An adoptee model for activism

I recently had a conversation with another transracial adoptee who mentioned that many years ago she had tentatively attended some Korean adoptee social events but quickly felt she didn’t fit it. Part of it was a political view on their adoption –  the division between those who felt they had good adoptive experiences and those who did not. The retreat lasted almost twenty years and now, this TRA is venturing out into the adult-adoptee world again.

I didn’t mention which “side” (i.e. the “good” or “bad” binary) this particular adoptee was on because it doesn’t matter – I’ve seen this dynamic happen in both directions. Those who consider their adoptions to have been really fulfilling often are very resentful of adoptees who critique adoption. And those that critique adoption are quick to dismiss other adoptees as “drinking the Kool-Aid” or being in denial.

Adoptees are like anyone else, human first. We are cliquish, and judgmental and so what? It’s frustrating that this is used against us by others to diminish and dismiss the crux of what our common message is – that it is OUR message, however messy and complex and contradictory it seems.

Adoptee engagement happens across many levels – some people feel the political pull more strongly than others. Some want to effect change from the inside out. Others feel the only way for change to happen is to agitate loudly and boldly. Some don’t want to be political at all and want to ignore the difference and some choose to assimilate to the larger dominant society’s view of adoption.

My personal view is that it takes both – change from within and pressure from without – to make the most impactful changes on structural inequalities that lead to current adoption pratices.

I like visuals and thought I’d share a model I put together to help me think about this idea of adult adoptee activism. I created a version of this model when I was a fellow in the LEND program a few years ago (and have recently adapted it thanks to feedback from some folks). At the time I created this, I was thinking about the activism that adult adoptees were doing in ways both large and small, inside and outside of the institutional structures. I was greatly informed in my thinking by Robert O’Connor, a mentor and friend, who really shared the idea of what he called the “capitulate or militate” spectrum. I realized that what I was seeing in the adult adoptee community was really similar to what I’d seen in other civil rights arenas – for example the civil rights movements for African Americans, the Disability Rights movement, feminism, LGBT rights.

Civil rights model 2

In the middle of this model are people and communities that experience oppression. At the top you can see where the oppression comes from – society (in all its ways, individual and collective) and institutionally (such as government, schools, courts, churches). To the bottom are three of the ways persons and communities deal with oppression – some choose to adapt and assimilate (join in with the oppressor), others choose to hide or ignore the oppression –  the “head in the sand” approach.

And some choose activism- those who reject the other options of either assimilating or hiding and instead organize for social change. By organizing with the goal of asserting the wholeness of individual and collective identities and inclusion and ownership of our own narratives, and equal rights, people and communities strategize along the continuum of working outside the institutions or within. Let me be clear that these are not the only ways to be an activist. Being an activist may mean supporting adoptee projects and programs, artists, attending adoptee social events, etc. [Edited to add: And research!! How could I have forgotten to add conducting and supporting research!?!] Activism can mean many things.

I hope that this model has been helpful. Clearly, it’s a much simplified version of how I see activism but as all models are, it just provides one way of conceptualizing and thinking about a set of complex ideas. I think that those of us working to enact change in the adoption realm can see that we have a lot of good models to draw from and for me personally, it was really helpful to see our struggle for equality is tied in so much to others’ freedoms as well.

Author: JaeRan

Assistant professor at UW Tacoma, writer, and researcher.

3 thoughts

  1. Great insights! From my experience in LGBT activism, too, there’s a need for involvement at all points on that spectrum across the bottom. The window of what’s possible can shift really quickly if the assault on ‘what is’ comes from a broad range of folks–as shown by the successful 15 year push we are wrapping up for marriage equality (in 1998 it was impossible, today’s it’s inevitable, and that’s…fast).
    To achieve that, we had to expand who was included in the “we” (straight people get to play!), accept doctrinal differences (I’m for marriage because it’s easier for my kid; others are for equality because of a principle, not the practical), and be ruthless in action but gentle with each other.
    There also had to be an agreed upon goal, and that’s where I see activism for adoption reform having a challenge. Is the goal an end to unethical adoption? Unnecessary adoption? All adoption? Again, there’s a lot to learn from the recent successes of the LGBT rights movement there. And this is getting long for a comment…
    I guess my dream for adoption reform is that adoptees, APs and first families can line up to push, recognizing that we all have something to offer.

  2. Terrific comments Alex and thank you for your thoughts. I think that your comment about the challenge of having a shared goal is so true and it’s tough in application to adoption because people really disagree and there are, as in other groups, differing opinions. Even something that to me seems like a total no-brainer, like dismantling sealed records and OBC, is not uniformly shared among adoptees, first/birth parents and adoptive parents. There is a long way to go.

  3. been there, done that. did the whole Korean adoptee gathering in Seoul. Participated in the mini gatherings in nyc. Did the whole Korean adoptee summer camp thing. Quit all together cuz i never found it really satisfying. Seriously, i think ppl assume just because you put adoptees all together your suppose to automatically connect. THat really isn’t the case. But just cuz i never got anything from it, I am aware that others do… so in my mind while i think these events are still good to have. It totally isnt for me.
    Here’s a particular rant i have I am reminded of. Happened quite a while ago… but I was suppose to participate in a meet up in nyc one time. A gathering of adoptees out to dinner w/ some organization. Apparently I had been the only one that showed interest. I had gone all the way into the city and the leader of the event ended up emailing me the last minute to tell me it was cancelled all together cuz no one else showed interest. Needless to say, I ended up feeling offended. The one person that had showed interest, I wasn’t important enough. In my mind, these events are like popularity contests. The more ppl that participate, the more exposure an event gets, the greater it is – it all feeling very cliquish to me. Which is cool. cuz i guess when it comes to building my own inner circle of ppl whom i deem as most important to me, i guess i can be cliquish like that too. Not including everyone in.
    well, just wanted to say all that. first paragraph caught my attention. glad i’m not the only one who never got into the whole korean adoptee social events too. Yeah, we’re not all the same like that…

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