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On Tiffany Justice, Moms for Liberty and parental rights.
I met Tiffany Justice, one of the founders of Moms for Liberty (M4L, for short), in the spring of 2021. I didn’t meet her exactly — we spoke on the phone.
Tiffany had DM-ed me on Twitter on February 25, 2021: “Hi Jennifer, Tiffany Justice here from Florida. I’d love to chat with you sometime about what is happening to our kids.”
I remember thinking that her last name had to be made up — a pen name for social media handles. It was just so on the nose. (I was wrong, it’s her real name.)
That same week that Tiffany wrote to me, my husband had called a public charter school in Denver to see if there was a spot for my son in their half completed kindergarten year classroom, as we’d lost any hope of San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD) opening that spring. We also had little hope of immediate acceptance into the school in Denver, but to our surprise they said: Sure, there’s room. How’s Monday?
We got on a plane on Sunday and he started school the next day.
I spoke with Tiffany that same Monday, March 1, 2021 — while pacing in the bedroom of our Airbnb, on a break between work Zooms. I was so relieved to talk to another mom who thought the closed schools craziness was as crazy as I did. There were hardly any other moms in San Francisco who thought this or were willing to say it out loud. I’d met exactly one. One, in a full year of closed schools.
Tiffany had only just started Moms for Liberty at that point. And she told me about their mission — which was to empower parents in the upbringing of their children. And in so doing, sure, encourage some parents to run for school boards across the country — and help train and prepare them to do so.
The idea is that those elected parent school board members would then partner with local parents in the community to inform public education in a way that puts students’ needs first.
If you scoff at this, think of the current state which, by and large, is that teachers’ unions get school board members elected with endorsements and money and then the school board members represent the interests of the teachers’ unions — vs the people, the parents — while they serve.
Teachers’ unions are supposed to serve and protect teachers’ interests. Fine. But school boards are supposed to serve the voters. The parents with school-aged children. And, all too often, they just aren’t. So who is going to do that? Parents. Which is what M4L is offering — a way to drive parent engagement in student education so that kids’ needs come first.
I was encouraging of their mission, had even considered a run for school board myself — one day. But, given I didn’t really know where I even lived at that point, it was a fleeting thought.
I was unfazed by the name of her newly founded organization even though there was a new trend of disparaging anything with the word Liberty (or freedom, aka “free-dumb”) in the title — this word had become encoded by pro-lockdown “progressives” as a loaded signal of bigotry, like a secret wink and a handshake for those hiding white hoods in their closets.
I grew up in Philadelphia. My elementary school class visited the Liberty Bell every year. What was wrong with liberty?
Tiffany and I talked about how the schools in California weren’t open for in-person instruction yet and showed no signs of opening any time soon; we talked about the intransigence of the school board in San Francisco which focused on school renaming in 9 hour board meetings (which were open to the public and I often attended) rather than school openings; we talked about the restrictions at her school in Florida — the masking and distancing and rules that made school feel more like a low security prison (6 feet apart, don’t talk at lunch, no balls at recess, no toys or shared books — remember that?) than a place for children to learn and develop.
Ironically, I was eager for my son to experience what she described, as it seemed better than Zoom school. He’d started kindergarten excited.
But his excitement quickly devolved into despair as his experience in virtual school looked like this:
I was willing to accept crumbs by spring 2021. And I felt that the past year had been crazy enough — and harmful enough for my children — to pick up and move my family, from the city I had lived in, and loved, for 30 years. I thought the past year had been crazy enough to risk and ultimately lose my job over, close to a year after the conversation Tiffany and I had that March.
Tiffany recently told me: “I remember thinking that you and your husband were brave and focused to move your family like that. I also knew it meant I had to fight like hell for Florida.”
Tiffany’s fight went national because she thought it was all crazy enough to start Moms for Liberty. In so doing, she became the target of an all-out smear campaign by the media for the past 2 years.
That Monday in March, we talked about the name-calling and demonization we had both endured throughout 2020, having pushed for normalcy for children. But I’m sure the subsequent years have surpassed her wildest nightmares in terms of how far the press has gone to smear the organization — and her.
Moms for Liberty has been deemed “an anti-student inclusion group” by Southern Poverty Law Center (SPCL). They’ve been called extremist, far-right, anti-government and, as a capper, M4L was the focus of SPCLs Year In Hate & Extremism Report for 2022.
During that first conversation, Tiffany and I acknowledged that we “came from different sides of the aisle.” I don’t remember the exact words but she offered that she leaned conservative and was a lifelong registered Republican. I said that I was politically homeless, formerly a left of left of center Democrat. We agreed that we probably disagreed on a lot — we spoke to the fact that we likely had different views on abortion. We discussed the fact I was not a religious person — I probably identified myself as a non-practicing Jewish atheist while she identified herself as a Christian. We didn’t care.
Because we agreed on this: closed schools and the ongoing restrictions to kids were devastating for a generation. Period.
Tiffany describes M4L as follows: “We are fighting for the survival of America by unifying, educating, and empowering parents at all levels of government.”
But Southern Poverty Law Center has determined that “parental rights” are “so-called” and that M4L’s true mission is one of hate.
“The Southern Poverty Law Center has concluded that a dozen so-called "parental rights" groups behind the movement are extremist.”
It is hard to fathom that this is where we are. That we we live in a world where “parents rights” is a phrase vilified by the mainstream media and so-called “human rights organizations fighting for tolerance” (as SPLC describes themselves) as some sort of KKK dogwhistle.
The mainstream media has equated the term “parents’ rights” with bigotry and hate. And it’s worked. The Left believes it. Or they pretend to? I don’t know. But whether the Leftie outrage is real or faux or some combination, it is expressed with vehemence.
And it’s an effective tactic. It certainly makes parents afraid to show up at school board meetings and ask questions about curriculum or general policies.
Reasonable people involved in their kids’ lives have been made to feel that expecting to stay involved is hateful, hopelessly parochial and downright backwards. Certainly not something to be telegraphed as a belief or value publicly. Because the story told by teachers’ unions, the mainstream media and left wing activists is that only backwoods bigots think they can parent better than the public school system, public health officials, teachers’ unions and government leaders.
It’s stupid. Just as stupid as, when later the same year that Tiffany and I first talked, the National School Boards Association sent a letter to President Biden and the FBI comparing parent involvement at school board meetings to domestic terrorism.
Stupid. But scary.
And certainly a mighty discouragement for any parent thinking of getting involved, logging a complaint with their school or district, or running for a school board seat as a challenger candidate.
It is helpful to have a community of like-minded parents to remind you that you aren’t crazy. Or evil. And that you should not back down just because lies are being told about you. And I think, in some fashion, this is the purpose that M4L serves for moms across the country. The group provides community for parents, and a jumping off point to get involved locally.
Tiffany often utters the phrase “We don’t co-parent with the government.” It’s become the M4L tagline, in a sense. It is maligned as revealing the truth of the group’s violent extremism.
But does anyone really think that they should have to co-parent with the government? Really? To all the Brooklynites and San Franciscans who feign horror at M4L while sending their children to ritzy $60k/year private schools like Saint Ann’s and Hamlin, aren’t you explicitly acknowledging that you aren’t willing to hand your children over to government run, public schools because, you, in fact, won’t “co-parent with the government”? And aren’t many of these same “Lefties” anti-school choice while availing themselves of the very school choice that they decry as hateful and racist?
It was only about 5 years ago, when the story of Larry Nassar broke and it was revealed that he abused children with parents in the exam room, that there was parental outrage directed at other parents. Why aren’t you paying attention?! Why aren’t you more involved? The implication: This could never happen to my kid, because I’m involved in my kids’ life! (Kinda sounds like an assertion of parents’ rights, no? Sure it was also a this could never happen to me or my child defense mechanism but you get my point.)
And it was oft repeated by the schools must stay closed crowd in 2020 and 2021 that parents need to get on board with teaching their kids and stop complaining about not being able to go to hot yoga and brunch. Sounds like they were demanding parental involvement, no?
Given the hypocrisy, Tiffany has learned to brush off the names she gets called. She told me:
“We are Joyful Warriors. During covid I was so frustrated at the way that our children were being hurt by so many bad decisions. And I was angry a lot. And then we decided to form Moms for Liberty and I had to make a decision about how I wanted to do this work. I didn’t want to be angry all the time, or for my children to grow up watching me be angry. So I decided that I was going to fight like hell for the future of America with a smile on my face because our children are watching.”
M4L now teaches other moms to brush off the name-calling and keep going. I call it “compartmentalizing” and I’ve gotten pretty good at it too in the past 3 years. In fact, I open my book Levi’s Unbuttoned with this quote from Epictetus: If evil be said of thee, and if it be true, correct thyself; if it be a lie, laugh at it.
We’ve both learned to laugh at it. Because it isn’t true. We aren’t racists or terrorists or members of hate groups. Even if one of the M4L members used a poorly thought through quote from Hitler in some collateral produced for their local chapter.
The crudely chosen quote used was: “He alone, who OWNS the youth, GAINS the future.” It’s a good rule not to quote Hitler even if you’re doing it to demonstrate what you believe you are dealing with from the opposing side. But again, no reasonable person could have actually believed that this M4L chapter lead was asserting the organization’s true Nazi intentions. Could they?
I’ve never met Tiffany in person. We’ve talked on the phone in the past 2 1/2 years maybe 5 times. I’ve been on her podcast Joyful Warriors with my husband. We email each other. We text sometimes. I’ve never spoken at a Moms for Liberty event. I’m not a member. I haven’t given them any money or been given any money from them. I never bought a t-shirt.
Tiffany and I are allies. And supportive of each other, as much as you can be, never having shared a meal, or a cocktail or even a conversation in real life.
Tiffany has never expressed anything but acceptance and a willingness to collaborate with me; she has only offered me friendship and encouragement, despite our differences on other matters outside of education and parent involvement. She is not an anti-Semite. It’s ridiculous.
What we have in common unites us. Any differences we may have can be set aside.
I’d argue M4L members feel the same way. While the group leans Conservative, the member makeup is actually mixed. Tiffany told me: “Some are Republican and others have no party affiliation, and there are some Democrats. The vast majority of our members have never been particularly political in their lives.”
Marleatia “Tia” Bess is an M4L member. We met in my research looking for families to interview and feature in the documentary I am making about the impact to children and families from school closures and other restrictions during covid.
She lives in Middleburg, Florida, a small community about 25 miles outside of Jacksonville. She left Jacksonville during covid so that her son, who has learning challenges, could experience a more normal in-school experience during the height of the restrictions. In May, Tia became the National Director of Outreach for M4L.
Tia laughs at the suggestion that she might be in danger living in Florida as a black lesbian raising her three kids with her partner in a small rural community. She also smiles and waves off the idea that M4L is a hate group. She seems to embody the spirit of a Joyful Warrior that Tiffany talks about. She exudes joy and positivity. I feel lighter and more optimistic every time I talk with her.
Joy can be contagious. And those of us who have fought against what felt like the world in the past 3 years need some joy as we continue to advocate for not just our kids, but all of them.
“No one is going to fight for anything like a mom will fight for her kids,” Tiffany often says. And for many moms across the country, covid was a line in the sand. They will not let it happen again. They will be vigilant in fighting for normalcy for their children that they never realized before had been at risk.
I count myself among them. And we are that much stronger when we fight together.