Something that I don’t touch on very often on this blog is that I not only am an individual with autism, but I also serve other individuals with disabilities, and I work in the nonprofit field. I don’t get into nonprofit issues very often because I don’t find them that interesting and often I think that the things that consume so many people working in the nonprofit sector feel like inside baseball dependent on really boring politics. BUT.
I was at a training this morning and one of the people in the audience asked a question that resonated deeply with me. “How do I share my mission when I really just want to be snarky and tell people what’s REALLY happening?” They worked for an adoption organization, and specified, “I don’t think we create families for kids who don’t have them. Those kids had families and we took them away because we won’t give families the support they need. I don’t want to say kumbaya we’re making everything better.”
Wowsers bowsers that was a come to Jesus moment for me and how I look at my professional life.
I have views that differ fairly significantly from the official positions of my work, but mostly that is because my work has intentionally decided to be neutral on certain issues. Working in the autism field it’s easy (so so so easy) to piss people off, and we do our best to say things that won’t upset anyone. More often than not, this ends up looking a little bit kumbaya. The people who can’t do that or who don’t want to do that either burn out or end up pushed to the extremes. It’s really, really hard to give a “real” picture of autism when autism looks vastly different for different people, when you don’t want to promote ableism, and when you want to focus on what CAN be done in a positive way.
But what really hit me this morning is that hope, in a deep and honest sense of the word, is as far from kumbaya as possible, because real hope (and I’m using the qualifier real because I don’t know of another word to denote the authenticity of what I’m trying to describe) is something that can only happen after you truly accept the situation as it is. That means opening your damn eyes, talking to the people involved, seeing what is really happening, and accepting on a deep, sad, depressing level how bad a given problem is.
Cause here’s the thing, nonprofits exist because we see a need that must be filled. We’re not here to get paid (obviously). There’s a problem and we want to solve it. So the first step of that equation is what is the problem? The problem as told by the people it affects and understood in a real, respectful, dignified way that gives them real autonomy and meaning. The problem in a way that doesn’t shy away from the underlying, systemic issues that keep perpetuating it. The problem in a way that is unflinching.
I don’t mean parents of autistic children telling horror stories of fecal smearing. I mean families and autistics telling real stories of how ableism prevents them all from getting real support and from living good, full lives. I mean stories of discrimination, stories of isolation, stories of confinement, even stories of murder.
The ability to look at all of those stories, see the common threads that create the problem known as ableism or anti autism, and to still have hope that we can make it better is something radical, strong, and powerful. It’s hard. It takes work to dig down into these real lived experiences, and it takes resilience to keep doing it, and it takes resourcefulness to dream that it could be better and imagine how it could be better.
So when she asked point blank how to be real without alienating people, that image of hope crystallized for me. That kind of hope that is unflinching and radical and bold and dreams not to run from reality but to change reality. I want to keep that hope at the heart of all that I do, both professionally and personally, because I am uninterested in the politics or in softening my message for efficacy. I want to hold close that I must be willing to hear what others have gone through in order to bring true positivity to the table: any positivity that ignores reality is trite and empty and unhelpful.
Let’s be bold and hopeful and real together friends. Happy Monday.