Leadership in the Intercountry Adoptee Community

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…Our capacity to destroy one another is matched by our capacity to heal one another. Restoring relationships and community is central to restoring well-being…we can change social conditions to create environments in which children and adults can feel safe and where they can thrive.
Van Der Kolk, B. (2014) The Body Keeps The Score. Viking, New York

“Though you may not have direct reports working under you, you are ALL leaders in your project teams,” we were told recently at a work-related strengths finding and building seminar. This got me thinking about what leadership looks like in our community of intercountry and transracial adoptees (ICA/TRAs). Every day I see fellow ICA/TRAs working to bring about change in areas such as the intersectionality of adoption, trauma, race, and loss; family preservation; family reunification; and garnering awareness and even funds for lifelong post-adoption services for adopted people (as well as others in the adoption constellation). If the whole is truly greater than the sum of its parts, then our community will best be served if we can collaborate with each other, as united leaders. Therefore, I invite all ICA/TRAs to ask themselves a few fundamental questions about leadership: What are leaders? Who are they leading? Are they leading or are they serving? If they are serving, whom are they serving? How can leaders influence in the absence of direct authority?

As an adopted person, the leaders in my life who have resonated most with me are the ones who have listened, validated, felt all “the feels,” and who worked diligently and gently at helping others grow and learn, setting them on the path to becoming leaders themselves one day. I believe that we all are – or have the potential to be – caring, impactful, servant leaders in our family, professional, and community settings.

The servant-leader is servant first. It begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve. Then conscious choice brings one to aspire to lead. The best test is: do those served grow as persons: do they, while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants? And, what is the effect on the least privileged in society; will they benefit, or, at least, not be further deprived?
Greenleaf, R.K. (1977) Servant Leadership: A Journey into the Nature of Legitimate Power and Greatness. Paulist Press, New York

The concept of servant leadership, in which the main goal of the leader is to serve, was first outlined by Robert K. Greenleaf. Though an in-depth look at servant leadership is outside the scope of this blog, I hope that the short quote above will speak to many in the ICA/TRA community. It certainly speaks to me as someone who empathizes with those who are harmed by the power differential inherent to modern day adoption: vulnerable women and children.

Following in the footsteps of earlier generations of vocal adoptees, such as Betty Jean Lifton and Sherrie Eldridge, who advocated for adoption reform, some members of the ICA/TRA community who were born and adopted between the late 1960s and the early 1990s have published books, become adoptee-centric grief and trauma therapists, set up local support groups, and initiated DNA programs for adoptees and first families, amongst other noteworthy projects. However, unlike our pioneering predecessors, who were almost exclusively white, same-race domestic adoptees, we are the ones paving the way for critical thinking about intercountry and transracial adoption practices.

Furthermore, our community is in the very unique position of being the first generation of adult intercountry, transracially adopted people who have had time to think and heal AND who are connected globally, thanks to the internet, AND who have access to affordable DNA testing AND whose voices are starting to be heard by local and international governing bodies. Over the past few years we have begun to leverage all of these resources and opportunities, and in doing so, many members of the ICA/TRA community are now devoting their time and energy to serving adoptees and first family members. Whether we realize it or not, we are already practitioners of servant leadership.

The traditional business model of leadership has been about increasing power and profit margins by getting people to do what you want by wielding your authority. This model is not only waning in the business world, but it is wholly inappropriate in the ICA/TRA community: we have neither profit margins to increase nor authority to wield. Therefore, effective leadership in our community, namely leadership that educates, empowers, supports, and influences even without direct power or authority, I believe, will find its strengths in empathy, values of truth and justice, and the desire and ability to knowledge-share that many ICA/TRAs have developed as a result of their unique lived experiences.

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There are so many aspects and nuances that are particular to the experience of being adopted from a different country and growing up in a family of a different race. There is often no mistaking or hiding from the fact that the one Black/Brown/Asian/Indigenous/non-white Latinx child in a white family is adopted (the overwhelming majority of intercountry adoptions follow this pattern). The reality of this situation may force the adopted person to “come out of the fog” earlier rather than later in life. Coming out of the fog and learning to take a critical look at both one’s own adoption story and the institution of adoption, and specifically intercountry adoption, are difficult yet incredibly important steps to take in terms of personal growth and working to heal the community. By finding ways to support our fellow ICA/TRAs during these painful and sometimes volatile stages, we can also help lift and heal ourselves, because we will be acting as leaders and creating the next group of leaders at the same time.

We were powerless as babies and children when we were removed from our families and sent around the world to grow up in adoptive families, often with no connection to our original selves or families. As a result, many of us have struggled with our identity and sense of self worth. We paid a very high price for something we never gave our consent to in the first place. Yet, the flip side to all the pain many ICA/TRAs endured while growing up, and often continue to endure well into adulthood, is that we often have specialized knowledge acquired only through lived experience. Many of us also feel an intense desire to give back to our community by sharing that knowledge (with each other, with adoptive parents, and with policy makers) to help ensure that things are done better for current and future generations of vulnerable families and adopted people. To me, that is certainly a big part of leadership.

Finally, it is no stretch to see reflected in the ICA/TRA community most, if not all, of Larry C. Spears’s ten characteristics of effective, caring leaders (Character and Servant Leadership: Ten Characteristics of Effective, Caring Leaders. Journal of Virtues & Leadership, Vol. 1, Iss. 1, 2010, p. 25-30):

Listening
Empathy
Healing
Awareness
Persuasion
Conceptualization
Foresight
Stewardship
Commitment to the Growth of People
Building Community

Being a member of a group of individuals who exhibit such characteristics is very powerful, and very empowering indeed. If our ICA/TRA global community can harness the benefits of servant leadership by fully owning and exercising all of our inborn strengths as well as those characteristics we have acquired through our lived experiences, I believe we not only help each other heal but can also shape governmental policies in favor of family preservation and post-adoption support. As we move forward as a community and as leaders in the field of intercountry and transracial adoption, I hope we will continue to grow, to learn, and to hold each other accountable as leaders who serve with kindness, and no expectations of glory in return.

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