Over the weekend I heard the story of a man who was arrested in a restaurant. He was having a meal and openly discussing the crime he had just committed- which was shooting several people who did not look American.
I started to think, “Just what does American look like?”
It was the late 1980s. I was on my way back from some company event with my boss who tells me I am being reassigned. This was not good news to me. My husband and I had just decided to have baby number two. I hired an amazing person to be my assistant director. I was doing some great work in my role overseeing group homes and supported independent living. I was fresh off a nice vacation.
In those days, you went where you were told. I was going to an Intermediate Care Facility, a place with over 800 adults and children, which ironically, was the type of place I had been working to close. Closing an institution that wants to stay open is not an easy job. I refused to give up on that goal. However, I also had some practical work to do. The place was on its second provisional license. In those days, four strikes and you are out of business.
There was no doubt that I was needed there. I didn’t realize just how much work there was to do until I spent some time listening to the inspection teams, reading reports and walking around observing our services.
I decided I needed a lot of help to move the spirit of the organization. There was not enough time and the issues were too big to implement gradual improvements. Incremental changes would only happen if everyone clearly understood why.
I had an adviser help me with speeches. Her name was Ethel. She was a trained preacher with the Salvation Army. She sat in the back when I made speeches and gave me feedback.
It was a tough audience, one which regularly booed the presenters. I was not so worried that I would be booed, as much as I was worried that people would just not get the message.
I did not write out speeches in those days, I just made a few scribbled notes. Then, I prayed that it would come to me. Sometimes I listened well enough to hear the answer.
This one day I listened well.
As I started to speak, I asked the audience if there were any members who had birthdays in October. Three people raised their hands. I told them that I didn’t like October. October was the month of the birthday of my college boyfriend. I grew to really dislike him and along with that, October birthdays. I asked everyone to stand and participate during my speech, and so they walked to the wall and stood…one Black man, one white woman over 40 who was recently divorced and still grieving, and a man who was openly gay.
I proceeded with my speech about discrimination. I focused on all kinds. Think about it.
On the basis of color.
On the basis of religion.
On the basis of gender.
On the basis of national origin.
On the basis of size.
On the basis of age.
On the basis of sexual orientation.
Everyone in that room fit in one or more than one category.
We can tell almost the same terrible stories of how these discriminatory practices are carried out:
Violence, assaults based on how someone looked.
Property destruction, fires set upon homes in some neighborhoods.
Economics, less pay…same work.
Education, better schools, poor schools.
Employment/no job. Lower paying jobs.
Still, we accept it. If we are not in the target group in that moment, we often let it go, sometimes not even noticing or realizing we are part of the problem. We had a job to do. Our goal was specifically about people with developmental disabilities, a group who experience discrimination every day. We need to understand them just as we understand ourselves, and how we feel when someone holds us back.
And then I told them they had just let me discriminate and no one stopped me. No one spoke up. No one challenged my behavior. There had been much heckling and challenging remarks in previous speeches, but not that day.
The tide turned that day. I had a standing ovation…one of the few in my history. When people walked away, they got the ‘why’ in a very personal way.
We have made progress, but we are not there yet. We still discriminate. I was impressed by the tag line of Project Home.”None of us is home until all of us are home.” I think the same applies to discrimination. None of us are valued unless we are all valued.