This year’s post in the Autism Awareness series comes late—in September, whereas Autism Awareness Month is April—with a reasonable excuse. It took six month to confirm the value of this year’s development: scalable advocacy.
Last year’s opening salvo was a newfound focus on advocacy. In there, I reflected on the past few years and explained how I started advocating with an instinct of self-preservation, and then evolved a wish to create and maintain an open door through which others can walk without expending as much effort (and troubles) as I did.
Today I’d like to offer a follow-up on that theme.
At the start of 2020, I launched Infinite Colors, a resource group at Cockroach Labs aiming at raising awareness and share resources about the challenges and opportunities of neurodiversity in the workplace.
Nominally, Infinite Colors is a safe space for the full gamut of diversely wired brains, starting with autism and ADHD but stretching to include mood disorders and Tourette’s. To kickstart the initiative, I seeded a dozen of pages in the corporate wiki with resources grouped thematically, with an extra focus on empowering neurodiverse folk on a workplace. (None of this content is currently published externally, but I can provide copies upon request.)
This content was well attended from the start, and is now referenced from employee onboarding materials.
This Infinite Colors exercise was instructive in two ways:
- there was quickly a bunch of interest. Lurker attendance on the Slack channel started with an impressive group of ~20 folk (out of ~150 staff back then) and is still steadily growing (currently ~70/450); with solid engagement with the resources I add/share with the group.
- however, folk seem to be terribly uncomfortable sharing in writing, on their own. There’s a ton of lurkers, and quite a few folk reaching to me privately, but virtually no active posters on the public forums.
There was a brief moment where I was in doubt — was this a ghost community?
To check this, I reached out to all the members privately before Autism Awareness Month 2021, and it turns out they had a lot to share. We wrote and published a blog post together. It was empowering! And a confirmation of the importance and strength of the initiative.
Yet, the situation was uncomfortable: I could drive advocacy in front of a group of 100, but could I still do it on my own with audiences of 200, 500, 1000 curious folk? Could I maintain a personal touch and make situations relatable to that many folk simultaneously? I seriously doubt this; just thinking about it drains me emotionally.
More worryingly, I was seeing the one-sidedness of this enterprise as an existential judgement: what good is a resource group aiming to empower, if the members do not feel sufficiently empowered to gain confidence to speak up themselves?
This group needed to prove its ability to reach its purpose, as a group, somehow. And this brings us to this year 2022.
In April 2022, Something Happened.
The prelude to that Something was my musing about the above concern, and reading about leadership, community building and other topics adjacent to advocacy. I had learned that I could not give a group an identity until we could find a voice as a group, and that had to start with two, preferably three individuals participating with self-interest and agency.
Towards this, the year prior I had found one person who had volunteered to follow a group initiative, should one happen, with their own voice. From then on, I knew that with my voice next to theirs, we could attempt Something as a group.
Yet, I was keen to subtract myself from the endeavor if at all possible, for two reasons. One was selfish: I wanted to gain confidence that “things” could continue even if I took a break or was not participating. The other reason is that I had been told my presence or participation can be intimidating, and I feared that a duet of voices with mine in the mix would sound as one and fail the purpose.
And so I stalled, waiting for an Opportunity.
The Opportunity took the shape of a newcomer who, candidly, walked up to me figuratively and offered: “I would be honored to participate in whatever capacity”. “What do you want to do for autism awareness day/week this year?”, I replied. “I suppose I’d just like to meet people and listen to their stories. […] I would like to give back after all the patience and kindness friends and colleagues have shown me”, was their answer.
Then, I knew Something could happen. The new person had experience organizing group discussions and giving a voice to a group. I didn’t. Their previous experience of doing so did not end well, but I knew I could give them a platform with better chances. And so a partnership was possible.
From then on, things moved fast.
Our Something was a discussion panel on the topic of “learning about autism in adulthood”, with pre-selected questions and answers and ample time for the audience to ask their own questions. As we started to advertise for the event, a woman coworker asked for a female voice to be represented. So I also put a call for participation in a separate leadership community where I’m also a member, and was offered help from an external person with a diverse background quite different from our own. At last, there was a voice—the panelists—where mine was in the minority.
This panel was well-received, with a sustained audience of 50 through the event.
In the weeks that followed, multiple attendees shared how important they found the event. One person shared that they became very emotional with a mix of relief and newfound trust, stimulated by the degree of openness shown by the panelists on the topic. Another person shared that the Q&A helped them discover something about themselves and that the session literally changed their life for the better. Overall, attendees highlighted how the discussion opened new doors for them, both to understand others and themselves.
This format was a winner: beyond the praise from the audience, we started to see some lurkers within the group voice their interest in reproducing the experiment.
This is when I sensed it was time to subtract myself further as a figurehead. Switching gears from driver to facilitator, I gathered interested parties in a shared space and let them make their own suggestions. The group started to find additional topics of interest, and I answered questions when they were any. Allies lent some energy, cheering folk along. A seed was planted.
Would it grow though? I was not exactly sure.
This was my trial: I needed to wait and see. I also feared that if another event was organized and I was directly involved, the organizers would not feel as much empowered by the event’s success. And so I waited, answering more organizational questions on the way but without over-watering the seedling.
Finally, last week, another Something happened. The topic was ADHD on the workplace. I had been minimally involved, just as I wanted.
It was a resounding success, with a sustained audience of 60 and higher-quality audience questions than during the first round in April.
We are yet to run a retrospective, but I believe the proof of a working formula is now visible to all—and reusable! This felt very satisfying, at last. The ingredients, which we are yet to clearly identify, likely include:
- telling stories, not lectures.
- telling personal stories and sharing personal experiences.
- telling stories that speak of a transition and enlightenment.
- listening to the audience, and answering without judgement.
From ongoing conversations, I gather we will do this again. There are multiple topics lined up.
(I believe this is the very first time I created a “movement” deliberately. I have yet to understand what I need to do to maintain its momentum; I hope to write another chapter about it next year.)
To close this writeup, I would like to share a preview of what comes next for me.
While I am happy to see (and support) a growing safe space and community, I am still (always have been) more curious of, or concerned with, the well-being of folk who are still outside of the safe space; usually because they do not know it exists, or that they would be welcome in it.
This will be my next project: architecting organizational signals that folk can actuate, consciously or not, to solicit help and advice on topics they are unsure may apply to them. I am hoping for a self-serve and self-sustaining structure, that would be resilient to the coming and going of individual community members.
This, to me, is the true essence of scalable advocacy.
So what do you think? Did I miss something? Is any part unclear? Leave your comments below.