In my last post I tried to frame what I brought to the experience of social injustice gained from the communities in which I was raised. But the actual experience of social injustice and the experience of trying to prevent or resist it are far more powerful ways to develop the meaning of social justice and the motivation to pursue it as a calling.
All people who work in social justice go through such epiphanies that expand and deepen their commitment to, and understanding of, a calling to social justice. And every single one of those people has an entirely unique path. Some elements of mine (not special, just illustrative of how pursuing a path brings on epiphanies related to that path):
- Personal Disability Experience: A core of any social justice calling is your own experience of stigma and oppression. I was well aware before adolescence that my thinking and mood weren’t normal, but because they were predictable I was able to imitate others and do an adequate job of passing. When I became a teenager, my first serious depression occurred along with massive social anxiety, and I understood that I was seriously disabled. At the same time, a friend of mine, who I knew was a person with a developmental disability was carted off to Lapeer Hospital. When I asked why I was told that his family didn’t think he would be able to handle junior and senior high school. I took this to mean that I too could be institutionalized if adults decided I couldn’t handle school emotionally. I hid a great deal in order to avoid institutionalization. I ran into this friend at the Michigan Arc 50th Anniversary Conference, and he was living in his own apartment and instantly recognized me. I had a notion that he had been crushed by a system of oppression, but he had found a way to live the life he wished. A very good lesson indeed.
- Murder at a Fiesta: When I was 15 I worked in a Catholic youth group project with migrant family crop workers in northern Bay County. Our job was to support young children (under the age of 6 or with a disability) in schoolwork. One reason was that migrant families had to come up north before school ended and not leave until after school started. Another reason was to keep young kids out of the fields and the sun.At the fiesta in early July to celebrate the end of one kind of crop work, two young men had an argument with several others. One pulled out a revolver and fired it, missing those arguing and hitting a young man in the heart 30 feet away, killing him.
- Television of Beatings of civil rights protesters: Like many others, I was shocked by the abuse of civil rights protesters in the mid-60’s. It was visual proof of what civil rights activists had said was the case. This vision of oppression was cemented by the killing of 3 civil rights workers.
- Military Experience: I witnessed a large amount of racially based discrimination during both my training and combat experiences. I also tried to do something about what I saw, but was barely able to dent it. But, I saw organized efforts by black soldiers to resist that were much more effective.
- Fred Hampton: A couple of days after I came home from Vietnam (mid-December, 1969), I read an article about the police raid that killed Fred Hampton in Chicago. There was a small black and white picture of his bed, clearly and deeply stained with his blood. I can still remember that picture though the details of the raid have faded.
- PWD and Family Support Experiences: In the early 70’s I worked with people who had very significant brain injuries from a wide range of causes. Their families had kept them out of state institutions, and there were no supports for either the families or the person with the disability. The most important lesson I learned in this work was that persons with severe disabilities continued to develop and work for their own development largely unsupported by their environment. This was mostly due to our inability to see their actions as attempts to engage with their world and learn about it like the rest of us. I had to learn (as did the families) a deeper way of seeing so that I could support their efforts to become more. There was a real struggle involved in this learning, but it became easier and easier over time. Now I see this drive to have a larger life in everyone.
- Advocacy experience: There are far too many lessons from my work as an advocate at Michigan Protection and Advocacy to narrate them here. Perhaps the most important for my current work and my understanding of social justice was the realization over time and through experience that the most important drivers of oppression and devaluing are habits of thought and work, and that most people (just like me) can come to a deeper understanding of the need for and power of self-determination and choice.
- Seeing the disability rights movement catch fire and grow: Once I understood that everyone in the disability community was struggling to become more, I could see it everywhere. Social networks (most especially including peer groups and peer work) are now taking that struggle out of the realm of the solitary activist and making it more and more a struggle through mutual support and mutual learning.
I am able to see our common work to expand the possibilities of our community far more as a force or a flow now than I could when I was younger. Even as our community faces renewed efforts to eliminate us from the social stage, we have become far more capable of asserting our right to be as we are, and to pursue our personal and community growth as we see fit. The struggle is far from over, but we are far better prepared to embrace it. My epiphanies may have less impact on me as individual events than they did when I was younger. But now they are occurring all the time, expanding and deepening my appreciation of the gift that is the struggle for social justice.
I am going to take a short break from posts about change strategy to finish work on a couple of ideas.
Next Post: The Disconnect in HCBS Advocacy