“When the news started breaking about children being separated from their families [at the Mexico/U.S. border], the image I couldn’t get out of my head was my three-year-old son in a cage, picturing how he’d be reacting, what he’d be doing, and wondering who would be making sure he got to the potty on time,” says Dan Aymar-Blair, 43. “I just couldn’t fathom it. I had to take action.”
So Aymar-Blair, executive director and co-founder of The Article 20 Network (which promotes nonviolent public demonstrations) wrote a Facebook post “saying that we need to get a bus and fill it with grannies and head down to the border. It was just a lark really, throwing a comment out. But then all these older women in my newsfeed started saying ‘I’ll do it!’ We had an exploratory call a couple days later, and 40 people joined.”
What Is Grannies Respond?
Aymar-Blair’s lark is now Grannies Respond/Abuelas Responden, a rapidly growing group protesting the separation of families at the border by organizing a six-day bus trip (July 31 to August 6) to the Texas-Mexico border. Grannies Respond will leave New York City and finish in McAllen, Texas, making stops in Reading and Pittsburgh, Pa.; Louisville, Ky., Montgomery, Ala., New Orleans and Houston, picking up people as they go.
The group’s goal is to get as many people as possible to McAllen on August 6 to participate in 24 hours of actions, likely including demonstrations at border facilities, song-filled nighttime vigils and meetings with local aid groups to identify ways of providing longer-term support.
“One of the first questions we asked ourselves was, ‘Are there any Spanish-speaking people here?’” Aymar-Blair recalls. “We want the songs we sing outside detention centers to be in Spanish, so the children and anyone who feels scared there knows we care, and that they are loved.”
Grandparents Stepping Up as Organizers
Aymar-Blair’s mother will be joining the caravan and, although all ages are welcome at Grannies Respond, grandparents have stepped up as organizers.
Rafiah Jones, a 64-year-old grandmother of 11 in Washington, D.C., and a dramatic arts in education facilitator, is helping with the group’s social media and awareness campaign. When she learned about Grannies Respond from a friend, Jones immediately asked what she could do to assist.
“It’s because of my grandkids that I’m inspired to be of service beyond my family,” Jones says. “I want my grandkids to be inspired by me and to carry something of value that I’m passing along. It’s really because of them that I’m driven to do and act more.”
Sharon Kutz-Mellem, a 66-year-old grandmother of two in Louisville, found out about Grannies Respond on Twitter and contacted the group right away. “They’re coming through here,” she says, “so I’m going to join them along with a couple other grannies, and we’ll be riding the bus and housing people here who are coming on the caravan.
Singing and Hearing Stories
“I’m also the local outreach person,” Kutz-Mellem continues, “so I arranged a visit to CASA Latina, which is working with Latina women in our area who are homeless, and some are seeking asylum. We’ll visit, sing a song, hear their stories, and eat food together.”
Kutz-Mellem spent the past 11 years as a pastor at a church in rural Kentucky. But when some of her parishioners started bringing out Confederate flags after the last presidential election, she decided to leave.
“I just felt like this wasn’t the Jesus I know,” she says. “He said ‘Welcome strangers,’ and he never said to put children in cages. And Jesus himself was a refugee at some point. For me, my spirituality and my activiism aren’t separate. My activism is an expression of my spiritual life. Plus, I have two wonderful grandsons, and I can’t leave this planet without knowing that I did the very best I can.”
Kutz-Mellem doesn’t know most of the women and men involved in Grannies Respond, but that’s no barrier for her. “We’re nearly all strangers to each other. We are kindred spirits, because we think what’s happening is obscene and we’re not going to stand for it.”
‘I Had to Do Something’
Barry and Claire Nelson, 70 and 66, of Beacon, N.Y., are currently the only husband-and-wife duo who’ll be on the bus leaving from New York. Claire’s parents were Holocaust survivors who immigrated to the U.S. from Austria. While her family didn’t talk much about the Holocaust, Claire says she grew up with the feeling that such terrors could happen again. Watching things unfold at the border, she says, “made me feel like that moment could be approaching and I had to do something.”
The couple are longtime activists who retired from careers working with special education students in public schools.
“One of the things we always had in common is that we both worked with kids and families that were getting the short end of the stick,” Barry says. “They weren’t immigrants, but they weren’t getting the same rights and appreciation as the general population.”
That injustice continues to motivate them.
“When I went to elementary school,” Barry says, “we learned those lines by poet Emma Lazarus, ‘Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.’ We memorized it and it’s still in our hearts and our souls. It’s part of who we are.”
Adds Claire: “We have five grandchildren and thinking about their future, it really bothers me to see the inhumane treatment of these families at the border.”
Barry wants to make one more point about Grannies Respond: “It’s not about being a Republican or a Democrat. It’s about human rights. We have to stop this.”
Next Avenue Editors Also Recommend:
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- Boomer Grandparents: Taking It to the Next Level
- March For Our Lives: How Four 50+ People Are Stepping Up
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