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.


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.

Cover of August 2013 issue of Gazillion Voices

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.



Adoption is both/and, not either/or

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.  


Restoring Family Links – the International Committee of the Red Cross

Restoring contact between families separated by armed conflicts and natural disasters

to do if you are looking for a missing relative? Every year, armed
conflicts, other situations of violence and natural disasters leave
countless people seeking news of family members.

Restoring family links means carrying out, in those situations, a range
of activities that aim to prevent separation and disappearance, restore
and maintain contact between family members, and clarify the fate of
persons reported missing. It involves collecting information about
persons who are missing, persons who have died, and vulnerable persons
such as children separated from their families and persons deprived of
their freedom. It also involves tracing persons unaccounted for,
organizing the exchange of family news and the transmission of
documents when normal means of communication have broken down,
organizing family reunifications and repatriations, and issuing travel
documents and attestations.

more about the Red Cross Family Links program:

Who are the separated family members assisted by the Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement?

We assist people who have been separated from their family members or
whose relatives are unaccounted for as a result of conflicts,
disasters, migration or other situations requiring a humanitarian

Certain groups of people are particularly vulnerable and have specific
needs that we seek to address. These include children who may find
themselves separated from their parents as a result of armed violence,
arrests, poverty or disasters. Equally vulnerable are elderly people
who may not be able to fend for themselves. Detainees make up yet
another group, and keeping them in touch with their families remains of
utmost importance to us.

What is the Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement doing to assist separated family members?

A person's well-being depends to a large extent on the ability to stay
in touch with loved ones, or at least receive information about their
welfare. Receiving news from a loved one or being reunited with one's
family can change everything. It can end the anguish for a
five-year-old and her parents who get back together or help a survivor
of a natural disaster to reassure his family that he is alive.

The Movement has a worldwide Family Links Network comprising the ICRC's
Central Tracing Agency, together with its tracing agencies in ICRC
delegations, and the tracing services of national Red Cross and Red
Crescent Societies around the world.

The role of the Family Links Network is to restore and maintain contact
between family members and to clarify the fate of persons reported
missing. We restore family links by offering separated family members
telephone services, enabling them to exchange written messages,
creating websites adapted to specific contexts, responding to
individual tracing requests and reuniting families. Our work also
involves collecting, managing and forwarding information on dead and
missing persons.

The Movement has long-standing experience and extensive expertise in
restoring family links. Through the Family Links Network, we are able
to provide services across national borders in full transparency and
with the consent of the authorities concerned. Therefore, as a
Movement, we are in a unique position; we have a global network with
the potential to assist people who are separated from their families,
wherever they may be.

For more about the Red Cross and its programs to help families who have been separated, see the following links:

A ten-year strategy to strengthen the restoration of family links
Restoring contact between families separated by armed conflicts and natural disasters

And before you send money to an agency promoting adoptions from Haiti, why not read this statement first and donate money to help restore families who have been separated as a result of the earthquake.

Haiti: helping restore family links severed by the earthquake

New York Times article about single mothers in Korea

Group Resists Korean Stigma For Mothers On Their Own
 by Choe Sang-Hun
Published: October 7, 2009

Ms. Choi and other women in her situation are trying to set up the
country’s first unwed mothers association to defend their right to
raise their own children. It is a small but unusual first step in a
society that ostracizes unmarried mothers to such an extent that
Koreans often describe things as outrageous by comparing them to “an
unmarried woman seeking an excuse to give birth.”The fledgling
group of women — only 40 are involved so far — is striking at one of
the great ironies of South Korea. The government and commentators fret
over the country’s birthrate, one of the world’s lowest, and deplore
South Korea’s international reputation as a baby exporter for foreign

Read the article here.

Actions speak louder than words

From the "You said it better than I could" shelf, I would like to bring your attention to this great list that atlasien from Upside Down Adoption created in response to a question posed in last week's Racialicious post about Rebecca Walker's quote on adoption.

A reader named Melanie asked,

 "what are the options then for orphans living in any country, including
the US? As a person who simply wants to be a parent and is completely
not interested in doing so biologically, how can I work towards justice
and transparency in the US (where I live) and in other countries where
orphans/orphanages/adoption is concerned?

…I am genuinely interested in what POCs and/or those against transracial
adoption feel is the best way to serve children, any children who are
orphans. As a perspective AP, I read a lot of criticism of adoption but
very rarely does anyone move or point to a solution. Maybe there isn’t
" (comment #37).

Atlasien has kindly given me permission to post her response:

The options for children in crisis are: living with parents,
living with extended family, living in a group home or orphanage,
living in foster care, some sort of guardianship arrangement,
independent living with supports, informal or formal adoption. Or a
combination of any of these. Adoption is sometimes the best solution,
but most of the time, it’s not. And one thing I learned in the last few
years that surprised me… although foster care is generally better than being in a group home, being in a good group home is much better than bad/inconsistent foster care.

Things you can do in this country:
– Get educated about issues in domestic adoption/foster care here in the U.S.
– Actively work to dispel myths about domestic adoption/foster care here in the U.S.
– Volunteer as a CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocate, called Guardian ad litems in some states)
– Volunteer at a group home as a mentor
– Become a foster parent (a good one, not one of the bad ones)
– Become a social worker (a good one, not one of the bad ones)
– Advocate for specific, targeted, effective reform in the system.

For international adoption:
– don’t adopt internationally unless you have strong ties to that
country (e.g. your ancestors are from there, your relatives are from
there, or you can speak the language)
– don’t adopt from any country where you can’t keep easily keep the
child in contact with many people closer to their culture of origin.
– if you adopt internationally, work to establish contact with your child’s biological family.
– educate yourself, work to dispel myths and also try to combat the silencing of adoptees and others in mainstream media
– take adoption corruption seriously
– support homegrown organizations working for social change in the
country; don’t assume that foreign-led organizations and foreign
charity leaders understand the whole picture.

Overall, putting charity and adoption hand-in-hand is dangerous. It can be insulting to adoptees… adoptees should ideally be wanted; they should neither be a living penance, nor a prize for winning a moral contest.

If you want to work for an NGO, work for an NGO. If you want to
adopt, adopt… and acknowledge and try to deal with the ethical issues

One foster care adoption blogger I follow once wrote “You can only save a child once. After that, it’s called parenting.”

I love that quote, because I actually don’t think it’s possible to take the salvation narrative entirely
out of adoption. In fact, if the adoption wasn’t about “saving” in some
way — if the child would have been better off without adoption anyway —
then that’s really, really unethical. But the salvation narrative
should be limited and contextualized; it shouldn’t drown out the
child’s own story, or the story of their original family (which is
usually more about tragedy than salvation).

Colombian adoptee helps adoptees search

An article from

Crossing borders: A family quest

One woman’s search to find her biological parents across an ocean has led to a network to help other foreign-born adopted children.

When international adoptee Marcia Engel set out to find her biological parents, she found that the system wasn’t geared to helping her—and that intermediary bodies were even exploiting her quest.

Her response was to create a network to give families the opportunity to reunite without having to resort to paying for help.

“I wanted to have this free registration system,” said Engel. “It is important that adoptees and their parents have the option to search for one another. Currently, parents and adoptees have little information and they always experience bumps in the road, dead ends.”

Engel’s newly launched Adoption Angels Network ( is part of her initiative, Plan Angel, created after a long and torturous search for her biological parents.

Read the whole article here.

Conducive Magazine article: Trading in Babies

First, please help out the folks at Anti-Racist Parent. They are asking for feedback, so if you are a reader, Click Here to take survey

Second, here is a third article from Conducive Magazine about international adoption.

Trading in Babies by So Young Kim

Transnational adoption is a thriving global business. Its success and lack of regulation has created a profit motive for child trafficking. Writer, activist, and adoptee filmmaker So Yung Kim
recommends reorganizing the transnational adoption industry in order to
protect the rights of children. Domestic and international adoptees are
already coming together
to discuss options and partner on policy issues.  Kim also proposes
more coalition building between adoptee groups and other collectives
fighting for the basic rights of all people.

When adoptees speak out about the human rights abuses that come with human trafficking, the adoption industry turns its back.
This is the very system that paints itself as the savior of children,
the one that claims to know and fulfill the best interests of the
child, and the one that acts as final judge of who is and is not fit to
be a parent. It cannot even tolerate adoptees testifying against it. We
are dismissed as being crazy, complainers, angry, bitter, and a small
minority. We are told it is a shame that, for us, things just didn’t
work out, but it is not the fault of the system. We once again become
receptacles for a system of shame.

is now considered to be so natural, normal, and inherently good that to
think outside of the system is considered a form of insanity. Point out
the power dynamic of an industry and an economy that depends on the
buying and selling of human beings; refuse to stay within the framework
of a social work analysis of adjustment and the cost-effectiveness of
adoption versus foster or other institutional care; see the placement
of children of color in White adoptive households as an extension of
the colonization of people of color; speak out about the psychological,
emotional, and spiritual costs of permanently severing and displacing
children of color from their birth families and countries. These are
the surest ways of being labeled crazy by the system that supposedly
saved you.

International Adoption and the Fight for Human Rights

Conducive magazine has another piece on international adoption. This time an editorial piece by Hilbrand Westra, Chair of Adoptees United International.

International Adoption and the Fight for Human Rights

adoption has quietly become a large, lucrative business. While
international adoption agencies would no doubt like to keep it this
way, adult international adoptees are now asking questions. They are
participating in a debate over whose best interests the practice
actually serves, or should serve: the adopter or the adoptee? Taking a
critical look at the practice of international adoption, chairman of United Adoptees International Hilbrand Westra explores its disturbing overlaps with free market
practices and religious justifications, and lays out solutions for
practical legal reform.  Westra shows the power of an emerging
collective adoptee voice shaping what was once seen as an inevitable

You can read the whole article here.