Emotional Intelligence: A Foundation in Recovery from Centuries of Oppression

As I continue to unpack what has happened during and since the events in Charlottesville, VA, and have recently also experienced many personal and family-based crises that require public attention directly linked to the failed system of care for children, adults and the elderly with a variety of disabilities, it has been impossible to have an abstract opinion on just about any subject. Having a front row seat at the racial and economic divide of affordability and accessibility of care options expose to me not only who has access to care options but how one is treated when interacting with by government agency representatives and providers when seeking help.  There is something terribly wrong with how things work, or don’t work, for families seeking a helping hand when in crisis and I argue to say that our biggest problem in the Washington, DC area, and possibly much of the United States, are not neo-Nazis or the Ku Klux Klan.

From my vantage point as a black, first-generation American and mother of children with disabilities; it is difficult to hear discussions of white supremacy or white nationalism in a vacuum. Pundits on news shows will say, those racists/neo-Nazis/white nationalists and paint the picture that racism and bigotry is a sport for lower class deplorable white men.  The left-out part of this American tragedy is the fact that for my family, and many other oppressed people and communities, the boogie man of white supremacy does not always wear a white hood or is branded openly with a swastika but most often times is the local police, the social worker, ICE officer, the public school teacher, etc. These agents of the state and civil servants have the power to deeply impact a quality of life that often times extend beyond their immediate scope of influence and, in my experience, fail to understand the interconnected impact that link education to human services to housing to healthcare to law enforcement and beyond.  And while there are historical, political and economic explanations that make the case to justify both the fear against and the necessity of these empowered agents, there is also an emotional basis to this oversight.

Just think about it (or imagine, if don’t have firsthand experience), getting a knock on your door by the police because a neighbor complained about your child’s non-typical, loud forms of communication or you call social services seeking help for a loved one in a health-based crisis. In my experience, I’ve met both “Officer Friendly” and “Officer Pitbull”; and have had a similar polarity in interactions with social workers, teachers and school administrators. So, the socio-economic basis that lends to my empathy with them, regardless of how they interact with me, is that I keep in mind that they earn a humble middle class living wage, are loaded with student loan and other personal debt, possibly are functioning in a toxic work environment of crabs in the barrel and might be battling their own traumas and health issues. In saying this, it is not to excuse unethical or discriminatory behaviors that are often experienced in these encounters, and certainly I have personal testimony, yet it is to humanize the phenomenon. And to employ empathy effectively and consistently requires emotional intelligence.

To this end, training is the key. Not simply as a practice but as a principle based on a well-designed training system to orient employees and to invest in the on-going need to oil-the-machine with refresher courses and opportunities to acquire new skills that contribute to creating and improving upon an organization’s culture.  This is true for not only the development of hard skills (i.e. job specific licenses and certifications) but also for soft skills, which include a wide range of transferable knowledge that attributes of personality, behavior and speak to how one interacts with others.  When it comes to emotional development, there is a growing field of study of social emotional learning (SEL) that has piqued my interest. It provides an opportunity to develop hard and soft skills through a variety of integrated and interactive approaches. While a big part of the intrigue for me is in its application in early childhood education, however, the principles of SEL also apply to adults in the workplace. And if that workplace environment happens to be a critical element in the system of care for individuals with disabilities, then I feel it imperative that our local and federal government agencies take a more serious look at practices that go beyond an anti-discrimination workshop to satisfy competency requirements. Because, in truth, we spend a significant amount of our time in life simply just learning how to live yet I have discovered that life itself is just a series of on-going lessons and growth opportunities.

From Kindergarten to 12th grade (13 years), the average child in the United States spends 35% of those years in school. Additionally, many children (approximately 42%) under the age of 5 with employed mothers spend at least 35 hours a week in child care or preschool – which is 20% of time per year.  And this does not factor into university education, which generally functions on the principle that it take 10,000 hours (approximately 1 year) to master information and students on average spend 4 years pursing an undergraduate degree.  And with the increasing demand for graduate degree work, well that’s another 2 years for master’s level work and an average of 4-7 years for a doctorate degree. That’s a lot of hours of time spent from birth within structured learning spaces.  Yet while it is illegal, bullying and harassment are prominent features in the experience of many individuals in an educational campus including LGBTQ and immigrant youth as well as children and youth with disabilities. Acknowledged by the US Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights and the Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services, bullying can have a profound impact on students, raise safety concerns, and eroding efforts to ensure that students with disabilities have equal access to the myriad of benefits that education offers.

Institutional racism or discrimination, which speaks to the system of care, is set by the individuals that decide the functions of the system. It is through these many years of schooling one learns white supremacist behaviors and other related survival of the fittest mentalities of sexism, homophobia, xenophobia, ableism, etc. So, after all these many years being exposed to under-addressed and sometimes nurtured in discriminatory processes, behaviors learned from observing, participating in or being victimized by bullying in the many years in the school yard spill into the work environment and do not simply go away at graduation. To me, this suggests an unlearning process in the workplace is as critical to human development as it is important to equip children at a very young age with these tools to achieve emotional intelligence and achieve real and sustained cultural competencies. It takes political will – the will to not enforce white nationalist ideas – and leadership with integrity that offers incentive and invests in the emotional development of government agents and others in the workforce that become deciders, impacting the lives of so many vulnerable families and communities in need.


The People’s Convention: Why It’s Important to Join Organizations.

Photo provided by SPACES in Action

I’ve had over a week now to digest the many great lessons learned at the Center for Popular Democracy’s (CPD) Our Vision, Our Future: People’s Convention held in Detroit, MI from July 25-27th.  In the time since coming home, and post watching the Democratic primary debates that also took place in Detroit shortly after the convention, I’ve had some time to reflect on the significance of this convention both personally and politically.

Personally, I feel like I’ve found my tribe. It was such an empowering opportunity to bring so much of what I personally identify with and give it a political platform. Starting with my delegation from Washington, DC led by SPACES in Action. I had joined SPACES a few months back, when I was introduced to the Executive Director, LaDon Love. And I simply fell in love with the mission and vision of this organization. In working together on the Birth to Three Campaign, I also learned the unique value of SPACES, as an affiliate organization of CPD.

As far as I understand, CPD carries out it’s mission of building organizing power to transform the local and state policy landscape through deep, long-term partnerships with leading community-based organizing groups nationwide like SPACES in Action, which is the affiliate organization in Washington, DC. It is from joining SPACES and being invited to join the delegation to the Detroit convention that I really injested the power of their vision and how truly transformative this approach to organizing is.


My first impression was of the illustrious venue: The Marriott Hotel at the Renaissance Center owned by General Motors. The Renaissance Center is a connection of 7 skyscrapers and sits in the middle of downtown Detroit. Impressive in structure, I kept getting lost attempting to get from one point to the other. I learned that it was deliberately designed this way to dissuade against protests and other community based action, given the history of resistance due to economic instability in the Motor City. We didn’t have much time for jet lag and hit the ground running with leadership meetings underway. The one that peaked my interest was: Class Privilege & Organizing: The Role of Wealthy People in The Movement.

Photo provided by SPACES in Action

The Class Privilege workshop unpacked issues of how wealthy people and funding institutions and organizations can successfully support local organizing efforts. Coming from Washington, DC, where we also have such a huge economic divide and are living in a modern-day rendition of the Dickens’ classic A Tale of Two Cities, it was healing to engage in a discussion centered around the need for financial investments in grassroots efforts without the dominance of the investors in the carrying out of the message. This is also critical for me, as an organizer envisioning a way in which caregivers of children and youth with disabilities can create a self-determined vision of a working system of care and disrupt the poverty-pattern that comes with being a primary caregiver.

On day two of the convention, all delegations marched from the Renaissance Center to the Cobo Convention Center. This march on the waterfront was so powerful and reinforcing – we danced, we cried, chanted and built alliances. The image of our march was powerfully captured in post-cap video of the Convention put out by CPD:

Day two ended with a block party and had several artists perform, also seen in clips in the video above. It was transformative to see the arts incorporated in the vision of our future. And to be honest, it got me thinking about ways to rediscover myself as a poet and writer, bringing my own creativity into my own advocacy efforts. And like everything else with this convention, it was intergenerational with elders and young children alike participating in both the audience and performances.

Day three of the convention was the most impactful for me because I spent most of my time in the 5-hour workshop on Education, which is my passion. Yet, the most powerful showing in this workshop was the number of parent advocates that attended, many of them from Spanish-speaking immigrant communities. It was truly powerful to see this convening of advocates bringing our local mission to infuse a national vision for a new paradigm in education reform efforts. And while the workshop was filled with diverse ideas about education, ranging from teachers to parents to organizers, it was parent-dominant, which reinforces what I already know about this movement. And it was also not lost on me that many of the most vocal parents gave testimony to their experiences raising children with disabilities and complex healthcare needs.

We left in the whirlwind that brought us in. And a week later, I am still charged with the love, creativity and power that surrounded all of us in attendance. We were also honored to see some Democratic candidates video-conference into the Convention and share their vision impacting the many delegations of local communities present. And now, back home in Washington, DC, I am re-energized to continue to build on a positive vision of the future for the benefit of the children and the many generations unborn dependent on our collective ability to truly create another world where pain and suffering is no longer status quo.

While it was quite the anti-climax coming back home to DC after a highly charged and energetic convention, it’s soothing to know that I came home with the people I made the deepest connections with: SPACES in Action. I look forward to deepening my connection as a SPACES member, and look forward to learning more about the national platform that CPD offers for our local issues. And vice-versa, I also look forward to sharpening my skills as an organizer and working with SPACES to become fortified allies for all freedom loving, justice seeking people all over these United States. The future is bright!

Blog written by Chioma Oruh, Ph.D. @chiomaoruh, a contributing writer for Mothering Hands Cooperative. Follow her on twitter @ChiBornfree.

Part two – Creating Culture: Choosing to Be An Emotionally Present Parent

Click Here to read Part One

Stressed Parent.jpgAdmittedly, the past few years since becoming a parent have been very stressful. From not knowing why both my children did not meet key developmental milestones (and the initial helplessness and hopelessness that came with that) to not know how to help them.  Because I trust in the guidance of my chi, my question never rests at “Why me?” and quickly moves to “Who else is going through this?” And to my surprise, there are so many families struggling in isolation in what can be a daunting journey to coming to terms with a child’s developmental disability.

In Igbo culture, if a child looks “typically developing” then the only problem with him/her is likely being possessed by an evil spirit, or obanje, that must be prayed on or “disciplined” away. Because children are to be seen and not heard; the grunts, seemingly uncontrollable hyperactivity or temper tantrums are inexcusable offenses that must be corrected by not sparing the rod, so to speak.  It’s difficult to convince people that are deeply rooted in a specific understanding around childhood behaviors that what’s happening with your child requires medical attention.

System of Care

System of Care

And in this uphill battle to convince the “village”, there are other dysfunctions in the system of care. In my experience, the difference between the Nurse Practitioner (NP) that identified my first son and the Medical Doctor (MD) that wrote my second son’s referral was engagement and support. The NP went above and beyond to make sure that I was supported in my process; and even as I switched to a pediatrician as our primary care provider due to the false thought that this would offer more “professional” support for long term health care needs, she talked me through the pros and cons. I am eternally grateful to the NP that helped identify a provider agency that assigned a caseworker that stayed with my family until my son’s 3rd birthday, when suddenly it all went away.  There is so much to say on that transition from Part C to Part B of the IDEA and the role of the medical community to make sure that there aren’t lapse in services, no matter what’s happening within the education system, and I will take time to say it and organize even better than that. But for now, I’ll just say that  look forward to more opportunities to engage the medical community and help them understand the difference in care it makes to have an emotionally present healthcare professional.

I have also come to discover that a lack of appropriate support has been detrimental to my own health and well being; and that these high levels of stress have a damaging impact on my children. So, while pressure makes diamonds, apparently it is not so great for brain development. With so many children being born with a variety of sensory processing, impulse/emotional regulation and communication disorders, conditions typically associated with Autism, or other conditions like ADHD that impact the 9 functions of the prefrontal cortex , it appears that, as  a whole, the healthcare community in Washington, DC that work in direct service to our children tend to not take seriously the need for early and substantial intervention.

Gabor Mate mem

Dr. Gabor Mate, M.D.

One of my favorite authors and public intellectuals, Gabor Mate, says that what helps children the most through these developmental challenges is emotional closeness with non-stressed, emotionally available adults.  The absence of these sorts of people in a child’s a life contributes to why the child is not connecting the necessary brain circuit development that promote positive social relationships and good health. To this end, environment (i.e. school, home, recreational program) is a crucial component to positive brain development, starting in pregnancy and then through the first few years of early childhood  development.

According to “Excessive Stress Disrupts the Architecture of the Developing Brain,”, a position paper published by the National Scientific Council on the Developing Child from Harvard University’s Center on the Developing Child, it identifies three types of stress:

  • Positive stress: is triggered by meeting new people, dealing with frustration, entering a new environment.
  • Tolerable stress: responses that have the potential to negatively affect the architecture in the developing brain, such as conditions like death or serious illness of a loved one, a frightening accident, parental separation, persistent discrimination or other serious life events.
  • Toxic stress:  the strong, frequent, or prolonged activation of the body’s stress management system, causing chronic, uncontrollable, and/or experienced without access to support from someone caring.  This can have adverse effects on the brain architecture and can be caused by chronic abuse, directly and indirectly experienced by the child.

The impact of stress on the parenting environment, resulting in limited support for the parents, starts with pregnant women.  Epigentics shows that genes are turned on and off based on environmental factors, thus genetic arguments do not explain the rising rates of children with a variety of Autism spectrum disorders and other developmental disabilities.  The Harvard study also shows that significant maternal stress during pregnancy and poor maternal care during infancy, which have little to do with genetic composition, both affect the developing stress systems in young animals and alter genes that are involved in brain development.  The conclusion of this study notes that relationships children have with their caregivers play critical roles in regulating stress hormone production during early years of life.  The study notes, specifically, that children who grow up in conditions of economic hardship often exhibit elevated stress hormone levels.

The significance of Georgetown’s CoP is that we address the the cultural dimensions that inform this form of isolation that are faced by many oppressed people, including individuals with disabilities and the families who care for them.  Together as a community of those in dedicated service to our families, and in community with many other cities throughout the United States, we are taking on the positive stress to transform systems to eliminate the toxic stresses that are literally altering the architecture of brain development in our children. Being a part of Georgetown’s CoP and through other efforts with our Coalition and through the network of parent-supported organizations, these offer positive outlets to explore ways to support my family and in support of other families struggling to find a balance and reduce stress for the benefit of our children.

And, because I didn’t grow up with a cultural awareness that readily prepares me to prioritize managing my stress levels in order to show up as a better, emotionally present parent for my children, I choose to adopt a new culture.


In solidarity,


Part One – Creating Culture: Choosing to Be An Emotionally Present Parent

what is cultureLast week, I had the pleasure of participating in the 2017 Transformational Leadership Forum hosted by the Georgetown University National Center for Cultural Competency (NCCC). I was not only honored to have had the opportunity to learn from highly skilled cultural competency trainers, but the icing on the cake has been to now be invited to participate in DC team’s Community of Practice on Cultural and Linguistic Competence in Developmental Disabilities (CoP), led by partners in the DC Department on Disability Services and involves other collaborators within DC government and in non-governmental agencies.  There was so much useful content presented in this two-day forum and I left in deep reflection about what aspects of my culture inform my parenting style as well as my approach to disabilities advocacy. 


Taos Drum

Drums are considered the  heart beat of mother earth and used in ceremonies and celebrations in many Native American cultures

The forum began with us sharing our culture. And without setting any parameters as to what constitutes “culture”, it offered us an opportunity to share a vast array of things that we identified as self-representative. I chose to present a Taos hand drum, gifted to me during my two-year sojourn to Santa Fe, New Mexico. While I am proudly West African (Igbo, to be specific), I have always felt a connection to indigenous cultures in the Americas and have been fascinated by the similarities in values and ceremonies with indigenous Africans. One shared value that I cherish  is the importance of birthing and naming ceremonies, of which drumming is a big part of these forms of celebration. In the case of Igbo culture, naming a child is of the most important actions taken in early life. One earns their names eight (8) days after birth, and there are many participating elders that help new parents with this aspect of tradition through prayer, libations and, of course, music.   

African Talking Drum

The talking drum is used for communication and is used by many West African cultures to send important messages 

The Igbo believe that each person is born with a chi, or god-self, and to honor this chi, the child is studied by an elder while in the womb. At birth, the names are revealed with the first name embodying the essence of his or her chi, which is lifelong guardian angel-like energy.  While there are variations of the naming ceremony within in Igbo culture and acorss different African ethnic groups, in my case I was named Chioma (which means “fortunate”) by my grandfather. By the traditions offered by the ancient Igbo, my chi having oma or goodness, would suggest that my life’s path is paved with chance encounters and opportunities that are commonly associated with “luck”. And truly, I have been lucky in ways that have surprised me. With  every misfortune faced, I have been witness to the many blessings that seem to come at the strangest, most needed times. This sort of chance luck is what took me to New Mexico in the first place (a story for another day) and continues on even now, as I work with other families and concerned community members to build the Inclusive Prosperity Coalition.

While it’s not been an easy year in efforts to build our Coalition and win active participation from our families, whose hands are already so full with organizing care and support for our children. Nonetheless, we have bore witness to two great victories in terms of improving DC Child Find the short time of our existence: 1) the ruling in the D.L. v. District of Columbia case, championed by a great and capable legal team of Terris, Pravlik & Millian, LLP that are affiliated with our coalition; and 2) The Committee on Education of DC City Council, chaired by Councilmember David Grosso, who recently released a letter to Chancellor of DC Public Schools Antwan Wilson inquiring around the potential detrimental changes that Early Stages, a key agency responsible for identifying children with developmental disabilities and delays in the District of Columbia.

Besides the belief that we as a Coalition will be victorious, given what I already know about my chi, I am also greatly motivated by the love of the children. With consideration that my primary responsibility is to my own children, I am also in reflection on how to reduce my stress levels so I can better provide the emotional support in these early and formative years of life. Culturally speaking, my family and the many other Igbo families I grew up with, operate with the philosophy that children should be seen and not heard.  The age-grade system that we practice tends to limit access and power in the family and community based on age.

Having non-typically developing children with delayed speech development, sensory processing issues that result in mal-adaptive behaviors, I am constantly judged as a parent for not controlling my children.  And while I’m strong enough in character and grounded enough in another revered cultural value of nneka, (which means “mother is supreme”), I use all leverage as holding the revered title of mother, or nne, to shut down these sorts of attacks. However, I am less successful in creating a support system of emotionally available caretakers for my children in the times I have to be out of the home at work and in the community supporting other families.  It’s a hard balance to achieve and isolation is a real threat to achieving quality of life for many children with disabilities and their families, mine is no exception.

Part two of this blog post will look at the research I’ve discovered that supports the need for greater attention to getting the tools to reduce stress as a parent and to develop a support system of other non-stressed and emotionally present caretakers.

Caretaker in Maleness: The Economy of Male Teachers and Healthcare Professionals

MCASLast week, I was invited to speak with the Male Caregivers  Advocacy Support Group, an initiative of Health Services for Children with Special Needs (HSCSN).  It was truly an honor and pleasure to be surrounded with black men that are committed to being strong support for their loved ones with disabilities.  It brought tears to my eyes because, personally, I struggle with providing male support for my boys. And while I harbor some guilt due to the breakdown of my union with their father and, at the same time, am frustrated with the fact that he lives out-of-state; I am solution-oriented and determined to find other ways to accommodate for the many signs that having healthy male presence is in the best interest of their growth and development.  So, once I got to call from HSCSN to address an audience of male caregivers, I enthusiastically accepted the invitation.

This invitation also came shortly after I read a recent article in USA TODAY entitled, “Male teacher shortage affects boys who need role models”. The piece notes that, “A male role model figure is a key person in many of…boys’ lives, especially if this person is someone who listens, who’s a giving person and patient…[a]nd there may be boys who might be afraid to ask questions to a female figure or may be more comfortable with specific questions geared for men.” While as a mother, I work very hard to be present for my sons – especially because they have developmental disabilities – it is not easy holding masculine and feminine positions in their home lives. So, in reading this I felt both gratitude and guilt that a such deeply private and personal subject matter has surfaced to peak the interests of popular dialogue. Yet, if I am to be honest of my observations of my own sons and how differently they act when encountered with men versus women, my guilt is tempered by my gratitude that these inner thoughts are being aired out so I can more thoroughly confront and unpack the emotional layers of this truth. I can’t speak for everyone’s child(ren) about the impact of an interaction with an energetic and engaged man but from my observations of my sons, encounters of this nature are undeniably powerful and positive.

Male Teachers

Image taken from the USA TODAY article that notes that, “According to the Consortium for Policy Research in Education, only about 24 percent of all teachers in 2012 were male, with just one in 10 men teaching elementary school students.”

The guilt I feel mostly comes from having a failed union and also not being very successful at co-parenting. There is also another layer of this guilt caused by societal pressures felt from the fascination in popular media of the marital status of African American women – to the point where our procreation and singleness is always being monitored by laymen and social scientists alike. Mind you, I am also sort of gender-bender and don’t promote identification with any one gender – especially as such definitions are defined within the context of Eurocentric patriarchy.  Furthermore, as a social scientist in my own right, the concepts of “maleness” and “femaleness” have fascinated me so deeply that I dedicated my dissertation research to investigating how cultural values from precolonial African matriarchal systems offer possible solutions to the devastated political economy in war-torn regions such as the town of Goma, known as “the rape capital of the world”, located in the eastern region of the Democratic Republic of Congo. Yet despite my personal position on gender, or even my aspirations to restore matri-focal values to guide a redistribution of wealth and restore of economically devastated communities through gender equity, at the heart of it all, I am a single mother raising two boys with mal-adaptive behaviors that seem to flare up more in the presence of women than they do with men caregivers. This is a fact I cannot deny and must estimate fairly when I think of what’s in the best interest of my children’s development.

The USA TODAY article also references a federally funded initiative at the University of Notre Dame called TRiO, whose director, Ethan Zagore, attributes the shortage of male teachers to both conscious and subconscious gender bias of the role of an elementary school teacher as better suited for women.  Similarly, the health care related professions, such as nursing, are also noted as a female-dominated field. And for many medically fragile children with disabilities, healthcare professionals are as prominent in their lives as educators.  So, if education and healthcare professions are female dominated, what impact does this have on delivery of care?

Additionally, in 2016, the US Census attributed 23% of all family arrangement as children living with single mothers,  while another study by the Kids Count Data Center finds that since 2011 the rate of single black or African American families is 66% to 67%. Additionally, a 2014 Washington Post article notes that, “half of all children will live with a single mother at some point before the age of 18,” and that a black child is more like to be born to a single mom, or a mom without a college degree, than a white child. So, doing the math and being honest in my subjective observations of my sons, I am cautious to not be zealous in a support for male teachers and caretakers because that articulation can easily be skewed and lead to more workplace oppression for women workers. Yet, it is important to not overlook my personal observations as a truth about my sons and begin investigating the benefits of recruiting and sustaining male caregiver and educator roles for all children, with special consideration to its influence on complex layers of care for children with disabilities.

Gender Pay Gap.pngIn fairness, I am still unpacking the layers of taking such a position on this issue. In so doing, it is has been important for me to consider that if there is to be an increase in the recruitment of male teachers and caregivers, what impact would this have on an already skewed and gender imbalanced labor force? Women on average earn less than men in every single occupation for which there is sufficient earning data for both men and women to calculate an earning ratio.  Not to mention, recent studies show the median wealth for single women of color to be only $5. And while in my case, raising two boys with Autism, my experience with my sons show that male caregivers positively impact their behaviors, this is not the whole story on the layers of gender oppression even in terms of accounting for children with disabilities.

Autism Studies and GenderA recent article in The George Washington University Magazine offers insight in the fact that despite studies show that boys are more likely to receive such a diagnosis than girls, there should also be cause for concern on the gender bias against the textbook definition of Autism (i.e. receptive behaviors, impaired communication and social interactions) are skewed measures that only identify how this spectrum developmental disorder might show up in girls. Keeping all these in mind, I temper my sentiment on if labor and other economic factors should bend towards increasing its recruitment efforts to attract and retain male teachers, for example, as the USA TODAY article notes. My subjective desire to offer more men for my children to be influenced in school and healthcare settings is not articulated in ignorance of real oppressions faced by women and girls, even in the realm of Child Find, where girls are identified as having a developmental disability or delay at lesser rates than boys because it shows up so drastically differently.

While still internally interrogating these layers to inform my support of initiatives to increase the role of male professionals in the field of education and healthcare for children, I am still very proud and honored to have spent some time last week with the HSCSN male caregivers group. I also feel that I, as a single mother, was a good candidate to address this group of men within the context of advocating for the rights of children with disabilities. It is important for me to articulate here, as it was to address this with the male caregivers, that women in my position as head of households are not the problem in education or healthcare for black children, as respectability politics might suggest when assessing the problem with the contemporary black family.  Yet, in truth, I cannot raise my children alone, and I have no intention to do so, but even in my acceptance of needing others to join in helping to expose my children to positive men and women role models and caretakers, I wholly acknowledge that the heavyweight of childcare cost and management rests with the mothers. And that this reality requires more gender-balanced analyses of the economic, medical, social, emotional and academic impact of children of all abilities, with respect that even in childhood there are layers to gender based oppression and marginalization.


In solidarity,




Nurtured in Politics: Growing Up in Washington, DC

welcome-to-washington-dcUnless one is living under a rock, or is a millennial that didn’t grow in Washington, DC, most are aware and saddened by the passing of longtime news anchor Jim Vance. Reflecting on how much he and co-anchor Doreen Genzler were furniture in memories of my youth in DC also here prompted more bittersweet thoughts about this great city.

Since becoming a mother, I am increasingly more prideful about being a Washingtonian. Given the many challenges I’ve faced in efforts to gain access to a better quality care for my children at school, in the community and at home, this statement would seem contradictory. Also, given the chaotic political climate in the Federal government with the majority Senate vote today on a key motion to open discussion on moving forward with repealing the Affordable Care Act and other critical issues that’s all happening right here in DC.  Due to this, I receive many calls of concern from family, friends and loved ones living outside of this area wondering how I cope with being in such an intense and critical time.  Despite all of these factors, my DC pride has kicked up and here’s why.


Beneath the surface of all the real stress and tension in DC right now is an extraordinary history that’s at once both local and global – a history well captured by great journalists such as Jim Vance. The people of DC, those that I’ve come to know and love as native Washingtonians, with roots in this city going back generations, there is a unique pride and articulation of black identity that’s very familiar and communal like a small town; and at the same time, flavored with big city ambition and sophistication.  And as an immigrant African growing up here, I’ve had the vantage point of being both an insider and outsider to the “real DC” culture.

Birthing and raising children here, joining the ranks as a multi-generational Washingtonian, has also allowed for a new perspective on my local identity.  I think, politically, another factor contributing to my increased DC pride also comes as a response, a resistance to the changing landscape of the city largely due to urban renewal, otherwise known as gentrification.  In the past twenty (20) years, I have watched family and friends move out of DC, with the majority moving just next door to either Maryland or Virginia. At the same time, I read of lot of articles – one of which was on the widening wealth gap in the city that was recently reported by the Washington Post, citing an Urban Institute study called the “Color of Wealth in the Nation’s Capital”. The study found that between 2013 and 2014, white households in the DC area had a net worth (value of assets minus debt) of $284,000 while black households had a net worth of $3,500, the report said – in other words, the average white household has a net worth 81 times that of the average black household in Washington, DC. Hispanics had a net worth of $13,000, East Asian Indians a net worth of $573,000, Koreans at $496,000 and Chinese at $220,000.  The study doesn’t mention or distinguish the immigrant black populations from the traditional African American demographic.

Wealth Gap DC

An Urban Institute study also notes that the black population in DC stands at 48%, down since the 2007 recession from 70% in the 1970s.  The study also finds that black unemployment in DC is higher than the national average, despite the high rate of employment in the public sector in DC.  Most critically, the report cites that, “the typical black household in DC has only $2,100 in liquid assets – resources they can quickly convert into cash when faced with an emergency. Whites, in contrast, have $65,000 in liquid assets.” Another article in The Atlantic notes that more than any other racial group in DC, blacks have a much higher unemployment rate, lower education rates and more likely to receive a subprime loan. Ironically, black people in Washington, DC are economically doing better than most blacks in other cities in the United States, ranking as the 3rd most economically beneficial cities for African Americans in 2015 by Forbes.

“…the typical black household in DC has only $2,100 in liquid assets – resources they can quickly convert into cash when faced with an emergency. Whites, in contract, have $65,000 in liquid assets.”

The reality of a widening wealth gap and displacement has a negative impact on access to a quality of life for individuals with disabilities; and for parents raising children with disabilities, the economic reality in the US is dismal.  Here are some quick facts:

  • The Children’s Defense Fund finds that 16% of low-income families (families earning less than 200% of poverty) have a child with a disability; 9% have a child with a severe disability. This is nearly 50% higher than the rate among higher-income families. The percentage is particularly high among welfare families -20% of these families have a child with a disability, including 13% where a child has a severe disability.


  • According to the 2000 US Census, among families with one or more members with a disability, the poverty rate was 12.8% – higher than the 9.2% for all families and 7.7% for families without members with a disability.


  • The same 2000 US Census noted that families with a female household (totaling 12.5 million families) with no husband present were more likely than other types of families to report having members with a disability. 34.8% of these families reported one or more member with a disability, compared with 27.3% among the 55.5 million married-couple families and 31.6% among the 4.3 million families with a male household with no wife present. Divorce following the birth of a child with a severe disability has been cited as the primary factor leading to a single-mother headed household for families with children with disabilities.


Disabilities HousingA recent report called “A Broken Foundation:  Affordable Housing Crisis Threatens DC’s Lowest-Income Residents” by Claire Zippel of the DC Fiscal Policy Institute notes, “A typical extremely low-income renter in need of affordable housing is a working mother raising two children, a person with a disability relying on a fixed income, or a childless adult in a low-wage job.” Imagine the intersection between both a working mother raising children with disabilities or a childless adult that has a disability. The economic outcome is dismal and this perverse real life remake of Darwin’s Survival of the Fittest is unbelievable and unacceptable. It is only through city leadership that understands the layers of these problems and has the commitment to resolve these issues will we see real solutions to these sorts of problems. But as it stands, while I love DC, it doesn’t seem to love me or anyone that fits into my kind of vulnerability or even much a worse economic position.

I keep reading reports of that new arrivals to DC are  now leaving because of how expensive the city is, and while this is important to learn, these reports don’t reflect what would be the original sin of this crime.  Looking at the many families of children with disabilities that ascended this week to observe the Senate vote against our interests, because DC is not a state and we are bearing our own cross in this fight, it is impossible to be a formidable ally to others around the country that could benefit from our proximity. If we weren’t riddled with the extraordinary economic stress in raising our children here in DC, with constant fear of losing benefits should we be forced to relocate, we might be more able to join forces and better play our position as DC residents.  And at a point, we were strong allies for many liberation efforts, from the March on Washington to the Anti-apartheid movement, DC has been a hub for black civil and human rights, with Howard University playing a critical role the black studies movement – a higher education movement for education reform calling on universities to academically invest in research areas.

To know DC, the real DC, is to love it. And to know it, one would have to see  DC the way I’ve seen it transform to really feel the pain in my heart when observing what is happening and the distance from the history behind it. And while I remain deeply committed to improving the educational outcomes for children with disabilities in DC public and public charter schools, I can’t help but wonder if I’m cleaning up my home so its more livable or if I’m working as its maid or nanny – only working to benefit a demographic that won’t include me because I too cannot afford to live in this city I love much longer.


In solidarity,


ESSA and Special Education: the Spectrum of Hopes and Fears of a Parent Advocate

 ESSAsliderimage_525x264v3.pngWe are only half-way through 2017 and already, this year has proven to be groundbreaking in regards to Local and Federal policies regarding delivery of care education services for students with disabilities.  From the landmarks Supreme Court ruling in the March 2017 Endrews F. v Douglass County School District, which ruled in favor of academically challenging individual education plans (IEP) in the least restrictive environment (LRE) as mandated by the Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA) revised in 2004, to the June 2017 District Court of Appeals ruling in the D.L. v District of Columbia that upholds a 2011 ruling in favor of the plaintiff and holding the District of Columbia responsible for meeting detailed guidelines to improve upon the Child Find policies for children between the vulnerable ages of 2 years 8 months and 5 years 10 months transitioning into Pre-Kindergarten. And as I write this, today is the first of a three-day Leadership Conference by the US Department of Education’s Office of Special Education in Arlington, VA, where Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos and other notable speakers and presenters will speak in depth on the future of special education with consideration to the changing Federal and State education guidelines. Indeed, these are critical times.

As a resident of the District of Columbia, of which we hold no voting representation in Congress due to not being a recognized state in the Union, our system of organization to carry out education policies is unique and, at times, dysfunctional.  And when it comes to special education, or general issues impacting the rights of individuals with disabilities, the District as a whole and our education system holds deep-rooted cultural biases that inform, and thus limit, progressive policies and practices that could more positively and comprehensively improve the quality of life for those directly impacted of all ages and their families. Beyond being a city-state tasked to carryout mandates that the other 50 autonomous and represented state structures are equally (not equitably) tasked with, we also experiencing growing pains that challenge the systemic intelligence around how our local government manages and integrates care for individuals with disabilities of all ages, with children and youth being the age groups most impacted specifically by educational policies.  The combination of a less-than-desirable state system motivated by forces beyond our control (i.e. no taxation without representation) and a difficult learning curve that requires political will of gigantic proportions to change these deep-rooted cultural biases that inform policies, this combination produces both opportunity and despondency in a parent advocate such as myself.


The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), which is the Obama administration’s articulation of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESCA), was signed into law on December 10, 2015 and in many ways improves on the Bush administration’s No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) of 2002.  In a speech delivered at the 2011 annual meeting for the American Association for People with Disabilities, former Secretary of Education Arne Duncan credited the NCLB for its groundbreaking policy, making it impossible for “Americans [to] no longer ignore insidious achievement gaps [for students with disabilities].”[1] With the school year 2017-18 being the first school year that ESSA takes full effect, it is too early to evaluate any of the  areas of improvements to the NCLB, which most notably includes more autonomy for states (and the District of Columbia) in determining how this law is implemented, monitored and measured.  Yet, there are articulations within ESSA that show promising signs that is aligned to champion the rights of children with disabilities while at the same time not being heavy-handed in imposing on states how to achieve greater performance outcomes.

As a parent of two young children with autism, with my youngest still in Pre-Kindergarten, I am encouraged by what I understand to be areas of progressive change to the Federal education policy guidelines in ESSA.  For one, ESSA now requires states to involve the public and representatives of a wide range of the education community as state officials put together accountability plans due of either April 1, 2017 or September 18, 2017.  For the April 1st deadline, fifteen states and the District of Columbia submitted the plans to their governors (or in the District’s case, to Mayor Muriel Bowser) – who in turn submits it to the US Department of Education. Another critical aspect of ESSA is the establishment of “comprehensive center on students at risk of not attaining full literacy skills due to a disability,”[2] which includes a wide variety of disabilities.

Indivualized Education Plan (IEP) alphabet blocksWhile ESSA seeks to transform some of the restrictive policies that limited state’s rights to self-determine their education policies, the IDEA is still the leading legislation that guides in regards to protecting the educational rights of children with disabilities. Similar to the NCLB, ESSA will continue to honor a system that requires states to submit separate performance reports on state tests for students with disabilities, which must still be administered in grades 3-8 and once again in high school.[3] ESSA is also said to place a 1% cap (which equates to 10% of students with disabilities) on the percentage of all students who can take alternate assessments in order to accommodate for students with severe cognitive developmental delays or disabilities.[4] As noted earlier, the verdict is still out on what this all will mean for education outcomes but as a parent advocate for children with disabilities (including but not limited to my own), I am hopeful that ESSA coupled with the rulings in the Endrews and the D.L. cases will put the necessary pressure on the District’s Office of the State Superintendent (OSSE), which is our state education agency (SEA) given authority to monitory the performance and implementation of the ESSA state policies of the 65 local school agencies (LEA) for the District’s public charter schools plus the District of Columbia Public Schools (DPCS).

And even with all this optimism, I am still weary that we have not overcome some of the unconscious biases that influence discrimination against individuals with disabilities and unless there is also some attention given to overturning this culture of violence and silence for some of our most vulnerable citizens that have suffered such cruel behavior as noted in another landmark case Evans v District of Columbia that led to the closing of institutions such as Forest Haven. As a parent, I am still subject to people’s judgement against my parenting and the perceived maladaptive behaviors of my children with autism. I know firsthand the ugliness of those who would otherwise like nothing more than to see my children disappear or be put away due to different ways they express themselves in the world. I am aware that bullying is very real issue for children with disabilities and that our schools have not offered a program that gives me much comfort that my children will not be a target. I know that the unauthorized use of forceful restraint methods on school premises either by school employees or invited law enforcement officers remains a huge problem, as noted in a recent report led by the University Legal Services of the District of Columbia. And I know that so many other parents share these concerns for legitimate reasons.

Additionally because the District is not a State, the unclearly defined roles of our State Board of Education, Public Charter School Board and even those of the Superintendent Hanseul Kang and the Chancellor of DCPS Antwan Wilson, remain vague and lack transparency, particularly in regards to special education services and the rights of students (and their parent/community advocates) with disabilities. Until these issues are addressed and clarified with more rigor and commitment both Federally and through District policies, my optimism will be remain tempered by my fears.

In solidarity,



[1] “Preparing Students with Disabilities for Success: Secretary Duncan’s Remarks to the American Association for People with Disabilities,” March 15, 2011, US Department of Education, accessed July 17, 2017, https://www.ed.gov/news/speeches/preparing-students-disabilities-success-secretary-duncans-remarks-american-association-people-disabilities

[2] 20 USC 6674: Technical assistance and national evaluation, from Title 20 – Education, accessed July 17, 2017, http://uscode.house.gov/view.xhtml?req=granuleid:USC-prelim-title20-section6674&num=0&edition=prelim

[3] Christina Samuels, “Special Education Groups Push for ESSA Representation,” Education Week, December 30, 2016, accessted July 17, 2017, http://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2017/01/04/special-education-groups-dig-in-on-essa.html?r=192922611

[4] “Special Education Groups Push for ESSA Representation”

What Happens Next in DC Child Find Policies is Up to Parents and Allies of Children with Disabilities

Frederick Douglass QuoteAfter a weekend of much needed rest and reflection, I have had some time to think not just about what independence means to me but what it means for my children. Frederick Douglass was not only a hero in the anti-slavery movement, he was also prolific in articulating great ideas expressed in speeches such as “The Meaning of the Fourth of July to the Negro“. As we sit waiting for the Republican led-Senate to make its next move in regards to the country’s health care policies that have a major consequences on individuals with disabilities in all walks of live, including at school, I can’t help but reflect on Douglass’s words in saying,

“…your shout of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanks-givings, with all your religious parade and solemnity…mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy — a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages. There is not a nation on the earth guilty of practices more shocking and bloody than are the people of the United States, at this very hour…”

Douglass is also famously known for saying, “It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.” So beyond my reflections on the healthcare system and the pending doom of what comes next, I already know the truth of where, how and who should be on the forefront of the discovery of more loving ways to make policies. Beyond promoting a gendered politic that would suggest that women make better lawmakers than men (which isn’t always true), I believe that children-focused societies are the most balanced. This was the way of many precolonial indigenous societies in the Americas and Africa that have shared mother-focuses (or matriarchal) social structures that put the power in the hands of those closest with the children in utero and in rearing. These ideas put love next to the children (born and unborn) at the center of policy-making decisions. And so, the big picture question I’m meditating on is where is the love? And can love be taught?

Social Emotional LearningI don’t have the answer to these questions and seeking the answers prompted me to join the Collaborator Network of the Collaborative of Academic, Social and Emotional Learning (CASEL) to find ways to promote progressive pedagogy for early child development and how to raise the emotional intelligence with a focus on children. In a very Douglassian approach, CASEL promotes for school districts to develop partnerships with families and community members that are focused on improving education outcomes for children beyond academic performance, highlighting engagement, trust, and collaboration for the benefit of raising more emotionally sensitive and intelligent people. So, as I get more academically knowledgeable on the subject, I am equally in reflection of my own life experiences and internal intelligence to find some these answers.

In the sixth grade at Takoma Education Campus (the school my children now attend), I chose to sing Whitney Houston’s The Greatest Love at the annual talent show. This song was selected not just because my science teacher and mentor, Ms. Weaver, introduced me to it (because she also had us singing Bob Marley’s Buffalo Solider on nature walks) but because it spoke so accurately to my world view both then and now.  I truly believe the children are our future, and even as a child myself that was more on the receiving end than the delivery of these services, it made complete sense that the goal of education was to be guided and then let me lead.  As a parent of children with disabilities, it is important for me now to work hand in hand with their formal and informal educators (“the village”) to ensure that all children receive free appropriate public education, or FAPE.

Mandela EducationI have been thinking deeply about my role as a parent, especially as a single black mother, and how to professionalize advocacy efforts while not losing the human element of interpersonal relationships between families with a common interest to improve educational services and outcomes. For this to happen, it is critical to build trust, create a culture of skills and resource sharing and other such critical elements which are necessary for camaraderie and sustained efforts that fuels any movement.  And we truly are on the precipice of another local parent-led educational movement in the District of Columbia and other places around the country to take us to the next best level of implementation of the many landmark cases and laws when it comes to the education of children with disabilities.

From Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1963 to Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1975 to the Developmental Disabilities Act of 1984 to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act of 1990 there is a huge arsenal of laws that protect children and their parent advocates. Additionally, most recently, there’s the  March 2017 Supreme Court ruling in Endrew F vs Douglas County School District case and the series of local landmark cases and legislation including the Blackman Jones , the 2014 Enhanced Special Education Act and now recently the DL vs the District of ColumbiaIt’s like walking into battle in steel armor – while it serves as protective gear, it also requires skill and training to actually fight in such a heavy load…and truly, I dislike using violent examples to explain parent-school relationships in regards to our children’s education but it’s true to life.

These federal and local laws help to break down barriers against access to timely, professionally evaluated and accurately documented educational services as well as due process procedures when there are disagreements between families and the school system. Truthfully, parents have been at the forefront of the majority of education reform policies in the United States, particularly since the 19th century Industrial Revolution which introduced child labor laws, and of course in the many years before that in different forms in precolonial societies all around the world.  Today, there is a yet another need for parents to get on the forefront of legislative support to ensure budgetary commitment to translating case law into policy and practice when it comes to Child Find.  And if for no other reason (and there are many more), the Inclusive Prosperity Coalition exists to midwife this local movement.

freedom-schoolHowever, it is important to note that all parent-led advocacy is not progressive. After all, Secretary of Education Betsy Devos begun her troubling career as a school choice advocate, serving as the chair of the American Federation for Children that claims to want to expand the choice options of families by encouraging the pipeline that sends public funds to support unregulated private schools that may discriminate against certain populations of students including LGBTQ youth and children with disabilities. Yet, despite these negative consequences of things like school voucher programs, a recent study by the Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates (COPAA) entitled, “School Vouchers and Students with Disabilities: Examining Impact in the Name of Choice,” found that parents often choose vouchers regardless of if there are available civil rights protections and seem to disregard these implications due to the urgency of their child needing to change schools and many other important factors. Yes, it’s true, some public schools are performing that terribly which motivates parents (particularly African American families) to exit like runaways from plantations seeking less hostile environments to rear their children.

Black Power to Black Studies.jpgTo this end, it is important to also reflect on the history of access to alternative education outside of the traditional public school system and the activation of Freedom Schools during the Civil Rights Movement, which linked quality education to access to other pathways to full democratic rights such as the right to vote.  Additionally, starting in the 1970s, the emergence of organizations such as the Council of Independent Black Institutions as part of the Black Studies Movement, a movement well documented in the book, From Black Power to Black Studies: How a Radical Social Movement Became an Academic Discipline (2010) by Fabio Rojas.  Alternative black education emerged in response to an often times hostile public education system. Ironically, contemporary articulations of this quest for liberated black education finds strange bed fellows with conservative architects of the school choice movement that promotes for profit schools for very different reasons of parents and students during the 1960s and 1970s that spearheaded the broader black studies movement from the civil rights era and beyond.

Democracy in ChainsSide note: I hope to soon read and review Nancy MacLean’s Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America (2017), which speaks to the history of Chicago School of Economics trained James Buchanan, an early architect of the modern libertarian movement, and allegedly led the anti-Brown vs. Board of Education in Virginia in 1956 through a form of privatization that both suppressed voting and undermined the public education system.

It is difficult (if not impossible) to teach what one does not know. So, to show the children all the beauty that they have inside, as Whitney Houston’s song prescribes, we as parents must find it first in ourselves.  Maybe its the geek in me but I personally can’t think of anything more beautiful than rising to the occasion to roll up my sleeves and solve a problem that can change lives for the better…especially if those lives are children, including my own. And while a real challenge usually has some form of endurance training, I realize that the task in sifting through the ways to practically yet systemically improve DC’s Child Find policies is a protracted struggle, as in its a marathon and not a sprint.

I conclude with the disclaimer that I am not perfect, so I don’t expect other parents, legal advocates, educators, administrators and law makers to be perfect. I also don’t expect for us to come up with perfect processes nestled in perfect policies and procedures and impeccable monitoring and evaluation practices. None of those meet my top ten expectations of what will come next. However, I do expect real commitment to solving the work-in-progress DC Child Find system for preschool transition, transparency and an ethical approach to policy changes and budgetary allocations.  As my favorite move franchise (so much so that I named my son Jedi!) says: “May the force be with us.”

Stay tuned for next stage of our campaign to maintain Early Stages services in DC Public Schools and other areas of improvement in the DC Child Find for preschoolers.

In solidarity,


Medicaid and Me

AHCA-2It is wonderful news to hear that the vote on the massive tax-cut for the wealthy bill (disguised as a health care bill) has been postponed for at least another week and a half. Yet as a mother and head of household of two young children with autism whose quality of care is heavily dependent on what happens to health care policy, I remain sober. Because we live in a world where it is sometimes hard to tell fact from fiction, here are some personal and objective truths as to why it is important to remain vigilant and engaged in what happens next with the American health care system:

Disability MattersThe truth is that my role as “parent” does not end my resume as a caretaker; and H.R. 1628, the American Health Care (AHCA) Act of 2017 bill, is a cruel contract that takes for granted the real life impact on able-bodied caretakers tasked to providing for our loved ones. In truth no matter what the family structure, or even if one has private insurance, the impact of the AHCA will be detrimental to everyone.


The truth is that Medicaid helps schools help children with a variety of health care needs. And whatever happens to this bill, it will alter the culture of care that schools are able to provide for our children. And for children with disabilities, especially students who are medically fragile but are able to attend school, their safety is compromised by this law. And for many more children that receive speech and occupational therapy, typically noted in an IEP, Medicaid not IDEA funds typically cover the cost of care.



Katie Beckett (1978-2012) and her mother-advocate, to learn more about her heroic life, click here


The truth is that beyond Medicaid or Medicaid Expansion, state-sponsored waiver programs such as the Katie Beckett program, whose funding comes out of the District’s local budget, is compromised by the AHCA.  If Congress is successful in its aims to gut Medicaid and turn it into a block grant program, as has been suggested by earlier this year, it would put a lot of pressure on local funds to meet the needs of a variety of families. And the means tests, the same means tests that I already suggest whose metrics are out-dated, thus problematic, and are the reason I support Universal Basic Income, will now be used to weed out families such as my own that don’t neatly fit into the definition of “low income”. I will be forced off any public assistance, leaving me out to dry on the marketplace of predatory lenders because there is absolutely no way I would be able to cover the cost of care needed for my children with disabilities.

The truth is that the AHCA dehumanizes experiences such as my own that involves complex layers of care. Beyond being a mother of two brilliant boys with autism, Atty and Jedi, I am also the daughter of a larger-than-life African father who I have watched etch away little by little due to the impact of dementia. I am a sister to two protective and wonderful brothers – one with mild scoliosis but is overall high-functioning and the other, our superhero big bro, who struggles with bipolar schizophrenia. Beyond these, our mother has had multiple back surgeries due to chronic back pain caused by inflammatory arthritis.

The truth is that sometimes I feel overwhelmed with the pressure of being the most able-bodied person in my family and I live in constant fear thinking of what would happen if something were to happen to me. What would happen with my children? My parents? My brothers and their families? And even as I have lived largely in resistance to the culturally imposed family title of the ada, which in the Igbo language translates as “first daughter”. I am, indeed, the ada of my family and I inherit all the traditional and modern implications of this role and title.

Male DaughtersIn Igbo culture, the two most important roles in the family are the okpara (first son) and the ada, and both roles in the family are filled with duty and authority, expressed in the traditional concept of ofo. In times of ceremony or in the untimely death or bad health of a parent, both the first son and daughter are to take on the responsibilities of maintaining the household both financially and in carrying on cultural traditions.  And, then, in cases where there is only one able first son or daughter, then gender becomes a secondary notion and they are to adopt the role of keeping the household regardless of if they are male or female.  The concept of these traditional roles of the okpara (also known as di-okpala in some dialects) and ada (referenced as aku in some dialects) are captured by the scholar Ifi Amadiume, who explains these complex Igbo cultural traditions in the classic book Male Daughters, Female Husbands: Gender and Sex in African Society (1987).

But I digress…the truth is that my culture and experience as a first generation American is considered a threat to those seeking to make America great, in the way that would only welcome me in shackles and not as a full citizen that requires all the benefits of citizenship for myself, my family and all Americans. The bitter truth is that even as my children are generations American from their fathers side and were born in this great city of Washington, DC, their access to full citizenship has also historically been stripped not just due to their blackness but because this has been the experience of individuals with disabilities of all races and cultural backgrounds.


As Senator Chuck Schumer said earlier today, the truth is that “the ultimate reason this bill failed is that the American people just didn’t like it.” Beyond political rhethoric and real life socially impactful concerns from caretakers like myself, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) estimates that the AHCA would reduce federal deficits by $119 billion over the coming decade and increase the number of people who are uninsured by 23 million in 2026 relative to current law. In the 49-page report released by the CBO yesterday, June 26, 2017, can be credited for slowing down the passage of this troubling law but it won’t likely stop some of the key signatures of the goals of the bill: to gut Medicaid.

paul-ryan-on-medicaidThe truth is that many Republicans, such as the House Majority Leader Paul Ryan (R-WI), have been dreaming of cutting Medicaid since college and that they have majority representation in the House of Representatives, Senate and the White House.  And while I pride myself in seeing the best in people, I cannot find the brighter side of these neoliberal policies that have no precedence anywhere else in the world and no major economy in Europe or with our neighbors in Canada reflect such a cruel approach to healthcare, which is truly a human right.

The truth is that beyond the CBO report, a large reason why public outcry has come out against the AHCA is because of disabilities self-advocates from the historic and proven might of ADAPT. About 60 members of ADAPT were arrested on Thursday June 22, 2017 in front of Sentor Mitch McConnell’s office. The graphic images of police officers carrying out protesting Americans in their wheelchairs and other medical devices sent a compelling visual around not only who is impacted by the AHCA but that they are willing to risk it all to stand up for their democratic rights. We as parents locally based in Washington, DC form greater alliances with ADAPT and our local powerhouse self-advocates organization, Project ACTION, because there is so much that comes out of solidarity and working together for a common cause.


Finally, we are going in the wrong direction when it comes to healthcare reform. Truthfully, I was not a big fan of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) because it did not go far enough.  But I was grateful for some victories of the ACA because of key benefits including critical therapies such as Applied Behavior Therapy previously not accepted by insurance companies, as well as forcing these same insurance companies to indiscriminately cover pre-existing conditions and long-term care.  It was my hope at the time that we would steadily move closer to proven effective single-payer systems adopted in Canada and several other countries around the world.  And, so it is crucial that we as parent advocates of children with disabilities learn more about efforts happening in real time to promote the “Medicare for All” bill introduced by John Conyers, (D-MI) that has already passed three times before 2017 and received support by over 100 Democrats in the US but failed each time in this 115th Republican led Congress.

Let’s all keep watching and speaking truth to power, together.


In solidarity,




Part 2: What is Basic Income

unconditional basic incomeIn the last post on Basic Income, I alluded to the pilot program that was just approved in Hawaii as well as the project in Ontario, Canada sponsored by the Poverty Reduction Strategy Office (PRSO). I had the pleasure of meeting Karen Glass, the Assistant Deputy Minister of the Ontario PRSO, who is a willing ally to give us tips and support in bringing Basic Income to Washington, DC. But first, before going too far with possibilities, I want to answer a fundamental question: what is basic income and more specifically, what is “universal basic income” (the brand of basic income I endorse)?

According to the Basic Income Action (BIA) Seattle Chapter (they gave free dollars at the conference at Hunter College in NYC!), universal basic income is a policy which guarantees every person a regular stipend, no strings attached, to meet their basic survival needs. It is

  • universal: everyone receives it
  • basic: it is just enough to meet bare survival needs
  • income: it is simply cash in your pocket, no strings attached

This is truly a moment to shape how Basic Income can and will look in the United States, specifically in Washington, DC! According to website of Stanford University’s Basic Income Lab,

“There is an increasing need for in-depth academic research on how to design a universal basic income and how to evaluate its implementation – assessing the visions that underpin unconditional cash, the political and economic feasibility of various proposals, as well as its strengths and weaknesses as a measure to alleviate poverty, precariousness and inequalities…” (Basic Income Lab)

As a parent advocate loyal to ensuring that our local policies reflect the years of advocacy work to promote and protect the educational rights of children with disabilities. Yet, even as a such, I am well aware that children spend majority of their time outside of an educational institutions and that the economic state of the family is a major driver in the academic success of a child, with consideration to medical and other impairments that might compromise their ability to perform on set standards of achievement. Family structure, access to necessary services, knowledge of the laws and policies, influence and a host of other factors contribute to an unequal playing field for our children, and thus becomes their first (albeit indirect) lesson as to how politics works and how they are impacted by it. Access to books, clothes, food, shelter and even a non-stressed emotionally present parent, these are some of the things impacted by the family’s access to sufficient money to care for their children. A struggle to ensure that our city and our country adopt a universal basic income policy with dedicated and sustainable budgetary commitment is a lesson that teaches our children of all abilities and ourselves how to create equity in society – raising the emotional intelligence in all of us.

I don’t take for granted that parents are not a homogeneous population. We have different ideas and life experiences that inform these ideas, yet we have a common interest in a functional education system that gives our children an opportunity to meet and surpass a desire for them to succeed academically and in life in general.  Children with disabilities are the most vulnerable when it comes to meeting this shared interest and failure to understand that the economic state of the family they are born in (or the zip code) determines not just their educational performance but their life expectancy and other health-related issues. So, for me, being an active participant in shaping the future our children with disabilities through advocating for universal basic income means taking account what more equity in the distribution of collective wealth (i.e. taxes) would do to impact the following:

1) Disability culture, a unique expression through the arts and other social expressions that binds those with non-typical abilities that goes beyond oppression and marginalization but represent a variety of worldviews informed by their different abilities that advance humanity. With more access to monies, low and middle income families would likely be able to afford more investments in understanding and participating in the unique cultural expression of our children with disabilities because we’d be making more stress-free choices in their care and development.

2) The reality of raising a child/children with disabilities is not just subject for pity but is a major duty filled with beauty and love that deserves to be understood so on-lookers at grocery stores and other spaces that might witness a tantrum or technically challenging moment with equipment or just real human moment of frustration can be understood completely and be observed without negative judgement. Access to guaranteed income, as basic income suggests, creates more balance in the lives of families and allows for a more harmonious relationship between parents and our non-typically developing children, as well as influences the quality of teachers and caretakers in education and otherwise because they too are making more liberated economic decisions. Imagine if our teachers, doctors, nurses and aides were financially more secure – what impact would that have on the level of care given to our loved ones with disabilities?

3) The great and unique intellectual capacity of children and youth with disabilities (even if their disability is labeled as an “intellectual disability”) are now supported by the landmark Supreme Court ruling in the Endrew F v. Douglas County School District. This means that a core value is that all children can learn, given the right tools in the least restrictive environment. And while this a huge ideological win in how we understand children with disabilities, it opens the doors to other considerations hindering greater access to educational services for our children that doesn’t underestimate their abilities to perform academically. I believe we would see greater educational outcomes for children with disabilities with less stressed parents and access to educators and caretakers that want to engage with our children just for the love of them and not because they need to pay the bills and so they merely tolerate them.

Basic income is a means to which families who otherwise wouldn’t qualify for Social Security Insurance (SSI) to care for their loved one with a disability would have choices beyond seeking loan options from predatory lenders. While this is a proactive way to solve an otherwise dismal outlook for the middle class, resistance against basic income perplexes me. In part 3, I hope to unpack my thoughts on the false equivalent between working and contributing to society, which appears to be rooted in ableism.

Yet, the problem that basic income solves is monumental. Unless you are in the position to understand the high cost of care for a child with a disability and hoops one has to jump to gain any kind of assistance because of the limited understanding of what impact this has  at the intersection of race, class and gender for a single black mother (whose median wealth, despite her education, is $5). The limitation that there are too many stipulations that disqualify families (such as my own) that require assistance but do not classically fit a a neat definition of “poor” due to the means-tests whose metrics haven’t been updated since the 1960s or work requirements that usually associated with SSI or other social welfare programs.


The reason I believe that parents advocates of children with disabilities are the perfect advocates for universal basic income is because more than the average American, we understand how cumbersome and humiliating it is to expose so much of your personal financial history in order to potentially qualify for benefits that may or may not come to pass depending on the metrics of the means-test.

It is humiliating to have to prove your worth in order to be considered for additional funding that helps to provide the best quality of life for our loved ones with disabilities. We know better than most what it means to sacrifice making rent/mortgage or a family vacation or even simply select grocery items in order to pay for expensive long-term therapies and other care necessities when it comes to our children with disabilities. We know better than any other population that one should not have to “qualify” in order to need a helping hand in affording complex and unique medical procedure that may or may not be covered by insurance. And so, it is we, that stand to benefit the most from receiving a universal basic income.

There are many equations that can lead to better outcomes that result in equity among the services offered to provide FAPE  in the least restrictive environment for all school aged children in DC public and public charter schools.  Basic income offers a real solution to education related issues by addressing the principal socioeconomic issues that prevent or inspire more parent engagement and more productive out of school time.

[Part 1: (IDEA/Child Find) + Basic Income = Equity]

[Part 3: How Basic Income can Improve Child Find and School Outcomes]


In solidarity,


Chioma Oruh

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