As a Ph.D. student at the University of Wisconsin, the founder of the Infamous Mothers organization and a mother of six, Sagashus Levingston is reshaping the concept of motherhood.

Levingston grew up on the South Side of Chicago, attended Catholic school and a private boarding high school. She went on to graduate from the University of Illinois with an undergraduate degree in English.

She earned her master’s degree from UW in Afro-American studies through the Bridge Program in the English department. The program allows English doctoral candidates to specialize in Afro-American studies as well. Levingston is currently working toward her Ph.D. in literature.

Levingston researches the experiences of mothers, taking a rhetorical approach to literature. She said her interest in this research came after taking a class on global feminism.

The class was her first exposure to feminism and was a positive experience. It gave context to her experiences as a woman, but it was not addressing women like her, she said.

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Levingston described herself as someone outside of normal constructions of respectability. Calling herself “black, single, bald-headed [and has] a lot of kids by a lot of different men,” she noticed there was hardly any literature highlighting single mothers and their lives.

So Levingston decided to focus her research on filling that gap.

“[My research] became about marginalized moms making a difference in the world, giving back to the system,” Levingston said.

Levingston wrote about these topics in her dissertation “Infamous Mothers: Bad Moms Doing Extraordinary Things” and in an archival book “Infamous Mothers.” Coming out in April 2017, the book collects stories and personal experiences of moms in Madison.

In addition to writing and researching, Levingston serves mothers directly through Infamous Mothers, an organization she created to empower women in the community. The organization offers personal and professional development training for mothers, community events, publications and a space for identity.

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Levingston said the organization seeks to support women in their daily lives and change societal perception of marginalized mothers.

“I wanted to help them speak their truth and not be penalized for it,” Levingston said.

Through the development training, Levingston helps women develop plans for managing the stresses of motherhood.

While Levingston works alongside social workers and doctors, she makes sure mothers get to stay the experts on their own lives.

In addition to helping moms, the organization tries to inform “people who shape the realities of these moms,” Levingston said. She engages with the public through trainings and speaking events to bring up the complexity of issues many Infamous Mothers are facing.

“You can’t change the conversation if you don’t have the conversation,” Levingston said.

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Levingston also discussed the importance of taking classes that encourage learning about people’s experiences and perspectives. She said classes in technology, science and business are important because they move society forward but added they may only be looking at one set of issues.

Gender and women’s studies, ethnic studies and humanities courses should not be optional, Levingston said.

“[By learning about culture and identity], you can create technology, business and medicine to address a larger array of interest,” Levingston said.

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