When last we left them, our Starfire heroes were in the throes of agony, drowning their sorrows in a vat of Bourbon Barrel Ale from the Bluegrass Brewing Company…..
(OK, so maybe that’s an exaggeration, but I get some degree of artistic license, right?)
On Day 3 of the Summer Institute, we had our final session with Janet Klees. She saved the best for last and talked about some cool things that I get excited about as well: connecting people in the community with the people she supports.
This is one of my new favorite things to do. Locally, Joe Erpenbeck and his team at Hamilton County ABCD are the ones doing this work, and they’ve got some great stories.
It’s so simple: Look at the common gifts, assets and interests of people and connect them. I have a friend Joe, who loves nature and being outside. He’s tried to raise a family of snakes, he’s been known to stop along the side of the road and pick duckweed if he’s forgotten his lunch, and he’s just an all-around outdoors-y fellow. Last week, Joe was at UC, taking a week’s worth of classes, one of which happened to be botanical in nature. I was visiting the class and asked one of the instructors where she got all of her plants for the class. She explained that her father owned and operated a greenhouse up on Rt. 747, which is in Springdale. I immediately called Joe over and introduced him to Mary. Joe lives in Springdale, and his biggest challenge is getting around. I told Mary what a geek Joe was for flora and she got all excited and told him about her dad’s greenhouse. Then I told them how close they were to each other and watched them chat away.
Now the challenge is to help nurture that connection. This is the part we’re working on currently at Starfire. It’s so new to us and there are lots of subtleties inherent.
We’ll write more on that in the future, but back to the Institute…
After the morning session, Janet came up to me and we had a terrific conversation. She said she was interested in Starfire’s work and told me that we were “clearly very creative, talented and enthusiastic.” In fact, she said we were one of the best segregated programs she’d seen…Youch! But she also said that we had a chance to be one of the best, if we got more intentional in our work…I’ll take it!
After the afternoon session, we entered the “marketplace,” which is where anyone could stand up and talk about things they’d like to discuss. Hope said she’d like to do an SRV overview, and I decided to go with her. One other Starfire person came along with me, and within one hour, Hope had laid out the basics of SRV in a very honest but accessible way. She prefaced it with the caveat that in no way should we take her one-hour PowerPoint as the be-all end-all of SRV, but her presentation convinced me that there is a more accessible way to train everyone in the basics of SRV.
I’ll relay a specific story to illustrate the point:
One woman in Janet’s course was completely anti-SRV after her last session on Wednesday. She said SRV felt like another example of professionals making decisions for people with disabilities – “If my son wants to play Hot Potato, he should be able to play Hot Potato!” Her son also moved out of her house and into a group home for the first time about two weeks prior to this conference, so Janet’s very strong opposition to group homes didn’t help her much. Another example of unfortunate timing for Janet. I asked her to go with me to hear Hope’s presentation for a different spin. She agreed, but I could tell that we were in danger of losing her.
After Hope’s hourlong presentation on SRV, this mother told me how wonderful SRV was and wanted to know how we could help the people at her son’s group home to adopt it as one of their guiding philosophies! What a change, huh? And I sighed with relief…this was the SRV I was hoping would catch on with our group! This is the power of doing the right work in helping people experience and gain valued roles and expand their expectations of themselves and the others’ expectations of them.
So, as I mentioned in a previous post, I have a few issues with how SRV is presented. And this stems from my personal experience: When I was trained at my first part-time job in this field in 1997, I was taught how to put people in a restraining hold. Non-Violent Crisis Intervention, it was called, and I’m proud to say that I’ve never used the techniques or even considered it. 13 years later, I first heard of Social Role Valorization. So why was it that I was taught how to physically restrain someone who was having “behavior problems” right away, but not taught SRV (or even made aware of it!) until 2010? Why is this not the first thing you’re taught when you get hired on everywhere that supports people with the label of disabilities?
What if you were a jeweler, and your job was to take rough diamonds straight from the earth and set them in rings and necklaces? But instead of learning about cut, color and clarity, you only learned techniques of molding the gold/silver around the stone. No matter how skilled you get at setting the stone in that ring/necklace, you’re still not anywhere near releasing that stone’s true beauty because you never learned to bring out the light in the corners or how the imperfections can be minimized or incorporated into the cut so as to enhance the value. You’d be a terrible jeweler, right? But no jeweler skips that learning. In fact, it’s the very base of jewlery! It’s step #1.
That is my question: Can SRV be step #1??? I’m no expert, as I’ve only recently learned about this, but I see two areas of potential:
- Let’s start in the shallow end before we try to brave the deep waters: What if everyone got a quick half-day training on SRV the first day they arrived? What if parents and families and people that are supported themselves were taught the basic principles of SRV as part of some “Intro” course offered in every community? Sure, we wouldn’t get into the various (and important) underlying theories, but we would have a basis on which to build and raise awareness. Then, as you were more interested or as you grew in your work, you could learn more deeply, including a five-day PASSING or some similar intensive training. Currently, it seems that trainings are almost always a multi-day event (one PASSING offered here is 5 days in Pennsylvania). So getting to one is going to cost the fee of attendance, the meals and accommodations, travel to and from, as well as the time away from work. It ends up being rather expensive…maybe $1,000 or more per person! That’s a big chunk of a training budget and probably completely cost-prohibitive for families. That being said, I originally intended to send a few staff (Bridget being one, so I knew I’d hear it from her) to my SRV training in Columbus, and not attend myself. I was encouraged to go by a friend. He said that it was important that I, as a leader with power to effect change and make decisions, should make it a point to attend. I did so and agree with him completely. All leaders of organizations or efforts like this should carve out the time and money to attend this, as it will require your conviction to help implement it. But what about the other 30 employees of Starfire? What about the 500 families of Starfire? What about the 200 community volunteers? How do we get that message to them? Can you imagine the power of all of those people being aware of and advocating for the principles of SRV and helping us implement its beautiful principles here? Can we get an intro course down to four hours so as to bring that closer to possibility? What if we included funders in that training? What if SRV approaches became the “new normal” by which systems operated and on which families expectations and funding decisions were based?
- Remember what your grandmother told you…You’ll catch more flies with honey than vinegar! I first learned SRV principles from Jo Masserelli and she was a wonderful teacher. She had great examples and kept it informal with lots of opportunities for questions. We would ask her “What about’s” and she would walk us through the thought process of how that would be looked at in an SRV framework: Is using the term “respite” a problem? What about volunteering at an animal shelter? What about when people say “you must be a saint” to do this work or parent a child with a disability? She worked through all of these questions (and the good news was that it was only two days, instead of five days! But she did tell us that we should consider doing the longer trainings.) Others I’ve seen or read have detached from anything that isn’t purely SRV. They don’t have much patience for the messiness of the present. So I think an understanding and accepting teacher in this arena is critical, or you’re going to turn off more people than you turn on. So aside from cloning Hope Dittmeier, how do we help people who teach and know SRV spread the gospel in a positive way? Can it be part of the training to think from a honey-perspective, gently nudging or coaxing change out of your friends or co-workers instead of vinegar, offending people left and right over things they may have deeply invested themselves in that don’t meld with a pure SRV approach? I’ve not done a PASSING yet, but as I understand it, a critical part of it is to evaluate another place or agency. I wonder if that technique might build in a “go forth and criticize” expectation upon completion of the training. In our session with Janet, all of us had no problem tearing apart Patrick Henry Hughes’ father, who called him “buddy” and patted him on the head a few times during his performance. But the real challenge is to turn the mirror on ourselves, and that’s difficult. We need friends and allies for support when we do that. We need people to remind us there is time aplenty and that small changes can reap big rewards. Otherwise, (take it from me!) the task can seem incredibly daunting and people may just check out.
In the end, I just think there’s a better way to share the wonderful challenge of SRV. I know that one of the basics of SRV is that the problem lies in our systems and how they’re designed to go against everything SRV stands for. But if even a cursory introduction is offered to people as they begin their journey in the systems or community in general, they’ll be better prepared to recognize and challenge the issues. There are lots of things that I would have done differently, had I been aware of the “color, cut and clarity” needed in my work over the past 13 years.
We ended Day 3 of the Summer Institute by hijacking a conference room at the hotel and ordering pizza. There’s a picture floating around out there of me with a case of Bud Light, some wine and a six-pack of Smirnoff Ice (yuck, Diana!) which we added to a bottle of bourbon as we digested the first half of our week. I asked everyone to gather into small groups of three to four people and consider these four questions:
- What are the best ideas you’ve had or heard this week so far? People mentioned the need to engage the energies and ideas of the families, amongst some other great ideas.
- What ideas have you heard that were most challenging? Obviously, SRV and the staff/friendship issue elicited the most discussion with this one.
- What do we know that others outside of Starfire might not know?
- What can we take back to Cincinnati to build a more inclusive future there?
It was a great discussion, and even better because we invited Robert Shuemak, John Romer, Diana Miarose and others from The Advocacy Leadership Network. It set the stage for a terrific second half of the week.
We then moved across campus for movie night. We watched “Including Samuel”, and there were plenty of tears. I think everyone was a little raw from the experience, but I’ve seen something new in all of us since then, so again, a tough day, but a growing day.