Break Away Blog | Read + Act Weekly

Beyond a Fix | Spartanburg ABCs

“The ‘DIS’ prefix is not only ‘un’ and ‘not’ but also has a Latin and Greek derivative meaning ‘duo’ and ‘two’ hence another way of doing and being” - Heather Watkins.

In our society, disability is viewed as something to fix or cure - the prefix of ‘un’ or ‘not’ is unfortunately too often the sole association. Disability is focused on the individual, asking: how can we make one’s life fit the norm? We are taught to anxiously attend to disability that is visible and dismiss what is not. Representation in media is limited, and when it does exist, it typically manifests as one of a few stereotypes: pitiful or pathetic, perpetually sad or angry, superhero - or more commonly, as a source of inspiration for non-Disabled people.

The world focuses inward, on Disabled people and what can be done to improve their lived experience. Many of us have internalized this perspective - leading us to presume that individuals with impairments need help or are somehow incompetent. Because of the medical focus on disability - as something to fix - Disability as identity is often left out of the larger conversations of justice and, as a result, forming distinct minority community membership has been a challenge.

The reality is - one in five individuals in America are disabled. There's a resounding need to discuss the realities and societal misconceptions, and to bring a justice-based approach to service work alongside Disabled communities.

At our second ABCs in Spartanburg, South Carolina - instead of examining impairments or shortfalls, we looked outward. We worked, as Disabled people and allies, to retrain our thinking to include physical, environmental, and social barriers in our understanding of mental and physical Disability (in short, Disability = Person + Impairments + Barriers); to reconsider the language we’re using; and to acknowledge the many unintended consequences of good intentions. More than anything, we deepened our belief in a society of active citizens - made up of individuals who make their own decisions and determine the needs and path of their participation in community.

Self-determination - or the belief that all people (particularly Disabled people) must have opportunities and experiences that enable them to have control in their own lives and advocate on their own behalf - was the focal point at the ABCs. When all individuals are granted the right to self-determination, we may finally experience communities of true interdependence.

If a society of active citizens requires everyone, then we must look at the spaces we inhabit - our campus, our programs, our advocacy - and work on building radically accessible versions of those spaces. We must acknowledge that our current world already meets the access needs of some, and it’s our responsibility to shift structures to meet the access needs of all.

Interested in making your program a radically inclusive space? Let us know - we’ll be thrilled to support your efforts!

Defining American | 2017 Atlanta ABCs

Within active citizenship, “citizen” is defined as a person who inhabits a space; our belief in community is not restricted by borders and documents. The imminent threat to the end of DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) has put a media spotlight on immigration - an issue that is not new, but has historically been used to define and shape what it means to be American.

During the Atlanta ABCs, we partnered with three community organizations: Freedom University, Asian Americans Advancing Justice, and El Refugio - each working with diverse immigrant populations. We spent the week deconstructing the meaning of “American” while working to develop our understanding of a nation historically built and sustained by immigrants.

Well-intentioned supporters of the nearly 800,000 DACA recipients - also known as DREAMers - often argue that they were brought here as young children and shouldn’t be punished for their parents’ actions. The natural, yet harmful, instinct to defend Dreamers’ “Americanness” focuses on those who speak English, go to college, pay taxes, and contribute to their communities. These are considered the “good” immigrants. 

As we rise to the defense of DACA recipients, we should consider the narratives we’re advancing. By defining American as a singular identity and behavior, we create a villainized image of what it means to be not American enough. We risk dehumanizing those who exist outside a narrow definition of American - non-English speakers, low-wage workers, those who are detained, and the many who have broken laws seeking a new home and better life. While responding to policy changes and demanding equity, our approach to immigration justice must be inclusive of all.

Active citizenship is not dependent on legal status, but on a commitment to community. It is an identity that is claimed, not given. While the citizen status of “American” is dependent on legality, we can still expand our vision of community. If you’re looking for a place to stand in solidarity with our immigrant friends and neighbors, we recommend supporting the work of United We Dream, Welcoming America, and the National Immigrant Law Center. Call, email, organize, and put pressure on elected officials to advance the policies you believe reflect what it means to be American, and continue to ask how we can make the work of active citizenship more inclusive.

Our Role in Disaster Recovery

In the wake of a disaster, it is understandable that the reaction of an alternative breaker (past or present) is to ask - how can I help? and - how soon can we get there? We have an immense responsibility to make thoughtful and well-informed decisions about our role in disaster recovery and the reality is, good intentions don’t always yield positive results.

The two stages, generally speaking, to be aware of after a natural disaster: 1) response and relief and 2) recovery. Response and relief is the immediate work to minimize any harm or hazard caused by the disaster. Recovery includes returning a community to the pre-disaster state of normalcy, or better - a sense of revitalization for all.

Response and relief may take weeks or months to complete and short-term, unskilled workers are often unable to perform the tasks necessary during that critical period. Resources have already dwindled for current residents, the stakes are high, and the expertise needed is particular.

Inaction isn’t the solitary option for outsiders seeking to offer support during the initial stage. (And active citizens would hardly consider inaction an option.) Active citizenship includes philanthropy: which, in this instance, is donating money - not unsolicited resources and ensuring that organizations you’re supporting are funneling those resources directly into affected communities.

As communities eventually shift their thinking to long-term recovery, short-term volunteers can begin to play a role, but must be willing to acknowledge the realities from recoveries in the past, and move forward ready to center community and the community’s voice - especially those who may have been marginalized prior to any natural disaster. For breakers looking to plan trips to the impacted areas, we have nothing less than sage advice taken from one of our favorite reads, Working Side By Side:

  • Sustain Media Attention. No matter how urgent the needs or how compelling the stories of a community or a social issue, the media spotlight will fade sooner than expected, as will related public interest and investment in those communities. Alternative break programs can help keep media attention on places with long-term acute need.

  • Long-Term Commitment. A longer-term commitment made up front by those seeking to be involved in community work communicates intent for a different model of service. The nature of alternative breaks is inherently short-term; issues resulting from disaster and poverty are complex and require sustained attention to respond to appropriately and build trust.

  • Coordinate Efforts. Community building takes consistent and coordinated effort. Direct service, particularly in disaster areas, should be coordinated so volunteers aren’t overwhelming to the host community and direct service efforts aren’t just duplications of the prior group. Additionally, higher education professionals possess unique and valuable skills and resources. These program leaders, organized strategically and in a nationwide collaboration, could create much more effective results in the community than by acting independently, while easing logistical work for each other and enabling focus on deeper-quality experiences.

  • Communication and Collaboration. Collaborative work thrives with regular communication that develops strong relationships between campuses and community organizations, staff advisors on multiple campuses, and staff advisors and their university administrators.

(Working Side By Side, 339-340, 2015)

Our thoughts are with those preparing for Hurricane Jose, those impacted by Hurricane Harvey and Irma, and with the many around the world who have been devastated by extreme weather. If you’re interested in learning more about our role in disaster recovery and considering the potential for collective action with alternative breaks, join us for our September National Conference call.

Dear Graduates, Alternative Breaks Are Over…

...Or are they? You had a powerful experience (or experiences), and as you walk across the graduation stage to receive your diploma, you’re probably asking yourself does it have to be over? Well... not really. It may look different, but you can and should find ways to stay engaged in your program and the Movement.

Chances are you went on an alternative break that caused some sort of mindset or lifestyle shift: finding lifelong friendships, developing a deeper knowledge of social issues, getting outside of what was once comfortable, or even coming to understand that the game Flash is appropriate for any social situation.

If you’ve had an experience like this, you know it’s valuable and that alternative breaks should be an opportunity available to any (and every) student.

As alumni, we now have the chance to support other current and future alternative breakers in new, creative ways. Maybe it’s donating to your alma mater's program (or the Movement) or showing your support on social media. It could even be hosting a future alternative break group for dinner when they’re in your city, offering to be a guest speaker at a pre-trip meeting, or staying in touch with your friend’s at Break Away (that’s us!).

More than that, know you’re not alone. If you have tried to describe how much an alternative break experience meant to you - at some point, you’ve likely found yourself at a loss for words. Well, the good news is, there are thousands of alternative break alumni who know almost exactly how you feel. Just because you aren’t going on another trip, doesn’t mean you won’t identify with alternative breaks. You now share an identity with thousands of other graduates who are, like you, lifelong breakers and active citizens.

So friends, we offer you our congratulations and invite you to join us in the ongoing process of supporting alternative breaks and actualizing active citizenship.