Being Known

Yesterday around 3:30 I was in the front of Starfire’s building and I ran into a woman,” Karen”, who was looking for help navigating the bus schedule. I tried to help her identify which bus to take and she went about her day. I left around 5:45 ready to head for home and as I passed the bus stop near our building I saw Karen standing there, confused. Had she been waiting for over two hours?? I immediately turned around and asked her if she needed a ride. She got in my car and I drove her to the nail salon about 3 miles down the road….

What does it mean to be known?

I’ve been looped into dialogues about this kind of question several times over the years but more so in an esoteric sense. Now I ask it to myself in an effort to find a way to communicate to others about the why around our work through Starfire.

I get equally impassioned and frustrated in the conversation about why we do what we do.
We connect people based on their passions and interests rather than their deficiencies or disabilities.

We know in the deepest sense of ourselves that knowing people, labeling people, based on what inherently sucks about them does not create community- no one introduces me as “oh you gotta meet my friend Sarah! She’s sabotaged every romantic relationship she’s been in based on her inability to overcome her destructive patterns!” ….That would be insane!! Who would want to get to know me deeper?? However, our society does this, everyday, with people who have the label of disability. “My brother has Down Syndrome- you should meet him because you work with people like him!” First of all, I work with people who like gardening, basketball, cooking, Indian Culture and Bollywood films, writing, researching, meeting new people, working with their hands, and on and on the list goes. Second, yes, I’d love to “meet your brother.” I’d love to meet him and find out what he loves and what he cares about and then I’m going to work my ass off to find the other people and places who love and care about the same things. It is at this intersection that a seed of connection can be planted. A seed that if watered by friends, family members and paid staff, can blossom into a friendship- a natural friendship based on a shared interest.

But, back to Karen. This little story tells me a few things: 1. If I don’t know Karen exists, then I drive past that bus stop and see her as any ole person waiting for the bus and I go on my way. She’s “independent” and she figures it out on her own. 2. If I only know Karen by what she needs or what she can’t do then I’m in a great position to “help” her out. But then the connection stops there. I drop her off at the nail salon and I head home.

Now imagine. Imagine if I know Karen exists, I know where she lives, and I know one or two things about her that she loves/is passionate about/is interested in. If I know her, I now know how to invite her in. Into community life that has actively excluded her for her entire life. Sometimes unintentionally, sometimes systematically- either way, not being given the opportunity to be known by anyone other than your disability and what services you attend is an injustice.

Let’s step outside of disability though. Imagine I know you, the reader. I know you exist, I know where you live, and I know one or two things you love/are passionate about/are interested in. Now I know how to connect you to a world in which you are already a part. I can invite you to a potluck, introduce you to my friends who started Cinciknitti, connect you with a friend who is doing a sweet neighborhood research project that you might want to get involved in!

For some reason this second anecdote seems familiar doesn’t it? It seems natural and normal and what one may simply call the beauty of networking! But the first anecdote- imagining knowing Karen is unnatural, weird, outside of the realm of possibility.

Or is it?

At Starfire we are constantly doing unnatural things to support people in having natural lives. Take a chance with us. Trust us. And next time you find yourself questioning why we’re focusing on making connections and building relationships, try asking my favorite question: Why not!?!?

Sarah Buffie