Tuesday, November 20, 2018

Adopted & Grieving: Forgiving Someone who Maybe did Nothing Wrong

A little over a week ago, I received word that my (maternal, adoptive) grandma had artery blockages that would be addressed through a quick surgical procedure. Because I was cursed with some sort of sense for these things, I pulled my cousins into a group chat and urged them to go visit her if they could. I knew she would die before I could reach her. I did not have the heart to tell my mother who was already buying plane tickets to go help with grandma's post-op recovery. No one would make it in time. Within hours of sending that message, grandma died. The grandmother who was once my "schema" for what a grandma should be like was gone. And yet I struggled to feel anything.

Sunday, April 15, 2018

Philadelphia Police & Starbucks: Shining Light on Racism

Original Image from Google Street View / Philly Voice
Coffee shops like Starbucks are a "fueling" station for me as a human being trying to exist in a hectic world. This was particularly true in my early years as a professional, navigating being on the road for school while working jobs that required a ton of travel. Working on a mobile team, I met many times in Starbucks for meetings to discuss non-confidential business. Not everyone always ordered a coffee or tea every time. Most meetings were an hour. Sometimes we had to sit idly and chat while we waited for one member to resolve a mental health crisis before they could join us.

It's easy to say that this is what Starbucks wants. Their structure, their "psychology of everyday things" implicates to most people to come in, relax on a couch, socialize, use our free wifi for work or play. You could call it a "loss-leading" strategy much like some quick marts do with cheap gas. Come in for the couches and music and we hope you'll order our costs-more-per-gallon-than-premium-gas-coffee while you're here. Never once arrested in a Starbucks for using Starbucks how it is meant to be used, I know this is because of my white privilege.

Right in my backyard, police  recently arrested two black men for their crime of waiting in Starbucks for a friend so they could order coffee together. It occurred to me that, not only does being white shield me from a situation like this, I have the luxury of not even having to consider that race is why I or someone else would be arrested. 

This is because racism not within my personal realm of experience. My brain has not had to develop a  hyper-vigilance to being at greater risk of harm because of my skin color. I have this experience to some extent because of my gender. I grip my keys tightly when I walk from the evening class I teach at my Alma Mater to my car, knowing my gender makes me seem like an easy target. But being arrested in Starbucks just for existing? No. I don't experience racism. 

What we don't experience or believe is a part of our responsibility on this earth falls into our "shadow." Our subconscious. It drives us, but we don't see it unless we shine light on it. And a lack of "light shone" is exactly why unjust scenarios like at Philadelphia Starbucks happen in the first place. There were multiple people involved here who have not shown light on their racist shadows.

The barista who called the police likely assumed that two black men who had not ordered were there for sinister reasons. When you don't shine light on your racist shadows, you assume that a white woman waiting is there for a play date or a business deal. You assume two black men waiting are a gang, trying to rob you, are being disruptive, or are otherwise misusing your space.

But since when do police offices arrest two people who aren't evidencing any concerning behavior or crime, at the direction of a coffee barista? If they had shined light on their racist shadows, they could have stuck up for the everyday citizen, identified objectively that no crime was committed, and given the barista education on what warrants a call to in-demand, tax-paid services. But they didn't. "Black" meant "trouble" and they arrested first and asked questions, later.

Then there are other employees and bystanders. Some did chime in. But none went so far as to really be disruptive or to stay with the two men to make sure they were safe. 

When I was younger, and in my first book, I referred to this as "other people's parents." I was specifically referencing adoption, and how being told how wonderful I was as an adoptee didn't negate how other parents did not teach their kids the same. Because other kids were not given tools to "shine light" on their assumptions about adoption in their subconscious, it drove how they treated me which in turn effected how I experienced the world and other people as an adopted person. 

When we don't teach our kids how to shine light on their shadows, which simply means to understand whatever is different from you and to challenge your gut responses about it, we create adults who will call the cops on two black men in Starbucks and police officers and other professionals who will assume the worst of someone based on their skin tone.

If you come here to read because you are an adoptee, or first parent, or adoptive parent, consider how your own diversity in terms of what is accepted and considered to be "family" shines light on your shadowy biases about family where you operate from a more conscious place. Identify your yearning for others to do the same so that you and your children can exist safely in a society in which you are a minority. If ever this is a moment to build empathy with our peers of color, our transracial family and adoptee brothers and sisters, this is that moment. I have a blog and a voice. How will you use your empathy to stand up to racism, today?

Monday, January 29, 2018

Shopping With a Soul: Why I Severed My Ties with LuLaRoe (Part II)

Yesterday, I began detailing just some of my concerning experiences with the cult company, LuLaRoe. I broke the post up into two parts after discovering I had much more to talk about than I imagined. Part I covered the concerning psychological atmosphere of the company. Today, I am diving into the cultural incompetence and outright racism, disablism, and misogyny.

As a LuLaRoe "Coach," I attended several LuLaRoe events for retailers and for leaders. My attendance was a requirement, despite not technically being paid. I began to feel physically ill at these events. It was to the point that I required multiple prescription medications to stand up without vomiting. This was due, in part, to the toxicity of the personal life experiences my business partner and friend brought with her. It was also because I continued to be torn apart at the seams between my growing financial obligations and my large team--and--seeing so many things that seemed wrong so with LuLaRoe.
Despite LuLaRoe having thirty women's styles, and only two men's styles, white upper-class men helmed the main speaking spots and direct advising of the company. One such advisor is outspoken in his critiques of Millennials--those of us now working age with families--as being "entitled." The tokenism was strong. Gay women got speaking opportunities to prove that the founder’s religious beliefs would not affect the company's service. Disabled women got speaking opportunities to tell able-bodied retailers, “If I can do it, so can you." Women of color in places of leadership and power were almost non-existent. 

There was one such leader, my friend Angela whom I mentioned in Part I, but she was disowned by her entire upline leadership because she confronted a thread and subsequent comments, posted in her sponsor's Facebook group, that made racist remarks about Asian retailers. She was accused of "stirring the pot." She too recently cancelled her contract with LuLaRoe and has dedicated her business group on certain days of the week to helping other exiting retailers sell off their product.

The rapid growth and lack of intentionality of the brand has resulted in an accumulation of lawsuits. In what seemed to be an attempt to maintain their wealth while handling these payouts, LuLaRoe began coming up with “new” clothing releases almost weekly, and encouraging their retailers to spend more to have the latest “collection.” Like putting a bunch of re-dyed solid black items into a box and making it its own minimum order called "Noir." They changed their defects return policy for retailers to refund fifteen defects from their own pockets before LuLaRoe would reimburse them. 

Worst of all, they continued cranking out prints at lightning speed which resulted in no filter for the racially offensive and culturally and artistically appropriative prints their artists drew. This included a “sock monkey” print, a black face Mickey Mouse print (which was also officially seen, approved, and licensed by Disney staff), and prints donning sacred items from indigenous cultures.

I finally realized that I needed to put myself and my values first because it is within my nature for these things to rule above all else. I ended my business partnership and soon after my business relationship with LuLaRoe. I forgave myself for ending my relentless need to “save” my business partner from her divorce which, I now understood, involved absorbing its toxicity (and that of LuLaRoe) into my own physical body and emotional body. And into my heart.

I took responsibility for myself, my feelings, and my behavior in choosing not to represent a company with depreciating values which certainly stem from privilege and a lack of diversity.

Not long after I left, a top-ranking retailer was exposed for refusing to help, or allow her customers to help, a deaf customer to see the sizes and prices in her live video. Despite having visual capabilities, the retailer refused to show the tag with the size when notified expressly that the customer was deaf. The retailer started banning helpful customers who typed the sizes into the comments section because it annoyed her. Despite a petition circulating in outrage and the clear violation of the ADA, LuLaRoe refused to terminate this retailer’s contract or even respond to the deaf customer’s complaint.

Most recently, LuLaRoe entered hot water when another retailer made gestures intentionally mocking individuals with intellectual disabilities, during a live sale. He issued a non-apology and then made a hashtag in support of himself to push back the “haters." This was brought to the attention of the National Down Syndrome Society to which LuLaRoe donates certain proceeds from its Scarlett dress. The “Scarlett” is named for Mark and Deanne’s granddaughter with Down Syndrome. The NDSS terminated their funding from LuLaRoe because LuLaRoe would not terminate the offending retailer’s contract. Not realizing the NDSS already announced their decision, LuLaRoe took to its Facebook page stating they ended their relationship with the NDSS because the NDSS would not accept the retailer’s non-apology which Mark and Deanne Stidham judged to be sufficient.

A true demonstration of cultural competency and sensitivity would be for Mark and Deanne to understand that they are not capable of judging someone's apology to a disabled person as "acceptable" or not. The only individuals qualified to accept or reject this apology are the people he mocked. Furthermore, when the NDSS said the apology was not OK, LuLaRoe's leadership should at minimum be culturally competent enough to know they are not qualified to disagree with the NDSS. 

I don’t believe that “everything happens for a reason,” but I do think we can create reason from anything that happens. For me, my journey with LuLaRoe has taught me how insidious personally and culturally it is to feel trapped in a situation where an organization abandons its values and attempts to take you along with it. The moral downfall of LuLaRoe is a lesson in why every single entity on this planet needs diverse leadership. It provides real-life examples of how people are emotionally, mentally, and financially harmed when diversity isn’t a priority. 

I supported this brand for much longer than I should have. And for that, I truly apologize to everyone whom LuLaRoe has hurt. No explanation. No excuses. Because that's what a true apology is.

Sunday, January 28, 2018

Shopping With a Soul: Why I Severed My Ties with LuLaRoe (Part I)

If you don’t own any LuLaRoe, I'm sure you have seen a party or had someone prop up their leg and demand you feel their buttery-soft leggings. LuLaRoe, a multi-level marketing company nearing its fourth birthday and reaching over one billion dollars in value, benefits from a dedicated cult following eager to share the brand. I found LuLaRoe two years ago, and fell in-love with the fit and the company’s then-dedication to ethical manufacturing. But lately, it’s not all fun and unicorns.

LuLaRoe was founded by Deanne Stidham who began the company by selling home-sewn Maxi skirts to friends of her daughter, Nicole. The brand grew under the oversight of Deanne’s husband, Mark. They employed most of Deanne’s children (who happen to be adopted), and extended family. LuLaRoe is now an overwhelming white and wealthy company whose privileges and narrow lens seem to be the culprit behind an increasingly concerning company culture. This culture has caused many of we former retailers once attracted to its advertised progressiveness to sever our ties, forever.

I started out writing this entry because a fellow adoption activist mused on my Facebook page wondering why so many of her friends have left LuLaRoe, and I wanted to explain the problems from my lens as a social scientist, clinician, and adoptee. I ended up writing more than I could've anticipated. This post will be split in two parts. Today, I will focus on the psychological abuse.

My concerns began when the defects issue arose, and LuLaRoe responded by telling customers and retailers alike that improperly sized leggings did not exist. However, moving their manufacturing outside of the USA to countries whose factories did not yet master the brand's odd sizing and patterns was exactly the culprit. LuLaRoe would provide no tools for sellers to explain this and even told us not to help customers by disclosing country of manufacture. This trend continued. With every problem or widespread defect issue, LuLaRoe denied problems and shamed retailers for complaining.

Shame may be an understatement. Mark Stidham was often verbally abusive on conference calls. This included, last February, telling retailers as a whole we were “pigs” and responsible for that month's dip in sales. Yet, it was the shortest month of the year and the month that LuLaRoe sends its top retailers on a 10-day cruise--leaving less than two selling weeks for the same monthly goals.

I never cared about lofty sales goals. My desire was to serve and train my once 150+ person team to reach their own goals. My team is one reason why it became so hard to leave once these problems stated. I didn’t want to leave them, and was told by DeAnne that I had an ethical obligation to them.

This "obligation" made representing this brand contentious for me when LuLaRoe’s assurance that their textiles were ethically manufactured transformed into straight-up voluntourism. Pictures and stories of the children in orphanages receiving donations from retailers, and videos of factory workers “happily” working, were paraded at company events. These same images and stories were disseminated in private retailer groups, telling retailers they were insulting the workers when they asked LuLaRoe to be accountable for defects. One leader posted a picture of an "orphan" she held, and accused retailers of being "ungrateful," using the boy's story.

I complained about this, which went nowhere. I anticipated that it would not. The strongest skill transferred to company leaders to handle complaints was to encourage downlines not to be "victims." This is reinforced by a “Don’t Be a Victim” training found in the Fashion Fundamentals training website and delivered at a Leadership Conference.

Otherwise, we were taught to realize when someone might be a “blue” communicator or a “green” one (or orange or yellow), and respond to them as if their personality type was an obstacle. In this training, we were asked to choose from appealing images and to group ourselves accordingly. My group, green, consisted of myself, one other woman who happens to be Asian and a friend of mine, and all of the men in the training. We were pointed out as “the most intelligent people in the room” which was paired with other off-hand stereotyped remarks about women.

All this weighing heavy on my soul, I felt trapped by the financial investment I had made, as well as other issues going on. I began my journey with this company through a business partnership with another retailer who began going through a lengthy, contentious, and expensive divorce and domestic violence case, shortly after I bought-in to the brand. I felt I had to choose between rejecting LuLaRoe and its increasingly depreciating values—and—keeping my business viable so as to not affect my partner’s custody case with her intensely abusive former spouse.

In addition to the verbal abuse and being warned away from "victimhood," the psychological abuse increasingly thickened. The company's trainings and advice to retailers completely warped the Law of Attraction. A true application of the LoA would be to say "I am wealth" and to create focus on what is and therefore what is possible. Because what we place focus on is what grows. Rather, LuLaRoe teaches to "envision" being wealthy (by placing focus on what is not) and to take steps to create wealth. And, if you are not wealthy and therefore are not making LuLaRoe wealthy, it's your fault.

Psychologically, LuLaRoe's business model is based on the "unreliable reinforcement" aspect of Operant Conditioning. A retailer is able to choose sizes and styles, but what prints or colors are delivered is up to the distribution centers. For every 30 items in a minimum order, there may be 5-10 "desirable" or "easier to sell" prints which will quickly turn a profit. Other items will cost you money by taking longer to sell (despite LuLaRoe receiving its full share of the profit, regardless). There are legitimate concerns about LuLaRoe producing so many items in the color orange, or orange-red, or yellow-brown when these are among the average shopper's least-favorite colors. 

By being inconsistently "rewarded" with reasonably profitable prints and colors, this over-stimulates the areas of the brain that oversee reward and pattern recognition. The brain is designed to find patterns (e.g. I do X behavior, I will always get X reward) to seek out reliability in rewards delivered. In layperson's terms, this is one way shopping addiction (and other forms of addiction) takes root. This is how gambling addiction works and what makes someone feel bound to a psychologically abusive or emotionally unavailable partner. For a significant number of retailers means, this means over-ordering beyond their profits. 

For LuLaRoe, it simply means.....profits.

Stay tuned tomorrow for, Part II.

Saturday, January 27, 2018

"What if I Don't Want to See the Child I Gave Up for Adoption?" & NY Times' Troublesome Answer

For some of us adoptees, adoption feels like a chapter of a story that the author abruptly stopped writing. No one knows what should come next for that chapter. Sometimes it takes significant moments to give us a clue. For me, that clue came from my first moment alone with my first newborn in our hospital room, on the day he was born. As I've written so many times, the words burned into my memory, "Oh my God. I am a mother. And now I know." And by that I mean I was now tapped into part of the collective human experience with those who have given birth and those who call themselves "mother," and how very complex it all is. It gave me new empathy for my original mother, and the next move in that chapter was to find her to relay this to her.

I did not see complexity reflected in the advice given to one mother who wrote into the New York Times Ethicist column, penned by Kwame Anthony Appiah. Her daughter, whom she surrendered for adoption, contacted her. She writes, "To me, this child is akin to a distant, long-ago acquaintance." She doesn't want further contact, and asks, "What do I do now?" There are at least 5 main reasons why the answer she received was less-than-helpful.

This adopted person is not a child. It makes sense that this mother calls her daughter her "child," because mothers tend to do this whether their offspring is 2 or 92. Appiah's use of "child" isn't the same. Answering about why "adopted children" do what they do, he treats this adoptee like a baby. He suggests that the psychosocial developmental for an adoptee at age 7 might as well be the same at 47.

Controlling another adult's behavior isn't typically a viable solution. Appiah suggests to this mother that she "shouldn't let" her surrendered daughter "impose a relationship" upon their other family members. He vaguely implies there should be legal barriers to control an adopted person's choices, based on the wishes of others. He suggests that the adoptive mother should've controlled the adopted daughter's choices by withholding information from her. This is not how we should treat people.

Adoptees are not property; this adoptee agreed to nothing. There isn't one legitimate professional or ethical framework in existence that says two human beings get to contract for what a third human being does for eternity. Outside of some adoption laws reminiscent of the 1940's, this isn't even supported by law. In Pennsylvania, an adoptee has the right to petition the court to "open" their adoption at age 9. All pregnant adolescents are automatically emancipated. At age 14, a young person commands control of their mental health treatment, and can decline to share information with their parents. These are just a few examples of how the law empowers children beyond what Appiah implies should be permitted for this adult daughter.

Appiahs "political" doesn't belong in her "personal." This mother attempts, in a roundabout way, to state that she is a feminist. And although she seems to imply adoption was right for her and for some others, this doesn't mean she aligns with wanting to "encourage unprepared mothers to consider giving children up for adoption." From my work with the adoption constellation, I know the immense hurt these words cause. Encouraging parents to make adoption placements shouldn't be a thing. Parents need information to make whatever choice serves their child.

The language..... Curiosity. Biological. Unprepared. Children. Unnecessary. Generosity. Impose. Entitled. Obliged. These words are conclusions and judgements. And they're all so incredibly negative. It isn't generous (or not) to meet with another person. All people are made up of "biological" material--this doesn't make us insignificant to each other. "Curious" is not how I feel. Most adoptees are not children. Information about one's self is always necessary. No one has to be imposed, entitled, or obliged about anything. These words are the birth place of shame and guilt.

So what's the answer? It's to approach this as a normal part of human experience in life, instead of placing the experience in the swirling vortex of the adoption vacuum. Many of us have family members with whom we do not speak. A relative of mine is currently in "time-out" for telling me I am "a bad mother" because I comforted my child through a panic attack instead of punishing him for his outburst. I don't need a special law or to deconstruct someone's psyche for this. I wrote an email simply saying, "I can't be in your life anymore until you learn to apologize and to speak more kindly to my family." The end. And this adoptee hasn't even done anything wrong.

This mother already comes prepared with this answer. What she wrote in her question is her answer. "I have tried to come to terms with the idea of putting all this 'out there,' and I cannot." Although I would encourage her to challenge what she means by "all this" and "out there" when her husband and children already know of the situation, she has (for now) made her decision. She simply needs to set boundaries by communicating this with her daughter.

Fellow adoptees, I am not abandoning you here. I want nothing more than for every adoptee and their families to have just the right amount of embrace that fits them. But as I explained on a video on my Facebook page, when our parents who don't want contact don't tell us this, it creates a situation where your heart is open and out there without any of your needs being met. We then feel hurt and distressed, but we don't know why because we aren't being told the truth. And then we blame ourselves. This too is a situation where the adopted person deserves honesty. I hope the honesty is relayed with the compassion she deserves.

Edit: an earlier version of this post misspelled Appiah’s name. Apologies. 

Monday, January 15, 2018

Hello. It's Been a While.

Hello there. It has been a while, hasn't it? For those of you new to Team TDA, my name is Amanda. I was born in Tennessee, fostered there for several months, and adopted across state lines into New Jersey, in 1985/86. I grew up along the shoreline of the Jersey state, sucking on pickle grass and coaxing fiddler crabs out of their burrows. I was raised in a predominantly Christian community with my mom and my dad.

At the age of 25, I started blogging as a way to try to find my original family. Once reunited with my original mother, two brothers, and 26 first cousins, I transitioned this blog to writing about my experiences within and perceptions of adoption.

I have been known somewhat for writing about my personal experiences, but more so for my focus on a socio-political lens, research, and theory. There is a reason for this. As a white, middle class, young-ish adult adoptee, adopted through private domestic infant foster/adoption, I am subjected to highly specific biases from agencies and parents currently navigating same-race, middle class, private, infant adoptions. Namely, my narratives and quotes have tended to appear in blogs, newsletters, articles, and beyond as professionals and parents alike have attempted to figure out how to navigate their adoptions and parenting so their children should or should not "turn out like me."

This is because I present a symptom that concerns many.

I am an adult adoptee who speaks.

Foremost, it has been difficult for those in the adoption constellation outside of the adoptee population to agree if adoptees speaking about adoption is a good thing (it is). This is because our perception differs from dominant speakers (adoptive parents, adoption professionals)--understandably because we stand in a different place. But a different lens applied to adoption means challenging what we currently know and accept about adoption. It means changing theory. It means changing law. It means sharing power in adoption practice as adoptees rise to become parents and practitioners, speakers, and teachers themselves.

Change is uncomfortable. Empathizing and companioning those whose stories are new and whose perceptions are not your own can be uncomfortable. It can require advanced skill, immense personal insight, and a willingness to be humble and just listen.

And no. People do not always think this is a good thing.

Of course, foster care adoptees, intercountry adoptees, and transracial adoptees experience far more pervasive and insidious biases and impositions onto their narratives than have I. There is a privilege in the type of bias I have faced where at times the greatest challenge someone pouring over my narrative in their own writing has faced is worrying that their own child will call both mothers "mom," as I do for my mothers.

Nonetheless, I have stuck in large majority to what seemed "sound" for me to say. To what no one could say, "well that was just you" or "your parents must have done something wrong" (don't all parents? I parent "wrong" all the time) or "you must have had a bad experience" (being displaced between families is a bad experience we should want to avoid for children, when possible). I obtained three degrees and a license. I completed all the requirements for multiple advanced clinical standings including the advanced license. I started practicing therapy with a highly sought-out concentration in adoption and placement stability. I wrote a book and compiled/edited/contributed to a dozen or so others. I went on radio and TV shows, became an expert witness on child welfare for my state capital, and presented my policies before Congress. I became a field instructor. I accepted a position as an adjunct professor teaching advanced policy to social work juniors and seniors.

I built a wall to keep criticism out. But this wall also kept pain in.

In spending my early years blogging about adoption to open an avenue and normalize our visible and audible presence in adoption spaces, the skills I built to protect my psyche with the push-back I received hardened me for truly caring for myself. I saw myself as valuable--if I knew the answer. I strove to be like my mentors, sometimes haphazardly, but the pedestal upon which I placed them created a receding horizon for me in which I would never deem myself as "good enough." I fell into people-pleasing and rarely giving myself a break from projects and advocacy.

So I took a break. I suppose two years is quite a long one. But in this time, I have learned to love myself and put myself first. I have learned that I don't need to know the answer or even speak to personally be convicted of my inherent worth and value. I have learned to share my story without fear of hearing, "Well that's just you." Why? Because it is just me. My experiences have individual and collective truth. And my words have value beyond what someone can extract as "useful" for parenting advice.

I am someone I do hope your kids "turn out like" and also "not turn out like." I hope they are like me in that they love themselves, they are prepared to tell their truth and their perceptions of what is around them freely, and they put themselves first. I hope they are not like me in that having degrees or books or blogs doesn't matter but in that they are supported into expanding forward into becoming their highest and best selves.

Being who we were born to be is far better than becoming anyone or anything else.

Please join me once again as I resume writing here in this space. I have missed you all, and I look forward to the new faces this next shift in my writing journey.