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Moms mobilize against climate change 

Andrea Wolff of Chili says that she loves nature and being in the woods. And as a mother of two boys, she says that she feels a sense of urgency about the environment.

Wolff says that she knows something needs to be done about climate change, but that she's struggled to figure out what she can do and how to find time to do it. That's why she said she joined nine other mothers in Patricia Sunwoo's Highland Park neighborhood home Saturday afternoon.

"I came here to be more inspired to do something," Wolff told the other women.

The house party was organized by Mothers Out Front, a fledgling group that organizes mothers, grandmothers, and other caregivers into a movement for climate action. And it uses a bottom-up approach, with the house parties serving as the starting point.

The organization, which started in Massachusetts, is expanding into New York. It has five house parties scheduled for the Rochester area through early March, and a couple of parties set up in Tompkins County and the Adirondacks.

"The house party is where we reach people," says Neely Kelley, a city resident, mother of two, and Mothers Out Front's lead New York organizer.

House party guests start by talking a bit about themselves and the concerns that brought them there. Then they get a brief overview of the science behind climate change and the effects.

click to enlarge A Mothers Out Front house party, held on Saturday. The gathering brought together a handful of mothers and grandmothers, who talked about climate change and what they could do to urge state elected officials to act on it - PHOTO BY MARK CHAMBERLIN
  • PHOTO BY MARK CHAMBERLIN
  • A Mothers Out Front house party, held on Saturday. The gathering brought together a handful of mothers and grandmothers, who talked about climate change and what they could do to urge state elected officials to act on it

They also have opportunities to ask questions; Mothers Out Front organizers are clear that the parties are meant to provide a space free from ridicule or judgment. Understanding the complexities of climate change and its effects can be a daunting task, organizers say.

Abigail McHugh-Grifa, a member of the local Mothers Out Front organizing team who helped lead Saturday's gathering, recalled one of her first climate activism meetings. People tossed out acronyms that she said she didn't recognize. She looked up the acronyms later instead of asking at the meeting, she said, and she regretted not speaking up.

One guest asked how humans contribute to climate change. The women answered by talking about the burning of fossil fuels.

By the end of the two-and-a-half hour meeting, the women had identified some climate-related issues that concern them: extreme weather, the Seneca Lake gas storage project, smog, asthma triggers, and the contamination of drinking water. They also said that they want to promote renewable energy and green jobs.

And they filled out sheets listing the next steps they're willing to take, including whether they'd be willing to host a house party, as well as any talents or skills they have that could help the group.

Mothers Out Front will use the information to develop plans for a statewide campaign urging elected officials to act on climate change.

"The idea is that we don't come in as an organization, or I don't come in as a staffer and say 'Here's what we need to do; mothers, do it!'" says Kelley, a Mothers Out Front organizer. "We engage mothers and then work with those mothers to figure out what campaign makes the most sense."

Mothers Out Front got its start in the Boston area in late 2012.

A handful of mothers began holding house parties to talk about climate change, and they found that many of the women who attended wanted to know how they could make a difference, according to the group's website.

Kelley was one of those mothers. She attended an early house party, though she says that she was skeptical of the approach — she expected it to be a bunch of moms just sitting around and talking.

But she says that she quickly saw that the approach gave mothers the opportunity to engage with each other and that the group provided a way to work together toward a common goal. She became deeply involved with the group.

click to enlarge A Mothers Out Front house party. - PHOTO BY MARK CHAMBERLIN
  • PHOTO BY MARK CHAMBERLIN
  • A Mothers Out Front house party.
click to enlarge Abigail McHugh-Grifa - PHOTO BY MARK CHAMBERLIN
  • PHOTO BY MARK CHAMBERLIN
  • Abigail McHugh-Grifa
click to enlarge Neely Kelley - PHOTO BY MARK CHAMBERLIN
  • PHOTO BY MARK CHAMBERLIN
  • Neely Kelley

When Kelley's husband got a job in Rochester, the family moved here, and she brought Mothers Out Front with her. An organizing team began to coalesce in the first half of 2014, around the time that Kelley and some other local mothers started organizing an oil train protest along the CSX tracks in Fairport.

The group now has a solid five-member organizing team for the Rochester area and it's building other teams, including teams centered on strategy and events planning.

Parents' voices aren't often heard in the climate debate, which is one of the reasons why Mothers Out Front is geared toward mothers, grandmothers, and caregivers.

"The reason why moms are important, I think, is because whatever your political background, as a mom you worry about your children's future," says Sue Hughes-Smith, a Brighton mother of five and one of Mothers Out Front's organizing team members.

Motherhood cuts across every social and economic line, Kelley says, so if you get a bunch of mothers together in a room, they'll at least have that one thing in common. From there, they can learn about climate change from each other, she says, and exchange ideas about how to get elected leaders to act.

And then there's the simple notion that people listen to moms — their voices carry weight. Other groups have shown that mothers working together can make an impact on society and laws.

Mothers Against Drunk Driving, for example, which was organized by a group of mothers whose children died in alcohol-related crashes, has been a major force in getting tougher DWI laws passed.

And in Argentina, the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo marched across from the presidential palace weekly to protest abuses by ruling military junta. The women were mothers of political dissidents who "disappeared" — likely kidnapped and presumably killed by the regime.

Their efforts drew international attention to the Dirty War, leading the US and several European countries to put pressure on the regime.

"Mothers really do have a unique moral authority," Kelley says.

More information on Mothers Out Front: www.mothersoutfront.org or neely@mothersoutfront.org.

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