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May 2007: Volume 4, Number 2

The Childcare Revolt
By Caitlin Sullivan, Muir 81

If you have any stories about your years at UCSD, we would love to hear them.
Email the editor

May, 1978. Hundreds of students take over Chancellor William McElroy’s office, culminating in 21 ­arrests. We were led by fellow student and mother, Serena Layon, Muir, ’78, to fight for the on-­campus daycare center.

In those days we had to convince everyone that UCSD needed students who were also parents. There was a student government, a radio station, a pub, a printing press, but the childcare facility hung by a thread. Run by the warm-hearted Josie Foulks, the center was tiny; when its funding was threatened, Serena and a handful of other parents fought back.

My partner had two kids from a previous marriage. There was no concept of “gay marriage” then and lesbian mothers were rare. Our little group had a good strategy: only parents could vote. This provided an unusual agility and efficiency when it came to decisions. The rest helped as supporters.

When Chancellor McElroy refused to meet us, we all converged on his office, kids in tow. Politely and respectfully, Serena stated our case. To our horror, Serena’s four-year-old son, Ariel, ran straight to McElroy’s lap and asked clearly, “Why do you want to chop down our daycare center?”

McElroy was no more able to answer him than the rest of us, and so we simply stayed, for what turned out to be three days of peaceful protest. Most parents had to leave to attend to children, but I remained with about 40 others. This was unknown territory for everyone, with no language and no precedent. The third day the administration decided to arrest us. We chose 21 good speakers who could afford a “trespassing” record, split pretty evenly between men and women. When I prefaced a comment, as usual, with “as a non-parent…” Serena interrupted me. “Caitlin. You’re a parent.” Her big eyes fixed on me. “You’re a parent,” she repeated, gesturing to our kids. The others nodded. I dropped my eyes, grateful, embarrassed, moved. “Okay,” I said. “Okay.” From then on I voted with the parents.

That day was a happy confusion of students, guitars, pizza boxes, sleeping bags, and term ­papers (written in longhand!). Police led us out in handcuffs through a mass of chanting students.

Serena camped out at the center for a long night of freeing us from jail. Pre-law, she conferred with the campus lawyer, working several phones, always keeping one open (no cell phones then). We ­female students were locked up with several prostitutes. They’d seen us on the news and cheered us, telling their own childcare stories. Serena always had news when I called: legal updates, kid antics, media accounts. She was upbeat and encouraging, long past midnight when it appeared I’d never be released. I witnessed a guard beating one woman and another having an epileptic seizure because authorities had withheld her medicine. Each time I called Serena, and she calmed me down. Finally sprung at four a.m., I headed straight back to the heartbeat: Serena’s “camp” at the daycare center.

In the September 2008 issue of @UCSD I learned that Serena had died of ovarian cancer at age 54. The only thing that eased my distress was reading that one of Serena’s proudest accomplishments at UCSD was the daycare struggle. I wrote this recollection in honor of Serena’s memory and to try to take some of the edge off my grief.

Serena became a lawyer; her subsequent work with kids and domestic violence is lauded in many tributes. I’m not surprised. She was an activist to her core, from her heart and not some vague sense of “politics.” She has inspired me yet again to do more. What a strong soul that she can continue to spark such feelings even after passing from this world.

Caitlin Sullivan, Muir 81, is a writer living in Seattle, Wash. She is pleased to know that UCSD has a full-service childcare center.