Tagged with " activism"
Oct 28, 2016 - Political Science    No Comments

Disabled, Not Disempowered

headbands-masculinas-06

The flop-preventative “sleevie” headband. If you weren’t alive in the ’90s, I can’t help you.

I’ve been an activist since high school. Administrators made a rule that t-shirt sleeve headbands we used to hold back floppy skater hair were the same as hats (and therefore forbidden) when worn by boys. We organized a direct action to have all the girls wear them for one school day, and we delivered a letter to the front office threatening a Title IX suit for gender discrimination.

They reversed the policy.

I’m also a political junkie. I prefer issue politics, which build bridges of common values across otherwise insurmountable obstacles, to electoral politics. But my values compel me work in that arena too.

Here’s my problem, though: I have a chronic pain disorder, as well as various mental health issues, which combine to keep me from being as present physically as I want to be. Marches and rallies, door-knocking and phone-banking, they can all be too much for my health. Missing those things leaves me feeling ineffective and isolated from the people and experiences that contribute to a sense of connection that’s even more of a reward than the actual work.

But there are things that people with physical and mental disabilities can do to contribute meaningfully. Here are some of the ways I try to have an impact with what I’ve got.

disabilityprotest

1) Advocate for disability accommodations in political and activist spaces. There’s a real effort right now to make social justice movements intentionally inclusive. Elders and youth share power and responsibility more evenly. Folks commonly state their pronouns during introductions. Translators are frequently available. But disability issues are often left out of consideration.

So contact campaigns and groups and find out if their meeting places are disability accessible, to make them aware of barriers like stairs and narrow doors (common in churches, which provide cheap locations for large groups). Reach out to protest organizers to request march details so you can participate at the beginning or end locations. Help them devise routes that are safer for low-mobility attendees. Convince them to provide sign language interpreters and crisis support for folks who may be anxious in large crowds or triggered by the presence of aggressive law enforcement or counter-protesters.

2) Share information and messages in social media spaces. Some people brand this as “slacktivism,” but there are countless movements that wouldn’t have the global reach and organizing power they’ve achieved without Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or Tumblr. Share livestreams, amplify hashtags, invite people to events, and aggregate links and facts so people can find centralized information.

3) Volunteer from home. It’s still standard for people to go to a central location to make calls in support of a campaign, but there are plenty of tools out there now that allow people to do the same work from home with a laptop and phone. Even patch-thru phonebanks, one of the most highly effective tools for getting people to take a simple action like send a message to their legislators, can be done from home. If it’s difficult for you to get to an office, ask the campaign to set you up to work at home. Data entry is equally valuable and accessible at home.

4) Raise money for the cause. This one feels impossible sometimes, because disabled people are so often under- or unemployed, or on a fixed income. But we have the same networks of friends, family, and acquaintances, and the values we share with those people can motivate them to donate. Surprisingly often, the only thing that keeps them from doing that is that no one has asked. Explain why you think it’s important, connect it to your shared values so they see their self-interest in it, and ask them for an amount that would be meaningful. Sure, some will say no, and that shouldn’t make you shame or failed. But you can’t know unless you ask, and people will surprise you all the time.

5) Create things. Your contribution to an effort can be measured in time, treasure, and talent. If the first two are difficult because of your physical and financial resources, you need to know that the third is just as valuable. For example, an army moves on its stomachs, as the old saying goes. Campaign workers and volunteers basically live on junk food, pizza, and coffee, and anyone who brings in a crockpot of anything healthy and homemade becomes their favorite person.

Art is just as important. Striking graphics, clever memes, and meaningful signs and banners are essential to the visuals that move people to action. Stories are the most compelling tool we have change hearts and minds on an issue, so write about why these things matter so much to you. And if you’re gifted enough to draw, paint, stitch, or craft objects that others might want, you can accomplish more of #4 with your skills.

Sep 3, 2015 - Psychology    No Comments

Alright

You know what feels really great?

Walking down the very middle of a street.

No, really, I highly recommend it. The first time I ever did it, I was in the company of about 1 million other people streaming down the middle of Pennsylvania Avenue in 2004 as part of a demonstration of support for women’s choices in reproductive health care. I’ve also enjoyed many of Minnesota’s fine thoroughfares this way: Nicollet Mall, Hennepin Avenue, University Avenue, Snelling Avenue, I-35, to name a few.

Most recently, I strolled back up Snelling Avenue at a leisurely pace, following the peaceful and successful #BlackFair demonstration. I was still working in my marshal role, but I only had half as many people to look out for. So I was taking up as much space as I felt like, because nobody gets a lot of opportunities to stretch out on this planet, and I’m not one to let them pass me by.

I complimented a fellow marcher on her excellent sign, and we got to talking about the action and what else we were setting aside from our busy lives to participate. I asked what brought her out, in her walking cast boot, and she replied simply, “Activism is my self-care.”

Deep inside, I heard the resounding chime of the Bell of Truth, because I agreed so strongly with that statement. Activism is my self-care too. That’s true despite the physical toll that direct actions have on my thoroughly unreliable body; I would spend Sunday in bed recovering from Saturday’s events.

But as the meetings for #BlackFair and planning for other actions kicked into gear earlier that week, I noticed the immediate impact it had on my depression. The mental and social engagement of planning with old and new friends blew through that dark bank of clouds like a brisk wind. I found myself not only excited to keep building the movement, but the sunshine woke up other parts of me that had slept through the long, sad summer. I made plans to pick up some cloth to make crafts for friends; I opened files for the book I’m writing and started building sandcastles of plot again.

Marshal Mom JessCommunity organizing in the movement is good for me in other ways, too. I don’t really just attend demonstrations as one of the crowd anymore—I’d much rather put on my oh-so-stylish neon vest and work to keep people safe and supported as they take part in the action. This is one of the few things I will admit to being good at, that gives me any sense of pride in my competence and skill.

I like to joke that, “I don’t marshal; I mother.” That’s more true than people realize. I don’t just come ready to redirect traffic or crowds, I come with the Mom Bag loaded for bear: full first-aid jump kit, snacks and drinks, tissues, sunscreen, even bubbles for the little (or not-so-little) ones. It takes all lanes of my busy, pattern-seeking, autistic brain occupied to be constantly scanning the crowd and the environment for potential hazards and those needing help. And solving problems big and small—from checking in with mobility-challenged participants to de-escalating people seeking to disrupt the demonstration—gives me the feeling of protecting and emotionally supporting my Beloved Community. Marshal Mom Jess 2

And I laugh with joy when I see people really getting into a chant, or when we’ve got a sound system on the back of a truck to pump out the jams for a dance party in the middle of an intersection. I see them participating with their whole bodies and souls in acts that center marginalized people and help them take up that space and sound on the planet to which each of us is entitled. It fills me up with powerful hope for the future, and energizes me to create more of those spaces that so strongly affirm every person’s beauty and dignity.

Image courtesy of MPR News (http://images.publicradio.org/content/2015/01/19/20150119_mlkmarch19_53.jpg)

But I realized that I haven’t been IN those spaces for many months now, maybe years. I run the edges, solve problems, help where needed, which is so absorbing that, when I see photos after the fact, I don’t even have any memories of people doing those things. I don’t always get to link hands with everyone and participate in the powerful chant by Assata Shakur that reminds us of our duty to fight for freedom, to love and protect one another. And when “Alright” by Kendrick Lamar starts blasting from the speakers and everyone dances, I’m usually standing stock still in a crosswalk. Last time this happened, I faced down a muscle car driven by an angry white dude who hit the gas three blocks away, to screech from 45 mph down to zero only six inches away from my shins, looking me in the eyes the whole time.

I'm the one with the text on the back of my shirt. Photo credit: Chris Juhn.

I’m the one with the text on the back of my shirt. Photo credit: Chris Juhn.

I hope nobody in that circle of wild, glorious dance really noticed that car, or even me. I hope the music and empowerment blinded them to everything but the other beautiful faces in that crowd. I hope the people I help when I marshal only remember someone kind, not my face, not even my hair.

But I’m not sure if I’ll ever feel missed or wanted in those crowds. And I’m not sure if who I am—the depression, the self-esteem, the knowledge that I’m not who the movement is for (or should be about)—is even capable of dancing to the words “We gonna be alright.” I’m not sure what this movement would mean to me if I could.

10 Things My 30s Taught Me

On December 28, I turned 40. This came as no surprise, even to one as math-impaired as me.

It’s virtually impossible to throw a birthday party on my birthday, since everyone is exhausted from Christmas and saving up energy for a big New Year’s Eve blowout (if they’re even in town). There’s even an Old English word for it: symbel-werig. It means “feast-weary,” and that’s what everyone is on my birthday.

The worst it ever got was my 18th birthday. My parents had dinner theater tickets, and my brother was at his friend’s house (after his birthday, the day before mine. No, really.). My sister and I were home alone. She made a Pyrex bowl of raspberry Jell-O and stuck a taper candle in it. We watched Schindler’s List. Whoop-de-doo.

For the big one this year, though, I decided that nothing said “me at 40” like riding rollercoasters. Thanks to Nickelodeon Universe, the indoor theme park in the middle of the Mall of America, it’s actually possible to do this in a Minnesota winter. Also, yay for half-price unlimited ride wristbands from 5-10pm. There was the entertaining possibility that I’d get a mall security escort because I’d been a marshal at the #BlackLivesMatterMOA protest two weeks earlier. I planned to lure him onto rides, in case I felt like chanting anti-oppression slogans on the loop-de-loops. Alas, no joy.

Rolling over the odometer also made me think about what can happen in just one decade of living. I don’t feel older, or even different, just more like the person 30-year-old me hoped to be eventually. Still, I learned a lot of lessons in the last 10 years, so here’s the top 10 lessons I learned in my 30s.

1) Having a second child is nothing like having the first. I had my first son when I was 28, and my second one when I was 32. Instead of throwing up 20 hours a day for 5.5 months, I threw up 24 hours a day for 7.5 months in my second pregnancy. My labor couldn’t have been more different, too. And you needn’t look any further than this blog for how different the boys are from one another. Motherhood: what a weird, wonderful ride.

2) The key to my kid is the key to myself. When I was a kid, my parents and teachers told me I was “socially backward” because I was intellectually advanced. Slamming doors and balloons popping gave me migraines. I preferred the company of adults. And I recognized a lot of these traits in my older son; we joked that he inherited those traits. In fact, what we both were was autistic. Learning that unlocked memories and mysteries that plagued me my whole life, and understanding those helped me translate the world for my kid. We’re all so much better for knowing ourselves.

3) Intersectionality is everything. I’ve felt this way forever, but didn’t know there was a word for it until I read a Flavia Dzodan blog post that introduced me to the term, coined by UCLA prof Kimberlé Crenshaw. I also didn’t realize it was such a controversial idea until I started advocating it. How is this difficult for people to understand? We are all so many different people, and all of our selves are bound together when it comes to liberation. How can you be a feminist who excludes trans women? How can you be anti-racism and simultaneously suppress the contributions of women? How can you demand an end to oppression but hold planning meetings that are inaccessible to disabled people? In Flavia’s words, “My activism will be intersectional or it will be shit.”

4) Don’t move without a safety net. I learned this one the hard way. In Minnesota, you have to be a resident before you can apply for state health insurance. We had paperwork ready to go the day we moved, but we encountered a four-month wait. We’d saved money for an appointment to get me set up with bridge coverage for my fibro and depression. What I didn’t do was research doctors—the one I went to refused to continue the treatment plan I’d had for over a decade. The decompensation that happened without my prescriptions resulted in a summer lost to pain and despair, ultimately landing me in the hospital. Lesson learned? You cannot overplan for your medical care when moving–your life literally depends on it.

5) Family is what you make it. I grew up so close to my family that I refused to even consider moving to New Zealand to be with my Darling Husband, because I couldn’t imagine going so long between visits with my parents and siblings. But after I called out my family about 4 years ago for treating my autistic son like crap and undermining our parenting, everything changed. My brother and sister still won’t talk to me for hurting my mom, even though she and I are fine now. Thankfully, we’ve built a family of friends, old and young, near and far, who more than make up for the love lost. All that’s left to mourn is the continuity.

6) Sharing knowledge is more than the letters after your name. My grad school department kicked me out in 2005 because my area of study didn’t match their idea of subjects that build a “world-class history program.” Despite that, I have 15 years of teaching experience, and knowledge that I use everyday—with my kids, with other kids, with other adults, and in my organizing. Teaching is my vocation, plainly put. Even if the flood of post-recession Ph.D.s makes it unlikely I’ll get a college job again, I’m always looking for ways to share what I know in engaging ways.

7) Caucusing is hazardous to your health. Until we moved to Minnesota, I’d always lived in states with primary elections, so I was extremely excited to attend my first caucus on February 2, 2012. It was weird and idiosyncratic and strangely wonderful; I was too hyped about democracy to sleep until midnight. At about 1:00 AM, I woke with abdominal pain. By 5:00 AM, it was worse than labor, and Darling Husband took me to the ER. I had acute pancreatitis, caused by a gallstone. I spent a week in the hospital, and they surgically removed a bag of rocks from my gut. I now view caucuses as highly suspicious and potentially life-threatening.

8) I am committed with my whole heart and soul to equity. This isn’t about rights, or even history. It’s about empathy. If anyone’s potential is oppressed for who they are, then my potential is also less. I see the beautiful humanity in everyone, and want for them the joys I’ve found and the opportunity to be all of themselves. And yes, I’m willing to block traffic, invade public spaces, and commit civil disobedience to make this happen. I consider it a sacred duty.

9) Together, we win. I’ve never been very competitive, and I always plan for failure so that, as Lloyd Dobbler wisely advised, “…everything’s kind of a pleasant surprise.” But with the campaign for marriage equality, and against Voter ID, and for a new anti-bullying bill and a higher minimum wage, guess what I discovered? I like to win. I like it almost as much as the conversations and organizing it takes to come out victorious. These efforts and the folks I’ve met in them evaporated any cynicism I had about the potential of people power. I highly recommend it to everyone.

10) It’s never too late. I didn’t intend to really go balls-out for the last year of my 30s, but I accidentally did. I learned and performed burlesque dance, even in this imperfect body. I got two big tattoos, the first I’ve ever had. I went to a national convention for community organizers. I shut down highways, corporate offices, and the largest mall in America. I made my kid’s middle school change their negative, reactive response to common autistic behaviors, and re-centered them on positive reinforcement that nourishes all children’s education. All this with my physical and mental limitations. It’s never too late to do important things, and if you forget that, just ask me for a reminder.

Dec 15, 2014 - Physical Ed    No Comments

No One Left Behind

A lot of the social justice work I do is about making spaces–everything from housing to the whole of Minnesota–more welcoming to people whom society often forces out. Sometimes, that’s practical stuff, like urging schools or cities or events to offer gender-neutral bathrooms where trans*/gender non-conforming folks can feel safe. And sometimes, it’s more abstract, like working against police profiling and brutality toward people of color in their own homes and neighborhoods.

The basis of that work is education and empathy. I read, I listen, I ask questions, so when I walk into a new space, I see the ways that place values and welcomes all different kinds of people and their needs. And I also see the ways those spaces exclude and isolate people, which makes a good starting place for effecting change.

So I’ve attended community meetings, planning sessions, trainings, and seminars. I regularly participate in protests, which might include rallies, marches, and sit-, stand-, or die-ins. And the saying in the groups where I organize is that, “If it’s worth doing, it’s worth debriefing,” so I’m learning how to observe what does and doesn’t work well, and share constructive feedback.

But it’s possible for a space that’s been engineered with great intention to include a typically excluded group to unintentionally exclude a different group. Some feminists say they don’t feel safe from patriarchy and misogyny if trans* women are included in the space (I happen to think they’re wrong, for the record). Often, queer people of color feel uncomfortable in the largely white LGBTQ activist movement. Class barriers manifest often in community meetings, where those with more income and education assert themselves as more worth listening to than their less privileged neighbors. We all need to do better, even if we think we’re doing the right thing just by showing up.

As I see intersectionality championed in the powerful, new spaces we’re constructing, though, we’re missing the mark on disability. I’m physically and neurologically disabled, thanks to the Wonder Twins, fibromyalgia and autism. I’m not the most restricted person at a gathering, but I do face barriers that others don’t. I’m also used to being in the company of someone with more intense disabilities, though, so I’m attuned to obstacles so I can help them negotiate our environment.

And the new movements need to do more. I’ve had to choose which breakout session to attend based on which didn’t require me to climb a flight of stairs. I’ve had to leave valuable trainings early because the bright lights and unchecked noise level wore me out. I’ve also sat through meetings which taught me nothing because I couldn’t hear or see the speakers. And I’ve both hurt myself trying to keep up, or just fallen out completely, with marches that followed a route and went at a pace that left all but the able-bodied behind.

And I’m full-sighted. I’m not in a chair. My lungs and heart are strong. I have 40 years of coping skills to manage sensory input. I hear exceptionally well. If I can’t keep up, who else is bejng left behind? And what knowledge and wisdom are we losing when they’re abandoned?

I have a lot of thoughts about accommodations and modifications to make the spaces where real, radical, revolutionary change is happening accessible to all disabled people. I’ll probably break them into separate posts.

But I’m asking each of you who reads this to spend a bit of time thinking and examining your surroundings with renewed curiosity. Think of the physical gestures that literally embody the movement: raised fist, raised hands, bodies marching and lying down. Imagine that you can’t make those gestures in solidarity. Think of the speaker whose voice and insights you most want to hear in the world. Imagine the flight of stairs that keeps you from getting to see them. Imagine seeing that person but not knowing what they’re saying.

How welcome would you feel? How valued? How powerful?

If the answer is “not very,” well, the revolution’s got to change.

Aug 26, 2013 - Social Studies    4 Comments

Breaking the Alliance

I’m in the midst of a fundamental transformation, and it’s time for me to say to all the people whose rights I’ve worked to protect and expand:

I am not your ally.

This may come as something of a shock, given all the hours I’ve put in at phonebanks and lobbying and trainings and rallies. Yes, those are your bumper stickers on my car, your emails in my inbox, your scripts still invading the dreams in which I try to persuade talking dogs to call their legislators.

And no, I’m not giving up on activism. Far from it–I’m more committed than ever to bringing new people into the movements for safe schools, racial justice, gender equity, livable wages and housing, quality health care, and all the other things I care about.

But I’m not your ally anymore.

See, if I were your ally, I wouldn’t have a stake in these fights. I’d only be working for others; that work would have no appreciable impact on my own life. And it may seem like that to some of you who watch me flail around for the common good. After all, I married the person I love with no legal impediments. In fact, I even helped him immigrate, with no risk that he would be questioned or rejected or quota’d out of consideration. I’ve only had two, thoroughly planned pregnancies. I’ve been incredibly lucky to have reasonably affordable health insurance coverage for all but four months of my life. I’m white. I’m highly educated. I’m employed.

I am the veritable picture of privilege. So why can’t I be your ally?

I can’t embrace that title anymore because it’s mistaken. It suggests that I don’t benefit from the changes I help create. And that just isn’t true.

Better wages improve my economy. More affordable housing in safe, diverse, closely knit communities improves my family’s living conditions. Schools that foster the dignity and abilities of every child improve my kids’ education. The dismantling of the prison-industrial complex lifts an unfathomable burden from my society. High-quality, truly accessible health care keeps me alive. Environmental conservation preserves my planet, and by extension, the most sacred part of my soul. Broad civil rights for communities of color and LGBT people protect my own rights to vote, to speak freely, to exercise my most fundamental human aspirations. Autonomy, safety, and respect for women’s choices, bodies, and lives guarantee my own ability to live fully into myself.

I’m not an ally because your rights are my rights. Your liberation is my liberation. Your safety is my safety, and that of all I love.

I don’t know the word for what I am, but I am in this with you all the way. And I won’t stop working until we are all free and whole together.

UPDATE: A darling friend from church came up with what may be the correct answer to my dilemma: the word “ubuntu.” Archbishop Desmond Tutu defines it thus: “Indeed, my humanity is caught up in your humanity, and when your humanity is enhanced mine is enhanced as well.” You can read more of the interview that yielded that quotation here. Yes, I know it’s also a computer term, but apparently the name was chosen deliberately to claim that friendly, collaborative, interconnected effort. So, ubuntu, y’all.

Weeklong Training #2: Melian Debate

Of all the readings I might have expected to be assigned during Weeklong, Thucydides (my old nemesis from History grad school) wasn’t one of them. Yet there it was, the chapter on the Melians, an island nation drawn into the Peloponnesian War, in our prep materials. Reading it in the context of how we act on our ideals in the face of a practical threat was enlightening, but I couldn’t see how it would apply to our training.

My confusion grew when I showed up at the first session Monday morning, and the group leader (Don, from the night before) asked who had participated in a Melian Debate before. Was this to be some kind of quiz in the form of a reenactment? I didn’t raise my hand with a few other folks who indicated this was new territory, figuring anyone who’s read that same passage at least five times before should fare okay.

Don lined up teams of four debaters, named them Melians and Athenians, then set them to argue their respective positions. The only rule, he told us, was, “I can interrupt.” He occasionally retired people from the line-ups and called new folks. Then he made the teams switch allegiance and argue the other side. Everything seemed like an academic exercise until he started sending people out of the room.

I wasn’t called until the end, so I sat there, half my brain trying to psychically will good points of argument to the various players, the other half frantically scanning for a pattern to Don’s interruptions. I couldn’t find one. People who hardly said a word were sent from the room. People who engaged ferociously for their side stayed for long minutes, then returned to the audience. No rhyme or reason.

Apparently, others started questioning Don’s calls too, because a group from outside the room came back in with the intention of disrupting the debate. They proposed sending an assassin to kill the Athenian delegation. Don responded by announcing that the Athenians start destroying Melian villages. The escalation of urgency drove both teams into ever more retrenched arguments, despite being increasingly uncertain what the end game or victory even looked like. Finally, Don called a halt to the exercise, about three minutes after I joined the Melians.

Then came the moral of the lesson: This wasn’t about winning or losing. In fact, the reenactment of the debate wasn’t the point at all. What really mattered is how we reacted to power–namely, Don’s power. The way we responded, individually and collectively, to Don’s commands revealed how we generally respond to people in positions of power. Almost all of us simply followed orders. We sat down when Don said to sit down, we left the room when he said to go, we grew agitated and desperate when he started giving “reports from the front.” None of us questioned his choices, and when a group did try to take back some control, they were disorganized and ineffective, ultimately still responding to the artificial emergency and not Don’s role in it.

We felt terrible. Because, deep down, we hated knowing he was right.

I didn’t find out as much about my own responses to people in power because I wasn’t called into things until the very end, but maybe that’s its own lesson. I tend to wait until I either see something that needs to be done, or I ask for jobs from people who seem to have a sense of the larger plan. When I’ve initiated my own plan of action in the past, I’ve been slapped down by people who don’t like a different way of doing things, or my take-charge attitude, or not vetting my plans according to the “proper channels.” And I’ve let those unappreciative responses intimidate me from being more of a self-starter.

People in power have absolutely no interest in making room for people out of power at the table, so you have to be willing to build your own power with other people until they have to take you seriously. We can’t wait for authority figures to ask our opinion, or sit down when they tell us to. For a room full of activists determined to buck the system and change the world, facing such undeniable proof of our less-than-commanding attitude toward power was an unwelcome Monday morning wake-up call.

Weeklong Training #1: Agitation

I arrived at National People’s Action‘s Weeklong Leadership Training on Sunday evening. Northfield is a scant hour’s drive south of the Twin Cities, and the St Olaf College campus is lovely, trees and limestone block buildings with a neo-gothic flair. I fully plan to sneak into Boe Memorial Chapel and sing a few bars to hear the famous acoustics.

This week is based on agitational training. It’s an in-your-face style of interaction between the session leader and the participants that helps break down barriers and the lies we tell ourselves to avoid doing difficult things. I didn’t think I’d ever participated in it before, but it turns out we agitate ourselves and others in our lives every time we won’t settle for the easy answer or the surface explanation.

For us, our formal experience of agitation started right off with introductions. We didn’t get challenged on our names, preferred gender pronouns, or which organizations we’re here with, but everything else was fair game for Don, that evening’s facilitator. “Why?” was the most common question, of course, but he was pretty brutal with his assessment of some people’s answers. “Sounds like typical liberal white guilt to me,” he told one woman who was waffly on why she does anti-poverty work. “Why do you do this work if you don’t know what you get out of it? You’re just wasting everyone’s time,” he told another attendee.

If it sounds harsh, it was. Don relentlessly went after a few people, taking five minutes or more to challenge them, their motivations, and their commitment to the kind of work we’re all here to do this week. It seemed even more arbitrary because his pursuit of a few people early on left less time to go after people toward the end who, it seemed to me, had even shakier answers than those initial targets.

The way I see it, his job was like someone saddle-breaking a horse. This week is designed to be uncomfortable, and he needed to set that tone. Agitational training is designed to keep us in tension, and to propel us forward with greater power. It’s never easy to soften people up for that kind of experience, but Don definitely had a boxer’s knack for bodywork.

Love > Fear

I’m going to summer camp this year. Not as a parent or a teacher, but as a student at the Leadership Institute run by National People’s Action. This opportunity is dearly bought with the love and financial votes of confidence of many friends, as well as the perseverance of the Darling Husband, who’ll get his share of single parenting back from all those cons he’s attended for work over the years. And I’m determined to use this camp’s resources to level up my skills and be a stronger leader for the causes I feel strongly about. I know it’s going to be a challenging, agitating, soul-searching experience–I’m ready for that.

But today, I was faced with a view of my activism that I’d never, ever envisioned. A beloved friend suggested that I might be on the path toward the kind of activism that harms and terrorizes other people. And I found myself replaying all the marches, rallies, phone calls, planning meetings, training sessions, and conversations I’ve had. I searched them from the outside looking in, scanning for visions of myself as frightening, threatening, angry, or intimidating. And, of course, my vivid visual imagination got straight to work manufacturing reflections of past scenes or shadows of future selves in which I’m furious and self-righteous, intolerant of other viewpoints, but blind to the faults in my own.

But those pictures aren’t real, and the rest of my memories yield images I can’t associate with terror. I speak clearly and fearlessly, yet with respect, to anyone who’ll listen. I work hard, but I goof off too and distract my friends for a few laughs in brief downtimes. I sing, I clap, I chant, I dance. I’ve cried with both joy and grief in the halls of power and in the streets.

I don’t know how these things are scary.

I do have the clarity to see that parts of my activism might provoke a negative response in some people. I may appear to have a rigid sense of what’s right and little tolerance for other positions. My voice can be strident when I try to make it heard over those who try to drown it out. I’m not a small person, and when I raise a fist of power or link arms in solidarity with others, I probably look unmovable. I talk a lot about the actions I’m taking, because they take up a big part of my life. I retweet too much.

It IS radical, what I do. Maybe I should get used to that statement: I am a radical. I believe in radical things, like the worth and dignity of every single person on this planet, and the power of a single person’s action joined with others. I do radical things, like give my time and energy and voice to causes that do not directly benefit me at all, just because they seem worthwhile and I recognize the power that comes with my privilege. I try to offer radical acceptance to every person I meet, by acknowledging that every life is a journey, and we’re not all at the same place on the path at the same time–judging or criticizing another person for being where they are on their path accomplishes nothing.

The internal conflicts I weather as I work through the evolution of my beliefs and the consequences of my actions aren’t visible to most people, so I’m sure I seem like another cardboard cut-out liberal rabble-rouser. I don’t talk with everyone about why some causes get my attention and others don’t. Part of that is embarrassment at the inexplicable, emotional reasons for some of those decisions. I have internal boundaries among the issues and tactics of activism that don’t always come from a sensible place.

But I hope my primary motivations are clear as day: I want everyone to feel the same love and enjoy the same rights I do. I love learning and free will and self-determination, and I believe everyone deserves equal access to them. Because that’s what moves me, I’m categorically opposed to tactics designed to frighten or deprive anyone of something that’s rightfully theirs.

And here’s where I’ll make the only qualification in this whole screed: disproportionate political or financial power is not a right. Those are things you earn, and if you use them to take away the rights and freedoms of others, then you have to be ready for the same people who gave them to demand them back. If you’re the one in power, the idea of losing that position might be frightening. It shouldn’t be, because power over others isn’t a right, but nobody likes to lose control. I can empathize; I’m a control freak too.

But one of the founding principles of democracy and human rights is the power of a group of people to rise up peacefully, speak their piece, and create change in society. Sometimes, the language of this right is misappropriated by people who want to use that power to take away others’ rights (often, that exact same right they’re exercising). But the truly great moments in history largely correlate to times when individuals have stood up for their rights in the face of overwhelming disparity in power and force.

It takes guts and advice and practice and support to do that and not falter. It takes the sight of other people to the left and right of you, whether it’s in a parade or a phone center cubicle or a line of jail cells. That’s who I want to be for others who are fighting for a better world. That’s what I want to be trained to do. And if my faith and conviction in the possibility of change toward greater freedom makes  someone feel afraid of me or bad about themselves, all I can do is say that I love them and where they are in their journey. I’m just trying to be my whole, powerful self and make room for others to do the same.

Apr 2, 2013 - Psychology, Social Studies    3 Comments

Autism Acceptance Month: Resources for Autistics and Allies

Capture1Today is World Autism Awareness Day, but autistics and many concerned advocates have done a great job of rebranding it as Autism Acceptance Day/Month. What’s the difference, you may ask? To many neurodiverse people, “awareness” and “acceptance” are as far apart as “tolerance” and “equality.” We don’t want past and current generations of people who are differently wired than our neurotypical family and friends to just subsist on the fringes until a “cure” is found for those not yet diagnosed (or even born).

But many of those neurotypical allies don’t really know where to begin when faced with the complex spectrum of autism-related traits and patterns, and I know they’d be genuinely mortified if they grabbed the wrong end of the facts and proceeded as informed.

So here’s a very short, very subjective list of places you can go to experience some of the range and diversity of autism. If you’ve found something you feel should be on this list, please leave it in comments! I’m always on the lookout for new resources! And if you don’t know where something you’ve come across fits on the range of positive voices, please don’t feel embarrassed to ask–wanting to be informed is the first and most important step for any ally of any kind.

Filmography

The documentary Loving Lampposts, available on instant Netflix in at least the U.S., does an excellent job of approaching its autistic subjects with sensitivity and a willingness to truly hear their experiences. I especially appreciated that it included role models who are non-verbal, showing the brilliant thoughts that speech alone is incapable of capturing for them.

The only “fictional” movie I’ve seen that does a good job with autism is the HBO docudrama Temple Grandin (based on the real life of the autism pioneer), but two TV shows, Parenthood and Alphas, portray their autistic characters in ways that have made me gasp, laugh, and cry with recognition and gratitude. Many people cite the new BBC series Sherlock for the Asperger’s-like characteristics the title character shows, but given his other egomaniacal and insensitive traits, he’s not exactly what I’d call a role model, no matter how brilliant he is.

Bibliography

There’s a wide and diverse array of books out there about autism, but I’m only going to recommend the ones I’ve personally read. A few are fiction, but most are memoirs of one kind or another. It’s amazing to see your own life in print without having written a word. And in general, while autistics have found many ways to manage their symptoms and concurrent problems like food allergies or other medical issues, back away slowly from any book that talks about “preventing” or “curing” autism.

The Speed of Dark by Elizabeth Moon

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon

Look Me In The Eye: My Life with Asperger’s by John Elder Robison (he’s written two more memoirs since, and I assume they’re just as good as his first)

The Journal of Best Practices: A Memoir of Marriage, Asperger Syndrome, and One Man’s Quest to Be a Better Husband by David Finch (he too has written successive books that I intend to get to in my Pile o’Shame)

If you only read one book on this list, read Loud Hands: Autistic People, Speaking, an anthology edited by Julia Bascom.

If you only read one author at all, read anything you can get by Dr. Temple Grandin.

Organizography (yes, I’m starting to make up words)

A great alternative to Autism Speaks, which is to be avoided at all costs, is the Autistic Self-Advocacy Network (ASAN). Co-founder Ari Ne’eman works on behalf of the org to bring cases of abuse and discrimination to public attention, as well as to make autistic voices heard in the room for discussions of policy and programs all the way up to the federal level. Their motto is “Nothing About Us, Without Us,” and their website is a great resource for allies as well as autistic folks.

Both national and local branches of Autism Society are also generally positive, though some may be more or less dominated by parents and teachers of autistics, rather than autistics themselves. That’s something to gauge on your own; if you don’t hear from an autistic person within a few meetings or press releases, that may not be a great sign.

Blogography (that one may or may not be a real word by now)

The number of excellent autistic bloggers out there is too numerous for me to do justice to, but you may want to start with a group on Facebook or Twitter like ASAN, Autism Women’s Network, WrongPlanet.net, or The Thinking Person’s Guide to Autism. They boost signal on blog posts and articles from a lot of great authors, not least among them are: Julia Bascom, Steve Silberman, Emily WillinghamIbby Anderson-Grace, Shannon Des Roches Rosa, Estee Klar, and Lydia Brown. I know I’m forgetting a ton of good ones, so start friending/following the ones you like, and they’ll lead you to more and better, I’m certain. That’s how I got started at least.

 

Feb 20, 2013 - Sex Ed, Social Studies    3 Comments

Feminism at the Crossroads

A few times recently, friends have mentioned me on social media as a feminist they admire. As pleased and flattered as that makes me feel, I also get a strong twinge of guilt, or at least conflict.

I don’t think I’m a very good feminist. By the usual standards, I barely qualify for the title. I suffered through one lone Women’s Studies course, in grad school, with much whining and skepticism by both professor and me. I don’t know all the lingo. I can’t take the Pill. You’ll never catch me burning my bra–they were so damn hard to get fitted correctly in the first place.

Okay, that list is pretty unserious, at least in 2013. But I do feel some considerable shame as emails about reproductive choice, equal pay, sexual harassment, gender balance in the media, and any number of other “feminist issues” pile up unanswered in my inbox while I put in hours upon hours on the phone and in the Capitol for rights that may not even benefit me directly.

I want to be worth the faith of those folks who think of me when they hear the word “feminism,” and I want my feminism to be clear in its intent. My feminism sits at the intersection of race and privilege, of sexual and gender identity, of educational and economic advantage, of communication and culture. My feminism is a human right, and it casts a broad net: I become aware of another injustice that touches my feminism because I feel the tug on our common lines, however far away from me it is.

But if your feminism extends so far, what kind of feminism is it at all, you may be asking? If you can find your way, as I do, to issues as diverse as same-sex marriage, teaching multiculturalism, comprehensive health care, rape culture, and the environment, shouldn’t I call it something else? Is my gender the only thing that makes me a feminist?

My answer is no. Women deserve to have their whole voices to be heard. We are more than half of the world population, so if there’s an issue that affects the world, it affects women and we deserve to have a say in it. Women are not a monolith–this gets said frequently, but it bears repeating until it sinks in. We do not all have the same view on issues; there is no such thing as the “women’s vote.” Our circumstances are varied as our bodies.

That said, the common composition and experience women share give us a different perspective than men have, and if we want to build the world to be a more inclusive place for us, our vision has to influence that construction. A quick anecdotal example: My boys were born four years apart. We still had all the baby equipment from Connor when Griffin was on his way, but by way of a mistake and a generous gift, we ended up with a brand-new stroller set to replace our used one. I finished unpacking it and went to set it up for maximum admiration. Remembering the mechanics of our old set, I went at the frame with both hands, but all it took was a flick of my thumb and a twist of the wrist, and it sprang up fully. Instantly, I realized: in those four years, women engineers entered the design room. I’m not saying that men couldn’t design a good stroller. But it felt like a mom who’d wrestled a purse, a crying baby, and a diaper bag spilling its contents into the parking lot had finally had a say in what was needed.

Not every woman is a mom, or even wants to be one. Not every woman will even need that stroller, let alone be able to afford it. Not every woman can even imagine the luxury of letting something other than her hardworking body support the weight of her child for a single moment of the time until that child can toddle along under its own power. And increasingly, many men are partners in parenting who can appreciate one-touch strollers and other magical technology that makes the work of raising a child just a bit easier.

But women experience the world differently than men, and that difference makes us valuable as we search for solutions. Every problem in the world affects women, and we can and should contribute to efforts to counteract problems with our particular set of visions and skills. Strengthening the institution of marriage by making it accessible to anyone who will take that stand for love and commitment benefits women. Teaching multiculturalism to children (and adults) makes us more sensitive and appreciative of the differences, unique histories, and commonalities among people with other races and cultures, which benefits women. Comprehensive health care benefits women’s bodies, as well as improving their ability to participate fully in the economy, to the benefit of their families. And we all live on this planet that changes and suffers and recovers and goes unheeded, like the bodies of too many women who experience the world as a violent place, and they all need healing for life to flourish.

So my feminism will be intersectional. Senator Paul Wellstone used to say, “We all do better when we all do better.” So I’ll work on the issues that resonate with me and my experience as a mom, a wife, a teacher, a bisexual, a pagan, an autistic, a Unitarian Universalist, a white person, a survivor, and the many other people who live inside this woman’s body. One of them is a feminist.

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