Whose Stories ?


This is the first of a series of posts about my experiences at, and thoughts about, the American Society of Group Psychotherapy and Psychodrama annual conference this past weekend.

After a day in airport purgatory we made it home from the ASGPP  conference shortly after midnight this morning. The conference was exceptional. It was also eye-opening.

The first evening was devoted to a “diversity event”.  As usual, I was the only person who spoke to identifying as Native, and  of a very few who identified as physically disabled. Not that I was alone in my difference, rather, there were a variety of alonenesses identified by people; it turns out that groups marginalize folks for all sorts of reasons.

It is probably worth spending a few minutes writing about the ways difference impacted me during the conference. Because my legs are weakened as a result of Polio, I have great difficulty standing for any period of time, and find repeatedly standing and sitting even more challenging. Yet in virtually every workshop and plenary session there were activities where participants were expected to do these things. Other activities required us to mill around in very close proximity, a challenge for me as I have very poor balance. Not once did a facilitator invited those who might have trouble with an activity to modify the instructions to meet their needs, or rather, gave such instructions so before I, and in one workshop, others, refuse to follow the rules. For most of the conference ablism was the only story in the room. (A woman in a wheelchair was present for part of the conference but I was in no activities during which she was present. I wonder whether, given her clear disability, event facilitators acted differently in her presence.)

The second arena of contention was that of identifying as Native. The only story about Philadelphia that was spoken for most of the diversity forum was that of Philadelphia’s role as the cradle of American democracy. Near the end of the event I spoke about my enjoyment of the city (it is a lovely place!) and my sadness about the erasure of its role in the genocide against Native people. I noted that many of the men in my family had fought in the Armed Forces and had been fiercely proud of their service, even as they had acknowledged the racism and hatred they faced as Native people.

Looking back, I realize I had a flash of insight that first evening, an epiphany which I shared with others. I find it difficult to be in a room where the only accepted stories are ones that exclude me! The morning following the diversity event a woman came up to me, thanked me for speaking up the night before, and said something like, “You know, no matter how hard you work, the story will never be changed.” I believe she was speaking about the larger culture’s refusal to address the plight and resiliency of Native America, and disability issues, as much as the attitude of those at the conference. Yet, it certainly spoke to a powerful thread running through the conference.

This was a conference about story, and sometimes I felt very much at home.  I grew up surrounded by stories, then, as a young adult became entranced by them. Stories are powerful harmers or healers. They build safety and community, and erase entire groups of people. When we truly honor stories, we open the door for a complex and diverse world. Native people know this; as children we are encouraged to get to know diverse human experiences, and the life ways of all living beings and systems. Of course we each have our own biases, yet the goal is to learn from our lives and those beings who share them. In order to do this one must slow down, ask questions, and make space. It is a good practice.

After I spoke up at the diversity event, a friend and colleague publicly suggested I offer a workshop at the next conference (next year, in Arizona). I was honored and flummoxed. I’m not really a psychodramatist; I’m also not sure what such a workshop might address. After all, being disabled and Native is, on one hand, potentially doubly disabling, and, on the other, a profound gift. I wonder, where might one start to explore these things? With stories?


13 thoughts on “Whose Stories ?

  1. It’s so easy to exclude because our experience doesn’t recognise what makes a difference to others, so it is important that we speak up for those differences (though also frustrating and a burden at times, I think).

    1. HI Andrea! Yes, we all do this. I have to admit I get tired of educating….. and it dies seem burdensome at times. At the same time, it is so frustrating when groups refuse to pay attention even when they say they are committed to doing so.

  2. Hi Michael. It seems like as Native and disabled, so much of your story is determined by others. This seems to be the warp in the tapestry called your story. You also, of course weave your own pattern across the stories that others have imposed on you as you have (and continue to) made sense of it all.

    1. Hi Pat, People do try to impose their story on me. It gets complex, given how often others want to be the author of my life. I can’t always get out of the way, but I can often insist on my own voice. Yes, those large narratives are challenging and dehumanizing, and they give me a chance to practice speaking up. That play of warp and weft is an excellent way to learn to think about one’s lives, and the lives of others. Thank you, as always, for seeing me in the writing.

  3. This could be a wonderful opportunity to do some experiential psychodrama work with participants. Some will be randomly assigned to be “disabled” in some form and will have to play that role. I don’t know how good people would be at enacting being “native” other than the stereotypes they hold…it could become an eye-opening experience and create really good discussions….just a thought.

  4. I think that it will always be challenge for those, who are different in one or another way, when we meet in large places like this conference Michael. If you have the energy, I think it could be an eye opener for the other, if you use your own experiences to educate about being different and Native. Maybe someone will change their way of thinking, when you speak up.
    I learn something new or get something to think about, every time I read one of your posts here 😉

    1. Irene, I imagine we each have something to share about difference, and about similarity. I hope that honoring the invisible stories in the room we make the world a better place.

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