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The "M" Word

Updated: Dec 6, 2021

"Don't tell me what you value. Show me your budget, and I'll tell you what you value."

- Joe Biden

Houston, adoption reform land has a money problem. There. I said it. The "M" word. A couple of months ago, I posted something similar to the following observation on social media: The "organized" adoption reform movement and the Human Rights Campaign both started at the same time, in the mid-1970s. The former had an ambitious, but seemingly achievable goal: gain access to original birth certificates and adoption records for adult adoptees. The latter had a seemingly impossible goal to redefine long-entrenched American legal principles and values of marriage, family and sexuality. Whether you support their mission or not, the political effort has been nothing short of stunning and we can learn much from it. So how is it that today, the HRC now owns a building in Washington, D.C. with a staff of 150, including six full-time attorneys and has effective lobbies in every statehouse as well as the nation's capital -- and has more or less achieved its goal -- while the adoption reform movement has a handful or two of successful local grass roots groups and non-profits, has succeeded in changing laws to provide varying degrees of access in about half the states, and may best be described as a fractious online community largely bent on self-sabotage through snarkiness? Aside from our persistent inability to leave our egos and personality disorders at the door, what obvious factor has defined the difference in the degrees of success between the two movements? Say it. Say it out loud: MONEY.

If time is money, then kudos to a relatively small but solid core of individuals who have donated their time and talent to the cause for a year, a season, or a lifetime. You know who you are, and your contribution's value cannot be calculated. But when it comes down to the people who have had significant or even average assets, and been willing to give generously of those assets to effect changes in the law, the list dwindles dramatically.

Adoptee Helen Hill in Oregon comes to mind, donating a $250,000 inheritance to almost single-handedly fund Measure 58 in Oregon, back when a ballot initiative could be done at such a bargain basement price. A birth/first mother left a piece of land to a national non-profit in her will. An anonymous adoptee business owner reportedly laid out a significant amount of cash for a lobbying effort in the Midwest.

A small number of lawyers and lobbyists have stepped up (some with dramatic impact; others are just getting started and the jury is still out, so to speak). Now that the AAARA resolution has been announced, I'm optimistic that the number of attorneys willing to jump into the fray will expand rapidly. In various states, lobbyists who care deeply about the issue have worked, and continue to work tirelessly behind the scenes for a reduced or no fee.

The powerful spirit of sacrificing for something you believe in is alive and exemplified through these great people. But, given the thousands (but apparently not millions) of adoptees, birth/first parents, adoptive and foster parents who say they value this cause deeply, the spirit of financial generosity for the cause is a flickering wick rather than a wildfire. Why is this so?

I have a few theories. Take the fish and throw away the bones:

1) Underlying our money issues are trust issues, and in a few cases, rightly so. The treasurer of one national non-profit was convicted of embezzling some $60,000 and served a jail sentence in the mid-2000s. How can we be sure the same thing won't happen again? As Ronald Reagan used to say when asked about Russia, "Trust, but verify." If someone balks at a simple, legal request to "verify," sound the alarm and take action (legal action, if necessary) to ensure accountability.

2) Even if we can raise substantial amounts of money to hire a lobbyist, an attorney, or fund a ballot initiative, there is no guarantee of success, and those donations are typically not tax deductible. "What if we're just throwing money down a rat hole?" we ask. Legislative change is not for the faint of heart, and there are risks and sometimes devastating disappointments involved. Welcome to American politics.

3) Our outrage creates a self-defeating sense of entitlement. "I refuse to pay for something that should be mine, just like anyone else." That's nice, but if we're going to win, it's time to put on our big boy and big girl pants, dig into our pockets, and admit that money talks and strident (or weepy) adoptees walk. Welcome to American politics.

4) In an age that increasingly dismisses faith, we've lost the excitement and sense of adventure embodied in old adages like, "God helps those who help themselves," and "Do your best and leave the rest to God." Whatever your faith, or lack thereof, in a Supreme Being, there is still a principle at work here. If we never take a step of faith, if we never make the sacrifice, we'll never find out what doors might open and what resources outside of our control might materialize. Once you see this start to happen, desperation gives way to fun and amazement.

5) There is (still) no central national organization that has proven consistently effective at raising and properly managing and distributing large amounts of money like the Human Rights Campaign. Though there are several legal entities to choose from, we still don't have the infrastructure, or apparently the personnel, in place to make it happen on anything but a piecemeal, state-by-state volunteer scale. (Note: in making this observation, in no way do I assert that a national organization is the only way it can happen, nor do I claim to be the person with the skills to create such a beast. But I strongly believe that such people exist and are out there and willing to help. We just haven't met them yet. If we had, it would be happening.)

6) Many of us live with an elevated sensitivity to -- even a hyper-vigilance about -- money and commodification due to the fact that money (sometimes large sums of money) changed hands when we changed families. It's visceral, makes us feel dirty sometimes, and is a topic we prefer to avoid. Sometimes we're quick to judge the well-to-do and would rather suffer as a serf while trying to "stick it to the man" than participate in our disturbing system. Fair enough. But you can still learn to play the game and pass "Go" without actually becoming the shoe, the race car, or the dog.

Fact is, we are uncomfortable asking for, and being asked for money. It somehow seems to taint the purity of the mission. Refer once again to the Joe Biden quote at the beginning of this piece. But if we don't get comfortable talking about it, being asked for it, and asking for it -- from an absolute place of integrity, transparency, accountability, and mission-focused practical reality -- we will continue to limp along, marvel at what other causes have accomplished and have no one to blame but ourselves.

- Rich Uhrlaub

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