For inclusion and hope (an invitation)

Expectations for Starfire's first year of "collaboration projects" were high, though their design was simple enough: creative ideas built on shared passion - done in the spirit of inclusion. These projects were invented for people with developmental disabilities who belonged to our post-high school day program as a sort of capstone, or final benchmark before they moved on. Inclusion being our end goal, we knew not to base these projects on shared labels, like disability - but on a more commonly perceived denominator - shared passions. So whether it was cars, fashion,  local history, or gardening.... passion and inclusion were to be at the center of these projects - not Down Syndrome or Autism or Cerebral Palsy. The goal of inclusion for these projects also meant that each was designed to cultivate a real, authentic life experience in the community. That is, people with and without disabilities meeting over common interests to collaborate. To find people willing to be part of this first year of projects, we had to put our asset-based community development training to the test. We knew from this training that our communities were not vapid, boring places to live but in fact rich, vibrant places that simply needed to be tapped for their resources.

"Every community, no matter its state, has possibility. Every community member, no matter who, has something to offer."

Sure enough... Out of the woodwork came genealogists, screenwriters, bicycle commuters, and car enthusiasts... We plotted those people willing to share their passions on a digital map of Cincinnati and started to envision the future of our work, where inclusion was built one project at a time. Even more exciting was how different the invitation to ordinary citizens sounded. It wasn't the same as asking volunteers to join congregated activities (activities involving a group of people with disabilities). There were no sign up sheets, no service hours, no coercion. The invitation felt personal, a no-brainer for most, even flattering to some. You want me to share my love of xyz??? People were gung-ho to do something productive that got them out of the house and networking with people who were like them. Not only that, but this passion-centered design of projects turned out to be a source of momentum, and people worked overtime to make their project a success. Ultimately this blood, sweat, and tears proved to be what was most beautiful about collaboration projects: the drive was relationships. And hope.

Out of this experience, the potential to form sustainable, authentic relationships grew. It was everything we hoped for, mostly, when we imagined an inclusive Cincinnati. And while we didn't quite know it then, these first projects became our prototype for how we would design our work of inclusion moving forward.

This was all going on during my first year working at Starfire, and at some point I was told to pull out a camera. Someone had to document what was happening.  My sister's mini dv camcorder in hand and a digital voice recorder for a microphone, I began to follow the story of inclusion unfolding all over the city. A stack of tapes soon filled the corner bookshelf by my desk. By the time graduation rolled around, I had enough film to create a 1-2 minute video for each project and these played the night of the ceremony. Among them was a play adaptation of a book, a written and photographed montage of stories across Cincinnati screen printed into a mural, a car show,  a musical production,  and a film festival on street cycling.  We hoped the people watching would not just clap and leave without realizing what we had over the last 6 months: that these projects somehow managed to get at the heart of what it means to truly be included. And they did so not by contriving “special” scenarios for people based on their label of disability, but by telling a bigger story than disability - a new story.

Today, my mini dv camcorder is a more impressive Canon with two lenses I'm still figuring out when to use, and a few real microphones have been added to the arsenal. "Graduation" night has morphed into one of Starfire's biggest fundraising events and an entire night of storytelling through video. I now have over 80 of these 1-2 minute videos under my belt, and equalling almost as many are the collaboration projects that have been done over the past four years. Admittedly, this pressure to create 20 more videos every year puts me in a bit of a panic in the months before June. I want badly to get the story right. My dreams fill with sequences to the footage I've collected, the narrative writes in my head over breakfast. I doubt myself before I go into an interview, and I wonder how else I could have asked the question when I am done filming it. Editing turns days into night quickly, my eyes start seeing floaters and my shoulders ache. Sometimes it feels like I'm not equipped, like I don't have the talent or the creativity or the finesse to pull it off another year. And this story is too important not to get right. Feels a lot like writers block.

Then I remember back to the first year, to a crammed room with Ronny and Jovan and Leah and Krista and Sarah and Brandon and JC and Jason and Candice all there. Projects aren't even real yet, they are still an idea at that point. I am two months into my job. People with developmental disabilities from the day program gathered with staff to take turns sharing what their project idea was:

"My project is 'Cheeseburger Coke Parties,'"

"Mine is a play adaptation of the book Waddie Welcome,"

"My project is a film festival called 'Bikes and Busses are Better than Cars'....."

Each announcement is followed by an absolute eruption of cheering. The kind of unadulterated cheering that is not for the sake of cheering itself, but is indeed the purest and only available reaction to feeling in the room. We were onto something, it was known even then. Before my own eyes, people were shedding their label of disability and owning a new story of strength and commonality through these projects. And courage poured out - right out, I tell you - of the center of people's hearts as they got up and spoke. There was hope.

I found myself sobbing in Tim's office afterward. It was the most beautiful moment I had ever been a part of, and I felt so new and unworthy and yet unquestionably welcomed and invited. That feeling - that's Starfire.

So, dear reader, if you decide to show up this June at the 20th Century Theater - you may have the chance to hear this cheering once more. It comes at the end of everyone's video. When that cheering hits you unawares (if it does the way it did me), look around at everyone who is part of this emerging story of inclusion in Cincinnati. And when you do, just know that like everyone else here this evening - you are also whole, worthy and invited. And this hope is for you, too.

See you there,