protestor in china with mask on face

Photo: Gumdrop Sweet on Flickr

This year, I’ve been thinking a lot about how change gets made.

Journalists joke about the process of reporting as “How the sausage gets made” –  a visual, smelly reminder that creating something can be messy. That final newspaper article or radio broadcast looks or sounds polished and professional. But the work that went into it was a series of chances taken, training followed, gut instincts heard and luck bestowed — the best that could be done in the moment with the sum of skills and resources to date.

A lot of change is coming to Virginia’s mental health system and at a fast pace. It’s not just academic policy debates and power struggles. The results of reform may save lives – or not. What is and could and should VOCAL’s role?

Some definitions help clarify the options – here are a few from a blog post “Activism and Organizing,” written by community organizer, Kelly Hayes.

Activism“Activism is about showing up for justice, and in the name of justice. Folx have attached a lot of nasty connotations to this word, but there is ABSOLUTELY NOTHING wrong with being a person who is committed to showing up and working hard, in a consistent manner. There is nothing wrong with throwing down, in the interest of justice, with zero interest in being a planner or an architect of such moments.”

Organizing – “Organizing sometimes means educating others, even though you have no obligation to do so. It means taking other people’s stances and feelings into account, even when they don’t resonate with your own, and realizing that no one shows up perfect to the revolution — including the past, present and future you (underlined by VOCAL). It’s about finding the line between having difficult conversations, to help people and communities move forward, and expecting people to simply show up where you’re at, because you’re tired of waiting for them to do so.”

Empowerment is a different thing still. Another definition:

Empowerment (Oxford Dictionary) – the process of becoming stronger and more confident, especially in controlling one’s life and claiming one’s rights.

When I travel around the state to do trainings or meet VOCAL members, I often meet community leaders who say “VOCAL helped me find my voice and see that I can make a difference.”  That’s living evidence of empowerment.

In everything we do, VOCAL is an empowerment organization. We believe people can get better on their own terms. We model strengths-based communication, share stories of recovery, publicize through newsletters a variety of choices in how peers can become involved in VOCAL and the broader community, and organize recovery education trainings so that people can become more confident and know their rights.

It’s a natural outgrowth of a whole network of empowered people that some – many – may want to become agents of change in their communities and the mental health system. Our membership revised our mission statement in 2015 to acknowledge that clearly.

So, does that mean that VOCAL should organize more opportunities for activism – for taking to the streets or halls of Richmond or DC and shouting about how things should be? Rallies like this sure do get the blood pumping through your veins.

“Nothing about us without us,” the rallying cry of the disability rights movement, means no systematic or medical discussion of how to “treat” people with disabilities should occur without the voice of those directly affected. 

When sliced down to its core value, that rally cry could also mean that no one person can ever presume to speak for any other person, disability or not. Just because VOCAL members may share some common experiences of conditions commonly labeled mental illness doesn’t mean we all feel the same about policy decisions.

When VOCAL Staff, Board and Members  speak on behalf of VOCAL at public meetings, we’re trained to say things like, “some VOCAL members are concerned about [insert issue]” or “historically, the peer movement stands for non-coercive treatments.” We refer to our personal experience and those of the people in VOCAL’s membership network. We share relevant research about recovery-oriented practices that help people get better.

Who is “we?” We is VOCAL staff and any members who are willing to come join us. There are no steps you have to take to join VOCAL in advocacy and education. Just let us know you’re interested and we’ll work with you individually.

That answers the original question – VOCAL may not be activist, but we are organizers. We’re a big community – if you believe in the importance of empowerment for yourself and others, join us. It’s rewarding work, as stated well in that blog post “Activism and Organizing,” written by community organizer, Kelly Hayes.

“Being an organizer usually means realizing that this work pays you back in the form of community, purpose and the hope of something better… Being an organizer is about understanding that, whenever possible, lateral critiques should be aimed at helping everyone — including you.”