Candidate for lieutenant governor Sam Rasoul talks with Girls Who Code founder Reshma Saujani about the plan to help moms.  

ROANOKE – Last year began with excitement for Reshma Saujani. The lawyer, politician and founder of Girls Who Code drove to Kansas, where she brought home her newborn son born via surrogate after years of struggle.

Then, she settled into maternity leave, ready to care for and bond with her baby.

That all happened around the same time COVID-19 struck. Suddenly, Saujani became not only mother to her newborn, but also teacher to her five-year-old.

Maternity leave went out the window. The plan to save Girls Who Code didn’t include taking time off.

“I had to save my global nonprofit from demise because we know that when economic recessions happen, the first ones to be hit are organizations that are serving people under the poverty line and women and girls and people of color,” Saujani said.

Adding to the difficulties, Saujani got COVID-19. She said it barely registered – that was, until her liver function faltered and acne breakouts occurred.

Saujani reached a tipping point. However, she noticed she wasn’t the only one. Saujani noted that the majority of the women on her leadership team were also mothers that had young children.

“I was done. And when I looked on my Zoom screen, every mom looked exactly how I felt,” Saujani said. “And I think, well, we were all saying to ourselves, ‘Well, we’ll just grin and bear it because when the schools open in September – [or] when the schools open – we’ll get reprieve.”

Saujani received a notice two weeks before in-person learning began. The school instead opted for a hybrid option.

“That was going to happen where, essentially, a default caregiver, a mother, was going to have to log on her child at nine o’clock, 10 o’clock and 11 o’clock, all the while maintaining her full-time job,” Saujani said. “That was it for me.”

Sparking Change

Saujani expressed frustration over the impact the pandemic had on women and their livelihoods.

She questioned why “all these men who were making decisions that were desperately affecting the lives of mothers” never asked how those women felt.

“We saw that we had lost 2.4 million jobs, that our labor market participation was back where it was in 1989. Because we have to remember when we started COVID, [women] were 51% of the labor force. And now we had gone back to levels in 1989,” Saujani said. “And I knew that you couldn’t lose that many jobs that quickly without a plan.”

That’s when the idea of a Marshall Plan for Moms hit. The package of bills economically uplifts women, especially women of color. Saujani reached out to Del. Sam Rasoul, who’s running for lieutenant governor, to discuss getting the bills filed.

“Universal childcare, paid sick leave, paid family leave, child tax credits, caregiver tax credits, fair scheduling, minimum wage – I mean, there is a cadre of proposals that we know make a lot of sense and that in unison can really uplift women economically throughout the nation. But specifically, these proposals work for Virginia,” Rasoul said.

During Rasoul’s eight years in legislature, he noted that many similar proposals arose. However, for one reason or another, they did not progress. Now, there’s hope for the future.

“Now that the Commonwealth has taken a turn, what we need to do is have this commitment, especially a commitment to socioeconomic justice for women,” Sam Rasoul said.

Laying the Foundation

Saujani and team suggested a plan akin to the child tax credit, which comes to fruition next month.

“Every mom I talked to needed money and it was money for different things: money to pay the rent, money to put food on the table, money to help with tutoring. But they needed the cash in their hand, you know, to make the choices,” Saujani said. “Because the reason, again, why so many mothers are being forced to leave the workforce or, you know, go on food stamps or move in with their parents or move into their car was because childcare centers were broken.”

Affordable childcare, daycare centers and schools also lacked feasible options.

“And you couldn’t invite your abuela to come in and live with you because you were afraid that she would get this disease,” Saujani said.

The Marshall Plan for Moms also called for paid leave.

“You know, we are one of the few nations in the world that doesn’t offer paid leave,” Saujani said. “Most women of color go back to work two weeks after having a baby. You know 70% of American fathers take less than 10 days of paid leave, right? So we don’t live in a country that offers the support.”

Nothing Like It

While mothers sometimes take up issues – such as being against drunk driving or for gun violence prevention and reform – they seldom take up issues pertaining to their own struggles.

“We in this society have very much [been] made to feel like we just have to grin and bear it and we don’t get to have, we don’t get to fight for things that affect us,” Saujani said. “And I think it’s the first time. I think that’s the opportunity, right? Where moms are saying, ‘Wait a minute, here.’ Like, ‘I need to have a voice and I’m going to fight for childcare, for paid leave, for the childcare tax credit, for these things that are actually going to dramatically benefit my life.’ And that’s okay.”

Saujani further stressed the importance of focusing on women, rather than men, for the job loss issue.

“Men are gaining jobs. Women are losing jobs. If we really focus, it’s about [a] focus on exclusion. So we focus on why is that happening to moms? What are the set of policies that will change that? It will benefit that – it will benefit men. It will benefit same-sex. It’ll benefit everybody,” Saujani said. “And I think that, like, we’ve had these conversations in other contexts about race, about sexual orientation. And what we’ve learned is that if you solve for the most marginalized, it lifts everybody up.”

Sam Rasoul Has Hope

Saujani voiced concern for mothers.

“We are so angry, we are done, we are so unseen and we cannot afford to continue this way,” Saujani said. “And so we need to build a movement and have, you know, our brothers and sisters across the country that are centering moms in the economic recovery, that are building it back. And you can’t build America back better unless you build motherhood back better. We’re always fighting for scraps.”

Women showed up at a recent virtual Town Hall meeting with Sam Rasoul to share their experiences during the pandemic. He used words like “excruciating” and “difficult” to describe hearing their personal stories.

“I was expecting to hear, you know, ‘I lost my job.’ ‘I’m trying to make ends meet.’ You know, ‘Got to figure out what to do with the kids.’ I was expecting to hear a lot of that. And we did hear some of that. But it was way deeper,” Rasoul said. “It’s like, ‘My career is completely thrown off track.’ ‘I don’t know if I will ever get back to where I was.’”

Rasoul also listened to the mothers speak about the mental anguish they faced of not only going through the pandemic, but also not having a reprieve from being a parent.

“There were some tears in that conversation,” Rasoul said. “And it really hit home for me that it wasn’t just about a set of policies. There’s some deep damage there, for sure.”

Saujani noted that her team, with the help of legislators, introduced bills in Congress and across the country.

“There’s been a tremendous movement that is being built,” Saujani said. “And you know, one of the things that we want to do is take mothers from rage to hope.”

Amie Knowles reports for The Dogwood. You can reach her at amie@couriernewsroom.com

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