The following article was printed in the Fall, 2011 edition of The Old Town Chinatown Crier: A Publication of the Old Town Chinatown Neighborhood Association.
An exercise in perception shapes heroic journeys
By Cat Poole
I was forced from my home at a young age, said goodbye to all that was familiar and loved. Eventually, I was forced into special housing for people of my kind.
For the most part people in the larger community look at me as though I don’t belong and sometimes they say as much; other times, I wonder if I should tell them that there is a legitimate reason why I don’t seem quite like everyone else. If I expose myself as being born different and that after the accident everything changed, then there may be larger implications that affect my already too tough day-to-day life. Last time I talked with someone about things, they cuffed me and locked me in an institution, and tried to make me think and act like them; 6-months later there is sweet freedom and I know to be more careful about who I talk to, even if they are just offering to help.
Do you know who I am?
Am I one of Marvel’s infamous X-Men or Dr. Strange? J’onn of the Justice League?
Not exactly. Not yet anyway—but, we’ll get to that.
I am a disabled American, who receives monthly benefits from Social Security, living in Chinatown above a club with other people with disabilities, the forgotten poor. Well, that’s how people see me; it’s not my identity.
On February 10, 2011, “Find Your Inner Super Hero” workshops began to help blur the barrier between the admired heroes and those who gave up the common childhood dream of being like them.
The two-hour workshops aretypically held twice a month in the lobby at Macdonald Center Member Services. They are largely participant driven with a loose lesson plan that relies on using worksheets, cutting pictures from donated magazines, and engaging lots of imagination. While many participants considered the differences between their heroes and themselves too great, with a gap too vast to bridge, they are now finding their perception was the obstacle, not their past or disability.
Within five group workshops, and two one-on-one short workshops, ten super heroes and two alternate identities were created. Participants began realizing their similarities not only with the heroes they admire but also with each other. The understanding of each other has allowed them to identify strengths in others, so they work as a cohesive team and completed a mission. After completing the first team mission workshop, and a total of ten hours of super hero training, I asked Shadow Man why he continued participating. He had this to say:
Doing the workshop makes me feel good, because it makes me feel like I’m part of a community. Writing about my experiences and the worksheets help me feel like I can write to the best of my ability and I won’t be judged. The workshops help people learn to become a super hero to everyone else by making the right choices.
Many participants looked around the table and doubted that they were capable of working together. However, problem solving and division of duties among the team members happened in a very fluid, natural manner—in ways that were more egalitarian and respectful than any of the eight participants or Member Services staff expected. As a result the mission was completed with enough time left over for another team to form and finish in a different mode, while others worked on adding more details to their characters.
Super heroes start their journey to become heroes due to inherent characteristics since birth that cause them to look, behave, or think differently from the majority of those around them. Many have survived an accident or experienced a great tragedy that helped shape them. In addition, some heroes have physical disabilities or mental illness. People with disabilities endure at least one of these hardships. Some experienced a combination of two or all three paths.
Participants explore the similarities of their pasts with the tumultuous pasts of beloved super heroes to create their own hero based on themselves. With members from the larger Portland community volunteering their time and talents, I hope participants and volunteers alike tear down their internalized stigma, and no longer feel like unwanted members in the community. Put simply, the workshops are a catalyst for the development of pride and a sense of responsibility for one’s actions, while helping to defeat stigmas and strengthen the bonds of the community—both within our program and the larger Portland community.
The workshop is only one example of how the Macdonald Center reaches out to the forgotten poor. Two other examples are the visiting program and education opportunities we offer. Weekly, volunteers visit socially isolated individuals in single room occupancy hotels, hospitals, jails, on the streets, and in our own residence in Old Town. Lives are honored through hotel birthday parties and memorial services. The Macdonald Center is also a site for service education about the issues of poverty, social justice, mental illness, and community building. As university students and our volunteers learn and develop community-building skills, healthy relationships grow in the Old Town community.
For more information about the workshops, see: www.fyish.wordpress.com or contact Cat by phone, 503-225-0590, or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org. For more information about the Macdonald Center and its work with the community, contact Program Director Marylee King, 503-222-5720 or by e-mail email@example.com.