Mothers Acting Up

Mothers Acting Up
A young woman uses dramatic arts to protest. Paul Jeffrey

In the taxi ride to my workshop in Hanoi, Vietnam, a flash of doubt crossed my mind. Would my "Empowering Mothers' Voices" workshop ideas and intentions translate on the other side of the world in a communist country with a vastly different cultural history?

It did. An hour into the workshop at the STD/HIV/AIDS Prevention Center in downtown Hanoi I felt right at home among mothers and others, who, like me, cared passionately about issues facing children and their families and wanted to use their voices to make a difference.

Vietnam was one of many places visited by the MOTHER tour, produced by Mothers Acting Up in partnership with the Philanthropiece Foundation to help create a global community of mothers moving from concern to action on behalf of the world's children. The tour uses theater as a tool for mothers to inspire, educate and empower themselves to act on their most passionate concerns facing the world. 

The workshop begins with my one-woman show, "M-other," which explores what it might take for the mothers of one country to authentically care about the mothers and children of another country. It's based on a fictional program called "Baby Swapping," created by the United Nations to generate care for the world's children. In this small, limited pilot program, seven fictinal mothers from seven different nations are required by their governments to swap their 6-month-old babies with the infant of a mother from another nation for one month. It follows the life of a U.S. woman who at first resists giving up her baby but falls in love with the baby she receives from Ethiopia and ultimately becomes a champion for the community in Indonesia where her child has been sent. The story is a powerful affirmation of our interconnectedness in both our challenges and our solutions as a global community. The last line of the show states, "I think the hardest part about going back to my old life will be facing my old self that believed I was separate from you, facing the part of myself that believed you were 'other.' Everything has changed. Before I had asked, 'Why me? Why now?' Now I ask, 'If not me, who? If not now, when?'"

After watching the show, participants practice the skills and confidence needed to take their voices out to the world on behalf of children. The women declare their most passionate concerns. Next, each mother is invited to devise one specific way to use her voice to act on this concern. Then together, we rehearse each mother's action, working together to create solutions to any obstacles that might impede her action. Through the process, mothers in the workshop empower themselves and one another to use their voices to speak up about their concerns. They realize their lives are not set in their current reality, but they can change their lives in the service of their most passionate concerns.

Over two years the tour traveled to cities across North America — Toronto, Milwaukee, Austin, Denver and New Orleans — as well as to international destinations like Panama, Malaysia, Vietnam, Guatemala and Ethiopia. Some stories from the tour show women experiencing small transformations that allow them to see themselves larger and more powerful than they imagined. Other stories are heart-wrenchingly raw about children vulnerable to poverty and risk.

Small action, big difference in Penang, Malaysia

A workshop participant in Penang said she was concerned about the 12-year-old daughter of a woman at her Buddhist temple who was very poor, single and had cancer.  The workshop participant was afraid the girl's drug abusing father would traffic the child to pay for his addiction should the mother die and he be granted parental custody. The workshop participant's action based on this concern was to set up a lunch meeting with the mother and ask her if she needed help making arrangements for the daughter with the temple in the possible case of her death. This small action could save one girl at risk of becoming a part of global statistics on child sex trafficking.

A participant named Pricilla was a child therapist and shared the story of a patient suffering with mental illness since being molested. In one therapy session, the girl was extremely agitated because her abuser had not yet been incarcerated or charged with the crime even though Pricilla had reported it to the local police. Pricilla took the girl to the nearby ocean and had her write about her fears on a piece of paper.  Since no one was around them, she urged the girl to use her voice to express what she was feeling. The girl screamed out, "I don't want him to hurt me anymore!" She helped the girl fold the paper into a boat, and they walked to the rocky shore to set the child's worries out to sea. The girl was upset when they threw the paper boat, and it landed among the rocks. Pricilla assured her the tide would take it out to sea, but the girl was not satisfied and climbed onto the rocks, got the paper boat and threw it into the waves. Together they stood by the shore and watched the little boat float away.

Pricilla is a school child therapist and tries to make school officials aware of the impact of mental health issues on children. Her action plan involved meeting with her regional government to educate them about the mental health needs of children, a move that could effect systemic change to help children.

Empowered in Columbus, Ohio

In the Columbus workshop, Dorothy spoke of her life as a mother of nine adult children, a grandmother to many and a nurse for decades. Now retired, she sought ways to continue contributing to her community and world. The group affirmed her action of reading to children in her neighborhood school. 

Another older woman in the circle was active with an anti-poverty nonprofit and said her action would be a town-hall meeting at the local low- income clinic to draw attention to the dire health challenges facing impoverished children and families. She felt confident her congressperson would attend since he was supportive, and she had a good working relationship with him. That would attract good media coverage. 

As the woman spoke, Dorothy's demeanor changed, and she said to the woman, "I want to do that."  The women exchanged contact information and decided that they would proceed with the plan together. 

We had witnessed Dorothy re-imagine herself as someone bigger and mightier than she had previously imagined, someone with a public voice and the life experience to stand behind it.  Reading to children is a noble and worthy pursuit in itself. However, at this point in her life, Dorothy also wanted to claim and exert her power in the public realm to advocate for the children she cared for passionately.

Women find their voice in Chajul, Guatemala

On a rainy afternoon in a remote forest village, indigenous Mayan women who spoke only their native Ixil language streamed into the "Empowering Mothers Voices" workshop until there were nearly 70 mothers. They giggled at the strangeness of our vocal warmups but were good sports about trying them and feeling the results as much as their timidity would allow. When it came time for each woman to declare her most passionate concern, I invited each mother forward by the hand and stood by her side to ensure her confidence to speak.  Many had concerns of poverty related to their lives and the lives of their children. 

Since there were so many mothers present, my translators and I decided to focus on the concern that came up for the majority of the mothers: their children's education. Though many were illiterate themselves, they knew their children needed to do well in school to earn a scholarship because education was the way out of poverty. How could they help their children do well in school when they did not understand their children's homework? What could these mothers do to help their children get one of the scholarships available through nongovernmental organizations in their community?

When one woman suggested the mothers talk to their children's teachers, we decided to practice the action in a role-play. Three brave women stepped forward and another, who was a teacher, portrayed that role. The interchange witnessed by the community of mothers demystified the process of approaching a teacher to ask for assistance. The teacher assured them that educators were glad to talk with them about how to support their children and gave them tips for making sure their students were doing their homework even if they couldn't read the work themselves. 

In the discussion that followed, it was clear that many of the women would now consider talking with their children's teachers. More importantly, they realized that they could effectively act on their concerns.

Supporting mothers in Lubbock, Texas 

One mother at the workshop in Lubbock had recently become homeless with her husband and two children when her husband lost his job, and they could no longer afford the rent. Her mother wasn't able to take them in, but her mother-in-law welcomed them into her home in Lubbock. My first impression of the mother-in-law, who was also at the workshop, was that she was rather shy. However, as we moved around the circle declaring our most passionate concerns, she spoke with eloquence and grace about the role of the elders to build up younger mothers, upon whose care the well-being of all children rests. She praised her daughter-in-law for her courage in the face of their situation and said she was honored to help her be strong during this difficult time for her family.

When the mother declared her concerns, she expressed her gratitude to her mother-in-law and her desperate concern for her children. While she knew many children in the world were suffering, she said she could only think of her own for now because of her situation. The group affirmed her feelings. Her action for the day was to accept the encouragement and love from everyone present.

The Lubbock workshop ended with a shared meal and a procession on one of the main streets in the town since it was Mother's Day weekend.

Personally, as the mother who developed this program and traveled to many parts of the world with it — many times with kids or my whole family — I have been changed by the experience. I am in awe of mothers and their courage. I have witnessed mothers re-imagining traditional ideas of "mother" to include having a public voice capable of influencing change that prioritizes the well-being of women, families and children everywhere. 

Mothers stepping into the public realm — effectively entering into conversations establishing policies and deciding how resources are allocated, conflicts resolved and decisions made — has the potential to radically reshape our world. Our aim for mothers is full public inclusion so children, women and families around the world have access to health care, education and safety, and that we begin to measure our actions based on how they impact the entire global family. That alone could usher in a new chapter of human history, an era of strong mothers speaking out and acting up for children and families everywhere.

Beth Osnes, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of theater at the University of Colorado and co-founder of Mothers Acting Up, which performed at United Methodist Women's 2010 Assembly in St. Louis, Mo. Ms. Osnes is the author of Acting: An International Encyclopedia (ABC-Clio, 2001) and Essays and Scripts of How Mothers Are Portrayed in the Theatre (Mellen, 2010). She has three children, Peter, Melisande and Lerato, with her husband, JP, and lives in Boulder, Colo. A MOTHER tour is available on DVD or online as a free download at

Posted or updated: 1/31/2011 11:00:00 PM
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