One of my personal goals this year is to read more books by authors of color, and to that end I’ve committed to reading only fiction by authors of color. I was excited to receive an advanced copy of friend and fellow Korean adoptee writer Matthew Salesses’ new novel, The Hundred Year Flood. I am a big fan of Salesses’ writing. I enjoyed Matthew’s books, I‘m Not Saying, I’m Just Saying, Different Racisms, and his essays on the Good Men Project and recently published on The Offing. Matthew is one of the most prolific and productive writers I know! I don’t know how he balances all of his different projects (in addition to his teaching, his PhD candidacy and his family). I read The Hundred Year Flood on a recent weekend trip, mostly on the plane. I seriously paused a couple of pages into the first chapter to just savor and admire the poetry of Matthew’s prose. Matthew’s writing is beautiful. The main character in this novel is 22-year old Thomas, known as Tee, a Korean adoptee. The novel is set in both present time where Tee recovers in the hospital, and in flashbacks set in Prague where Tee has been spending the past year in search of himself and where Tee receive the injury that leads to the current hospital stay. There are now many memoirs written by Korean adoptees but I’ve been frustrated and disappointed with the limited portrayals of Korean adoptees in fiction over the years, particularly by non-adopted Asian American writers like in these novels. I think I’m always wary about how Korean Adoptees are presented in fiction because they often feel very stereotyped to me, and so focused on the adoption part that it seems there is nothing else to them. I feel strongly that adoptees are so much more than their adoptee identity and yet it has not been easy to find representation in either film or on the page that adequately gives us nuance and complexity. So I was appreciative that while adoption does play part of Tee’s journey, it is not all of it; finally we get to read a story about a person whose adoption status is one aspect of their identity and their story, not the sum game. I won’t say much more about the plot of the story in hopes you will get the book for yourself and read it. I will say that much of Salesses’ writing is just my cup of tea (sorry, couldn’t help it!) all the way around. I liked the splashes of magical realism and the unique and powerful imagery in the writing and was sad when I finished reading, wanting more of Tee’s story. Which is always a good thing, to end wanting more. The Hundred Year Flood will be available in August.
Memoirs are tricky business. I have known for a long time that I would never attempt to write a memoir because they are so difficult. They must draw the reader in, excite without being overly melodramatic and yet be approachable so the reader can relate and empathize. Ghost of Sangju: A Memoir of Reconciliation by Soojung Jo, meets these criteria in both ways.
I first came upon Soojung Jo’s writing when she was blogging at Faith and Illusions. I’m not quite sure how I stumbled upon her blog, but I recall being interested in her take as both a Korean adoptee and as an adoptive parent. I was disappointed when she stopped blogging, but found her through other social media sites and remember when she reunited with her Korean family. Ghost of Sangju details her reunion but for me, it is her description of her childhood with her adoptive family that was most engaging and relatable.
The book begins with a prologue describing the horrific events that led to her birth and relinquishment and segues into how Soojung/Raina is found by her omma, her birth mother. The remainder of the book intersperses segments of omma’s letters to Soojung with narratives of her childhood, time in the military, and being a mom. As you get to know Soojung, little by little, you also get to know her omma. Like many Korean adoptees who were adopted to rural white communities in the U.S., navigating life as a perpetual outsider, even within a family’s enveloping love, was difficult. A few sections stand out in particular. Soojung describes her adoptive mother, in particular, with such tenderness that as a reader, I could feel that maternal love emanate from the page. As a mother, I also appreciated the way Soojung describes her pregnancy and new parenting as an adoptee.
Although I have not reunited with my Korean family, I have had many friends who have, so Soonjung’s descriptions of her reunion – while unique to her family – were strikingly similar to other narratives of reunions heard firsthand or read from intercountry adoptees. That Soojung’s descriptions in this book of feeling like an outsider, of compartmentalizing her emotions, of being overwhelmed with a birth family’s desire to make up for lost time, and dealing with hurt adoptive parents are similar to many Korean adoptees’ narratives speaks to how adoption practices have largely discounted and minimized the emotional tolls that relinquishment and adoption place on everyone involved.
In the prologue, Soojung writes, “Omma has had many years to live with her ghosts…she has tasted every flavor of loss, but she never swallowed bitterness. The only reason I know about her story – our story – is because she never sowed those seeds of hate and despair.” Soojung Jo’s omma has indeed had many years of living with her ghosts, as I imagine many birth mothers, birth fathers, and extended birth relatives do; and we cannot forget that adoptees also live with these ghosts whether or not we know them. From outward appearances, Soojung is a “successful” adoptee judged by her strong leadership and business skills, distinguished military service, loving parenting and even adopting herself – yet even all these accomplishments cannot erase the losses that are inherent in adoption. An important lesson is gained through reading this memoir: that grief and loss must be acknowledged, and secrets brought to light.
Ghost of Sangju is a valuable contribution to the adoptee-memoir canon, and I recommend that adoption professionals and prospective adoptive parents in particular read this book. It might be difficult to read and tempting to discount Soojung and her omma’s story as only one story; it is one story, but it resonates because it is, in fact, many of our stories. It is time that these narratives are honored and validated, so that birth families and adoptees do not have to exist, as Soojung writes, as “a spirit suspended between two worlds and two families, to be forever in between.”
Ghost of Sangju: A Memoir of Reconciliation will be available soon through Gazillion Strong. For more information, click here.
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.
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.
In my mostly absent blogging here at Harlow's Monkey I've neglected to point you to some of the work I've been a part of in other spheres, namely my contributions to the online adoptee-led publication, Gazillion Voices.
I initially signed on as a regular contributor under the "Research, Policy and Advocacy" column and I have written two articles. I've decided to step down as I am deep in dissertation-land, but wanted to at least point these out if folks are interested.
I encourage you to subscribe to Gazillion Voices, the first adoption magazine founded by adult adoptees, with an almost entirely adoptee-authored staff. One of the exciting aspects of this online magazine is that some adoption agencies are now purchasing subscriptions for propspective adoptive parents. I never thought I would see that day.
My articles include:
- Pay No Attention to the Man Behind the Curtain: Learning How to Be a Critical Consumer of Adoption Research
- The Adoptee Poster Child
I also wanted to particularly point out an article written by friend and fellow scholar Kit Myers, Alternative Voice, Truths and Knowledge of Critical Adoptees, in which I discuss the importance of giving space for including the adoptee perspective. Specifically, I share with Kit an incident that really was one of the driving forces in my own decision to pursue a career in adoption and social work.
I will also have my first article sharing some early findings from my research study on the placement stability of internationally adopted children with disabilities for the June issue of the Roundtable, published through the National Resource Center for Adoption.
In addition, I've been presenting at conferences. For a list of events, please see my presentation page at my other blog.
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.
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.
Co-editor Kevin Vollmers and contributors Laura Klunder and Shannon Gibney were featured in a story on PRI: Public Radio International, about the Gazillion Voices magazine.
You can hear it on the PRI website or below:
Or here on the Minnesota Public Radio site
Photo of Vollmers, Klunder and Gibney by Jennifer Simonson for MPR News.
It was shortly after the IKAA Gathering in 2010 that I "retired" this blog, and here it is, three years later and another IKAA conference has just wrapped up. On facebook, I "like" all my friends' photos and statuses posted of their trip. I haven't been to Korea since 2007. I can't believe it's been six years. At the time of the 2010 Gathering I wrote a sad and sobering post about the mixed feelings the Gatherings evoke for me.
As wonderful as they are, there is always a part of me that is irritated that there is the necessity for these spaces. Our lives are lived so much on the binaries of the world that these spaces for adult adoptees only often serve as the only "safe" spaces.
Yet in reality they're not safe. Because the feelings and emotions that crop up easily put us in turmoil. The Gatherings and in other adult-adoptee only spaces are the only times in my life where I feel both simultaneous joy and sorrow. Joy to be with others that have shared my experiences; sorrow that we've felt so much marginalization in our lives that the spaces are even necessary.
I feel as if we are on the edge of a huge shift. I see it in my job – working with adoption professionals. I see it in the community work I'm part of – the launch of Gazillion Voices magazine, the formation of groups such as the Adoptee Policy and Reform Collaborative (APRC), the Society for Adoptee Professionals in Adoption (SAPA), the shift over the past 5-7 years from adoption conferences led by non-adoptee scholars and professionals to ones where adoptee scholars and professionals have leadership roles on committees and boards. Adoptees are now on boards of adoption agencies and hold high-level positions and are doing incredible art. It almost makes me giddy thinking about it all.
I've also noticed that with this growth comes some tensions and, let's be honest, some pushback from those who have traditionally held the power in the adoption realm, namely adoptive parents and adoption agency professionals. This is a natural and expected tension, and one that can be fraught with a lot of anger and accusations and finger pointing. But in the end it is all productive, even when really, really difficult. We must learn that power must be shared.
I recently wrote in the forward to Amanda H.L. Transue-Woolston's (from the Declassified Adoptee blog) upcoming book that we've pretended for a long time that there was this adoption "triad" – and that in most conceptualizations of this, the image was that of an equilateral triangle.
But we know that this is false; the triangle has always in truth been more of a scalene triangle, one in which there are no equal sides. And honestly, the adopted individual and the birth family – have never been the longest side.
So now that birth families and adoptees are demanding – not asking permission – for more say and decision making power, will that "triangle" begin to look more equal? My guess is that no, it won't. Because many of us (including adoptive parent allies) are actually working to dismantle the triangle all together. Because this (adoption) isn't a closed system, a closed family system that chooses who is in/out, represented/excluded – the thought of an adoption constellation (see for example Michael Grand's book or Adoption Mosaic) makes much more sense…the exponential possiblities for the many ways families can look and be.
What happens when intercountry adoptees find out they have birth family they never knew existed? Lately it seems there have been several adoptees publicizing their discovery. And many are twins who were separated. WTF is up with that?
I wanted to highlight some of these projects so here you go. Please support.
"aka Dan" is a documentary project chronicling Dan Matthews' journey to Korea in summer 2013, centering around his struggles with identity and family during the IKAA (International Korean Adoptee Association) 2013 summit, his first live concert performance in Korea, and his reunion with his Korean birth family. Accompanying the documentary project will be a full-length music album inspired by his experiences.
And here is one by actress Samantha Futerman who discovered her twin sister, Anais, adopted to France. Their project is called Twinsters.
On February 21, 2013, Samantha, an American actor living in Los Angeles, received a message via Facebook that would drastically change her life. It was from Anaïs, a French fashion design student living in London. Anaïs' friends viewed a KevJumba YouTube video featuring Samantha. They were immediately blown away by the identical appearance of Samantha & Anaïs. After a few light Google stalking sessions, Anaïs & her friends discovered that both girls were born on November 19, 1987 & adopted shortly after. Anaïs knew immediately that it was possible for Samantha to be her biological twin sister & reached out to her through Twitter & Facebook.
And last, Deann Borshay Liem's film, Geographies of Kinship, feature a Korean adoptee Michael Holloway who reunites with his twin brother who was kept by his birth family (starts at about the 2 minute mark and again at 4:32).
More stories about twins separated through adoption
From The Week: 9 Incredible Stories About Identical Twins - see #3, #5 and #9
From MSN: Twin brothers reunited in China
From The Nation: Twins separated at birth reunited after 25 years
Reflections on the KAAN 2013 conference and launch of Gazillion Voices Magazine
Last weekend I attended the KAAN 2013 Conference in Grand Rapids, Michigan. It was a somewhat spontaneous decision, meaning that I did not submit a proposal months ago when the call came out, and that spending the money to attend in a year when I have many other conferences to attend seemed out of the question. Another reason why I had no intention of attending is that many years ago I did attend some KAAN Conferences and I left both (2002 and 2004) with the impression that it definitely did not meet my own personal needs as an adult Korean adoptee.
But several things have happened over the almost decade span of time since I last attended KAAN. One important change involved the addition of some Korean adoptees I really respect and care about in leadership positions within the organization. Another was the general progressive shift in the purpose and “feel” of the conference mission. What seemed to me an over-reliance on the “feel-good/let’s not talk about anything difficult” goal of connecting Korean adoptive parents with other Korean adoptive parents, and Korean adopted children with other Korean adopted children and a “celebrate Korean heritage!” mentality in the organization has changed over time to an acknowledgement of race and white privilege in transracial adoption, and the importance of the full, lived experience of adopted individuals. Whereas before it seemed the goal was to show non-adopted Korean role models, a recognition of adopted Korean adult role models seemed to be evident. Also an earlier sense of only showing “positive” adult adoptee perspectives (i.e. those who were uncritical of Korean adoption) has been replaced by an acknowlegement that adoption is not always sunshine and rainbows, and that positioning adoptees as pro or anti adoption is unproductive and polarizing. I was told by several people that the current leadership was amazing to work with and really believed in the importance of adult adoptee leadership (and they were right!).
And then the most compelling reason of all – the chance to see some dear transracial adoptee friends who live scattered around the U.S. See, for many of us, it is these interactions with those whom we’ve cultivated deep friendships over time at adoption-related conferences that help us endure the long droughts of transracial adoption isolation and segregation we experience in our daily lives. In particular, it was the opportunity to attend panels led by adoptees and to have discussions at dinner or over drinks and stay up until the wee hours of the night critically deconstructing, sharing experiences, strategizing ways of coping and supporting and validating each other that compelled me to cold-call the organizers at KAAN and ask if I could still get involved.
This year KAAN did something I wouldn’t have seen a decade ago – they invited transracial adoptee speakers who are not Korean adoptees. And they (parents, adoptees) talked about commonalities among transracial and international adoptees, and about racism and white privilege. This is a welcomed change for me. In my own personal and professional work I have been spending less time with Korean adoptees and more time developing relationships among other adoptees. This is a reflection of my own growth, because I see my own adoption story and narrative as interconnected to other adoptees.
One of the greatest benefits of being privileged to attend graduate school has been the opportunity to really deepen my understanding and knowledge of the historical roots of child placement and adoption and look at the arc over time for how children have been conceptualized and how adoptions have changed and morphed in terms of practice and law (but ultimately with the same underlying theoretical basis, at least in the U.S.). When I learned about the orphan trains, about the Native American boarding schools, the Indian Adoption Project, when I read Regina Kunzel and Dorothy Roberts and Rickie Solinger – I realized how interconnected Korean adoption is with Native American Indian adoption and transracial adoption of African American children, and the immigrant Catholic children who were adopted to Scandinavian protestant farm families in the midwest through the orphan train movement, and the children adopted from Ethiopia and Haiti. Displacement, isolation, racism, cultural erasure, unaddressed grief and loss, these are all commonalities we adoptees have. We transracial adoptees also have many commonalities among “baby scoop” era white domestic adoptees from the maternity home generation.
In his keynote at KAAN, Dr. John Raible emphasized this point, our commonalities across race and situation, with a lot of passion and intensity. I’m sure there were some, adoptees and adoptive parents alike, who were taken aback at his bold challenges but I was heartened that John challenged the old paradigms about transracial adoption. John is not just about helping how we conceptualize transracial adoption evolve over time, his ideas are revolutionary.
Sometimes it seems that when it comes to adoption and child welfare, the pendulum swings back and forth from an emphasis on removal and placement to family presevation. At least in the U.S. that is what many child welfare professionals have said. But as I was recently reminded, it is perhaps not so much of a pendulum swing but a spiral – what seems to be a circular movement away from, then back to, a certain paradigm. But even when it seems like things are coming back to where we started, maybe in truth it has changed in fundamental ways so that even what looks like a circle from looking at it top-down is actually many degrees separated when looked at from the side view.
Yesterday, a project I am involved with, Gazillion Voices, launched its monthly online magazine. This is also revolutionary in that Gazillion Voices is the first ever adoptee-led publication. Unlike every other publications on adoption, this one does not relegate adoptees to the sidelines, in an “Ask the Adoptee” advice column or limited to one or two stories by an adoptee author. Gazillion Voices is challenging, provocative, and most importantly – led by adult adoptees and includes majority adult adoptee voices.
Kevin Vollmers, one of the editors of Gazillion Voices magazine, and I were debriefing the KAAN conference as we waited for our flight to take off back to Minnesota. We both agreed that it feels we are on the precipice of some incredibly big paradigm shift when it comes to adoption. I’ve been feeling it for about a year now, ever since the CCAI and the State Department (including Ambassador Jacobs) met with a grassroots group of us adult adoptees to hear our collective concerns for the first time last July.
I am so proud to be part of a community of revolutionary adoptees. With social media platforms, it appears like this adoption revolution is new and those of us with blogs and websites can appear to be doing new and groundbreaking work. But we recognize we are not the first. We are incredibly grateful and humbled by the incredible work of so many adoptees who have been doing this work for decades, without much acknowlegement and very little fanfare. In fact, many adoptees have taken the hits for years on our behalf. Adoptees have been working in policy, advocacy, community organizing, research, academia, and very importantly through art for decades. We in this current generation of adoptee rebels are not taking their hard work for granted; no, we are trying to continue the work and will pay it forward – so that the next generation of transracial adoptee leaders can take it to the finish line.
A long time ago I wrote a post titled "Adoptee vs. Adoptee" outlining some of the challenges that critical adoptees receive from others – including adoptees – particularly those who think adoption should not be criticized or in any way challenged and adoptees who participate in the unproductive "pro-adoption/anti-adoption" dichotomy.
Lately I've been involved in a similar situation but from the flip side, this time involving an adoptee who publicly shamed me for working with adoption organizations (and their leadership) the adoptee does not support.
A few days ago I participated in some facebook conversations that brought me back to some of my earlier Harlow's Monkey posts and I had some nostalgic moments re-reading some of my archived articles. Life has sure changed for me since those early days in 2006 when I started the blog. As I re-read through, I thought it was interesting how my thoughts and beliefs about adoption (as well as my tone) have evolved over time. Back then the political stakes were low and I could just be a (mostly) anonymous, outspoken adoptee working with other adoptees and foster youth. Now I'm more public and work more in the arena of research, training and educating those who will work in the area of child welfare, permanency and adoption.
Perhaps the one thing that has remained constant, however, is the struggle to keep balanced on the tightrope. I am still navigating and negotiating and explaining myself to adoptees who are angry that I critique the adoption industrial complex and those who are angry that I seem to be supporting it. The only difference is that in some ways it feels there is more at stake and definitely more politics to navigate now than there was five years ago, but the level of mistrust and suspicion among adoptees is still ever present.
And that makes me wonder how much of this is just human nature, and how much of it is about the structures – politically, institutionally, etc. – that just keep us feuding with each other instead of focusing on working together to dismantle the oppressive institutions.
It is much easier to take all or nothing sides on an issue, but I won't participate in arguments that force me to choose from an either/or situation. Because for me it's never either/or, it's almost always both/and.
Adoption is not either a family building issue or a big business, it's both/and. Adoption is not the solution or the problem, it's both/and. We can't be focused only on the child or the family, we must be mindful of both. And a child's best interests are not unilaterally separate from the family's and vice versa – the child's best interests can also include the family or community's best interests. Adoption should not be only thought of through the lens of children or through the lens of parents. Both matter.
Trying to reform adoption isn't the same as just moving a few parts around and calling it good to go, and neither is it eliminating the practice all together. There will always be children whose parents are unable, for whatever reason, to care for them. There will be some children who will fall through the cracks in their extended family and kin community. There will always be some parents who don't want to parent the children they have and will find way to not have to parent them. The problem is that adoption is still too often posed as an either/or solution – adoptive family vs. biological family – instead of both/and. Open adoptions are starting to change this paradigm, but we have a long ways to go. I'm not willing to call for a total end to adoption until all the reasons children are placed for adoption have been resolved.
I've been thinking a lot about the either/or and both/and paradigm shift thing in terms of my profession a lot over the past several years. Social workers in particular grapple with the meaning of the work they do, because it often is positioned as either "helping individuals" or "advocating for social justice" and these two values are seen as dichotomous. I call this the starfish and the dragon dichotomy. We need to be doing both, of course. We can't just save the starfish and ignore the reason for why all the starfish are washing up on shore, neither can we just head off to slay the dragon and let people drown in the river.
Adoption reform can happen through grass-roots organizing and it can happen through working within institutions to be an agent of changes and in my own opinion, change and reform happens most successfully when both occur at the same time.