw an excellent organizing opportunity in this situation, and in 1990 launched the Home Daycare Justice Campaign.

The organizers soon came face-to-face with race, class, and gender dynamics. How do these crucial issues play out in organizing? Can commonalities in class and gender effectively bridge the racial divide between members of a community organization? Conventional organizing wisdom suggests that bringing people with different racial backgrounds together to work on common issues will not only diminish racial tension — it will foster racial solidarity.

But is this really the case? Racial division is a powerful thing and can be as complex among communities of color as it is between whites and people of color. DARE and its Home Daycare Justice Campaign are working hard to transform these divisions into multiracial unity.

Color Line in the Daycare Industry

Unlike most states, Rhode Island directly pays daycare workers who serve recipients of public assistance. These workers are almost all women and they share a common employer and common grievances. Gender solidarity is present, but the Campaign shows that gender does not necessarily transcend racial and cultural differences.

There is a color line among the daycare workers. A study conducted by the Home Daycare Justice Campaign in 1996 shows that state-subsidized daycare workers are predominantly African American and Latina women who are single heads of households. On average they are 45 years of age and have completed ten years of education. Their average net income is $2.36 per hour, which is half the minimum wage and one-third the pay of private market workers, who earn $7 per hour. They also work an average of 20 hours per week overtime without pay.

By contrast, daycare workers in the private suburban market in Rhode Island are 93.3 percent white. Only four percent lack a high school diploma, and their average total income is 43 percent higher than that of the urban, public providers. Private providers are paid up to 20 percent more per infant, and an astounding 55 percent more per preschooler than the state pays public providers.

Campaign organizers initially attempted to recruit private as well as public daycare workers. They had little success with white private providers. And they found that even white public daycare workers who stood to benefit from the Campaign’s work allowed their racial perceptions to restrict their participation. Organizer Sara Mersha notes that fear of DARE’s South Providence location drives most white daycare workers away. Member Araminta McIntosh says, “I think they should support us, but they don’t.”

Organizing Racial Unity

The relationship between the African American and Latina daycare workers is also complex. In 1980, there were twice as many African Americans as Latinos in Providence. By 1990, their numbers were almost equal. Continued immigration from the Dominican Republic, in particular, ensures that the Latino population will continue to grow. As Latino immigrants have moved into service sector jobs which were formerly held by an established African American population, the potential for racial tensions has grown.

All public daycare workers in Rhode Island face the same working conditions and virtually all are women of color, but developing an organization of African Americans and Latinas has not been easy. It has taken DARE five years of hard work and over $150,000 to achieve racial balance in the Campaign membership, which is now half Latina. And the effort has required the racial and linguistic transformation of DARE as a whole.

Comité Latino

How did DARE and the Campaign reach these goals? Organizers began by conducting outreach to Latino workers in Spanish. They translated flyers into Spanish to invite Latinos to meetings and events, and provided Spanish interpreters at events. But only a few Spanish-speaking people joined, and while they listened attentively in meetings, they seldom spoke or became very active.

Shannah Kurland, a bilingual organizer who now directs DARE, remembers that “the standard approach just wasn’t working. We had to make a decision about how serious we were about developing a multiracial membership. We needed to commit resources and we needed to make the whole organization more responsive to Latinos.”

In 1992, the DARE staff decided to take a major new step: the formation of the Comité Latino, whose explicit goal was to increase Latino membership and participation. The Comité conducted its own campaigns and meetings geared to galvanize and recruit Latinos. Its bilingual education campaign was particularly successful. By 1994, 150 Latino families had become members of DARE.

Once Comité Latino was successfully launched, the key challenge became how to integrate these new members into DARE, instead of the Comité spinning off as a separate organization. “While getting Latinos to join the organization was important, it was only one step in a process,” recalls Kurland. The fact that DARE was a multi-issue organization running several campaigns simultaneously was key to this integration.

Gradually, black and white DARE members began attending and participating in Comité Latino activities, and Latino members increasingly got involved in other DARE campaigns and internal functions. Key to facilitating this racial integration was DARE’s purchase of multi-channel translating machines which permitted simultaneous translation into multiple languages.

In fact, most of the Latinas who first joined the Home Daycare Justice Campaign were originally recruited through Comité Latino’s bilingual education campaign. They helped form a core of Spanish-speaking organizers within the Campaign, and took the lead in recruiting more Latinas. But crucial to the recruitment of blacks and Latinas was well-organized and victorious action by the Campaign, leading to back pay and health insurance agreements.

The process was not always smooth. For example, the racial transformation of the campaign accelerated normal leadership and membership turnover. Still, the integration of Comité Latino members into the Campaign and other DARE activities was so successful that Comité Latino decided to dissolve itself in 1994.

DARE knows that it will need to commit to many more years of consciously planned work and substantial financial resources to build on these gains. For example, to strengthen the Campaign, DARE has formed the Home Daycare Cooperative to fight for a collective bargaining agreement with the state to improve wages and working conditions.

Cultural Barriers

Some members of the Campaign view the racial changes with ambivalence. Dulce Vásquez, Co-Chair of the Cooperative, laments that “African Americans are more outgoing. It is frustrating when Latinos don’t speak up, and you have to work hard to get them to participate.”

Working in a multiracial group of any sort is a new experience for most of the Campaign’s members. Vásquez proudly points to the group’s success in using small group processes and setting up careful translation systems to encourage everybody’s ideas and full participation. Still, Co-Chair Judy Victor, an African American, regrets the lack of deeper social connections between members. Language and cultural differences remain significant barriers to solidarity.

Victor points to the relationship she has with Vásquez as an example of how things should be: “We have the same beliefs, the same respect for the work we’re trying to do,” she says. “If one of us says we should go and have a talk here, or a meeting there, we have the same expectations for what we are going to get. If there was more of that in our Cooperative, then we’d be more of one accord, and no external forces would be able to stop us then.”

The Challenges Ahead

The group’s success will also depend on how well they challenge the increasing privatization of public services for the poor, and on the huge potential for workfare to give rise to hundreds of unlicensed providers.

Kurland notes, “Welfare reform makes it clear that unlicensed providers are also victims of poverty and the state’s unresponsiveness. We’re working harder to improve the licensing system and get them all licensed so they can join the Cooperative and fight with us.”

Yet Vásquez says that their actions have put the system on notice. “When we all get together,” she says, “we can get what we need, and they cannot stop us.”