Detroit Radical Childcare Collective: Not your typical babysitters

Finding quality childcare and preschool can be a discouraging process for families in Detroit. This article is the first in a series that will dig into alternative childcare options for working families.
 
Adela Nieves Martinez, mother of a busy toddler, has an open mind about parenting. "I want my child to be able to be who she is, and explore that without any imposing norms on her," she says.

But it was hard to find a daycare service that shared her values about gender norms and other issues. That is, until she discovered the Detroit Radical Childcare Collective (DRCC).

Mostly 20-somethings and mostly organizers, students, and artists, the members of DRCC bring a social justice bent to their work with children. Providing care for kids in family homes and at organized events and meetings, this group of progressive Detroiters is using a principle-driven platform to fill a gap in quality childcare needs for families.
 
Julia Cuneo, a youth organizer, started the collaborative with two friends, Paige Watkins and Marcia Black. Cuneo wanted a break from her professional work. She babysat as a teen, and was drawn back to it as an adult. "Some days I just want to play with a baby," she says.
 
The group also wanted to elevate the voices of people of color. So they drew up their operating principles and created a Facebook page in December of 2016. Clearly, the word "radical" didn't scare parents away.
 
"All of sudden we were a group, and people started contacting us. It got huge almost immediately," says Cuneo. Right away, the collective's Facebook page had 500 likes.
 
Part of the draw for both members and users of the collective is its five guiding principles.
 
Caregivers earn a living wage, at $15 an hour, promoting economic justice. Providers will barter for goods or services from clients who can't afford it on a situation-by-situation basis. In the past, they've accepted prepared meals, reiki services, and professional development training.
 
Collective work, where caregivers and kids share in in the responsibility for spaces, is another guiding ideal.
 
And, not surprisingly, there's no yelling, spanking, or time outs; a restorative justice approach focuses on reflective language to create a safe, trust-based environment.
 
The collective is also gender affirming, believing that kids' gender expression is valid; caregivers don't try to force children to fit certain molds.
 
That was important to Nieves Martinez, who started using the collective when her baby was 6 months old after seeing DRCC caring for children at group events. She was deliberate in seeking caregivers who would respect and honor her traditional healing and social justice work.

"And don't impose a gender binary," says Nieves Martinez. "That pink is for girls and blue is for boys, and girls must be calm and never say too much, and boys are the wild ones that get to run around and use their voice."
 
The final principle is child-friendly activism. When caregivers work in spaces with activists, the childcare is relevant to the work being done; kids are included in conversations and activities. "If they bring a coloring book, it's going to be a social justice coloring book," says Jackson Koeppel, executive director of Soulardarity, which organizes Highland Park and Detroit communities around clean energy.
 
On the cusp of forming a childcare committee for Soulardarity, Koeppel learned about the DRCC on Facebook. The group started using the collective for its events and meetings to make it more accessible for parents.
 
"There are a lot of single parents in our community — especially in our organizing community," says Koeppel. "Having [DRCC] there has allowed a lot more people to participate in a way that doesn't strain their capacity, and it's allowed us to basically do our work in better alignment with our values."
 
About 50 percent of DRCC's work is through organizations. Soulardarity, First Unitarian Universalist Church of DetroitMothering Justice, and East Michigan Environmental Action Council are among its clients.

Members of DRCC (left to right): Helen Foster, Rebecca Anuru, Claire Mahoney, Didi Adi, Kit Parks, Linda Girard, Marie Reimers The same ideals important to groups carry over into homes. Shimekia Nichols works for Soulardarity. After engaging the DRCC in community education events, she began hiring its caregivers for her 1- and 5-year-old sons during work hours.
 
"It wasn't necessary for childcare providers I've used in the past to have liberal ideals," says Nichols. But after using DRCC, she realized that those shared ideals made her more comfortable. "I seldom wonder if a DRCC provider is teaching my children something that isn't keeping with what I am teaching them at home."
 
Early this year, DRCC held its first official training for members on restorative practices, and is planning more. Cuneo would like to conduct external trainings, too, "where the community can learn from us, as well as where we can learn with the community."
 
While most of the collective's members are in their 20s, they span in age; there's a member who is 18 and a 40-year-old member who is in law school. "And then we have people who are activists who are just trying to get work that fits with their values, which is so hard," says Cuneo.
 
Until the end of 2017, all the members could personally vouch for each other. Many had worked in schools or youth programs, and had recently done background checks. "We'd seen them work with kids, and they were people we knew really well."
 
But with increasing demand also came an increase in those who wanted to join the collective. So members solidified a process to screen, evaluate skills, and train prospective members.
 
While the initial interest form asks for references and experience level, the collective does not turn interested people away if they don’t have childcare experience — that's not what it's about. Rather, it invites new members to shadow a current member and learn, with the intent to build a welcoming community.
 
DRCC members also are tech savvy, able to easily incorporate social media, Google Forms, and GroupMe into their processes. Requests are completed online. From there, job dispatches are done via email and group messaging. Once a member accepts a job, the communication is private between the childcare provider and the person who books it. Future jobs can be arranged directly with the provider or through the online process.
 
Repeat business validates the collaborative's success. Cuneo often receives texts from people who originally booked her through the collective and want her to come back because they're familiar with each other. "Each of us is developing our own little pod of clients that we work with the most."
 
Nieves Martinez is one of those loyal users. "They are who I want to work with. I don't want to seek other childcare," says Nieves Martinez. "I appreciate who they are as people. I appreciate who they are in the community … even besides the work that they do in childcare."
 
The Detroit Radical Childcare Collective has been successful in pulling together a group of people who care about kids and are organized by a set of strong principles. For today's parents, who expect more from their sitters than a clean diaper and strict bedtime, the collective seems to fill a void. And it has for the collective members too. 

"I love the collective," Cuneo says. "It's been really cool to have a network of parents and healers and cultural workers and artists who all love kids to talk about what that looks like."

This article is part of Michigan Nightlight, a series of stories about the programs and people that positively impact the lives of Michigan kids. It is made possible with funding from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. Read more in the series here.

Photos courtesy Detroit Radical Childcare Collective.

Read more articles by Melinda Clynes.

Melinda Clynes is a freelance writer and regular contributor to Model D. She is the statewide project editor of Michigan Kids, a series of stories that highlight what’s working to improve outcomes for Michigan children. View her online portfolio here.
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