As I continue to unpack what has happened during and since the events in Charlottesville, VA, and have recently also experienced many personal and family-based crises that require public attention directly linked to the failed system of care for children, adults and the elderly with a variety of disabilities, it has been impossible to have an abstract opinion on just about any subject. Having a front row seat at the racial and economic divide of affordability and accessibility of care options expose to me not only who has access to care options but how one is treated when interacting with by government agency representatives and providers when seeking help. There is something terribly wrong with how things work, or don’t work, for families seeking a helping hand when in crisis and I argue to say that our biggest problem in the Washington, DC area, and possibly much of the United States, are not neo-Nazis or the Ku Klux Klan.
From my vantage point as a black, first-generation American and mother of children with disabilities; it is difficult to hear discussions of white supremacy or white nationalism in a vacuum. Pundits on news shows will say, those racists/neo-Nazis/white nationalists and paint the picture that racism and bigotry is a sport for lower class deplorable white men. The left-out part of this American tragedy is the fact that for my family, and many other oppressed people and communities, the boogie man of white supremacy does not always wear a white hood or is branded openly with a swastika but most often times is the local police, the social worker, ICE officer, the public school teacher, etc. These agents of the state and civil servants have the power to deeply impact a quality of life that often times extend beyond their immediate scope of influence and, in my experience, fail to understand the interconnected impact that link education to human services to housing to healthcare to law enforcement and beyond. And while there are historical, political and economic explanations that make the case to justify both the fear against and the necessity of these empowered agents, there is also an emotional basis to this oversight.
Just think about it (or imagine, if don’t have firsthand experience), getting a knock on your door by the police because a neighbor complained about your child’s non-typical, loud forms of communication or you call social services seeking help for a loved one in a health-based crisis. In my experience, I’ve met both “Officer Friendly” and “Officer Pitbull”; and have had a similar polarity in interactions with social workers, teachers and school administrators. So, the socio-economic basis that lends to my empathy with them, regardless of how they interact with me, is that I keep in mind that they earn a humble middle class living wage, are loaded with student loan and other personal debt, possibly are functioning in a toxic work environment of crabs in the barrel and might be battling their own traumas and health issues. In saying this, it is not to excuse unethical or discriminatory behaviors that are often experienced in these encounters, and certainly I have personal testimony, yet it is to humanize the phenomenon. And to employ empathy effectively and consistently requires emotional intelligence.
To this end, training is the key. Not simply as a practice but as a principle based on a well-designed training system to orient employees and to invest in the on-going need to oil-the-machine with refresher courses and opportunities to acquire new skills that contribute to creating and improving upon an organization’s culture. This is true for not only the development of hard skills (i.e. job specific licenses and certifications) but also for soft skills, which include a wide range of transferable knowledge that attributes of personality, behavior and speak to how one interacts with others. When it comes to emotional development, there is a growing field of study of social emotional learning (SEL) that has piqued my interest. It provides an opportunity to develop hard and soft skills through a variety of integrated and interactive approaches. While a big part of the intrigue for me is in its application in early childhood education, however, the principles of SEL also apply to adults in the workplace. And if that workplace environment happens to be a critical element in the system of care for individuals with disabilities, then I feel it imperative that our local and federal government agencies take a more serious look at practices that go beyond an anti-discrimination workshop to satisfy competency requirements. Because, in truth, we spend a significant amount of our time in life simply just learning how to live yet I have discovered that life itself is just a series of on-going lessons and growth opportunities.
From Kindergarten to 12th grade (13 years), the average child in the United States spends 35% of those years in school. Additionally, many children (approximately 42%) under the age of 5 with employed mothers spend at least 35 hours a week in child care or preschool – which is 20% of time per year. And this does not factor into university education, which generally functions on the principle that it take 10,000 hours (approximately 1 year) to master information and students on average spend 4 years pursing an undergraduate degree. And with the increasing demand for graduate degree work, well that’s another 2 years for master’s level work and an average of 4-7 years for a doctorate degree. That’s a lot of hours of time spent from birth within structured learning spaces. Yet while it is illegal, bullying and harassment are prominent features in the experience of many individuals in an educational campus including LGBTQ and immigrant youth as well as children and youth with disabilities. Acknowledged by the US Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights and the Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services, bullying can have a profound impact on students, raise safety concerns, and eroding efforts to ensure that students with disabilities have equal access to the myriad of benefits that education offers.
Institutional racism or discrimination, which speaks to the system of care, is set by the individuals that decide the functions of the system. It is through these many years of schooling one learns white supremacist behaviors and other related survival of the fittest mentalities of sexism, homophobia, xenophobia, ableism, etc. So, after all these many years being exposed to under-addressed and sometimes nurtured in discriminatory processes, behaviors learned from observing, participating in or being victimized by bullying in the many years in the school yard spill into the work environment and do not simply go away at graduation. To me, this suggests an unlearning process in the workplace is as critical to human development as it is important to equip children at a very young age with these tools to achieve emotional intelligence and achieve real and sustained cultural competencies. It takes political will – the will to not enforce white nationalist ideas – and leadership with integrity that offers incentive and invests in the emotional development of government agents and others in the workforce that become deciders, impacting the lives of so many vulnerable families and communities in need.