Controlling Our Own Story- May 6, 2016

When I was a freshman in college, I participated in a protest in Lansing – it was organized around energy policy.  We gathered in a park, marched along the city’s major thoroughfares, arriving at the State Capitol, chanting slogans and carrying signs. The organizing entity obtained the necessary permits from city and Capitol authorities, and we were respectfully guided by law enforcement to our destination. Settling on the Capitol steps, a few people made speeches, responded to questions from the media, and then we all packed up and went home.  It was a Sunday afternoon, and afterward I went to visit my parents (to leverage a free Sunday dinner, in complete transparency); my Aunt Lois was also a guest. She was in her 70’s at the time, small in stature, larger than life in spirit, with a strength and resoluteness of character that served as a role model to many in our family. She was kind, generous – and did not suffer fools lightly.

“I saw you on the news this afternoon,” she announced – with a glare she usually reserved for misbehaving children.  Then she took my hand, looked me in the eye, and said: “You know I disagree with your ideas on this.”  And then she broke into a grin. “But of course I would fight for your right to express them.  And I’m proud of you for doing so.”  She then proceeded to explain to me why she disagreed, in a manner far superior to any I could articulate for my position on the issue at the time – without raising her voice, without criticizing my opinion or the manner in which it had been expressed.

I think of my Aunt Lois often lately, as our culture continues to glorify conflict in public policy discussions, and celebrate both the cynical and the snarky – whether on the national political stage or the local legislative arena – rather than forthright, civil exchanges between differing opinions, geared toward workable solutions.  Many of you are familiar with a recent round of negative advocacy issued through online and social media venues, critical of comments I submitted on behalf of MARO during a pubic policy discussion.  Several organizations serving individuals with disabilities have been targeted by such tactics.  We do not intend to dignify these comments with a response, nor will we elevate the visibility of inaccurate information and negativity.  We will instead continue to support the good work MARO members are doing in their respective communities – promoting access and inclusion, and optimizing independence and quality of life for Michigan’s citizens with disabilities and other barriers.

It is in this way that we will control our own story, rather than allowing it to be distorted and disrupted.  We are entering an era of transformational change, and can no longer rely on the conventional – in programming, in policy, even in communications – to ensure that MARO members are successful in achieving their mission, and that impact is valued by our communities.  The message must be clear – we are pursuing optimal levels of independence and inclusion; we must identify the right channels – legislators and policy makers, business and community leaders; we must establish the connection between the services and supports provided by the mission-driven businesses that comprise our association and the benefit to each person served, and the elevated expectations for all that will result.

It is time to disengage from the unproductive friction of adversarial advocacy, moving from critical to constructive, toward an action-based, solution-focused agenda. Telling our own story, respectful of the past, but intentionally embracing the future – building momentum to achieve the vision we have for successful organizations delivering positive outcomes with the people we serve.