My wife and I were driving somewhere recently and began talking about Bill and Hillary Clinton’s speaking fees, between $150,00 and $300,000 dollars. Regardless of your politics, I think we can all agree that $300,000 dollars to speak is outrageous. There probably is not a single one of you who wouldn’t take even half that amount to share their experiences and expertise. I know I would.
Of course, adoptees are not giving speeches discussing their lives as a President of the United States or the former Secretary of State and while our stories may be unique and special, let’s be honest, they are not remotely on the level of a former leader of the free world.
However, there seems to be a general principle applying to other professionals, but not adoptees; they are compensated for speaking publicly and we are usually not.
I’ve spoken on numerous panels, to current and prospective adoptive parents, children, adoption advocates and others interested in intercountry adoption. I enjoy telling my story, and when I first received speaking requests, I was merely excited to share my family’s story. But moving along on my adoption journey, my thinking has evolved. Why am I doing this for free? I will credit my friend Kevin Vollmers for helping me ‘see the light’ on this issue as well.
Every time I’m asked to speak on a panel, one of the first questions I ask is, ‘will I be compensated?’ Usually, the response I receive is, ‘sorry, we can’t do anything’ or almost indignation that I asked.
But, contrast that with the overwhelming show of support and thankfulness I receive after speaking and there is a serious disconnect happening. Without fail, I get an email from the sponsoring agency or group profusely grateful that I shared such a powerful story. They were impressed by my transparency and glad that I gave them different perspectives to contemplate.
I ask myself, ‘if my words and my personal narrative are so powerful and people are applauding my honesty, why do I feel like a circus animal sometimes?’ That’s a harsh comparison, but honestly, it’s how and other adoptees feel about the events.
The adoption industry uses adoptee panelists to show they have robust post-adoption service offerings. Or to receive the recognition that they believe in post-adoption services.
It’s almost as though adoption agencies or groups must bring in adoptees to their conferences or panels to ‘check a box.’ Make sure you have an adult adoptee speaking at your conference about transracial adoption because it would look bad if you didn’t.
If our stories are as esteemed as agency staff says, they need to tangibly show us.
When we use the word valuable, it means not only does something have intrinsic worth, but people are willing to pay for it.
Adoptees are making ourselves emotionally vulnerable to strangers. Speaking on an adoption panel is not like being a panelist about workforce strategy or international development, where experts discuss their personal experiences, but those are directly related to their work. Furthermore, people are not usually asking them probing questions about their individual feelings when they speak publicly, as happens to adoptees in these types of forums.
Additionally, adoptees frequently travel to events, giving up part or whole days ‘adding value’ to an agency’s panel or conference. That aspect should not be discounted either.
I don’t want to hear from adoption agencies that they don’t have money to pay adoptee speakers. What I hear them saying is, ‘we didn’t think you were important enough to put in our conference/panel budget, but we’re asking you to volunteer, be emotionally vulnerable and speak.’
Some adoptees are paid to speak as they are subjects of films, books or well-known, but they are rare. Additionally, an adoption celebrity perpetuates the idea that some adoptees have more important stories than others. I don’t agree. An agency paying one speaker, but not the others, propagates the notion and the pernicious narrative, that certain adoptee stories are more valuable than others. Adoptees have been fighting for years to have people legitimize their narratives since we’re frequently absent the entire adoption arena.
Each individual adoptee has a unique story, and while it may be more improbable/heart-wrenching/infuriating, insert whichever adjective you wish, no story is more ‘valuable’ than any other adopted persons. All of us have stories and each of our stories add to the overall tapestry of the human experience.
I’m sure there are some reading this who think I’m being ungrateful. But that brings up another annoying trope of the adoptee reality. Why should I be ‘grateful’ merely to have my story recognized? I don’t owe the adopter community anything. I’m not being a stereotypical angry adoptee, I’m asking to be treated fairly.
How many of you, adopted or not, if asked to tell your story to strangers, who would then ask you inquisitive personal questions, sometimes making you feel uncomfortable or awkward, would do so without compensation? I’m guessing none, so why should adoptees?
I understand I don’t have ‘academic’ qualifications for adoption speaking, but there are plenty of adoptees who do have MSW’s and they are not compensated for their time and effort either. The broader problem is speakers of color are not paid fairly, but that tangent is for another post.
We need to end this and pledge together, that NONE of us will tell our stories without monetary compensation. If the adoption agencies running their panels/conferences/workshops cannot find adoptees to speak without being paid, they will have no choice but to pay all of us.