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We are the Light, We are the Change - Somos la luz, somos el cambio
My reflections on Alternatives 2007

By Daniel Fisher, M.D., Ph.D. 

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“We are the light, we are the change,” summarized my feelings about this excellent Alternatives. These are the words that our institute ended with. As those of us on the panel spoke the words, “we are the light, we are the change,” we reached out to the audience and one by one they reached back and held our hands. They picked up the chant. They in turn reached out and held the hands of their neighbors, who in turn picked up the chant. Large smiles spread across our faces. Then a Latina consumer led us in the same chant in Spanish. “Somos la luz, somos el cambio.” As we all entered into the Spanish version, the electricity between us intensified. Soon you could see by our expressions we were all feeling a new sense of joy. I could feel words bringing all my senses together, my feelings were welling up, my heart was brimming over, my thoughts were free to flow, and my skin felt the warm glow of spirits meeting spirits. We all ended by hugging and holding the feelings. I truly feel that the spirit of those words reflected the feeling of Alternatives 2007.

The institute “Getting a place at the table and gaining a voice” was presented by Joe Rogers, Sharon Kuehn, Lauren Spiro and myself. We also had two international consumer leaders who joined us by internet: Jenny Speed, Deputy Director of the Australian Mental Health Consumer Network, and Anne Beales, Management committee member of the National Survivor User Network (of England). The institute started with each of us sharing our story of how we came into the movement and the work we do.

Joe Rogers led off, telling of being labeled preschizophrenic and the pain of lost hope that the label brought down on him. The common theme was that we had suffered and wanted to change the system. Sharon had studied the degree to which the consumer movement is a response to the failure of the system to help people with their recovery. I reflected on the importance of our stories, not only for our recovery and that of those who hear them, but also for the overall society. We humanize our society by sharing the personal and emotionally loaded parts of ourselves. Just as the Hawaiians called the white man a haole, or person without a story, we can restore our famished souls by our stories. In this electronic, industrial world of emails, the oral personally- delivered story carries greater weight than any other form of communication. Lauren Spiro reflected on how important is has been to create and express our collective consumer voice through the National Coalition of Consumer/survivor Organizations.

One of the most important questions was raised by an Asian-American woman, who asked how we could avoid the oppressive form of leadership displayed by the system. One of the worst consequences of the old style of leadership is that people of color are disproportionately excluded. It was generally agreed that this question of creating our own unique form of leadership was one of the most important needs of our movement. Anne Beales suggested that basing our expertise on our lived experience rather than status symbols of power in the greater society would help level the power. Jenny recommended a shoulder-to-shoulder approach instead of the typical leader-follower. I cited my experience in California last year. During an interview with Bill Slocum, I pointed out that he had demonstrated leadership by supervising 100 self-help groups. He said he was not a leader. He said his style is to first enter each peer support group as a peer. Then we offer advice. This is similar to participatory leadership being advocated in business.

Near the end of our presentation, while still struggling with the issue of cultural competence, a white woman in the audience wondered how she could best understand a fellow consumer of color. She asked how she could help “your people.” The consumer of color turned her back on her. Then a Latina woman said the reason that happened was that the Anglo woman had used the term “you people.” She said she took offense at that term because it marginalizes people of color. “My people are the same as your people.” She then said she needed to switch to Spanish. She said she feels she can express herself better in Spanish and she switched to Spanish. But then she said we are all bilingual. After all, she said if we watch her body and listen to the tone of her voice, “then you will know what I am feeling because the language of feelings is universal.” In fact, expression of feelings is the mother tongue of relating with everyone. It is the language of the first story of our life and it is the language we resort to during challenges in our life-changing experiences. It was at that point that a member of our panel suggested we all hold hands and say we are the light as described at the start of this essay. This activity showed the power of a group to heal the trauma of discrimination.

This theme of the universality of emotional expression was also pointed out in the institute for a new group, AADVANCE. The panel represented consumers from a variety of ethnic backgrounds, but the theme of needing to connect at the most human of levels came through clearly.

There are strands of evidence that have led me to conclude that one of the most essential aspects of personal growth is the ability to initiate and maintain intimate, meaningful relationships. This occurs when we feel free to express our feelings. When we are traumatized, we go into a fear mode. Then our development is either slowed or stopped. There was an elegant description of the impact of trauma on a variety of mental health consumers at a plenary session.

The theme of the importance of emotional communication was also highlighted at the dinner on the first night of the conference. A peer pointed out that when the administrators talk there is very little inflection in their voice. They stay so close to the text that they fail to express the emotions that give deeper meaning to the words. Whereas, when a consumer spoke there was the full range of inflection as well as a variety of non-verbal communications.

At one moment, a consumer came up and expressed with strong passion that he could feel change happening now in the whole conference. “The change is happening right now and we are making it happen.” I felt his words echo throughout the remarkable four days of the conference. I would agree. We are the people who have been to the depths of our lives. We are the people who have found light in the times of our despair. We the people who are bringing light and hope back to others. We are the change and we are the light in the system and the society, and the change is happening now. We are making this a society of the people, for the people, and by the people who have been labeled with mental illness as well as for those who have not been labeled. We are making a true democracy we can all feel proud to be part of.