Thursday, November 29, 2007

No Short Cuts

Thirty years ago this month, with two other mothers, I started a parent advocacy group…

I ran into the kitchen to pick up the ringing phone. “I’m Mandy,” she shouted. For the next fifteen minutes I listened to her swear about every school district and bus official she ever contacted; but I did never learned why she was upset. I listened past her swearing and heard someone crying out for help.

I thought that we should meet... some place public. A public place would help her self-control and maybe I could find out what the heck was going on. “Can we meet?” I asked.

Ten minutes after we met at the diner, the manager asked us to leave. We spent the next two hours in my car; she screamed, cried, beat her fists against the dash and finally this young single mother got her story out.

Mandy’s, then 4-year-old daughter Sarah, is deaf. She attended early childhood classes at a public school across town. Every day the little yellow bus picked her up and took her to school. The driver would then take the rest of the students to another school and drop them off. The other bus riders were older, mostly boys who attended classes for children with behavior disorders.

Sarah began riding that bus and her personality seemed to change overnight. Mandy feared something bad was happening to her daughter. She wanted her daughter moved from where she currently sat, near the middle of the bus behind the driver, to the front row, across from the driver, so he could watch over Mandy’s precious little daughter.

It certainly seemed like a reasonable request.

One morning Mandy asked the bus driver to make the change. He refused. Sarah was not a problem on the bus he told her. The “bad boys” that needed his watchful eye had to sit in that seat. Mandy was not skilled in negotiations or anger management; she cussed at the driver and he drove off.

Mandy was no child of privilege. She had alcoholic parents and was more used to settling disputes with her fists than with words. She did not finish high school, got pregnant when she was 17, and got kicked out of her parents’ home. This situation exceeded both her skill and comfort level. Nevertheless, she wanted to help her daughter.

On work breaks, she called the bus service; never getting further than the operator, who hung up because Mandy could not stop swearing. She called the school secretary who also hung up on her for being obscene. She never got a chance to talk to the principle; the secretary would not put her through. She could not take time off for fear of losing her job.

She called the superintendent of school, members of the school board, the newspaper and other’s that might help her get her daughter’s seat moved. Everyone hung up on her.

And really, who can blame them. No one deserves that kind of verbal assault. On a different day, I might have done the same. I cannot say why I was able to get past the profanity. It was probably easier for me because her anger, for the most part, was not directed at me; and I'm not easily offended. Nevertheless, Mandy's language made even a bawdy character like me blush.

We finagled a meeting with the superintendent of schools. It was not easy. We assured him Mandy would “behave.” He invited other parents, more comfy with the administration than we, to observe.

I arranged for Mandy to come to my house and invited a friend to help me. We explained to her why everyone hung up. We promised to help her tell her story without rage. It was exhausting work.

Sometimes she would get up from the kitchen table and pace, looking for a word that might work. Often, she felt overwhelmed; she would cry and swear and stomp her feet.

We told her the people she was swearing at were the very people who had power to give her what she wanted. We told her how systems work. We encouraged her to find a different way to fight… to use the power of words to make her point, not to tear down others.

She replaced the words “god-damned-mother-fucker” with, “bus driver.” Rather than calling the young men on the bus racist names, she practiced using the words, “students,” and “boys.”

We role-played the upcoming meeting. My friend played the superintendent. I played Mandy. She watched and asked questions. She played herself and I coached. We tried different scenarios, different seating positions, different questions, and different tension levels. Mandy was nervous; so were we.

On the meeting day, Mandy met us at the district office. She was wearing a suit and held little 3x5 cards in her shaking hands. She sheepishly said, “I’m afraid I will forget.” We hugged her and said, “Great idea! You’ve got this! We’re so proud of you!”

When we entered the superintendent’s office, he was sitting at a table surrounded by chairs; not unlike my kitchen table, I thought. He started, “So Mandy, what’s up?”

She looked at her 3x5 cards and never once looking up, spoke, “My daughter is 4 and deaf. She is on the bus with much older students, mostly boys. She is acting more afraid lately and I am afraid the boys are picking on her. I want her seat moved to the front, across from the driver so he can watch her.”

The superintendent, who had certainly heard about Mandy reputation asked, “That’s it?”

“Yeah,” she heaved out.

“Done!” he blurted; and with that, the meeting was over.

We barely made it out of the superintendent’s office door when I grabbed Mandy and gave her a big hug and kiss. “You did it, Mandy. You changed things for your little girl.” I could feel her fainting in my arms. We held her up and walked out of the building.

Rarely have I seen such bravery. This young single mother, with very poor social skills, very little education, and little to no sense of propriety, kept trying; kept calling people until she found help. We felt obligated not only to help her, but to give her tools to continue to fight for her daughter. Then she took our advice, practiced new skills, learned a ton of information, went up against a formidable foe… and won!

I don’t know if Mandy ever thinks about that time; but I do… often.

No Condescending Saviors

We who are system savvy... we who have been activists a while, take too many shortcuts. I know I am sometimes guilty of it. But then I think of Mandy.

It would have been easy to call the bus company, saying I was Mandy’s representative and asked them to change Sarah’s seat; they probably would have done it. One quick phone call… less than five minutes time. It would have been so simple. But, we do a disservice to the people we want to help, and to our movement, by doing so.

We build movements by empowering people to speak on their own behalf. It’s slower, it’s messier, it's more work, and it’s the only real way to create new activists.

Someone did it for us; we must do it for the next generation.


Cathy said...

You are so right. We need to pass on what we have learned to the younger parents. And we need to teach our children to advocate for themselves because after all, we're not going to live forever. Love your blogs. Keep 'em coming!

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Valerie Brew-Parrish said...

I have given considerable thought to this excellent piece written by Cilla regarding the mother that was so frustrated that she couldn't advocate for her own child. Cilla took the time to empower Mandy by pointing out what she was doing wrong by using profanity. She did role modeling with her. I have used similar tactics to empower people. I have heard many representatives from CIL's state that the tactics Cilla described are "coddling" the person. Sometimes, it's just not enough (in my humble opinion) to just spout the legislative rights some one has and hope they will act upon it. There are many Mandy's who need that extra encouragement and savvy to navigate the system. CIL's should offer assertiveness training and assist more closely in helping a person to learn to advocate. The system beats down a person's soul. It takes tremendous courage to tackle the agencies, schools, employers, etc that may be discriminating. We activists who understand how to advocate must be willing to lend a hand when it is needed. The person we assist, can then help someone else advocate. The good ripples will continue!