How do sign language interpreters show our values in our RID vote? Adam Bartley comments on the question of creating an Interpreter with Deaf Parents Member-at-Large position on the RID board, and the implications of a disengaged membership in determining the course of our profession.
Part of my motivation in writing this article now is that I so poorly dropped the ball when the time came to vote on establishing a position on the RID Board of Directors that dedicated a seat to an Interpreter with Deaf Parents (IDP), the IDP MAL (Member-at-Large) position. I could cite my business at work, or the back pain and subsequent surgery as excuses, but the truth is I could have made time somewhere in there to attend to my business and vote! I failed to exercise my democratic power when the time came, and I failed in what I consider to be one of my personal and professional duties. I believed in the need for an ‘IDP seat’ already, having thought about the issues and arguments carefully, but by the time I got to putting my coins on the table, the hand was already dealt and done with.
I know there will be another opportunity for our community to debate and vote again on this issue, so I am ante’ing up now for the next hand and putting my arguments here in the public sphere to contribute to our next shot at getting this right.
Before going further, I want to state that I address this letter from the perspective of a Hearing interpreter (I.e. not a Child of Deaf Adults, CODA), to all of my fellow Hearing interpreters. I welcome all members of our community, Deaf, CODA, and Hearing interpreters, Deaf and CODA consumers of sign language interpreting services, and anyone else to read and respond to this writing. However, I feel it important to state that I am directing this to my fellow Hearing interpreters.
Any Position Will Do
In the interest of keeping my long-windedness at bay, let me begin by starting off with the seemingly strong and seemingly logical argument against having a dedicated IDP-MAL position on the RID Board of Directors. A CODA can always run for a position on the Board anyway! When I first saw this statement in discussions, it made sense and I had to ‘chew the cud’ as we say in the South, to figure out what bothered me about it. So chew I did and here is what I came up with. It is an absolutely true statement, but it is not an argument at all. It argues neither for a position nor against it.
So I chewed a little more, and I presumed that what was intended to be argued is that a need for the seat has not been shown. Having wrapped my slow but hopefully able wits around this nugget, I started to construct what arguments I could bring to bear to clearly establish that need and why it is important to the future of our field.
Running for Office
The first step in establishing a need for the position requires that we look at the assumptions underlying the “IDP’s can already run for office” argument. The fact that a thing can happen, does not mean a thing will happen. Sheer numbers can greatly reduce the likelihood that a given thing will happen in fact. The United States of America could have a dozen Hmong Representatives in Congress, but the probability of that given the current populations and geographic positioning of Hmong people in the United States, is extremely low. Given the changing demographics of our field, IDP’s are a shrinking minority within our ranks. The proliferation of Interpreter Training Programs and ASL as foreign language offerings in High Schools and Colleges has brought an influx of Hearing interpreters in greater numbers than ever before. Alex Jackson Nelson’s article, Sign Language Interpreters: Recognizing & Analyzing Our Power & Privilege, offers some great insight on the need for practitioners to be aware of their privilege. In my mind, one demonstration that the need exists is because the math is against the continuous occupation of non-dedicated seats on the Board by Interpreters with Deaf Parents.
Affinity is Not Membership
As Hearing interpreters, we will never be members of the Deaf Community in the same way as a Deaf person is, or in the still different way that a CODA is. I say this without prejudice, or any sense of rejection by the community. We exist within the scope of the larger Deaf Community and are accepted into the fold to varying degrees throughout our lives, but we do not share the same experiences. It is vital that we address and accept that as the simple truth that it is. Laurie Nash offers excellent perspective on the value IDP’s bring to the profession in her interview with Brandon Arthur about the retraction of the referendum that would have established a designated position on the RID Board for IDP.
In other writings in other venues, I have spoken about my own background as child of a white mother and Mexican father. I have written about my experiences in the foster care system with a wonderful set of foster parents that were Black in the early 1970’s when such things just weren’t done. I have also written about the amazing couple (he, Lebanese, she Cherokee/Choctaw) that turned my life around, and about the many ways that the Deaf community has been in my life since I was a child.
In those writings, just as here, it was all to make the point that affinity does not create membership.
Given my experiences, I have unique insights to many communities, but I cannot have full insight into any of them. I was ‘interpreting’ for fellow children in the system at 12 years old, so I can relate to some experiences that an IDP has, but there are infinitely more that I can never understand or give voice to. If you want insight into the CODA experience, read Amy Williamson’s article, The Cost of Invisibility: Codas and the Sign Language Interpreting Profession. Affinity does not create membership, and if ever the Board does not have an Interpreter with Deaf Parents seated at the table, that voice will be absent.
IDP’s Are Consumers
IDP’s are not merely our colleagues, against whom we sometimes compare ourselves, or whom we envision en masse as the fulfillment of some stereo-typical image of ‘the CODA interpreter’.
IDP’s are also the consumers of our services!
I cannot stress this enough. IDP’s are the children whose IEP we are interpreting for directly or for their Deaf Parents. IDP’s are the performers in the school play or the Broadway production their loved ones are attending. IDP’s are the scientists and educators that we are working with in many educational settings. CODA children are sometimes directly using interpreters in critical care situations where Hearing Interpreters and Deaf Interpreters are working as a team to provide access just as they would with a young Deaf child. IDP’s are the presenters and performers that we are working with. IDP’s are our consumers. Few among our numbers would suggest that RID does not need to have a dedicated seat for a Deaf Member at Large on the Board, because we rightly see the need to have consumer/practitioner perspectives guiding our work and our future. Our field is also fortunate to have another community of consumer/practitioners in our IDP colleagues, and we should ensure that their unique perspectives are always part of our governing body.
In short we failed to recognize and embed the value IDP’s bring to the governing table of our profession. The demographics of our field create a greater likelihood that Hearing Interpreters will always be present but IDP participation on the Board will be absent or intermittent at best; that no matter the level of affinity a Hearing interpreter may have, we can never bring the full experience of a Deaf person or a CODA to bear in shaping the future of the sign language interpreting field; and that as we recognize the necessity of having practitioners of all types on our Board, we must similarly recognize the imperative to ensure that IDP’s are also at the table.
Please join me in preparing for the next time we have a chance to ensure that our organization always has a team at the helm who can provide valuable insight on the work we do and the perspective of the people we endeavor to serve.
Brandon Arthur interviews Laurie Nash, Vice Chair of the Interpreters with Deaf Parents (IDP) Member Section of the Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf (RID), on the stunning retraction of the referendum, that if passed, would have established a designated position on the RID Board of Directors for an IDP Member at Large position.
“Many of us felt that the passage of this referendum was important in order to help RID reconnect with the deaf community and the values that were the foundation of the establishment of RID 50 years ago.”
“I am here to talk about IDP but I do want to acknowledge that other members feel disenfranchised by RID as well. I cannot speak for them but they do have similar feelings of not being involved in the decision making process. IDP believed that if we had a position on the board then that would guarantee a place at the decision making table.”
“The president somehow misunderstood that a 2/3 majority of the vote was required as opposed to the a simple majority she used to determine the initial passage of the referendum.”
“We were told this late on Wednesday night and the announcement from the board was made Thursday. Obviously the RID board had already prepared their announcement and video and were ready to announce this to the membership.”
“I think for many IDP members there is a desire for our organization and our members to recognize that indeed many interpreters with deaf parents bring something unique to our field.”
“I think it is important to emphasize that respectful dialogue is the key to moving forward. I encourage all members of RID be mindful of respecting each other as we move forward.”
Brandon: Hello everyone. I am Brandon Arthur from StreetLeverage.com. I am here with Laurie Nash, Vice-Chair of RID’s Interpreters with Deaf Parents Member Section. Welcome Laurie.
Laurie: Hello. Thank you for hosting this dialogue and inviting me.
Brandon: We are here to discuss RID’s announcement from last week about Motion E, the referendum that if passed, would have established a designated position on the RID board of directors for an IDP member at large. With the announcement that the referendum did not pass, I imagine there to be a lot of emotional responses to the announcement. Before we get into the retraction and the response from IDP, I’d like to back up a little bit to the beginning of March when RID announced the historic passage of a bylaws referendum that would establish an IDP seat on the Board of Directors. Can you share with us the feeling and thoughts that the IDP membership had when they learned of the referendum’s passage?
Laurie: Clearly many people, including IDP members, who supported this motion, felt that after a long time we would be getting some change in the direction of RID. Many of us felt that the passage of this referendum was important in order to help RID reconnect with the deaf community and the values that were the foundation of the establishment of RID 50 years ago. So yes, many people were relieved and happy. I know for myself, I felt that after many years, I now have a way to reconnect with RID. The passage of the referendum gave me faith in RID again. Learning that the referendum has passed in the first week of March left people feeling positive and pleased with all of the hard work done to get the referendum to vote
Brandon: You mention “having faith”’ in RID again. So, describe for us what the leadership of IDP, members of RID, and allies feel that this position represents for the future of RID.
Laurie: I believe that IDP members are not unique in feeling that they are underrepresented within RID. There are other groups of interpreters that feel the same way. We have all felt frustrated at some of the decisions made by the RID Board of Directors. These decisions show again a divergence from the communities we serve; their culture, their norms, their values. We have strayed away from that. So an IDP position on the board, we felt, would guarantee that along with the Deaf member at large that is already a part of the board, there would be a stronger connection to native language users and deaf-world natives and those board members would be involved with the decisions of RID from this point forward. Historically there have been a lot of frustrations among many groups. I am here to talk about IDP but I do want to acknowledge that other members feel disenfranchised by RID as well. I cannot speak for them but they do have similar feelings of not being involved in the decision making process. IDP believed that if we had a position on the board then that would guarantee a place at the decision making table. This motion was initially made taking into consideration the current structure of RID. Many people have brought up different ideas for a restructuring of the board and changing the composition of the board. I think that re-evaluating the board is a good idea but that’s not our current reality. The current board composition is what was in mind when the motion was made. Let me clarify, the motion came out of the 2010 Region II conference. The motion carried and was then brought to the floor of the national conference in 2011. A lot of people were involved in the discussions to ensure that the position would work within the current board structure. Members were both in support and opposition for various reasons but for the collective IDP membership was in support of this motion and the concept behind it: that our voice was missing from the board. Our current board has 3 people who are interpreters with deaf parents. 2 are deaf and 1 is hearing but that was not always the case. For many, many years there were no native voices on the rid board.
Brandon: You have recognized that IDP is not the only group within RID who may not feel that they have access to the decision making tables of the organization and by extension our field. That being said, to be told that you had a place at the table and then for that place to be taken away with the retraction must create an environment where there is little to no trust in the leadership of RID. How did the news that the referendum did not pass actually unfold for IDP? How were you notified?
Laurie: Well the announcement came out last Thursday. On Wednesday at 9pm, the 4 members of the IDP executive council, participated in a video conference call with President Prudhom and many members of the board of directors. On that call, we were told that there was a mistake made in determining the required number of votes needed to pass the referendum. The president somehow misunderstood that a 2/3 majority of the vote was required as opposed to the a simple majority she used to determine the initial passage of the referendum. Now you should know that during the drafting of this referendum it was clearly understood by everyone involved that a 2/3 majority vote was needed to pass. This referendum was a change in our bylaws and required a higher standard than other referendums. So, she seemingly made a mistake and erroneously informed Shane Feldman, the Executive Director of RID, and others that the referendum passed. We were told this late on Wednesday night and the announcement from the board was made Thursday. Obviously the RID board had already prepared their announcement and video and were ready to announce this to the membership. Hearing this news, we were floored and were at a loss on how were we to respond and we wondered how our members would respond to this announcement. We asked President Prudhom for some time to organize and coordinate a respond. They gave us a little time but by 3pm on Thursday, the announcement went out to the general membership. As a result, the IDP council was unable to prepare a coordinated response right away. Unfortunately RID went ahead with their announcement.
Brandon: So what would IDP like to have seen done differently in a situation like this in the future. If we as an organization have learned anything from this, it won’t happen again but if you could advise the board on how better to handle something like this, what would you ask them to do?
Laurie: Well…when we learned that the referendum did not in fact pass we were of course disappointed. Many people worked very hard on this referendum, however; it was compounded by the lack of checks and balances and the realization that RID made a mistake. We were left wondering, How could something like this happen? Is it possible that only one person is counting the vote? It was very hard to understand how this could have happened. We are collecting a vote on a referendum that impacts the bylaws of our organization. Not a business as usual item. These are the guiding rules of our organization, our bylaws. We were disappointed that the referendum did not pass but we could move on from there. Our disappointment was further exacerbated by this mishandling of the vote and our experience that this was also one more example in a series of blunders the membership has experienced from the RID board. We believe that the IDP membership should have received a personal apology. The president of RID made a general public apology to the membership; however, this motion held great significance to many people connected to IDP. This general apology did not recognize the significance of the referendum and did not recognize that many members had very strong connections to it. This fact seemed to be overlooked by the board of directors and I think that is just another example of perhaps a cultural disconnect from the membership. RID does have members of diverse backgrounds. President Prudhom’s manner of apology and announcement did not give enough attention to the significance of this referendum to members of IDP.
Brandon: Thank you. What do you hope the membership, the RID board of directors, and even the national office staff can learn from this situation?
Laurie: I wish they didn’t have to learn anything at all. I wish this didn’t have to be a learning experience for them to begin with. However, I think all members of RID, after seeing this; can agree that mistakes are consistently made within RID. This is not an isolated instance. I am not sure what kind of oversight may be needed and I am unsure how the board functions. For vote counting, do they work together? Who is responsible for vote collecting? How does it work when voting happens through the internet? There need to be safeguards in place to make sure this kind of thing ever happens. With a mistake of this magnitude, we all have to question how it came to be. I believe RID members have a right to know how this kind of mistake happened. It certainly shouldn’t have happened on such a large issue as the bylaws and leads us to wonder if this kind of mistake is allowed to happen, then what other mistakes are happening? I don’t want to get off the point here but we do need to wonder what is going on. I think the mistakes issue is not simply an IDP complaint. It is a systemic organizational and leadership problem that all of us have to be very concerned about.
Brandon: Clearly, you have said that representation at the decision making tables of our field is important to interpreters with deaf parents and other underserved groups. In considering the future of RID and perhaps the perspective of people seeing this interview, people who will see the passion that IDP has about this issue, what do you want them to know about your collective desire for more representation and collective diversity at the decision making tables of RID?
Laurie: I think for many IDP members there is a desire for our organization and our members to recognize that indeed many interpreters with deaf parents bring something unique to our field. We have a variety of deaf-world experiences that many if not most of our members within RID do not have. Each interpreter brings their unique set of life experiences to their work. The experiences of an someone who grew up in a deaf parented home instills the values and norms of the community in their work. Interpreters with deaf parents possess the ability to broker meaning in culturally appropriate ways. That is the value we need to have on the board. I think many of our members historically have felt those inherent skills have been negated in a systematic way within RID. On an individual level, interpreters with deaf parents have certainly felt valued by many colleagues but we feel this must be a integral part of the board. During the national conference in Atlanta in 2011, Dennis Cokely commented on the logo for the conference. The logo was a tree. On the stage at the business meeting, he pointed out that the tree was missing its roots. The roots have been missing for a very long time and It’s not just interpreters with deaf parents who feel this way. There are many people in our field, including leaders in our field, who believe that interpreters with deaf parents have something unique to offer. We recognize a unique skill at play but we believe that recognition of this skill needs to be an integral part of our national organization, RID. There may be talk about restructuring and changing the composition of the board. I think that may be a great idea but let’s work together to make it happen if the membership agrees that to be our goal. For now, the board structure is the way it is. We can work toward improvements but again with the kind of mistake that took place we have slipped back and the membership has lost faith once again.
Brandon: If you had the opportunity to send a message to the general membership and to IDP members what would you say about the desire to again reconnect with our roots?
Laurie: To the general membership, I think it is important for us to consider why we do what we do. If we claim to value the deaf community and value their norms and culture, if that indeed is what we are saying, then great. Let’s move on and do it in our actions and in our words. Live it. Show it. Prove it. And if not, then if people do not want to achieve that then why are we here talking about this? Why does RID even exist? We need to figure out our organizational purpose, values and goals. What we do is not just collecting a paycheck. For many of us our profession is not simply a job. Unfortunately for some it appears that they are here only to collect a paycheck and there is no authentic connection to the deaf community and certainly no investment. For those of us vested, it feels exploitative of those interpreters. We really need to figure out why we do the work we do. To IDP members, I think it is important to say that your hard work bringing this referendum forward and the progress that we made was successful in many ways. The discussion we are having now is also housed within a broader context. We have all had our individual discussions and experiences with each other and with our colleagues. We have also had our experiences discounted and shunned. It is time to move forward. We are now having a bigger discussion and this process is necessary in order for us to recover from the last 50 years.
Brandon: I really appreciate you being here with me today to lay out the issues. I hope this dialogue will help create some perspective for the people who are seeing all of the thoughts, emotion, and dissention on this issue. At the end of the day, I hope that as an organization we can keep our eyes on the mission of service. If we can dialogue with respect then we can move forward. Thank you for taking the time to be here today.
Laurie: I am happy to be here but I do want to add something if you don’t mind. I think it is important to emphasize that respectful dialogue is the key to moving forward. I encourage all members of RID be mindful of respecting each other as we move forward. Unfortunately, some public comments have been made that were not respectful and for many were insulting. If we truly want our field and our organization to recover we have to maintain a respectful dialogue. I hope we can all remember the person receiving the message when posting comments via any open forum. Keep it honest and respectful.
Brandon: StretLeverage.com we try to create an environment where people feel comfortable expressing themselves so I can appreciate you bringing respect up. Laurie, thank you for your time. I appreciate you making time in your schedule for this discussion. I hope that this dialogue will help others who have wondered about the debate and differing opinions surrounding this referendum so that we can all move forward to a successful future. Thanks again.