In October 2017, Sagashus Levingston published her book “Infamous Mothers” which gives voice to 20 women who mother at the fringes of society. The follow-up was the Talk Back Conference, which took place this past weekend, February 22-25 at the Marriot in Middleton.

The Talk Back Conference gave Infamous Mothers an opportunity to share with social workers, academics, doctors, financial institutions, the church, and “good” moms in a safe and empowering setting.

Over the course of the four days, about 150 women attended from six different states: Illinois, New Jersey, North Carolina, Ohio, Wisconsin and Texas. Attendees included social workers, teachers, entrepreneurs, a pastor, judge, postmaster, homemakers, healthcare providers, cashiers, professors, and more.

Workshop topics included Leveraging your Talent, Self-Care and Entrepreneurship, plus more provocative topics such as Infamous Mothering, Sexuality and the Church and Hostile Spaces: A candid conversation about Hospitality, Health Care, Education and other Institutions.

“I wanted to create a space that brought together influencers and stakeholders in our society to receive personal and professional development opportunities from women who mother from the margins,” Levingston tells Madison365. “The goal was for these moms to provide our attendees with the kind of information, stories and experiences that would help them think about new ways to expand their minds, organizations/institutions and businesses to make room for these women in positive, proactive and emergent ways.

“I think we definitely provided a model that showed possibilities,” she adds. “There was so much love, listening, and community. We showed possibility. I am so, so, so proud of what happened this weekend.”

Women form a circle to talk at the Talk Back.
(Photo is by Chris Charles)

She got the name for the conference from reflecting on her childhood and her exposure to the theater.

“Growing up, children are often told not to talk back. At the same time, folks in theatre are invited to conduct talk backs,” Levingston says. “I wanted to combine the sass and defiance of the former, and the community and openness of the latter. The Talk Back is about defying authority and speaking, but it’s also about community. Everything we do is about these things.

Sagashus Levingston

“We wanted them to rethink policies, practices, and decisions that would affect these women’s lives and families,” Levingston continues. “Often, women like them are left out of the decision-making process, often spoken to, for, and at but rarely invited to speak. This conference was about making room at the table for them. It was about adding their voice to #metoo. It was about building bridges and closing gaps.

Edwina Robinson Meaderds attended the event and is one of the Infamous Mothers featured in the book. She is mother of nine and grandmother to 13. Once a drug addict, she now works as a substance abuse counselor in Madison.

“I’m on a panel today to help promote the things that women need, to have our voice heard,” she said. “I want people to know that just because people have made different choices in life, doesn’t make them a bad person. I was a crack head. There’s a stigma with that.

“I want to educate my grandchildren to not hold your head down in any case. I want things to become better,” she added.

Yasmin Horton is also an Infamous Mother who now works as a substance abuse counselor in Beloit.

“I want to support Sagashus, get our story out and create unity and empowerment,” she told Madison365. “We have done some bad things according to society but we’re not bad people. We’re like phoenixes. We’re phenomenal women and yet we rise.

“I feel like I’m in the cheering section saying (to other women) that ‘you are noteworthy, you are human’ despite what you’ve done,” she added.

Women share their stories at the Talk Back Conference at the Marriott Hotel in Middleton.

Levingston has made it her mission to give voices to those with no voice. Her Saturday keynote, provocatively titled “Your Hands Are in my Panties: A Talk about Mothers, Institutions and Addressing Powerlessness,” outlined repeated violations inflicted upon her and her family by schools and institutions.

She explained why she chose that title.

“We are living in the era of #metoo and Times Up. We are thinking about the ways in which individual people (especially men) are raping and sexually traumatizing women,” Levingston said “But in my own experience, this violence happens at institutional levels as well. It happens when children are stolen from the home by state workers. It happens when children’s self-esteem is snatched away within the educational system. It happens when institutions take away mothers’ choices, forcing them into or denying them entry into relationships for fear of stigma.

“‘Your Hands Are in My Panties’ is about state-sanctioned rape and powerlessness,” she continued. “It’s about how it happens beyond the physical. It’s about the violent snatching away of self-esteem, children and choice, and about how all of these come together to make physical rape natural next steps.”

In her keynote, Levingston described stories where she felt raped by the institution. The first story started innocently when her daughter told her that she might get a call from the principal because she reported to the school that she was getting bullied at school. This resulted in a visit by child protective services that included interviews with all of her children.

In another instance, her daughter made an innocent comment about losing a dollar in the vending machine, which prompted a visit by CPS to make sure that the kids were getting enough to eat. A third and final encounter happened at the hospital. After her daughter broke her arm, she missed an appointment that she wasn’t aware of and they accused her of neglect.

“That just pissed me off after three times. Your hands are in my panties,” Levingston said.

She believes that rape can be associated with anything taken away violently, like how a teacher in 7th grade took her confidence by humiliating her in front of the class.

“He told me on the last day of class, in front of everybody, that I was nearly going to fail, but he failed to let me know of that until the last day. After that, my fear became my secret addiction,” Levingston said.

“But I was given hope my senior year when a teacher asked me to recite a poem in front of the class at graduation.”

Levingston is now a successful author, speaker, social entrepreneur and educator and is excited about the movement that “Infamous Mothers” has started.

“We are speaking our truth,” said Levingston. “There is freedom in that. Before I started to speak my truth, I was depressed. Now, I’m no longer depressed.”