Saturday, June 1, 2019

“The road to hell is paved with good intentions.” ~ Saint Bernard of Clairvaux

A post about helping...

Decoding the intentions of another is not my strength; nor is the consideration that a human with whom I am interacting could have intentions other than those they explicitly state for that matter. However, naive as I am told it may be, I truly do believe that a vast majority of individuals have good intentions.  I operate under the belief that any person is doing the very best they can given their current situation, context, knowledge and accumulation of experiences. I also understand that someone else’s “best they can” is based on that individual and may not be what is best for me or others around them. For example, if someone steals money or food from a store, it is not best for the owner of the store attempting to make ends meet, but it may be the very best for someone without money or resources who needed food at that time. You see the complexity here. 

Unlike in the example above, in many cases, what is best for you and what is best for me will not interfere with one another at all and neither of us will be negatively influenced by the other attempting to do their very best in a given moment. But… as soon as you want to “help” another or support them in reaching their potential or being able to do their best to navigate their world… your best and their best could be very much at odds and you could be quite blind to this. Wanting to support someone; genuinely wanting someone else to reach their potential - those are very good intentions - but before you tie a cape around your neck and run in to “save the day,” I suggest you actually take your first step back.  You see, I firmly believe that the road to hell is indeed paved with good intentions…good intentions that had a very nasty, and super gnarly interaction with assumptions. 

Why step back before stepping in?

I think this is especially true for neurotypical people and those who are very susceptible to acting impulsively on emotion and throwing logic to the wind (this is a very scary idea to me and I cannot imagine the experience - thus let me step back and consider that perhaps these emotions are very strong and this is far easier said than done).  But if you truly want to help, there are some pieces of information needed; some data that is imperative to collect.  There are also assumptions and biases that WE ALL HAVE that should be reflected upon before mightily morphing into a power ranger and offering up super powers and assistance to an individual or group. Check yourself before you reck yourself, batman. 

What you need to know:

1.) To be in a position to help is to be privileged.  It immediately puts you in a position of power over the other person or group to whom you are providing help or support. This is not to say that helping is bad.  It is to say that you need to recognize the vulnerability that exists for someone that is accepting help and the power you hold.  Consider how many individuals who help are idolized and praised. No one is praising the group you are helping; they are praising you because you SO KINDLY offered your assistance to this group and you are such a good human being for doing that and you are really making a difference and that group is SO LUCKY to have you. Vomit…. If you are in a position to help, you are the lucky one. 

2.) What does success look like for the person or group you want to help? What is their definition of success? Hint: it might not be what you think or what you want for yourself  Again, this is an area in which Assumptions X Good Intentions = Disaster.  If you have not taken time to consider the outcomes a group or person hold important and meaningful and worthwhile to pursue, how on earth will you be of any real assistance? Don’t think too hard… the answer is, you will not be of any real assistance and may, in fact, impede or hinder their success. Stepping back allows you to do your homework.  What do members of the community say? What do they want? What are the organizations the support and which one do they not support? Why? Who are their advocates and what are these advocates prioritizing for this group? If you have never asked yourself these questions about and sought information from the group or member of the group that you “really, really want to help,” you probably have never actually helped. This part of stepping back is so critical and the effectiveness of your help and support depends on this knowledge.  I don’t want to speak for others, but I truly believe that you will be more helpful taking years and years to really research these questions than volunteering at a local 5k or donating some money to charitable organizations.  Think about it - if you don’t know the aims and priorities and goals of the group, and you don’t take the time to see if an organization’s message and mission line up with these, how do you know whether your money is really helping? 

3.) The why and how of helping! Just like it is imperative to understand the desired outcomes and goals of the individual or community, it is equally important to learn why these goals and forms of success are valued or desired (the why) and the forms of help and support that are effective and acceptable (the how).  Just because you know the desired endpoint or mission, does not mean you are now fully equipped to join and be effective. For example, many residents of the United States would agree that providing quality education for our children is a top priority.  Let’s assume the “why” is to provide necessary skills and knowledge to navigate their world and a belief that all children should have access to these.  But what do we mean by quality? How do we ensure quality for all children? Do we need federal policies? Should it be the right of the states to determine their educational needs and systems? The how could vary greatly even with a unified mission and purpose… and with those good intentions.  It is also noteworthy that many of those “how’s” could be quite effective, acceptable and ethical and others would be quite the opposite in one or more of those domains. So sometimes it is most important to know how NOT to go about things, and you can bet that the key stakeholders - those most affected by the processes and policies and practices - will have excellent knowledge about the best and worst “how’s.” 

4.) Listen. Really, really Listen! Please.  If you take the time to do your research and ask questions, when members of the community respond and offer their experience and attempt to fill you in on the most effective gameplay for the goals of the team, please do not disregard these messages! If your first reaction is to get defensive, object or offer up some personal experience about the one member of this group you know, it is likely you are not ready to join the good fight (SEE NUMBER 5).

5.) Awareness of your own biases - For any vulnerable, marginalized, minority, disenfranchised group or individual, you will have stereotypic ideas about them.  This is true whether you identify with another marginalized group or not.  Society is such that we are bombarded with stereotypes about categories of humans constantly and much of this happens below the threshold of conscious awareness. Do you want confirmation that you are indeed a racist? Try this: Seriously, the sooner you can admit that you have these biases, the better off you will be in interacting with diverse groups. You can want equality and justice more than anything in the world, and you will still have these implicit stereotypes because of how our world has been constructed by those with the most power and privilege. If you are aware that you have biases based on your own experience and the fact that you lack any experience walking through this world as anyone but yourself with the statuses you hold, you will likely be more open to listening and taking someone else’s experience to be valid.

6.) If you have accomplished steps 1 - 5, you have not only helped and supported your group or cause, you are in a position to empower them, and you are already more of an ally than you ever could have been before you stepped back instead of stepping in. I assure you and I thank you!

Why I hope you’ll take this process seriously:

Logic, Love, and loosing out. 

It is logical.  It makes sense.  It will work.  Taking the time to step back and learn is more valuable than money put towards all the wrong causes by all the wrong organizations.  Honestly, if you aren’t willing to learn these things and to seek out valid information from the most knowledgeable sources (i.e., the members of the group), it would be more helpful for you step away completely than to step in in any (complete lack of) capacity.  Use this as the litmus test for whether you are truly dedicated to a cause or serving a group’s best interests. 

Love takes understanding. Love takes listening. Love takes learning.  If you are passionate that a group deserves better and that a group is being wronged, that is great.  If you truly care about the group, and want to put in the work, you know it takes all of the above.  If you love someone who is part of a group, it is only natural to engage in trying to listen to, learn from and understand them. This process is necessary to support someone or something you love in ways that validate and affirm them rather than simply make you feel like you are doing something good. 

Loosing out.  We don’t want to lose out and I mean that in many ways.  The community does not want to lose out on someone who could be a wonderfully supportive ally in their causes. Individuals do not want to loose out on the best support they could possibly get from those in their lives.  And you, as someone who is truly dedicated to support and being an ally, does not want to loose out in terms of your time, money, or efforts being put towards ineffective, damaging, disrespectful or unethical practices.

Words of wisdom!

As mentioned above, the real goal is empowerment of an individual or a group.  One way to give away some of that power and privilege that is tied to helping is to ensure you are doing things to facilitate independence and empowerment of the person or group.  Engaging in the above process helps to ensure you are doing just that and I think it is critical also to learn from people who have been successful in this process.  So, just as I am asking you to do your research and to step back before stepping in, I wanted to invite neurotypical allies to share their perspective and experience on how they go about empowering autistics both on an individual / one-on-one basis and at a more institutional and societal level.  

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