To bring you up to speed...In early November, Eliza and I had a remarkable trip to the east coast participating in the National State of the Art Conference, meeting and speaking to middle and high school students and faculty at 3 Friends (Quaker) schools and visiting College of Charleston in South Carolina. It never ceases to amaze me how much we learn by connecting and interacting with others...and there were MANY! - between Trudy, Katherine, Anna and Lauren from Westfield State University; all the incredible speakers and organizers we heard and spoke with at the National Conference, questions and comments from middle schoolers and high schoolers (you all are AWESOME!), conversations with parents and educators, College of Charleston students and more!
I could not have been more proud of Eliza delivering her keynote speech at George Mason University during the State of the Art Conference to over 300 in attendance! She spoke from the heart about her experience and advocacy and received a standing ovation. She is so passionate about what she is asking for and the people in this movement are so dedicated and supportive of helping her realize her hopes and follow her dreams. The positive energy everywhere we went stood in sharp contrast to her experience last fall and has helped each of us understand that indeed, it isn't Eliza's difference that we should be excluding, it should be her difference we welcome for the insights it provides.
It seems like such a simple thing that Eliza is wanting...to be educated in a community of her peers in settings that she has and will learn to navigate. When we talk in this country about equality for all, civil rights, opportunity, the importance of education...it seems so clear that we should be advocating for EVERYONE to be as dedicated, driven and courageous as Eliza - to stand up for what they want and ask that they, too, be allowed to partake in the same opportunities - for personal growth and development, for better employment, for understanding of difference.
The reality is, everyone wants this...it is the occupy movement; it is the people who have over the course of our history - African Americans, Native Americans, women, - been marginalized and described by someone else as less capable, less worthy, less valuable. But overtime we have learned that these "groups" are no less valuable or important and all play an equally vital part when living out a true democracy. Every person matters. Equality matters. What is increasingly evident is that practices - that include and value the individual creativeness and uniqueness of each - create communities that more easily value all the parts that make up the whole of humanity. Segregation and perpetuating difference as defined by who is more valuable, more worthy, more powerful - leads to great suffering, exclusion and oppression.
Many of you are curious about what's going on right now for Eliza. Our trip east and speaking engagements brought us in contact with an incredible group of students, parents, educators and leaders. For me, the memories are of this direct contact that comes from sharing one's heart and being met with the hearts of others - who care, who have taken the time to thank Eliza and show her with words and actions how much the sharing of her story and herself has impacted them. An example of this is a letter we received recently from my cousin, Toni, who teaches at Sandy Spring Friends School in Maryland. Sandy Spring is celebrating their 50th anniversary this year. As part of the celebration, the Middle School wrote a letter to the future Head of School (50 years from now!) and placed the letter and several items in a time capsule. You can read their letter here and will then understand how touched we were that one of Eliza's wristbands was among the items they buried. We were deeply honored to have been given the opportunity for Eliza to share her story throughout our east coast stops and will be taking steps to create opportunities for her to speak to colleges in Oregon and others in the West and beyond as time allows. She recently committed to a school-wide speaking engagement at Mission College in CA in February being sponsored by their Diversity committee.
As for SOU and other local advocacy....Eliza has asked to speak to the faculty at SOU and we are waiting to hear back. There are still many unanswered questions and unresolved feelings, but mostly we believe that hearing directly from Eliza would help many in the SOU community understand who she is and what she is asking - and would allow an open dialog about how this learning community might embrace including students with intellectual disabilities. Reading SOU's recently released Statement on Diversity, we are mystified by how a higher education institution can write, believe in and use this statement as a guide without seeing how their decisions, treatment of and actions toward Eliza violated every part of this statement. It is our genuine hope that the statement will be followed, but feel SOU will need to re-evaluate its policies, administrative actions and general mode of operation in order to fully practice, with truth and conviction, the principles stated therein.
On a different front, we have recently had a wonderful opportunity to collaborate with the Medford School District Board - bringing information on inclusive educational practices to their attention with the generous support of Michael Remus, director of student services at Deer Valley Unified School District in Phoenix, Arizona. One of the lessons I have learned is that situations warranting change can often be solved simply by sharing information previously generated by the hard work of others, if one takes the time to look and ask around for it. Case in point is the incredible "nuts and bolts" materials on inclusive educational practices available on Deer Valley Unified SD Student Services tools website and Michael's generosity in sharing his knowledge of creating inclusive model schools in multiple school districts throughout the many states he has served. This knowledge and these models from K-12 school districts practicing inclusive and supportive education are the change in school "culture" that we believe are critically needed in education - for the benefit of ALL students and society as a whole.
Another exciting development at the state level is the $15,000 Think College mini grant Oregon received last month to develop a state-wide action plan creating access for inclusive post secondary education for students with intellectual disabilities! Starting in January 2012, key stakeholders will come together over the course of 10 months to problem solve, hear what's happening throughout the country and move Oregon forward in providing access to higher education. Research being produced from programs throughout the country is showing benefits for ALL students. Students with intellectual disabilities who have traditionally been shut out of higher education are finding college provides increased skills leading to better employment, increased independence and less dependency on state and federal support dollars. For those of you in Oregon, there will be many opportunities in the coming months for input - focus groups, meetings, summits and more. I will report more on this as information becomes available. In the meantime...check out the incredible new resources Think College has developed for middle school students, parents and educators at Think College Island.
Before closing, I just want to mention the College of Charleston (CofC). Eliza and I had the great fortune of meeting and hearing Dr. Cindi May, Prof. of Psychology and Dr. Lynn Ford, Associate Provost, both of College of Charleston, speak at the State of the Art Conference and then later Dr. May and REACH Director, Edie Cusack, while visiting the campus. Sometimes in your life you intrinsically know when you have ARRIVED HOME! What we felt and saw in these individuals was a welcome mat, an attitude, a "culture", that said we believe in YOU and want you because you are one of us. It is something we have always been looking for, trying to create, helping people understand and finally, in every sense of the word, discovered this program is first and foremost a place one BELONGS. College of Charleston has created space for students with intellectual differences, not because it's mandated, but simply because they believe in all of humanity and the abilities of all to contribute to the whole. Their mission aligns with ours which is, we want to change the world - allowing all of their students and staff to see that everyone has value, everyone has a place. Learning about each other, understanding and valuing difference comes from being WITH each other. If you want to know about somebody else, whether out of curiosity or for understanding humanity, then create opportunities to interact, live and learn together...then listen.
This opportunity to be a fully participating member of an authentic school community is what Eliza is wishing for and what will spur her on to fill out applications and pursue her dream of college next fall. Will it be easy? Probably not, but what is life if it is not to take risks, make mistakes and problem solve our way through? Has it ever been any different? We are excited and a little scared for Eliza and the challenges and joys that lay ahead. It's just what we as parents do for our children, all the while reminding ourselves...
"There are two things we should give our children: one is roots and the other is wings."
And now, if you've made it this far, here are some pictures we'd like to share....
Nov 1st, 2011 at SOU
Eliza speaking to SOU's Exceptional Child class
Nov 3, 2011 - State of the Art Conference on Postsecondary Education
and Individuals with Intellectual Disabilities
Getting Ready - Eliza with Debra Hart from Think College
The keynote panelists - Eliza, Lauren, Thea, Thomas and Micah
Eliza giving her address.
A sea of faces.
Dancing with Anna, Lauren, Trudy and Katherine
November 7th - Speaking to the Friends
Community School in College Park, Maryland
Audience at Friends Community School
November 8th - Speaking to the Peace and Social Justice classes
at Westtown School, Westtown, PA
Audience at Westtown
November 9th - Speaking to Sandy Springs Friends Middle School
Getting ready to speak.
Speaking to the 140 middle schoolers and staff.
Cousin Anna and Eliza checking out the school.
November 10-12 - College of Charleston
On our student led campus tour...definitely an
awesome campus with some way cool trees!
Touching the cougar for good luck.
Checking out the beach!
In front of the REACH house. In case your wondering,
REACH stands for Reaching Educational And Career Hopes.
Notice the "founded in 1770". C of C is the 13th oldest college in the country.
At the airport... kind of liking the Charleston
temperature and hoping to "stay southern"!