Community Building in Adoption and Adoptee Spaces

The Way to Lift Your Activism

By Melissa Ramos / Brita Melissa Botnen Søreng adopted from Guatemala to Norway.

The American student protester, poet, and advocate, Eva Maria Lewis, defines the two interchangeable terms of societal and political influence such as advocacy and activism like this, “To be an activist is to speak. To be an advocate is to listen.”

Referring to the more active-based form versus the institutional form of influence—activism is protesting and opposing a social cause or political reform, whereas an advocate is supportive or suggestive. Both with the intent to educate and bring awareness to one particular topic but at different volumes and reach. Where the advocate operates more institutionally within a system, gathering relevant actors around the decision-making table, the other uses public spaces to be seen and heard with a more person-based focus. The individual activist approach is more aligned with community building as action-based efforts surrounding injustice and inequality matters are perceived as more aggressive to create change.

This article is solely part of my perspective on adoptee and adoption communities from a local perspective of Norway, but also my thoughts on it globally. Having contributed to different projects, small and big, in adoption and adoptee-led communities in Norway and abroad—I have gradually become aware of the need for greater collectivity when it comes to advocacy and activism concerning the topic of intercountry adoption. In my view, equally important as pushing legal cases, publicly sharing a personal backstory, and educating the ignorant—focusing on the community itself as one in a long-term perspective can strengthen each specific task and role, separately and collectively. This is my take on community building from the perspective of the work of intercountry adoptees based on experience(s).

What is community building?

Aside from building a community presence on social media and in closed groups, which make up the majority of adoptee communities and organizations online, community building in practice (and offline) refers to activities, practices, and policies that support and foster positive connections among individuals, groups, organizations, and geographic and functional communities per definition (Weil, 1996). A community is founded on a shared identity and is the space where practices and policies are met on behalf of a population group such as marginalized groups as intercountry adoptees.

To illustrate, Intercountry Adoptee Voices (ICAV) appears to be an online community-based entity catering to smaller umbrella organizations despite not having a set physical operative function in practice. Like other organizations, institutions, and actors in a society, each adoptee-led organization also belongs to a certain societal level based on size, reach, and the organization’s objectives. By placing an organization and group and better understanding how it relates to others, will create an awareness of the lay of the land and the scope of the actual work.

Community action organizes those affected by public or private decisions or non-decisions where the goal is to challenge existing political, social, and economic structures and processes. To do that, it is necessary to first explore and explain how power realities impact the adoptee life and to develop a critical perspective of the status quo and alternative bases of power and action (Bryant, 1972).

A growing trend: As more people demand their voices be heard, advocating for a cause has gradually become the norm. In the image, a quote by Amanda Gorman and a photo of Ewa Maria Lewis.

Based on the definitions above on community building and community action, perhaps we should refer to active and present adoptees as community activists to create togetherness and take individual activism and advocacy further. Not to at least move the focus from individualism and competition to political engagement, systemic familiarization, and legal understanding. Maybe then we will see real impact and tangible results faster under one —by not only building and growing a community but a community of activism and advocacy, namely collective action.

Community building and legal advocacy

The building of the global adoption community to bring about structural changes is in many ways still much developing. With few legal cases of (first-generation) adoptees, much work is still to be done community-wise and across countries. There is a clear relationship between community practice and policy directions as mentioned, meaning the key to advancing petitioning, filing legal cases, political campaigning, or changing the existing narrative or storytelling lies with strengthening, exploring, and expanding community practices also, not just the specific tactic.

Collectively, a community activist strives to gather forces at the local level for communities to alter the status quo. He/she/them takes strategic action, individually or with others, as a member and on behalf of a community. Community learning and development is about empowering a group of people for them to participate and be involved in a case or event that is of common concern. Fighting for a peculiar case as the topic of intercountry adoption regardless of approach, you quickly realize that it comes with many strong voices and strong presence by choosing to engage. It can be easy to lose track of principal movements and come to terms with what you stand for yourself in a (still unfamiliar) field and environment with so many different opinions, knowledge, and approaches.

From the standpoint of observance and the choice to not take a more prominent role than I have in the communities I have been a part of—the will to match and gather the right people, thus bringing the necessary tools to the right stakeholder(s) grew naturally. Subconsciously, growing the community and environment I was part of myself. You most likely have HR representatives, a coach, or a mentor figure responsible for tracking your overall personal and professional development in your daily job. What I found missing when entering the adoption and adoptee space was someone doing this advising beyond advising on the topic of adoption itself. In other words, contextualizing lived experiences, our experiences.

Remember that general views and perceptions of the communities and the topic itself (from a legal, social, or political standpoint) from the outside world have much value. The voices of the public should be taken advantage of to map the lay of the land instead of being seen as a hindrance to understanding. It’s when we map the public narrative of adoption; we uncover what the actual challenges are and what those challenges entail when it comes to knowledge dissemination specifically. And it is much needed, especially in a space where prominent stories and bold voices are easily misguided, wrongly framed, or even exploited.

In Norway, prominent adoptees have begun to leverage public spaces and cultural scenes to get our message heard, as well as navigating the political system and affecting policies. This has all been based on dialogue and involvement with relevant actors such as ministries, directorates, the state child welfare and family welfare services, adoption organizations, country groups, public representatives, and others with an interest in the topic of international adoption, etc. Now, the climate is moving towards ombudsman’s offices and organizations of equality, immigration, and racism topics equally relevant for adoptees and adoption communities in Western countries. This is how we make intercountry adoption relevant and how we best tackle complex topics.

Adoptee-driven arenas: In Norway, intercountry and domestic adoptees have found various forms of gathering forces to advocate for accountability and to educate the public about adoption.

One global community long-term

I often think to myself how many more adoptees or adoptive/biological parents would come forward if they had the right tools to do so. Maybe a push in the right direction or a meeting/dialogue with a person having done the same is all it takes. For first-generation adoptees that never had role models or someone to mirror; this can not be underestimated being intercountry adoptions are still facilitated to and from many countries such as China, Colombia, and India (41% of all sending countries being Asian), as well as European countries such as Ukraine and Bulgaria being amongst the top ten sending countries. The point being, there is much to gain from each other and across borders as it is through online forums. If you don’t find your place in the community where you live, look elsewhere. Look for adoptees from the same country of origin as yourself but in different parts of the world and engage across countries of origins with like-minded adoptees. Most importantly, think about what you know about the topic and what you can bring to others, whether it’s your own experience, about the topic itself, or knowledge about your country of origin. Think about the network you have built, and who could benefit from it? What the message is and who the correct recipient is. This is how we grow and create progress, folks, also across borders!

In a space, we are much in control of ourselves without frames or guidelines; this approach is of the utmost importance to bring relevant actors together and get results. What is asked of you is to put your pride away. In unfamiliar terrain, which much of the communities are to the majority of (younger) adoptees, comparisons, jealousy, and insecurities can bring out the worst in a person as this is the only space where one meets and gets in touch with those personal elements that are usually untouched in daily interactions. Tangible results serving a whole group are only achieved when differences are put aside, and each individual competence is recognized as opposed to the majority voice paving the way.

What is worse than exclusion, exploitation, or unethical working methods directly in and from adoptee-led communities? When the outside world is what it is in terms of familiarizing with intercountry adoptees as a group, keeping the communities as safe and pure as possible should be a given. Not everyone can be fully updated about their country of origin, the adoption topic, and legal movements in the communities, which are not expected. However, engaged and active adoptees usually focus and are concerned with adoption topics to some degree throughout their lives in addition to the daily concerns of the average person. And with different expertise and competencies of the adoptee experience, the utopia in a community sense would be a broader organization where experienced activists and advocates from groupings across countries focus on what they do best, whether it be on legal or political matters. The point is that each adoptee’s engagement level and involvement needs to be respected, especially amongst peers, and can be utilized better in some shape or form to grow a community presence long-term.

The collective approach

It is a known fact that everywhere in any society—the wrong, unpassionate, and unfit people inhabit the wrong positions, yet have the power to decide matters concerning yours and mine’s lives and livelihood. Those with the power to control policies and implement measures that beneficiaries, victims, or affected individuals are often more knowledgeable about, such as adoptees. There is a reason why there are ambassadorships and mentor programs in specific sectors and industries or as part of an organization’s outreach and profiling. With this approach, I am trying to demonstrate the need for greater collectivity in adoption and adoptee communities, amongst and across all stakeholders such as lawmakers, bureaucrats, adoptive organizations, adoptive and biological families, social and health care workers, etc. And with having this mindset, you, as an adoptee advocate or activist, can still influence decision-making processes. To put it simply—you influence by influencing others!

With this, I hope to inspire others to use their network to the benefit of others and to connect with their peers, whether it is a resourceful adoptee parent, an adoptee activist, or a professional working for an adoption-related entity. Many heads surround the intercountry adoption case in one way or another—and we need them all; we just need to systematize it. To increase critical knowledge and attitudes on the one case we all care about.

To hear more about how I think you can grow your community or individual advocacy, please reach out via melissabrita@gmail.com