President’s Report: Transformation

Jonathan Webb, PhD, CI and CT, NIC Advanced

President

his particular column has been in the making for months. A variety of topics and possibilities have been considered in the creation of this piece. Contextualizing our current state of affairs was an option, as was discussing the CEO position, the importance of headquarters administration and staff, collaboration and partnerships with other national organizations, dealing with politics, exploitation and abuse of those imprisoned – both Deaf peoples who are trapped in a cycle of systemic violence as well as hearing “certified” interpreters manipulated into participating in this atrocious practice. Our last conference could certainly be referenced again; it was an historic moment for us and the first time that many of us felt authentically welcomed and comfortable in that space – and how that happened. Our financial standing most certainly deserves attention.

White papers, the utilization of councils, the critical work of committees, the power of grassroots members both leading and driving the association; all of these are topics worth our time and attention. Part of me wanted to simply reflect on past leadership of RID and how each board has contributed to RID’s growth and evolution, because it is important to not only acknowledge our elders and

forerunners, but it is critical that we do more than just criticize those who sacrifice so much to then be lambasted by the membership and the community. Ultimately, however, it became very clear what I needed to address in a very direct way – transformation.

It has been three months since the current directors were sworn in. In three months, myself and others have been questioned and directly challenged on the notion of transformation. People I work with who are close to me, buckling under the pressure of both valid and farcical  grievances, have then turned to me in accusatory tones questioning where the transformation is. Some of our leaders within the association have called hypocrisy on the idea of transformation because what they wanted was not immediately provided – leaders who have a very clear understanding of the time and work it takes to get anything accomplished in RID. There’s no need to go on, because those reading this column likely know who we are and how we seem to consistently work against our own self-interests because it is easier to destroy than to build. So, having provided some context, I’d like to talk about transformation and what that means to me personally, professionally, and in my current capacity as I serve.

Our culture is toxic to many of us. Arguably, our culture is toxic to all of us – including those who seem to revel in such toxicity. We know that some people have a higher tolerance for toxicity than others. We also know that we can become accustomed to the toxicity which has been around us and in us for such a long time because we forget how to resist it and instead identify with it, not recognizing that we are slowly killing ourselves. 

Before I talk about this further, it would be a grievous disservice to not address the use of the word culture. For many of us, this word is sacred. It is tied deeply to our identity and the one thing that allows us to survive in this world where the edict is assimilate or suffer greater marginalization and discrimination. I apologize for using the word culture in such a crass way. Sadly, I am not sure I have another word to address the unconscious agreements we’ve entered into to behave in the manner we do.

Programs can be changed. Models of practice can be changed. Organizational features can be changed. Certainly, leadership changes. To me much of this is meaningless. To put live fish in dead water is trickery and deception. And while I want to believe the trickery and deception is largely unintentional, it happens nonetheless. Unless we change how we choose to show up, holistically, no facade can truly cover what people see in our hearts.

The platform Transformation is not about change. Much of our time has been spent on change. This has certainly been what so many of us have worked for in the past – change. Change is meaningful, but often not substantive or sustainable. For many of us, this time of year is a time of change. Some of us live in areas where leaves are changing – losing their green lushness and revealing brilliant reds, yellows, oranges, browns. It’s beautiful and even breathtaking at times. And then those leaves die and fall from the tree. The tree largely remains unchanged, and so we can safely predict that the whole change will take place again next year. Instead, transformation might be analogized by considering what happens as a caterpillar morphs into something qualitatively different. Preparation must be made for the clear vision of a different reality; a protective and secure wall must be built; insides and organs must dissolve and move and be recreated in different places; time must be taken; a fight and struggle must ensue to dismantle the wall of chrysalis; and conscious rest must happen. These stages all must take place in order for this grounded creature to create wings and fly. We are no different. 

So, while I am resistant to using the word culture to describe us as a profession, it proves useful in some ways. Behaviors, language, traditions, beliefs, and values are all critical components of culture.

Culture as Behavior

Why do we choose meanness and cruelty to one another? Why do we appropriate the Deaf behavioral norms of information sharing and directness and then bastardize them into gossip and rudeness? Why do we have sayings like “interpreters eat their young”? Why do we serve a community that is generally collectivist, yet attempt to serve them with so much arrogance that we make the work and process about the “me” and the “I”?

Culture as Language

Why do we embarrass ourselves, publicly, by saying the things we do on social media? Why do we publicly “call out” others in demeaning ways, yet expect to be “called in” when we make mistakes? After decades of conferences why does it take us until 2019 to gather at a conference and actually follow the common sense rule of Deaf Culture 101 that requires hearing signers to use visual language/communication when in the presence of Deaf people – the community we claim to serve?

Culture as Traditions

Why do our conferences operate in the manner in which they do? Once upon a time RID had a very clear tri-fold conference approach – handling the association’s business per bylaws, supporting and encouraging networking, and continuing education. With the advent of required documentation for continuing education and professional development, it seems that CEU accrual has become the singular purpose for a good number of us. While culture certainly shifts over time, is this the focus we believe will best lead us to fulfilling our mission?

Culture as Belief and Values

For years and years we have collectively asked “who does RID serve”? This question continues to be asked, both publicly and privately. Do we truly have only a binary view of who we are; is it truly reduced to only this or only that? Are we comfortable with such black-and-white thinking within our profession and association? Probably most importantly, do we understand that this question is often asked in a way to deflect and derail movement, growth, and evolution? 

Now, we commonly understand that to move in a particular direction we must clearly be pointed in the direction we want to head. I learned this years ago when I began using a motorcycle. My safety and my life, and my family’s stability, rested on my choosing to look at where I wanted to head instead of looking at where I was. To look down and be completely caught up in where I was would lead to accidents and other grievous consequences. Instead, I learned quickly that I had to keep focused on my destination. I had to attend to what was coming so that I could be proactive instead of reactive. Spiritually, emotionally, and intellectually, I understood the concept of remaining focused on the outcome so that I could execute the process of reaching that outcome with greater precision. Riding that bike taught me on a physical and grounded level that to maintain my life and health I had to stay focused on where I was going so that I could make better decisions about how to get there.

Are we satisfied with the decisions we have made and where they have led us?

Before I share some of the great successes and steps toward transformation that have been made over the last three months, I think it is important that people understand the basis of my decision-making process in my current role as president.

Who do we serve? Who does RID serve? Our Deaf communities.

How do we do this? How does RID serve our Deaf communities so that they can liberate themselves from the system of audism? It is by ensuring interpreters hold the philosophy, attitude, skills, resources, support, and tools needed to move beyond the fanciful notion of equal access, and instead authentically leverage our privilege in support of our Deaf communities’ liberation.

Some of the ways this is being realized, and therefore transformation is being realized, are happening right now.

Our conference, just a few short months ago, was a collective effort by Headquarters staff and RID leadership to ensure the gathering was healthy, supportive, diverse, challenging, inspiring, and conducted in ASL. Preliminary and exploratory 2021 conference discussions have already ensued, and the keywords arising from these conversations are community, partnership, collaboration, and healing.

The membership just passed motions R and S which push us forward in investigating an equitable voting system so that we are all involved in the decision-making process. And being an equitable system, this ensures that suppressed voices are heard. These motions help us in determining who should directly be at the table in guiding decision-making processes so that we can become what Deaf communities need in order to realize liberation. 

Another way we are staying focused on transformation is by the very choice Board members made to come together and run for these positions. We understood that there was an invitation to diversify and ensure multiple perspectives were being taken into account, and we accepted that invitation. While there is much more growth and many more perspectives to be brought to the table, we do have a Board that is determined to have clear representation including some of the marginalized identities in RID, namely Deaf, Coda, and those belonging to the world’s majority population – often referred to as People of Color. Again, we are nowhere near what true ideal and visionary representation looks like, but we are clearly moving in the right direction.

I would encourage us all to maintain our focus on where we want to go. Remember why we are here – to support interpreters so that they can better support Deaf people in their struggle for liberation. And on occasion, I hope we can breathe deeply and notice that the air is changing as we travel. We are continuing to gain ground and move through the distance. Things continue to change in a directed and conscious manner. Indeed, we can celebrate that we are in the midst of transformation. I’m grateful that we each get to play a part in this transformation. Choose your role and contribution wisely; it will be part of the story of how we navigated transformation and arrived at our destination.

President Jonathan Webb, PhD, CI and CT, NIC Advanced, facilitator, writer, activist, educator, and mentor, started learning ASL in 1986 and began interpreting in 1993. Over the years he has specialized in Visual/Gestural Communication, Mental Health interpreting, and Comedy and Storytelling interpreting. He has degrees in Interpreting, Liberal Arts, Deaf Education, and Theology, with post-doctorate work in Clinical Psychology. He has served at various levels and in multiple capacities within RID and the field at large. Currently, Jonathan teaches at CSU-Northridge, serves as a freelance/IC interpreter, presides over Sign Enhancers Inc., and teaches/facilitates learning and practice in dialogic techniques in the context of social justice and consciousness development. Hobbies include ocean and beach time with family.

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