Letters From Elders to Us All: Steve Brown

Survive—and Thrive
by Steven E. Brown
© 2017, Institute on Disability Culture, All Rights Reserved

Many years ago--actually decades ago now--a friend gifted me a button with the saying “Gentleness is Strength.” I didn’t understand. She explained I was gentle, but there was an underlying determination (most of my life I’ve labeled it perseverance) that shone through the gentleness.
            A few years later, my sister introduced me to the music of Holly Near (http://www.hollynear.com/), with  a “live” album. I loved it, especially a song called “Gentle, Angry People.” I even wrote an essay in my book, “Movie Stars and Sensuous Scars: Essays on the Journey from Disability Shame to Disability Pride” (https://www.amazon.com/Steven-E.-Brown/e/B004H9QX7Y/ref=ntt_dp_epwbk_0), with that title. In the introduction to that piece, I wrote “I became more convinced each day that people with disabilities could not obtain our freedom unless every other oppressed group also found liberation.”      
            Two years before the initial publication of this essay I joined my colleagues at the independent living program in Norman, OK in walking out from our jobs (an essay about the walkout is also in “Movie Stars”). This was easily the most radical action I’ve ever taken: abandoning a job, while the father of a young child—and it also became my most critical learning experience—because I learned I possessed skills and inner resources that enabled me to survive—and eventually thrive.
            I’ve been reminded of these thoughts and experiences—and many more—in recent months. I find myself returning often to the past—mine, and history in general—perhaps not surprising—for a historian. I watch in horror as the prospects of decades of hard work is being systematically torn apart—at least in theory, we have to wait a bit to see what reality will bring—but we know, at the very least, that generations of advocacy to include more in our body politic and socio-cultural-economic environment than white, male, non-disabled property-owners, is being challenged.
            I watch in horror as well as many of my compatriots viciously attack those who are viciously attacking them. While I understand it, I’m not happy about it, because I believe what we put into the world returns in some way from the world. I also watch in amazement as people forget—no, that’s not right—they don’t seem to have learned, history. We believe that what’s happening now is new: that, for example, people with disabilities have never before been attacked, maimed or killed. Yet, we have centuries of evidence that we have. We believe racial attacks are more vicious now than ever, yet forget somehow the ignominious founding of this country on the bodies of slaves. Even the scales may not be that different. Millions have been killed, mutilated, sterilized, and ostracized over thousands of years of human history because somebody had the power to do that.
            One difference today though is the role of social and other media and our ability to communicate instantaneously. We think something in 2015, “happened back then.” No wonder we don’t have a sense of history.
            All this comes up for me in many ways. My friend, Naomi Ortiz, of the wonderful blog, “Self-Care for Social Justice” (http://www.selfcareforsocialjustice.com/), wrote to a bunch of people not long after the 2016 elections. The email began, “Dear Elders. Many of you have been able to sustain doing this work because you’ve created tools and practices and the faith which has allowed you to weather a lot. So, I thought I’d reach out and ask if any of you are interested in sharing advice, thoughts, U-tube videos, readings, jokes, perspectives, poems and/or truths that are speaking to you at this moment.” 
          I’ve thought about this request pretty much every day since it arrived. When it first crossed my desk one of my reactions was Naomi herself writes beautiful blogs and several that she wrote after the election helped sustain me.            
         Right after the election I thought about the days when Reagan was elected President and as I write this I’m thinking about Nixon. When Nixon was first elected President, in 1968, I was a teenager, still in high school. By the time he resigned in 1974, I was in graduate school, had been an anti-Vietnam war protestor, and someone who had taken those protests to the streets, both in the college town I lived in during the late 1960s/early 1970s and in Washington, D.C. I wrote quite a lot about this time and its impact on me in my memoir “Surprised to be Standing: A Spiritual Journey” (https://www.amazon.com/Steven-E.-Brown/e/B004H9QX7Y/ref=ntt_dp_epwbk_0).
When Reagan was elected in 1980, I was close to finishing graduate school, with a doctoral degree in history. My final decision to become a historian jelled after the 1971 Vietnam War protests in Washington, when I decided I wanted to learn how to do revolution right—because watching and participating in these protests didn’t resonant with me for long-term change. And…yet…a President resigned! What more could we have hoped for? As it turns out, a lot more: in retrospect, that may have been not only the highlight of those protests, but the beginning of the end…though we hardly sensed that at that moment--because we, the protestors, thought we’d won and many of us moved onto other things, while the “establishment” dug in and retrenched.
Learning the hard way, in the early 1980s, that I had a disability, well, I always knew that at some personal level but now I learned it at the social and environmental levels as well when I experienced my own personal brand of oppression, while I sought a job, any job, in my chosen field. I’ve written lots about this in both books mentioned. But, as is sometimes the case, my oppression also turned into a great opportunity, as I found myself in the midst of the disability rights movement, combining my passions for history, human rights and culture.
I’ve experienced an amazing journey in the decades since Reagan’s election. I’ve worked with and met incredible people from all the over the world. I’ve had a chance to travel and to work in fields that engage and enhance my passions. I’ve been married to a wonderful woman, who both manages to keep me grounded and encourages me to fly. I’ve had a series of painful (in the most literal physical sense) disability experiences, and managed to become healthier in my 50s than I may have been since my disability first showed up when I was five. I have a daughter, who often these days tells me how much she appreciates being dragged to disability (and other) rights meetings and events when she was younger. And we have two smart, engaging, challenging grandchildren.
I reflect today, in my mid-60s, both feeling and not feeling like an “elder.” I’m often reminded of the disability rights advocates I “grew up” with in 1980s Oklahoma. Our personalities, experiences, disabilities, cultural backgrounds, and approaches were quite different. Yet, our group stuck together, and facilitated great change. Why? Not because we were different, but because we recognized and appreciated our distinctions. And because, not being perfect, during those times we didn’t appreciate each other so much we were still able to acknowledge the gifts each of us brought to the table, or the streets, or the media, or wherever else we were able to be effective. As I write, I’m reminded of a question I often got in those days, which was something like how can someone become an effective advocate. My answer might have included strategy suggestions, but in the end it was always something like figuring our “whatever works.” This is why I have always been an ADAPT (http://www.adapt.org/), supporter; as a group ADAPT does know how to do revolution right.
I am happy many people are still taking it to the streets, but for reasons that are not only physical, I don’t see that as the best role for myself these days. So, what is? Well, I’ve re-committed to my own writing, and have several works in various stages, from beginning to revising to finally figuring out (I think) a way to approach a book I’ve been wanting to write for many years now, but which never felt quite right.
A few years ago, a colleague asked me what drove my work, what was my overall goal. Although I didn’t answer her well the moment she asked (I’m a writer, I like revision:), later I realized the answer was pretty simple. The mission of the Institute on Disability Culture (http://www.instituteondisabilityculture.org/), which Lil and I founded in the early 1990s, still fits all I want to do. It’s quite simple: “Promoting pride in the history, activities, and cultural identity of individuals with disabilities throughout the world.” This vision absolutely sustains me because it, after all these years, still describes what I want to do.
In addition, to writing, I’ve also been sustained by music, as I write, Johnny Crescendo (https://www.facebook.com/JohnnyCrescendo), is singing about dance and romance—fitting one of my favorite quotes: “If I can’t dance, I don’t want to be part of your revolution.” My friends, many of whom I’ve met in person, and many of whom I haven’t--thanks to the wonder of social media, not only sustain and encourage me, but give me hope because of all the amazing activities they are involved in and producing, including books, music, movies, dance, videos, performance, and innovative ways of approaching the world. People of all ages are doing all of these activities, but I am especially hopeful because of the plethora of younger folks who are challenging and protesting the currency of the times. As a grandfather, this gives me hope for the world our grandchildren will see.
            What else sustains me? I guess it’s what always has: learning. For someone else, it will be different. But I love to learn, more than to teach. Yet, the two do go hand in hand and as I move forward in 2017, I plan to continue to do both—in ways that I hope will help to sustain not only myself, but others as well, because the most practical advice I can offer anyone is to live your own truth, to be willing to share it but also to be willing—maybe even eager—to embrace learning about someone else’s truth, because the best way to sustain each other is to support one another—and if someone else’s truth rubs us roughly or even more, causes us harm, we must demonstrate, through our truths, why that needs to change.
            In the early 1990s I wrote the poem “Tell Your Story ” (http://www.instituteondisabilityculture.org/examples-of-our-disability-culture-3-of-steves-poems.html). Thanks to communication advances we are able to tell and learn about each other’s stories at a rate never before possible. That’s why I’m so excited about projects like the Disability Visibility Project (https://disabilityvisibilityproject.com/), and Krip Hop Nation (http://kriphopnation.com/) which both share stories, and encourage people all around the world to find and share the experiences of their lives.
            As I wrote in “Tell Your Story:”
The lessons are in the telling
they provide a framework and a dwelling.
We all have so many stories to bear
Cry, laugh, sing, and despair;
how will our children learn and compare
if we're too timid to dare
to raise the flare
share that we care.

Tell your story
Sing your tale
Tell our story
Shout our glory!

We may have to do this over and over and over again—as people have been doing not only for generations, but for thousands of millennia, reminding us that while this may be a chaotic, challenging, even life-threatening time, it is also, in the annals of time, brief.


  1. Thank you. I needed this. Still hurting, wounded knee/wounded soul with no clemency for Leonard Peltier. I appreciate and desperately need self care or I ll not be able to keep on Adapt-ing, disabled queering, and fighting for freedom 4 indigenous. Air.hugs to.y'all

    1. Yes! Sitting with so much grief and also disappointed/hurting about no clemency for Peltier. Sounds like you know what you need. Self-care starts with honoring our needs. Take good care of yourself. We need you!