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“I’m Going to Miss My Kids”

Updated: Aug 8, 2023

MOMs founder Kaziah Anderson is ending her lunch presence at East High School after two years

Kaziah Anderson of MOMs talks to East High School students during the lunch period on May 23, 2023.

Update August 8, 2023: Since we published this Q&A this past spring, MOMs sought and secured funding for another year of operation from Public Health Madison and Dane County. Thanks to this substantial investment in their work, MOMs will be in action at East High School for the 2023-2024 academic year. If you're interested in being a supportive presence with MOMs for this upcoming year, you can sign up here.

Kaziah Anderson is a quiet, steady, and empathetic force. She’s a mother, a grandmother, and a peer support specialist at Just Dane, a non-profit organization that offers direct services for people involved in the criminal justice system. When fights broke out at East High School during lunch breaks in 2021, staff members called police whose intervention escalated to pepper spraying a crowd of teenagers.

Kaziah’s son, an East High student who is biracial and identifies as Black, called her during one of these fights scared and looking for support. Kaziah and a group of East moms created Moms On a Mission (MOMs), stepping in to provide that support school-wide, one lunch period at a time. For two years, Kaziah and her MOMs volunteers stood in the Milio’s parking lot near East High during lunch to greet kids, offer them snacks, water, and juice, provide a loving, supportive, and non-judgemental presence, and de-escalate conflict.

Families for Justice surveyed the East High students interacting with MOMs over the course of two different lunch periods in May to get a sense of the difference the program has made. Of the 18 respondents, two-thirds get food from MOMs most days or every day. The students reported that lunchtime before MOMs had a lot of problems, with some calling the environment “chaotic.” Several students noted that kids were hungry and unable to eat because they lacked money and the school food was undesirable.

Since MOMs has established a presence, the students say they can get something to eat and that the environment is calmer. They appreciate having trusted adults outside and they feel that the students who come outside are respecting the space, cleaning up after themselves, and getting along better. One student noted that it was helpful when MOMs gave out gloves in winter. And several noted that better school lunches would help by providing more hungry kids with food.

Some survey responses:

  • "I can have a snack and be motivated to go back to class."

  • "I think it makes food more accessible to students as well as knowing there’s adults on campus on our side."

  • "It’s way better. She gives snacks to everybody. Can search for what they want. Kids want snacks."

  • "People do care about kids out here. Don’t care what they’re doing if they stay out of the way."

  • "Some of the moms have kids that go to East so they’re more sympathetic. Madison districts don’t get a lot of money to get good food."

  • "She’s trying help the community. A lot of people don’t like or afford lunch so she’s trying to get people lunch."

The value of this effort is clear. But the sustainability of the program, which relies almost entirely on Kaziah, is less clear cut. Kaziah has made the difficult decision to focus on her children and her educational goals next year, meaning that the end of this school year will also be the end of MOMs. To mark and celebrate her incredible achievement, we sat down with Kaziah to talk about the work that MOMs did, about the criminalization of Black and brown youth, and about what she worries about for next year.

This interview was conducted on May 23, 2023 and has been edited for clarity and concision.

Can you talk a little bit about what it’s been like to be out here almost every lunch period for two years?

Yeah, it's been great. I've made a lot of connections with the students, personal connections, got to know a lot of students I didn't know before, and paid special attention to some students who seemed to be having a rougher time and got to know them on a first name basis. It’s been really great to be out with the kids. We always hear, “please,” “thank you,” they offer to help carry snacks, and it’s just really been a great experience for me.

Most days, that’s most of what you’re doing, handing out snacks, forming relationships, saying “hi,” but how many times do you think that your presence has helped de-escalate conflicts or provided an intervention for the less positive moments of teenagers being teenagers?

I can think of probably three times this year where, had I not been there, there would have been a fight or things would have gotten worse or the police would have been called. But I think a big part of this is just being a presence, just being a happy, good-energy presence, so that the kids know that we’re out here to keep them safe and it puts them in a better mood and they don't feel like fighting.

I’m here with you today and the principal has called the police and so the police are in the parking lot and it's definitely a very different vibe than other times I’ve been here.

And it’s interesting to hear you talk about it because in this situation what you’re thinking about most is the kids’ safety around the police. Your concern is about the kids having unnecessary contact with police and getting into unnecessary trouble. What has given you that perspective?

Just getting to know the kids. You know, we started this because the kids were pepper sprayed back in 2021 and so for me, I’m not out here to criminalize children for the same behavior that has been going on for as long as there are children. Children fight. But for me, my presence is needed. I think that these kids, especially Black and brown kids, need to be protected from the police and that’s quite obvious with what happened with the pepper spraying. So for me, today, the fight almost started a couple of times, but I’m not here to get the kids in trouble, I’m not here to criminalize the kids for being kids, I’m wanting to stay and keep an eye on things to protect the students from the police because getting in one fight could be the start of a criminal history that goes on and on. And I just don’t think that kids should be criminalized for being kids and for having adolescent behaviors.

You’ve been doing this largely on your own, without many resources but with a lot of elbow grease. Is there anything you think the school could have done differently, or any way that MOMs could have been better supported?

We had a few people who came out and volunteered once, and that’s great, but I guess I would have liked to figure out how to get people to come back. Also, at the same time, if everyone just came out once, we’d have volunteers everyday. I think it could have been more successful having more volunteers. I think the communication between MOMs and the staff at the school could have been better. I can give an example. Yesterday, I wasn’t able to make it to lunch, my son had appointments, so I came and picked him up at lunch and you could tell there were already a lot of people outside, it just felt like there might be a fight starting. And had we been giving a heads up, I could have possibly found a volunteer to come and hand out snacks or I could have changed my plans and made sure I was there.

It seems to me that, unfortunately, the response from the school when they think there’s going to be a fight is just to call the police. And I just feel like that’s so unnecessary. If you have the right people around to de-escalate the situation, if you get to know the kids and you have someone who has a relationship with the kids that can go and talk to them and say, “Hey, what’s going on? Can I buy you some lunch? Are you hungry?” It just seems like there should be a position for some kind of liaison for the kids, someone they can count on and talk to, someone who can figure out what’s going on rather than just call the police.

Any thoughts going forward, especially since MOMs is done after this year? Do you have fears or worries about these kids being supported out here?

I am extremely concerned about what’s going to happen next year. East is known to be a school where fights happen and the freshmen coming in, they think they're coming somewhere where they're going to end up having to fight. We really tried to create an environment that was safe for them this year, even coming the first day and meeting all the freshmen that were coming in and letting them know, “Hey, we're here everyday, we’ve got snacks, we’re here to keep you guys safe.” So yeah, I have a lot of concerns about what’s going to happen next year because, as it is right now, the majority of the time we see any staff from East it is the principal. I would say we see her maybe once a week and if there is no one down here like me to text her to say, “Hey, something’s happening,” how is she going to know? They are understaffed and that’s a huge part of the problem.

What do you think about how school lunch factors into all of this? Some of the students seem to be eating your snacks for lunch and nothing else.

I definitely think that kids being hungry plays into this 100 percent. When you’ve got kids outside who are hungry, and maybe they’re hot or maybe they’re cold, maybe they didn’t have breakfast, obviously their blood sugars are going to be low and they’re going to be more feisty. I will say that I have seen more kids come out with school lunches in the past month than I have ever seen before. I’ve seen kids come out with salads, nachos, noodle cup things with vegetables in them. I think more kids are getting school lunch but there’s still a stigma, that’s really what it is. The way to get kids to eat the school lunch is to somehow attack that stigma.

Yeah, to reduce that stigma, all the kids need to eat school lunch!

Right, exactly. Somehow, that stigma of ‘you’re eating school lunch’ is going to have to be addressed.

Anything else you want to add?

I want to add that I really appreciate all the support from the community, all the volunteers, all of the donors, all of the kind words from people when I had maybe just burnt out and wanted to give up. We have a great community. East has a great community and we need to start working together to really address some of these issues.

I'm going to miss the kids and I’m going to worry about them. I’m going to wonder if they’re eating, if they’re safe. I can't speak much to the environment inside the school but I do feel like we created an environment in the Milio’s parking lot [laughs] that was safe for the students, where they were happy and where they felt like we were there for them and I think that is just worth more than anything.

I think you can feel really good about what you’ve done.

I’m definitely happy I was able to do it for this long.

Families for Justice is a network of people working to dismantle white supremacy in Dane County and beyond through multi-generational community organizing and direct action. Learn more here.

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