Welfare, “Cash-Aid”, Stamps, Snap, Medi-Cal, Section 8. All terms used by the government and various people throughout the country to not only identify government assistance programs “aimed” at providing a small stable form of income for families and other members of our community who need help getting on their feet and moving their families onto the right path. Simultaneously, those words are also used in the negative connotation of referring to participants in these programs as some kind of “lost cause” or lacking providers for their family. The typical scenario painted, (often by non-people of color who seemingly also find themselves without children) is of a Mother of Color (MOC) usually paired with multiple children. As such, recipients of county or government assistance are commonly labeled as mentally ill, uneducated, ignorant and may be considered to lack work ethic or, more importantly, assumed to not be employed or working.
LIES ON LIES ON LIES!
I’ve been asked, “How do you know this isn’t true?” I live the stigma every day. EVERY.DAMN.DAY. On paper, I did not fit the description on any other grounds that I am a single MOC who also suffers from mental illness. I have one child, I do suffer from Anxiety, Depression, and PTSD from being in a physically, emotionally, financially, and mentally abusive relationship with my daughter’s father for eight years. I am a full-time parenting student at Rio Hondo Community College where I work on campus in the CalWORKs Office with other amazing mothers like myself. To further stray from the "mother on welfare" stigma, I am a student leader on campus that has officially started the first Mothers of Color in Academia club on my campus, modeled and named after MOCA de UCLA. I grew up in a cute little quiet city with primarily white neighbors called Santa Fe Springs (again, on paper). I was a straight A student until about eleventh grade where I was distracted, essentially dropped out and then finished two months PRIOR to my peers via continuation school. That point in my life was my first connection of the privilege I had being told by my teachers “You aren’t like the other kids here. You’re a smart one.” Opposite to that experience at my regular high school, my counselor told me and my mother I “wasn’t smart enough to take the GED test to go to college early,” and at my final meeting with her “would be lucky to graduate by the following summer after your friends.” I felt deja vú when I became a mother on Cash-Aid and my fellow peers and “friends” often did not know that I am “one of those welfare mothers”. They often let their true colors come out when this particular issue was brought up and the dramatization of how “America’s” hard earned tax money is wasted on these mothers with no desire to step up and “get a real job”. “You aren’t like those people though,” they would attempt to reassure me. Why is there only one type of mother who needs help to get back on her feet for the betterment of her family?
These thoughts and conversations make me ask, where is my representation in the media besides the stigma that comes with receiving Cash-Aid? Why is my daughter placed in a bracket of kids who are automatically assumed to be birthed from incompetent, undereducated parents who are ruining the economy because of the government assistance we receive when we are trying to just get our family back on track?
I’m not represented in the media for being a thriving and surviving member of abuse, a single mother working hard to provide for my kid while receiving government assistance and simultaneously re-educating myself and exposing my child to academia. The world loves to play me and my daughter as members of the statistical poverty issue in America instead. The one area of under-representation that hurts the most is the underrepresented aspect of me as a parenting student at a community college campus. This digs the deepest because already going back to academia after having horrible experiences in grade school was discouraging enough, but realizing the lack of availability for my child to share this experience with me on campus has been made evident through obvious uninviting expressions in various areas of campus directed at my child along with the lack of resources available on campus for other parents like me.
One of the biggest questions I have asked is why is there so much focus on my campus aimed at first-year and traditional students, and what essentially is little focus on helping the already enrolled students who make up the parenting student and students with dependents population on campus? There are no parenting student orientations, no parenting student clubs aside from the MOCA startup, almost no workshops on parenting students in academia, and no representation aside from the CalWORKs and CARE organizations which are reserved for student’s receiving Cash-Aid. The reason for starting MOCA at Rio was based on the fact that our campus needed more representation of MOC who need resources and support to assist them to get to the next level of the dreams they are reaching for. In starting the club, we connected our MOCA’s to many opportunities to be involved on campus. I have even advocated to our Vice President of Student affairs to celebrate our parenting students of color by having our very own Parenting Student Celebration happening for our graduating parents this Spring.
This makes me wonder, what then happens to the other students with dependents and children? Our young parents of color on campus who lack home support and guidance and are often babies themselves? What about our veteran parents who serve this country and come back to family life and academia? What about our international students who don’t know this land and bring their children to this new county to better their future or even must leave their babies behind to make this stride forward for their families alone? Our DACA parents and our DACA students who are supporting their whole family’s and continuing their education? Who makes sure these students are supported on campus? Where can I change my child on campus? Besides financial aid, and Cash-Aid who helps us? What do I need to transfer realistically with my family?
The feeling of oppression and constant roadblocks to get through college is daily. I can’t walk in to my transfer center and have housing questions answered for me AND my daughter, but they can try to sell me a shared dorm across the nation. I didn’t have a place to pump for my breastfeeding daughter for my first year and a half of my role in academia, and I know other mothers do not have a place because it still doesn’t exist anywhere on campus. The only changing tables in the science building are located conveniently in the men’s rooms, the across campus in the library or in the third floor of the student union building. There also is not one family restroom on campus with a realistic size toilet or sink to let my little one wash her hands with out balancing on my knee. The need for the most basic necessities like feeding or taking your child to the restroom are even obstacles on this campus for parents of toddlers. The constant fuchi face me and my daughter used to receive campus wide before I became a student leader was unnerving and made me want to run away from campus as fast as I could at times. My only safe zone was CalWORKs.
How does this kind of systematic oppression change for parenting students of color on a community college campus? There is numerous research showing the make-up of community college campuses are students of color, and parenting students of color. Yet, minimal representation and implementation for changes to benefit and support these students. Who changes this and how do we do it?
Me. You. A network of students who parent and support their families all the while, fending for ourselves in academia and continuing to trudge through these trenches. The help of like-minded faculty who have pursued education with children and even started on the community college campus with their babies. While it may feel like there are few advocates for parenting students on community college campuses, when all these diverse groups come together we make changes. We make a loud voice that screams we, along with our babies belong on every campus anywhere. We are here to stay.
Fighting this fight has been INSANELY draining. Physically, emotionally, mentally, and financially. It is worth every single stress breakout, every awkwardly prepared social interaction with administrative faculty, every tear shed with other students on campus. It is needed and we are worth the fight.
Celina Peña is a second-year college student at Rio Hondo College, working on all of the Transferable Social Sciences Degrees at her school (Anthropology, Psychology, Sociology) as well as two General Studies Degrees in Social Sciences, and Social Behavior and Self Development, and a Transferable Degree in Social Justice Studies. Celina is planning on transferring to UCLA in 2019. She is a single mother to her three-year-old daughter Serenity, who she spends most of her days practicing ballet with and taking to various advocacy events in her community. She plans to continue doing advocacy work through her life for parenting students and students of color while pursuing her PhD in the field of Social Justice.