Be the change you want to see in the world.
When I was in college, I had a number of friends who had grown up in activist households. They were organizers – they marched and sat-in and loved-in and held candle-light vigils when they saw injustice. I found them fascinating.
Like so many other things in college, I tried their brand of activism on for size. After an awful incident in which racial epithets had been painted on a fellow student’s dorm room door, I joined my friends and marched across campus. I raised my voice along with the crowd – “Hey Hey! Ho Ho! Racism has got to go!”
I was invigorated, but it just didn’t feel natural to me. As much as I whole-heartedly believed in what I was shouting, I wasn’t entirely sure who I was shouting it at. I was grateful to the marchers for doing what they were doing – there was strength and power created by coalescing with like minded folks; but I knew that it just wasn’t me.
During our senior year, my friends and I compared notes as we sought to start our careers. Many of them railed against the lack of women in the upper echelons of the workforce. They raised angry fists at what they saw as the systematic discrimination that served to keep the generation-old glass ceiling in place. Many of them joined advocacy organizations that worked to enforce fair employment practices. Again, I was grateful for the vital work they were doing, but still – I knew it wasn’t me.
I went to work for an old school Wall Street investment bank. During a final interview with the head of the trading desk, he sighed deeply, tugged at his hair and said, “This used to be done through the old boys’ network.” I stuttered, “Well, yes, but I’m obviously hoping that’s changing a bit.”
I decided that my very presence would be my activism. I would change the environment – make it friendlier to women – simply by becoming a part of it.
My friends teased me for bowing to the man. We laughed that I had sold my soul to the devil while they worked to save the world. I never minded. I was thrilled that my friends could do what they did. And I knew in my gut that I was making a difference in my own way. Over time, I mentored young women who joined the ranks behind me.
Years later, I had a long conversation with a friend who was doing some soul searching about her role in the world. I told her that I had come to believe that real change has got to come from within. That while external pressure is often necessary to get the ball rolling, I feel that true systemic change has got to have the buy-in of a group’s members in order to be effective. Particularly when it’s the heart and the mind of an organization – or school or community or town or nation – that you are trying to change. It has to be internal to be meaningful.
People often ask me why I continue to stick with Autism Speaks even though I often find myself at odds with their direction. My answer is that they are big. And powerful. And they have one hell of a platform. Whether I like it or not, they are the only voice of autism that millions of people hear. They’re not about to stop speaking. So I want to be a part of steering that voice. If I’m not happy with what they are doing, I feel like I have a responsibility to help make it better. Rather than saying, “Autism Speaks does not speak for me,” I choose to talk to them about how they CAN speak for me.
This week is Inclusive Schools Week. Along with the Inclusion Committee and a host of volunteers, I’ve been scrambling to help pull off all of the events that we have planned – from the appreciation luncheon for 28 aides to a community wide screening of Including Samuel to a pizza and bake sale to raise funds for the materials that the school has requested to support inclusion. I’ve been burning the candle at both ends and I’m exhausted. But I’m also proud of what our fledgling group has accomplished.
I had the rare privilege of dropping the girls off at school on Tuesday morning. And I was blown away by what I saw there. The school-wide art project is complete and on display. It is breathtaking. Next to the work is our fabulous art teacher’s explanation of how it so beautifully relates to the week:
Inclusion week is one week during the year when we celebrate something we do every day: including everyone. In art class, we have had many discussions about what inclusion has looked like in society at large and what it looks like here at our school.
For our art project, we created images using line drawings with partners. The process was that one artist created a unique linear pattern and then taught their partner how to draw it on their side of their “pair square.” Once completed, we hung them up so that each student’s corners matched up with others to create circular design patterns in one unified composition. Each child had the opportunity to collaborate with another child and learned how to work together to create a piece of art.
The circles are also known as Mandalas, which means “circle” or “the essence of completion” in Sanskrit. The symbol of a circle represents the circle of life, balance, order, harmony and unity.
Our Mandalas have a beautiful visual impact, however the symbolism is what I feel resonates with all of us. We all encompass beauty and knowledge. Ultimately, this project teaches us that when we work together and teach one another, the true beauty of inclusion is realized. When each person’s individuality is celebrated, recognized, and included, the circle is complete.
Yes, she is the BEST ART TEACHER in the history of the world. But the art was just the beginning.
A teacher came up to me in the hallway to tell me about her plans for the faculty meeting later that day. Every faculty meeting now has fifteen minutes dedicated to inclusion. Every meeting. Throughout the year, the faculty will discuss what full inclusion means and talk about how to support it. Our dedicated and passionate inclusion specialist has surveyed the staff to find out what they currently do, what they’d like to do and where they need support. The teachers have shared their best practices to help mentor one another.
So this teacher – one of the beautiful souls helping to lead the charge – told me of her plan to hand out cards to each teacher at the meeting that said, “Inclusion means …” She would get them thinking and talking about why this matters so much to THEM, just as they spoke to the children about why it should matter to them.
In every classroom, the teachers are reading and discussing books about understanding and celebrating human differences. The librarian is doing the same. And the kids are TALKING. Katie came home last night abuzz. “Mama, we learned all about Including Samuel from Mr M. I gotta tell you, Mama, I think Samuel sounds like a really fun kid. Mr M told us about the ‘zoom’ button on his wheelchair and I hate to say it, but I think that Samuel might be just a little bit of a rascal.”
Every day, I’ve sent out a challenge to parents. Monday’s was to find someone they’d never talked to before and to introduce themselves at pick-up time. Ask about their kids. Find out where they grew up. Ask if they’re going to the movie. And then – here’s the kicker – talk to their children about the rewards of stepping outside their own circles. Talk to them about how by pushing past their comfort zone, they can meet some pretty neat people.
Through the haze of exhaustion, I’ve been exhilarated.
But there are those who will say – as one parent did yesterday – It’s not enough. You’re going about it the wrong way. You’re pounding your chest about all your efforts but discrimination is still happening.
I measured my response carefully and finally said the following.
If I gave you or anyone else the impression that we are celebrating a mission accomplished, I apologize. By no means do I think that our work is done. Quite the opposite – I am doing all of this precisely because I see just how much there is yet to do.
I began this effort because I watched my little girl with autism getting teased at a birthday party for being different. I pushed on when a schoolmate asked my older daughter about her sister being ‘so dumb.’ I couldn’t stand by and watch it happen.
I appealed to the community for help. 30 plus people stepped forward wanting to be part of figuring out how to make our school, our community and our town more welcoming, more compassionate and more understanding.
Inclusive Schools Week was no more than a convenient starting point. We viewed it as a great platform to BEGIN the conversation. We met and brainstormed and came up with as many actionable ideas as we had the manpower to execute. Much of what we came up with was for ISW specifically and much more was to be part of our ongoing efforts throughout the year.
I then went through – yet again – the specifics of what we are doing and will continue to do throughout the year. And I ended with the following.
There’s much more, but I won’t rattle on as you can find it all in my previous e-mails.
And yes, we are also working hard to bring attention to the work we are doing. If that comes off as smug, I assure you that’s not the intention. Rather, my intention is to shine a light on the work that needs to be done – to declare our subscription to the ideal that each and every member of our community is to be valued, celebrated and included. It’s an ideal – a worthy goal that every moment’s work this week (and all the efforts going forward) are about and one that needs the entire school’s participation if it is to have a meaningful effect. If we’re only talking to ourselves, we are preaching to the choir.
I hope this helps to explain what we are trying to do.
It is a work in progress. I’m no expert on any of this – I’m just a parent who is trying to make things better for all of our children. I am, like everyone else on the committee, trying to feel my way through and make the most impact that I can. No one should ever be teased – about their (clothing, their heritage), their neurological function or anything else. And that’s what fuels us.
I am grateful for constructive suggestions about how we can do better. I hope that we can work together to make the process as productive and meaningful as it can possibly be.
There are times when we all want to swing a bat. When we see something that doesn’t feel right or when our child hurts and we want someone else to feel our pain. I understand that feeling. I’ve been there. And I’ve nearly lost it. When Mama Bear wakes up, she wants to protect her cubs at all cost.
But I’ve shouldered my bat because I’ve found that I get a lot more done when I extend a hand instead – when I look at what needs to be done and I do it. I don’t always have the time or the energy to do it myself, so I find the people who do and I ask how I can support them. And when I think they’re screwing it up, I offer ideas as to how they might do it differently.
It’s tough to drop the bat, but it’s tougher to actually talk to anyone while you’re swinging it.
If you want to see something change, be a part of it. Be the change you wish to see in the world. And little by little, step by step, we’ll get somewhere. But please be patient, it may take a little longer than two months.