I’ve been involved in the disability rights movement for a little over 30 years. If I had to say one thing about that time it is this: it is a good thing you can’t get thrown out for making a mistake.
I’ve gotten angry when I should have stayed calm; and I stayed calm when the situation called for rightous anger. I’ve dominated meetings, held my tongue, walked out, stayed, joked, was too serious, took things too literally and not literally enough. I’ve cried tears of sadness and sorrow, when i needed to be strong and was blindly ignorant of people’s feelings when I should have been more sensitive.
If there was a mistake to make, I made it. But, it was how I learned. I still have things to learn, but after so many years in the movement, my peers have taught me a lot. I think one of the most important lessons I’ve learned is that risk taking, and screwing up, come with the territory.
One of my elders often said to me, “Some people live and learn; and some people just live... which will you be?” Of course, I wanted to be the person who would live and learn. But this learning thing is hard. I was going to have to deal with my mistakes, errors, misjudgements, stubbornness, arrogance and my own insecurities.
Now, inexperience doesn’t mean that you cannot be a good advocate any more than 30 years in the movement means you will do things flawlessly. Each situation calls for certain skills we may or may not possess. It is a continual struggle to balance what we know with the situation at hand. That is a difficult task if you're going it alone. However, if you get involved in grassroots organizing the going is easier and one can learn a whole lot more.
As a young advocate, I had to overcome my fear, face the fact that I was going to say or do something that wasn’t right. Luckily, I was part of a group of supportive peole who worked together. Rather than making me feel foolish, or kick me out, they explained what I had yet to learn; they guided me, suggested alternatives, encouraged me to try again and celebrated each one of my learning milestones.
When I began advocating for my daughter I thought every issue I had with the school district meant a take-no-prisoners war. IEP meetings were more like hand-to-hand, full bayonette attacks on “those people”. After a while I learned how to control my behavior; how to negotiate and when to pull out the bayonettes. A few years after that, I never needed to pull out the bayonette; they knew I was a parent that would do what was necessary to assure my daughter received what the federal law promised. They conceeded to my “requests” for services.
You can learn a lot by just hanging around for 30 years. You can learn even more if you stick your neck out and try to make a difference. Don’t expect perfection. Don’t be intimidated by a fear of making a mistake. Do be self reflective and willing to accept a job not-too-well-done, and learn from it. President Obama in his first few weeks in office admitted to making several mistakes. Personally, I found it refreshing that he was willing to be self-critical and honest; then move on, a little smarter. I like a person who can admit they are not infallable; i trust him more now than before.
When I was doing parent advocacy training, I would encourage parents to try one new thing at a school meeting; to shake everyone’s hand and look them in the eye when they entered the room; to write notes about what theysaw their child doing at home and share it at the meeting; to know their bottom line and not settle for less, etc. Why? Because it helps equalize the roles between “just the parent” and the professionals.
That’s is why grassroots activists can flourish in a group. There is a synergy combining everyone’s experiences. Young people have energy and enthusiasm on their side that can overcome older person’s exhaustion. An older person can guide an unbridled person’s anger. All of us are smarter and more effective than one of us.
but also what we do not do,
for which we are accountable. - Moliere