Are adoption and foster care social justice issues? During the first U.S. Social Forum (USSF) in 2007, the consensus seemed to be a resounding “no.”
I remember being in an elevator in my hotel in Atlanta with a number of fellow activists, discussing our workshops. The folks beside me talked about labor, gender equity, grassroots organizing, and solidarity economy sessions they were leading. When I mentioned mine on transracial adoption, I might as well have been speaking Greek. “What?” someone asked, while others looked on in confusion. “Transracial what?”
Luckily, the second USSF, held June 22-26 in Detroit, proved that adoption/child welfare activists and allies have been doing our work, and doing it well, because these issues have now made it on the radar screens of many participants I spoke to. And no one looked at me like I was attending the wrong conference when I told them about the workshop I was leading.
Our session was titled “Where Have All Our Children Gone? Linking Child Removal From Communities of Color to Larger Social Justice Issues,” and was facilitated by fellow members of Adopted & Fostered Adults of the African Diaspora (AFAAD) Connie Galambos Malloy and Ian Hagemann, and Sahngnoksoo (SNS) member Sunny Kim.
It was attended by more than 30 people, who represented a wide range of backgrounds, ethnically, racially, culturally, regionally, and terms of class and age. There were a few members of the adoption triad present (adoptees, adopters, and biological parents), but the vast majority of folks attending work everyday on the frontlines of child removal, from a young woman who is starting up a reproductive justice center for Black women in Philadelphia, to an anti-racist workshop facilitator at the Peoples’ Institute of New Orleans, and a Native American activist who spoke about the catastrophic effect child removal has had on her community.
This was quite a different demographic than that of 2007, when the majority of participants were either white lesbians considering adoption to grow their families, white adoptive parents, or transracial adoptees (TRAs). Everyone was welcome, of course, but I really, really appreciated the input and expertise the adoptees present brought to the conversation – and in fact, took control of the workshop itself, steering it clear of the usual personal narratives into much more political territory.
But I think I am getting ahead of myself here.
For one thing, you are probably wondering what the USSF is, exactly – unless you attended, had friends or colleagues who attended, or are otherwise involved in the activities of the American Left. As I said above, the first USSF was held in 2007, in Atlanta, and represented a major breakthrough in grassroots organizing in the U.S.
It was the first time such a large gathering of organizers and activists from the American Progressive Left came together under the guise of building a sustained movement for social change – and led by those most oppressed by neo-liberal economic policies (mainly lower-income, people of color). Over 12,000 people attended, which was amazing in itself, since many people thought that you could never get a Left as splintered as ours together to discuss the great justice issues of our time, coherently, and set an agenda of action, to boot.
It was this initial event, strategically held in the American South, the cradle of the U.S. Civil Rights Movement, that laid the groundwork for the second forum in Detroit. But the real roots of the USSF stretch way beyond our borders, to the Global South. Indeed, the mechanism that initiated the USSF was the World Social Forum (WSF) .
The first WSF, held in Porto Alegre, Brazil in 2001, was primarily organized by laborers there, in response to the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, “which, since 1971, has fulfilled a strategic role in formulating the thought of those who promote and defend neoliberal policies throughout the world,” (World Social Forum India). Since that time, multiple WSF’s have taken place around the world, as have regional gatherings in Europe, Africa, the Middle East, and the Far East. For a list of Social Forums happening around the world this year, click here .
The World Social Forum website explains the Forum philosophy and methodology: “The World Social Forum is an open meeting place where social movements, networks, NGOs and other civil society organizations opposed to neo-liberalism and a world dominated by capital or by any form of imperialism come together to pursue their thinking, to debate ideas democratically, to formulate proposals, share their experiences freely and network for effective action. Since the first world encounter in 2001, it has taken the form of a permanent world process seeking and building alternatives to neo-liberal policies. This definition is in its Charter of Principles, the WSF’s guiding document. The World Social Forum is also characterized by plurality and diversity, is non-confessional, non-governmental and non-party. It proposes to facilitate decentralized coordination and networking among organizations engaged in concrete action towards building another world, at any level from the local to the international, but it does not intend to be a body representing world civil society. The World Social Forum is not a group nor an organization.”
The WSF’s slogan “Another World Is Possible,” asks participants to not just formulate responses to the newest global assaults on humanity, but to actually come up with viable and sustainable alternatives to the way the world is currently organized. With this in mind, those working on a variety of issues that often do not intersect are encouraged to do so.
There came a point in all this cross-sectional work that a critical mass of people from the Global South looked to we in the Global North who say we are committed to equity to organize our own Social Forum in the U.S., since so many of the most difficult issues the Global South is grappling with are actually the result of the behavior and policies of our government and corporations. This challenge was the first step towards the 2007 USSF, which organizers defined as “a movement building process. It is not a conference but it is a space to come up with the peoples’ solutions to the economic and ecological crisis,” (USSF website).
Selecting Detroit as the site of the 2010 USSF fit nicely into this vision. The city is a stark example of the shape of things to come if free-market capitalism is allowed to take precedence over community needs and relationships, and also exemplifies the kind of do-it-yourself, don’t-wait-for-someone-else-to-save-you ingenuity that is at the heart of the Forum philosophy. Detroit’s consistently high unemployment, White Flight, decaying infrastructure and urban core, and failing schools are all the result of neoliberalism gone wild in some way, while its flourishing urban garden movement, and dedicated organizing communities inspire those facing similar problems around the country.
As someone who grew up in Ann Arbor, a smallish university-town about 45 minutes west of Detroit, the USSF was an amazing opportunity for me to really experience Detroit for the first time. Sure, our family frequented the Montreux-Detroit Jazz Festival on Labor Day weekend every year when I was growing up, but Hart Plaza was just about as far in as I got. My perceptions of Detroit were largely formed by the media, and the middle-class friends and classmates I was surrounded with: Abandoned houses, corrupt politicians, rampant crime, and poverty. Detroit was seen as A VERY DANGEROUS PLACE in this context, some place to be avoided, and certainly not visited alone, or God-forbid, alone with a baby, as I did last week. And, to be fair, all of this is true in some way. Detroit has major problems that no one can reasonably deny. The issue is that this is only one reality, amongst many others.
Travelling from Cobo Hall to Wayne State University, back to Wayne County Community College (WCCC) on foot or on the bus during the conference, I was amazed by the hustle and bustle of folks all around me – despite boarded up buildings and houses. Trying to get my son and assorted baby paraphanalia on and off the bus was already a complete nightmare, and would have been logistically impossible, were it not for the assistance of fellow passengers, and the drivers themselves. But people were more than eager to help, and clearly adored my son (you don’t see too many infants being carted all over downtown Detroit). All of the faculty and students I encountered at Wayne State and WCCC were clearly in engaged in the business of getting educated, running their farmer’s market, and helping us directionally-challenged attendees find our way around.
Walking down Woodward Avenue during the Opening March, cars were honking at our signs for environmental justice, job equity, and hundreds of other causes, while people we passed on the street looked entertained, and asked us what was going on, and why.
That’s what wins you over about Detroit: No one puts on airs there, in the way that bristles me when I visit cities like New York, DC, Seattle, or Atlanta. Nor did I experience the coldness or overly-friendly-in-order-to-mask-the-fact-that-you-Black-people-scare-me behavior I have become accustomed to, living in the Twin Cities. Everyone is just out there in Detroit, on the street, doing their thing. There doesn’t seem to be room for a whole lot of pretense, because everyone is really just trying to live.
Was the city gritty? Yes. But that grittiness conveyed a deep sense of history and ongoing struggle that I could appreciate. So, that’s all just to say that the chance to get to know Detroit a little, and on a deeper level, the USSF’s approach to place, were huge highlights of the week for me.
It will probably come as no surprise that our workshop on linking child removal in communities of color to larger social justice issues was another highlight of the Forum for me. Collaboration is never easy, but it its rewards pay dividends. Working with Connie, Ian, and Sunny to facilitate a coherent workshop that would be useful to participants in their work and lives was daunting, but I think ultimately successful. We didn’t agree on everything, but came to a consensus on what we most wanted attendees to take away from the session: That adoption and foster care are major social justice issues. All of us have grappled in some way with the all too common idea that the American family is sacrosanct and beyond reproach – as are the institutions that create, define, and destroy them – so we were therefore committed to making sure we politicized them. We knew that we only had two hours, so there wouldn’t be time for much else. In this sense, depth was much more important to us than breadth.
We began by having participants respond to various images of child removal we had hung up around the room. This was a simple Popular Education activity, in which people wrote down whatever came to mind when they viewed each image, not worrying over any response was “right” or “wrong.”
The image below generated the following responses:
“It seems easier to love as children.” “Everyone is happy.” “Her eyes are so trusting.” “And will the brightness of her eyes fade when/if she takes time to think about the implications of ‘missionary’ work on adoption when she’s older?”
For this image, participants wrote:
“Happiness on a child’s face.” “Who is not in the picture?” “Where are their families?” “Do they know any adults who look like them?” and “Children create community in absence of families?”
This image from the Vietnam Babylift, generated these comments:
“War babies.” “Colonialism/imperialism.” “Forced removal.” “Terrorized children.” “Children lost their homes because of the war.” “PSTD normal.” “Whose tank? Whose bombs? Who’s funding? Then who is adopting?” “Old eyes, old story.” “How will the definition of ‘home’ and ‘identity’ change for them?”
Finally, a photo of a suburban-looking white woman, flanked by two young Black boys generated a flurry of discussion:
“White folks – no matter how well-meaning – are unable to provide children of color with what they need to survive in a white supremacist society.” “I agree.” “Where is the black male who created these young boys?” “I wonder what ‘lens’ these children see through?” “Role of white American women in child removal. Lady smile while kids don’t.” “Children finally have a home to go home to.” “Oh God…Reminds me of a friend’s aunt who is making a habit of adopting Ethiopian children. She is white. And liberal. So she doesn’t get her own racism.” “What makes a family. Sticky situation. Children seem to be in a loving home, but at the cost of losing identity.” “Makes me think of Angelina Jolie – WTF?” “Missionaries ‘saving’ poc.” “Note their hands are all in the same position. Whose idea was that, and is that supposed to mean unity?”
As you can see from all of these comments, participants clearly had some familiarity with issues surrounding child welfare and communities of color – and plenty also had an emotional connection to it, as well. This made our time together all the more meaningful, as folks were eager to engage with the problem on a deep level. The photos made it easy for everyone to do so, as we used a few pictures and written responses to initiate discussions on the role that U.S. war and militarism play in opening up “new markets” for international adoption, the ongoing effects of Indian boarding schools on Native communities today, the Evangelical impetus towards adoption, and the underlying narratives that lie at the root of all discourse surrounding child removal.
“I feel like the idea underlying all of this is that poor, women of color are terrible mothers, and should not be allowed to parent,” said one woman. “That’s why all this apparatus is designed to make real. So that, if an environmental crisis like the one in Haiti comes along, or if there’s a war or something, this whole system can just swoop in, and take advantage.”
The rest of the session was taken up by going through, and responding to, a Timeline of Child Removal From Communities of Color, headed up by Ian. I am not going to include sections of the timeline here, as it is still very much a work-in-progress. The timeline is a project that many scholars and adoptees of color have taken on recently, including Jae Ran Kim , Lisa Marie Rollins, and members of the Adoptees of Color Roundtable . AFAAD has an ongoing interest in creating a collaborative document – something that folks can contribute to online, through Open Source file sharing, not unlike Wikipedia. The issue is, as always, finding funding to do so.
Please contact us if you have any leads on financial or human resources we could use to make this a reality, as seeing the sheer visual reality of child removal from communities of color forces us to grapple with how successful these policies have been, and then, hopefully, strategize on realistic interventions we can make in order to make families and communities less vulnerable.
Sunny gave an excellent summary of Andrea Smith’s “Heteropatriarchy and the Three Pillars of White Supremacy,” in order to ground and contextualize the discussion during this activity, which was eminently helpful. I, myself, have been mired in the “oppression olympics” paradigm when attempting to organize or even discuss shared oppressions with other adoptees and people of color, so it is very helpful to have a framework to use that acknowledges the destructive and overwhelming power of white supremacy, while simultaneously acknowledging the very distinct ways that Native, Black, Latino, and Asian bodies are racialized in this country, based on our separate histories.
Although I attended, and tried to attend a few workshops and Peoples’ Movement Assemblies (PMAs…and I say try, because carting my son around the festivities was more or less successful, depending on his mood. But he was a trooper!), the one which affected me the most was called “Poverty Is Not Neglect and We Are Not Powerless: Mothers Reclaim Our Children Back From the Child Welfare Industry.” This workshop was organized by Every Mother Is a Working Mother Network, which self-describes as, “self-help, multi-racial action and support groups of mothers, other family members, former social workers, foster parents and supporters in Los Angeles and Philadelphia, working together against the unjust removal of children from their families by the Department of Human Services (DHS) and the Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS). Children are often snatched, not because of abuse or neglect, but because of poverty, sexism and racism. We fight individual cases, build public awareness, educate the media, work to change unjust policies and practices, and challenge discrimination against mothers throughout the system. We are part of a national movement,” (DHS/DCFS GIVE US BACK OUR CHILDREN flyer).
Although Every Mother Is a Working Mother Network put on the session, they invited other women and organizations who are fighting similar battles for their families to the table as well, including The LaStraw, Inc., Family Connection Center, Stop Targeting Ohio’s Poor, and ODVAct. This openness was exemplified by the fact that several women from Every Mother Is a Working Mother came to our workshop on child removal, and contributed their thoughts and experiences to the discussion. I can say that I personally also really appreciated the fact that one of their members also watched my son during their session, so that I could participate and get educated.
One of the woman who came to our workshop also asked me to go to the microphone and speak about my experience and activist work as a TRA, at the end. I told her that this was their space, and I wanted to respect that, since I knew that they didn’t have many places to do so and build together, but she said that she thought it was very important for us to know about each other, and share. She was right, of course. Many of the women in the room approached me afterwards, and wanted to get AFAAD’s information, since they didn’t know we existed, and want to keep in touch with folks who are working on the other side of the issue. I have included their contact information below, because this is such a big and important issue, so please contact them yourself, to organize!
Beginning with a short film these women had produced, DHS – Give Us Back Our Children! (and I encourage everyone reading this to contact Every Mother Is a Working Mother, and get yourself a copy and share with friends and colleagues, as it is just $7), the session was hard-hitting, filled with energy, and inspiring.
Women told short but personal stories about how they had regrettably found themselves at the mercy of DHS and its paternalistic case workers, trying over and over again to comply with their unrealistic demands, only to have their children taken away and placed into foster homes, where they were often abused. One woman told the story of her physically abusive husband who almost killed her, and the subsequent DHS interventions, which were too little, too late. After more abuse, and years of threats, her husband finally kidnapped her child, who she has not seen for years. Another woman discussed the repeated harassment she received from DHS, when she called them and asked if they had any programs to help with food and utilities, as she had barely $150 left from her welfare subsidy after paying rent each month. In fact, a key issue that many of these groups are working on is reforming the new welfare rules, which have made it even more difficult for poor mothers to raise their own children.
A commonly heard refrain was, “I asked them [DHS] why they just couldn’t give me the money to pay for my rent and food, so that I could take care of my own child, instead of paying someone else in the foster care of child welfare system to do it?” This idea is further explored in a hard-hitting series the Philadelphia Daily News published earlier this year, featuring some of Every Mother’s members:
Attending the USSF is a priority for me every three years, as I find that the older I get and the longer I fight various social justice battles, the more important it becomes for me to be inspired. Otherwise, I start to feel completely overwhelmed and cynical. My perspective on the history and reality of social movements – that they are usually a series of crushing defeats, followed by very small gains – starts to become completely unmanageable. Somehow, remembering that it is these gains, no matter their smallness, that alone have the capacity to redeem any semblance of our humanity, becomes next to impossible when I am mired in daily struggle. But being around thousands of activists, organizers, and everyday people, who like myself are just trying to live a self-reflective life that harms as few as possible, reminds me that I am not alone. I begin to believe again that perhaps I really can keep along this path, despite the difficulties and heartaches.
I keep coming back to the response of my good friend and mentor Rose Brewer, when I asked how she keeps on going as such a committed and engaged activist, all these years, and in the face of monumental challenges. We were in the midst of the Opening March, slogans and bodies weaving in and out of the small space between and around us. “What other choice is there?” she replied evenly.
I nodded. Exactly. How could I have forgotten?
Family Connection Center can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Stop Targeting Ohio’s Poor is at (216) 321-1677, or email@example.com.
ODVAct is at (216) 751-7150, or firstname.lastname@example.org.