Coming to consciousness

Last fall, I was able to spend some time with three dear friends, all transracial, transnational adoptees. I first met Dr. Susan Branco and Dr. Stephanie Kripa Cooper-Lewter in 2011 at Pact Camp where I was volunteering alongside fellow friend from Minnesota, Paula O’Loughlin. The four of us were instant friends from the start and over the years we have come together several times just to be in community with each other. When the four of us met for a weekend together one of the topics of conversation was about the ways adoptees talk about “coming out of the fog” and our own journeys of coming to consciousness about the sociological, economic, political, and institutional drivers that shape how adoption has been historically and currently practiced.

We each came to consciousness differently but what made our friendship so strong from the start is how similar we were at that place in time in terms of our own adoptee consciousness. And I want to be clear here that I’m not talking about our identities as adoptees (which is complex), but the ways in which at different points in my life I came to grasp the ways adoption was defined, used, the power dynamics involved, and how adoption, as it’s practiced, says so much about a society.

When we talked about the fog metaphor, we observed the usefulness to explain the awakening that happens for adoptees when they realize adoption is not the rainbows and sprinkles it’s been presented to be, but wondered about how adoptees move on afterward. The awakening is a personal and individual opening; but what do adoptees do with that knowledge after they become aware of the structural factors? How do adoptees form community with each other? We began thinking about models of critical consciousness and that made me think of Gloria Anzaldúa, the Chicana feminist writer and scholar-activist, whose model of conocimiento (knowledge) I learned about a couple of years ago. We thought Anzaldúa’s model, as well as other scholars of color who write about critical consciousness, fit our adoptee community’s activism and work and the four of us decided to write an article on this topic. We wanted to build on the previous work done by adoptees (such as Penny, Borders & Portnoy’s reconstruction model, Amanda Baden’s reculturation work, and the seminal work by Betty Jean Lifton). We also wanted to pay homage to BIPOC scholars of critical consciousness such as Paulo Friere and Gloria Anzaldúa.

And then…we read Grace Newton (aka Red Thread Broken)’s article in the Adoption and Trauma issue of Child Abuse and Neglect and thought she would be a terrific contributor to our paper. Fortunately for us, Grace said yes, and here we are today, launching our paper on adoptee critical consciousness.

Critical consciousness models offer ways to think about the processes marginalized groups develop awareness about oppressive systems and structures, both as individual and importantly collective, in order to engage in activism for social justice.

Our conceptualization of a process of adoptee consciousness is best thought of as a spiral in which touchstones or turning points propel the adoptee to a different aspect of consciousness, rather than a linear set of stages with a “final” or desired outcome. We patterned our model after Anzaldúa’s process of consciousness (conocimiento) given their unique emphasis on navigating dual identities, similar to the adoptee experience, as well as their call for respect for those in all levels of consciousness. 

The dotted lines in the model (see below Figure 1) represent pathways between touchstones. Individuals can and often do move between these touchstones in non-linear ways. Adoptees may go through parts of this spiral process or the entire spiral multiple times over the life course, prompted by different touchstones. Most adoptees do not settle in and remain in just one period of consciousness throughout their lives. 

The five of us wanted to post this as an open-access article because we want our own adoptee community to be able to access it. Peer-review journal articles are paywalled if you do not have university library access. Furthermore, Susan, Grace, and I are all posting the paper on our respective websites. You can download the article below.

We hope this paper resonates with our adoptee friends and community members, and we look forward to hearing your thoughts.

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