It was an average quarantine late afternoon in June. I was breaking up ground beef on the stove for tacos. My toddler was whining that she was hungry, and my phone was propped against a jar in the kitchen on a Zoom call.
But not so ordinarily, the Zoom call was for an emergency meeting with the president of our local moms support group, a chapter of the organization International MOMS Club (IMC), which offers play dates, field trips, meal trains and moms nights out for stay-at-home mothers. We listened with muted microphones as she told us about a developing situation that would ignite a fire within the organization.
But first, a bit of background: Southern California stay-at-home mother Mary James founded the nonprofit MOMS Club, which stands for “Moms Offering Moms Support,” in 1983, and it now has roughly 780 chapters nationwide and several across the globe. Since the COVID-19 pandemic began spreading in the U.S., many MOMS Club chapters, including the one to which I belonged, have created photo collages for social media, with moms and kids holding up homemade signs that spell out phrases encouraging others to #stayhome and showing their support for essential workers and teachers.
At the beginning of June, just about a week after the brutal murder of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police and as protests raged throughout the world, the MOMS Club of Rancho Santa Margarita in Orange County, California, created a photo collage (above) that said, “We stand with all moms and pledge that racial discrimination will stop with our kids.”
But when that chapter’s president, Jill Coene, asked IMC to post the collage to its social media pages, the governing team refused after initially promising to do it, claiming it was too “political” and using the club’s nonprofit status as an excuse not to take a stand against racism.
IMC’s direct message on Facebook to Jill said: “Anytime anyone is killed by brutality or neglect, it is a tragedy for everyone. The right to life, liberty and pursuit of happiness are not just words, they are rights. Everyone needs to give other people the same respect ― of the other’s dignity, property and profession ― that they would expect for themselves. The Golden Rule is perfect: Treat other people as you would have them treat you... We stand for all mothers-at-home and will be judged by how we treat them all equally.”
This sounds an awful lot like an “All Lives Matter” position to me.
“For them not even to stand with us on that simple statement [in the collage], it was really disheartening,” Coene told me over the phone in early July.
An unsigned, automated response to members who emailed IMC questioning its motives for not posting the collage stated: “The reason we have not participated in posting that collage … is simple: The MOMS Club is a 501(c)(3) public charity, as such, we cannot and do not participate in political activities. Unfortunately, situations with the police and racism in general have been politicized by others outside the MOMS Club. Any statement we make could be considered political because of that. And, graphics like that collage and the statements/resources that we’ve been requested to post imply that our members have been racists before now.”
Say what? The message of the Rancho Santa Margarita club’s collage — ending racism — is not taking a political stance. It’s standing up for basic human rights and equality. This came at a time when other nonprofit groups — from the Girl Scouts to Christian-based MOPS International, both 501(c)(3) nonprofits — were speaking out boldly in favor of Black Lives Matter and antiracism. According to the IRS, laws prohibit 501(c)(3) nonprofits from participating in political campaigns for candidates running for public office, but not from speaking out on matters of racism.
The message of the Rancho Santa Margarita club’s collage — ending racism — is not taking a political stance. It’s standing up for basic human rights and equality.
I am not part of the Rancho Santa Margarita chapter of the organization, but my local chapter, located in Northern California, was an extremely diverse group of moms from all different races, cultures, sexual orientations and economic statuses, and it’s been infuriating to witness this scandal because it shows IMC’s lack of concern for many of its members’ lives during a time of racial unrest.
“I personally can’t support a group that doesn’t support a matter that specifically affects my family at this current time,” one member of our club, a mom of four in an interracial marriage, said on Facebook that day we held that emergency Zoom meeting.
As a stay-at-home mom, I had been part of MOMS Club for almost two years. I joined when my daughter was just a baby and I was feeling overwhelmed and isolated in the throes of new motherhood. I signed up for the playdates in the park, but I have made lifelong friends in this group. Friends who hold each other in our arms on the darkest days, leave meals on our porches on the loneliest nights, and lift each other up through celebrations of babies and birthdays and the fleeting seasons of raising children. We have volunteered our free time to create an inclusive village and host countless service projects that help those struggling in our community. I believe all of this is what Mary James intended when she began the club almost 40 years ago.
But I have no desire to be part of an organization that refuses to be antiracist, that turns toward gaslighting and that denies that systemic racism exists in our country or could even possibly exist in this club.
All of the moms in our chapter agreed. At the end of that Zoom call in June, every mom present raised her hand in favor of separating from the International MOMS Club. The following week, every single one of our 50 members would take an official vote in favor of leaving and forming our own group. We donated our remaining club funds to several nonprofits, including Black Mamas Matter Alliance.
In the weeks that followed the fallout from the photo collage, word spread to other chapters, a private Facebook page formed to tackle the scandal and share developments, and hundreds of moms began disbanding from IMC. In California alone, 44 of the 124 chapters have left. We chose to show solidarity against its views, as well as some archaic, sexist bylaws that discouraged working mothers from joining the group and restricted evening activities because, to paraphrase, it’s unsafe for women to go out at night, a time when you should be home caring for your husband and children.
As of the third week in July, almost 200 clubs across the nation had abandoned the mother ship.
A Change.org petition calling for founder James to resign has almost 5,000 signatures.
Still, the International MOMS Club has refused to alter its stance and James has yet to issue a personal statement to members. The IMC Facebook page, which had about 20,000 followers, has been deactivated on and off through the tumultuous weeks — most notably, the night before members were set to bombard Facebook feeds with antiracism collages — in what could only have been an attempt to hide from social media tags and ultimately hide from the reality of this scandal.
When I reached out to James for comment for this story, I received an unsigned email response from IMC that came across as apathetic and unapologetic.
“We are an inclusive organization ― and have been since we started almost 40 years ago,” the email stated. “As for chapters that have disbanded, we think you’re confounding the reasons.” The email went on to say that some “weak chapters” always disband in June because it’s the club’s end of year, and others have disbanded due to the coronavirus and lack of membership. Also: “Some chapters that have disbanded ‘because’ of the collage, have actually temporarily disbanded because nice members have gotten tired of agitators yelling at them and demanding that everyone sign petitions that not everyone agrees with.”
While reporting this story and talking to mothers whose clubs have disbanded, I’m certain they have left the organization for good. These “nice members” are not coming back.
“If anyone does not believe in the organization or wants to change it into something else, then they leave,” IMC wrote in a statement posted to its website on June 29.
What kind of example does that set for our children?
The words from that original photo collage ring in my mind each day ever since I read them. “We stand with all moms and pledge that racial discrimination will stop with our kids.”
As a stay-at-home mom, I’m not in a conference room or courtroom or newsroom, debating or helping to solve the world’s issues. I’m here in my house most hours of the day, picking Cheerios off of the carpet, trying to keep a small human alive and stay somewhat sane through a pandemic pregnancy. Most days, it feels like what I’m doing isn’t enough.
But then I look at my daughter flipping through her books on the floor, I spread my hands over my pregnant belly and feel my baby kick, and I remember: My greatest contribution to society right now is the little humans I am raising. This is the calling I have chosen, and I am thankful and privileged to do this with a stable support system surrounding me, including the village of mothers I have met through our former MOMS Club chapter. I won’t take this for granted, and I intend to raise kids who are empathetic, who are antiracist and who speak out against injustice, learning from Black activists and leaders who have already been laying the groundwork for years.
I believe that was the essence of the collage the Rancho Santa Margarita chapter created. This is our calling. Racism in our nation ends with the generation we are raising.
I intend to raise kids who are empathetic, who are antiracist and who speak out against injustice, learning from Black activists and leaders who have already been laying the groundwork for years.
And I know my perspective is not the full perspective, because I am white. I could never fully know the pain this MOMS Club controversy may have caused black mothers in the organization. But I want to be an ally. In dealing with the scandal, I’m seeing white mothers allying with Black mothers, asking hard questions, having uncomfortable conversations, and saying, “When you and your children suffer in this world, we all suffer.” Tides are turning in this country, but we have a lot of work left to do. And we need to do the work together. None of us can tear down systemic racism alone.
Tahira Goldson, a Black mother and former member of MOMS Club of Bowie, Maryland, which disbanded in late June, wrote an open letter to James that speaks to the sisterhood this scandal has unwittingly created as mothers around the country have banded together in the face of injustice.
She agreed to let me share some of it here. Her powerful words will end this story.
When our organization says it is the exception to racism, that it never has and never could be racist, it clearly implies we simply have not asked a Black mother. Or any mother of color for that matter.
How can you, the mother of MOMS Club, spend so much of your life building sisterhood and relationships, only to disown them and burn them to the ground? How can you demand the loyalty of volunteers to be complicit in silencing the voices of other women? How can you lead with fear mongering, with threats, and with the absolute absence of compassion? But then again, without the willful neglect of what is right, I may not have met so many allies. So, thank you.
I have heard that, to you, my Black skin is political. I have read that, if a mother makes a statement that her children will not be bred to hate mine, that she must be silenced. I have heard that all I can expect from IMC are playdates and meal trains. Respectfully, I have not found this to be the case.
Instead of waiting to send a meal train for me, when my daughter is inevitably murdered, like Breonna Taylor, with no one held accountable, you sent me mother warriors, who stand with me now at every step of police reform. Instead of the inevitable meal train I am due when my husband suffers the same fate of Ahmaud Arbery, you, unwittingly, sent me freedom fighters, sent a legion of collage makers, sent letter writers, sent organizers, sent future elected officials.
And when they come for me, as they have before, piece by piece, microaggression after microaggression, those white supremacist who don’t seem so bad to you; those children of mothers that did not teach them to love justice―please, Mary, do not send my family a meal train. Do not send them flowers. Send mothers.
Tori Masucci Cummins is the former digital editor of Sactown magazine and now a freelance writer and stay-at-home mom. You can follow her adventures in writing and embroidery on Twitter and Instagram at @toriucci.