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Offering Insight into Infamous Mothers

Bobbie Malone

Those fortunate enough to have attended the Social Action Shabbat last month were amply rewarded with the compelling and impassioned presentation of the guest speaker, Sagashus Levingston, author of Infamous Mothers: Women Who’ve Gone through the Belly of Hell . . . and Brought Something Good Back. The book became an affecting play at the Bartell Theatre that delivered sellout performances. Many of us were intrigued, so I interviewed Sagashus to learn more of her story. She moved to Madison from the Bronzeville neighborhood of Chicago about 13 years ago to pursue an MA in African American studies and a PhD in American literature. But she was not a typical graduate student. She was a single mother whose sixth child was born shortly after she became a dissertator. The circumstances of wrestling with mothering and studying were simultaneously challenging and motivating.

With research that focused on feminism and activism, Sagashus found that the academic literature lacked the voices of women like herself—mothers who were both seen as “reprehensible” while also making a positive impact on society. While a grad student, she worked on curriculum development for UW–Madison’s Odyssey Junior project to help children of color and poverty improve their reading and writing ability and encourage their higher educational goals. In so doing, she encountered women in the adult Odyssey program whose voices and stories were perfectly aligned with stories she was already collecting from mothers: those who had been seen as “setting feminism back” by making the choices they had made. Sagashus wanted to make sure that their stories made it into the archives of academia.

Realizing that such stories “could be used to invite conversation,” she worked with a photographer and designer to create a conscious juxtaposition between the handsome crafting of Infamous Mothers as a coffee-table book and the very raw stories of the women depicted within it, told in their own words. Sagashus collected these accounts from mothers she encountered in Madison and those with whom she grew up in Bronzeville, including her own mother and her aunts. She sought to emphasize the contrast between the rawness of the stories and the beauty of the storytellers in order to “interrupt the preexisting rhetoric.” The faces of these women more often are seen in mug shots and on the news with their hair sticking up, caught at their most vulnerable moments. Sagashus wanted photographs that represented how these women would like to be seen, to confront preconceived perceptions quickly and unexpectedly.

Sagashus crowd-funded the self-publishing of the book even before completing her dissertation, in which the stories figured prominently. Meant to be more “informative” than “a good read,” the book itself has a pedagogical component: to build community around issues and topics. Social justice is important to her; she grew up with a mother who was a community organizer and activist. Sagashus ingested her mother’s approach and similarly responds to what needs to be done.

Once the Infamous Mothers project ended, the women with whom Sagashus worked wanted to keep going, and although she could see “that they wanted me to be some sort of bridge,” she wasn’t sure how to play that role. Her determination to build that bridge led her to become an entrepreneur in the for-profit venture known as Infamous Mothers University (IMU). Sagashus chose the for-profit route because she did not want to compete with nonprofits in the community that she provided programming for, but ultimately, she wanted to have the financial means to extend their capacity. She has found great support working with the Doyenne Group, a Madison- and Milwaukee-based organization that supports women from all backgrounds as entrepreneurs in both launching and further developing their businesses.

Similarly, IMU works to help women build mothering practices that honor who they are both privately and publicly, whether they are entering the workplace or moving up the career ladder. That support helps them balance the challenges of managing both family and career. IMU simultaneously provides diversity, equity, and inclusion workshops to corporations aware of the needs of the working mothers they employ. Sagashus hopes that IMU will become the link between what the nonprofits do for the women and the wider world into which they are moving without that support system.

Currently, Sagashus is engaged in producing a documentary that, in part, focuses on the incarceration of women. She’s interested not only in their experiences in jail or in prison but also in the ripple effect of those experiences on parenting, housing, and employment. The documentary will also deal with women associated with incarcerated partners, and the responsibilities that these mothers have to handle as temporarily single parents.

Because she successfully crowd-funded the publication of Infamous Mothers, she plans to crowd-fund the documentary as well, with the launch planned for June 20. Sagashus likes the community created by crowd-funding and believes that such wide-based support and buy-in is crucial to her effort to build a company that intentionally works to address such social issues as these: the maternal wall, the achievement and opportunity gaps, and the pay gap.

As the mission of IMU is to own its place as an education and media company that produces products and services “for women who mother from the edge,” Sagashus hopes to fulfill the very rigorous certification process that allows the company to be listed as a Certified B Corporation. This new business model balances “purpose and profit” by considering the way business decision-making affects “workers, suppliers, community, and the environment.” Her determination to build IMU in such a fashion reflects Sagashus’s determination to better the lives of mothers.

May 26, 2020 3 Sivan 5780