Monday, April 15, 2013

Becoming Adoption Changemakers & Reflecting on the Dialogue After the CLPP Conference

Marisa, Amanda, Kat, Sue, and Gretchen.
This past weekend, I had the honor of being on an incredible panel at the Civil Liberties and Public Policy Conference "From Abortion Rights to Social Justice: Building the Movement for Reproductive Freedom."  The plenary/Q&A panel was formed by sociologist, Dr. Gretchen Sisson and featured master social workers Kat Cooley (original mother) and Susan Harris O'Connor (adopted person), community organizer Marisa Howard-Karp (adoptive mother), and me.

The purpose of the panel, plain and simple, was to put adoption discourse on the table.  The word--the concept--"adoption" pops up quite frequently in reproductive justice dialogue.  Yet what does it mean to be adopted, be an original parent, or be an adoptive parent?  Our panel let our audience know a bit about what it is like to be us as well as how to support those who live adoption.  We outlined this in inter-personal ways as well as on a macro-level.

I don't think we could have asked for more receptive, insightful, and respectful workshop participants.  The conference overall was incredible.  Those with whom we interacted a bit more intimately via the nature of the workshop setting certainly exemplified the bright minds in attendance at the conference.  Among other questions, our panel was asked about the distribution of power in adoption, reasons why people adopt, changes in the institution we'd like to see, and whether or not adoption in any way would provide common ground in the abortion debate.

One of the major points that I gleaned a greater understanding of from Kat Cooley was the importance of informed consent in adoption, both for potential adoptive parents and potential original parents.  Cooley very clearly laid out the need for ethics and continued evaluation of the adoption process for ethics.  Cooley's narrative made the hard work of openness in adoption vividly tangible.  Cooley profoundly stated, and my tired brain is paraphrasing at this point, "rather than focusing on the reason you adopt, let it be about doing adoption the right and ethical way."

Marisa Howard-Karp also relayed the complexities of openness in her presentation.  Both Cooley and Howard-Karp gave compelling objections to stereotypes, urging support and social justice for mothers who want to parent but are unprepared to do so.  Howard-Karp's narrative also portrayed the ignorance faced by adoptive families, gay and lesbian parents, and how those in surrounding society still do not always accept adopted children as true members of both their original and adoptive families.  Howard-Karp bravely called out the existing systems in place for not being as good as they can be, specifically, for not better preparing pregnant youth in foster care to be parents to their children when they'd like to parent.

The connection of this lack of understanding of the realness of both family systems in an adopted person's life, with no prior collaboration on any of our parts in this regard, resonated in my own presentation.  I urged for understanding of and reflective responding to adoptee narratives.  I pleaded my case for "realness" for my adoptive family, my social history, and my memories, as well as the "realness" of my original family, my roots, my ancestry, and my pre-adoption life.  I hoped my portion would connect the need for inter-personal understanding to the need for those who aren't immediately connected to adoption to partner with us in advocating for important adoption issues.

Susan Harris O'Connor exquisitely laid out the experience of being transracially adopted.  She told the story of being adopted as she has done so many times before in the past, literally paving the way for me of a younger generation to do so today.  O'Connor implores people to investigate issues of race rather than seeking to avoid the topic.  One of the many things that she said that I carried home in my own heart was that when it comes to making change in adoption, we cannot move forward with a better adoption until we move forward with better selves.  We must investigate ourselves, our biases, and know why we say and do what we do.  Only then can be effect broader change on an institution.

Of course, Gretchen Sisson was the fine thread that wove us together.  Sisson laid the stage for our narratives, acquainted her audience with us as speakers and storytellers, and provided support and information from her own research throughout our presentations.  "This is my dream panel" she announced.  I don't think I could have been more proud that what I had to say, as a product of a long introspective and extrospective personal journey, could be valued this much.  And I was honored to be sitting next to the ladies with whom I shared this panel.

On that note, let's dialogue about power for a moment.  We discussed on the panel the distribution of power in adoption.  We discussed also how adopted persons become a part of adoption as children and thus that voicelessness often translates into adoption culture as well as continues for the adoptee into adulthood.  There have been many times where adoption has been discussed in major settings where not one adoptee had a place at the table.  This panel had not one but two adult adoptees because of the awareness of Dr. Sisson as the moderator and coordinator had to be inclusive of the roles within the adoption system.  This is something especially meaningful that I want the workshop participants to take away with them.

I cannot speak for the other panelists but what I personally hoped that we not only gave the workshop participants new things to think about when it comes to adoption, but that we also gave them the empowerment to be advocates for those of us who live adoption.  I said it in my presentation, later again on Twitter, and I will reiterate it now: you do not have to be an adoption expert to be an adoption changemaker.

Yes, we must always seek to be informed and to shape our views with new information.  But no matter what we know or don't know, we can stand for what's right based on what we know best upholds human rights.  We are all human.  My own adoption-adapted version of Chapin's principles of evaluating policy is how I evaluate good adoption policy.  (1) Does the policy positively impact people who live adoption? (2) Did the group the policy impacts have a voice in creating the policy? (3) Does the policy, and the advocacy surrounding it, showcase the dignity and worth of the people it impacts?

We were so sad that one of the panelists, PhD candidate in Women's Gender, & Sexuality Studies at The Ohio State University, Kate Livingston, was unable to attend as planned.  You can read Livingston's bio, as well as the bios of the other panel participants at the CLPP website.  You can still connect with the panel on Twitter by looking up our handles @AmandaTDA, @KMCooleyMSW, @Marisa_H_K, and @gesisson.

Thank you to everyone who came, to those who couldn't come but sent us support in so many ways, and for those of you reading my recap here.