First thoughts about St. John’s Conference

The St. John’s/Montclair University Adoption Initiative conference holds a special place in my heart because it was the site of my very first academic conference back in 2006. This year I was honored to win the Outstanding Pre-Dissertation Scholarship Award for my dissertation study. Below, I am with fellow winners, Outstanding Practitioner Award Susan Harris O’Connor, Outstanding Scholar awardee David Smolin, and Dr. John Raible representing Gazillion Voices for the Outstanding Practitioner Award, and conference co-chairs Dr. Amanda Baden and Dr. Rafael Javier.

The Adoption Inititative conference has always been good to me. Fresh from my MSW, I presented a paper comparing whether or not the “best interests of the child” included a child’s culture in ICWA and MEPA/IEPA. I also participated in a book signing with Dr. John Raible and Dr. Kim Park Nelson (pictured below) for Outsiders Within.

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This conference has been significant to my professional development in another way: seeing so many adoptee scholars presenting and keynoting! At that time, I did not know that I would end up enrolling in a doctoral program and that one day I would be invited to be a keynote speaker myself. It is through this conference setting over the years that I have learned from and been inspired and encouraged by other adoptee scholars and have found my peers, particularly among adoptees of color. It is incredible to connect with so many and they have been incredibly kind and helped me in ways I can’t even express.

I attend a lot of conferences in my field and in those, I am the lone (or one of a very few) adoptee-scholar doing research on adoption. In social work the field is dominated by adoption scholars who are adopted parents. In fact, Dr. Amanda Baden just a few days ago at the conference mentioned a well-known adoption researcher whose research I am critical of, and it turns out that this researcher is an adoptive parent. But as Jenna Cook articulated in her presentation that she was accused of doing “me-search,” I have to ask why aren’t adoptive parents accused of doing “me-search” in the same way adoptees are? Why are adoptive parent researchers and practitioners given extra credibility for their personal experiences shaping their professional work when adoptee researchers and practitioners are accused of trying to work out their “personal agenda?” Jenna and I agreed that when a cancer researcher goes into the field because they lost a loved one to cancer, no one gives them the side-eye to accuse them of having a personal bias.

In the past there were an awful lot of adoptive parent researchers doing studies on adoptees – particularly transracial and transnational/intercountry adoptees. Are we doing well? Are we adjusted? How many items about us are marked on the Child Behavior Check List? These studies, to me anyway, overwhelmingly feel like they are less about adoptees and more about trying to answer questions and assuage the fears of adoptive parents. Much of the adoptee scholars have also conducted research on adoptees – not as “me-search” but I believe as a means of providing alternative views on the experience from the actual subject’s point of view. Adoptive parent scholars and scholars without any connection to adoption sometimes just miss asking certain questions that adoptee scholars ask.

I’ve noticed (because of Jenna, Dr. Elizabeth Raleigh, Dr. Baden, Dr. Indigo Willing, Dr. Raible and others) that things are changing in terms of who and what aspect of the adoption experience adoptees are studying.It shouldn’t be a surprise then that some of us are actually, as Dr. Indigo Willing describes it, “reversing the gaze” and focusing our attention and our questions to adoptive parents or others participating in the adoption experience (such as agencies and non-adopted siblings). This comes again from different questions that adoptees, based on our lived experiences, ask that perhaps others just would not have thought of because their lived experiences are different. I hope that those of us “reversing the gaze” are able to contribute to the body of knowledge about adoption. I met a couple of Chinese adoptee scholars in their early academic careers who are doing amazing and groundbreaking work and am so excited to watch for them and their work over the years.

In some ways I think my overall thoughts about the conference mirror some of my feelings after watching the panel following the screening of the film, Somewhere Between, which kicked off the conference. I’ve seen the film several times and have attended talkbacks with the film’s director Linda Goldstein Knowlton or film participants Fang Lee and Jenna Cook several times now. This panel was different because not only were Linda, Fang and Jenna on the panel but they were joined by participant Haley and moderated by Angela Gee (participant Ann is in China and was unable to attend).

Like all documentaries, films freeze their subjects in a certain place and time. And, like much of the early research on adoptees, this film centers their questions on adoptees who are still children – teenagers in this case, but in any case, not adults that have had the ability to have some time, distance, and space to begin to independently think about what adoption meant to them without the interference (and support) of their adoptive parents. And so this is what I think is the biggest problem with the film – that it purports to be an honest portrayal of these articulate, thoughtful and likable Chinese adoptees’ thoughts and feelings and experiences – yet directed by an adoptive parent and moderated completely by the reality that these adolescent adoptees will eventually be watching the film with their adoptive parents by their side (as one of them said).

Fang, Jenna and Haley, in their panel afterward, clearly had their own thoughts and feelings about adoption, largely changed over the past 5+ years – something that I think is fair to say from my view in the audience seemed to be something of a surprise to director Knowlton. Knowlton, like the adoptive parent researchers conducting studies on adoptees, was attempting to answer her own questions related to her experience as an adoptive parent and maybe didn’t realize that of course they were going to grow and change in their view and look back on this experience – and on adoption – differently than Knowlton.

Knowlton says in the beginning of her film that this film was for her Chinese adopted daughter and that she was seeking to understand the experience from the girls that had come before – and if that is so, then there was a certain “type” of girl that Knowlton was hoping to be role model for her daughter and these four succeeded in modeling the smart, emotionally stable, thoughtful and likable Chinese adoptee – not the “angry adoptees” or critical adoptees that most adoptive parents want to run away from and avoid like the plague. The thing is, the critiques these smart, emotionally stable, thoughtful and likable young women now have about adoption sound similar to the “angry” and critical adoptees views that were avoided in the film or presented as being only from older Korean adoptees.

Of course, it is impossible to say whether these young women would have come to their current positions and opinions about adoption on their own without having been part of this film or not – it definitely introduced them to a wider adoption community and through that, perhaps more knowledge of the spectrum of adoption politics in a way that many of us without the benefit of being thrown into that community don’t find until much later in life. On the other hand, Haley’s story really resonated with me – not the search and reunion aspect, but being raised in a conservative, evangelical family and having very uncritical views on adoption that changed dramatically once I went off to college. For a long time, I moderated my answers about adoption to protect my adoptive parents, not to be honest about my thoughts and feelings – something Haley discussed as having done in the film. And even without an adoption community I went to college and ended up having completely different views than my adoptive parents.

So how did this panel relate to my overall thoughts about the St. John’s conference? Both the film and traditional adoption research has emanated from a paradigm that was all generated from adoptive parent perspectives that tend to conceptualize adoption as only impacting the adopted person through childhood and adolescence and largely ignored the lifelong effects that adoption has on a person. St. John’s has, like the panel of the young women from Somewhere Between, opened up a space for adoptees to take ownership of their own experiences without the adoptive parent moderating it on behalf of us. Adoptive parents are now having to defend their positionality in ways that were previously unquestioned. And I’m thankful that the Adoption Intiative conference has never shied away from centering on the adopted person, wherever they are in their journey.

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