For Me, Science IS Political
“Politics should stay out of the
That environment sounds ideal, but untenable for me. As a woman, my advocacy and lobbying skills were reinforced early on, in order for me to contact reinforcement, professional and personal success. To be honest, I can’t recall a single work environment where I did not encounter “politics” in some shape or form.
In August 2006, I accepted a job as a special educator in Fairfax County, Virginia. The salary promised was significantly higher than the pay scales in Richmond, Virginia. Prior to my arrival, FCPS teacher unions had a history of negotiating for better wages, better benefits, smaller classroom sizes, and more resources for students with disabilities. Public school board members run for office, and are elected members of the education community. The National Parent Teacher Association is the largest volunteer child advocacy organization in the United States, as of 2017. Per its website, NPTA's advocacy and education has led to improvements in educational policies in the US, and assisted with the development of child labor laws, mandatory immunization policies, and the creation of Kindergarten.
In July 2009, I moved to Powhatan County, Virginia with my husband. Months before, a verdict of involuntary manslaughter for two Caucasian male cousins who had opened fire on a car, striking and killing the County’s African American football star in 2008, shook the community. The jury was composed of 12 adults, all Caucasian except for one African American male. The jury had concluded that the death was accidental. I started teaching at the middle school months later. During that first year in Powhatan, I learned about the history of the African American community. The instructional assistant I taught with told me of how her family “earned” their surname: it was the last name of the slaveholder who owned generations of her family members. If that were not shocking enough for me, having grown up in a diverse community in Alexandria, VA, my Principal told the story of how the middle school was built to house the segregated African American high school students in the 1930s. When forced to integrate in 1969, it became the county’s only middle school, and “many of the pictures were tossed into a dumpster…But the school custodian at the time, Fleming Scruggs, salvaged them.” Most of the white students in the community had already been transferred to Huguenot Academy, a private school in the county that was founded in 1959 by parents who wished to avoid having their students attend an integrated school.
Without political activism to change education law at the Federal level, would Powhatan’s schools be integrated? Were it not for the custodian rescuing photos from the dumpster, would there be a permanent product to document the men and women who attended the county’s segregated school? The members of the community still avoid talking about race, even though juries continue to acquit or reduce murder charges to lesser degrees when it is white-on-black crime. Tell me again how, as a teacher, I have to keep politics out of the workplace when it’s clear that some lives are valued less than others?
Overseeing in-home ABA therapy programs over the years, my work has ALWAYS been tied to politics. (image: advocates for the law, to include Megan Sullivan Kirby, Christine Evanko, Megan Miller)
In May 2011, with the passage of legislation that was the culmination of years of work, Virginia became the 26th state to enact autism insurance reform, and thousands of children were able to access ABA therapy services through mandated change to health plan benefits. If it were not for the lobbying, legislation, activism of parents and family members, individuals with autism, and stakeholders like teachers and behavior analysts, ABA therapy would not be as accessible as it is in Virginia today. Although many plans still exclude ABA therapy benefits due to loopholes and exclusionary clauses, I look forward to seeing the number of children able to access ABA therapy grow next year because of Virginia’s passage of Medicaid expansion. If we kept politics out of the workplace, I wouldn’t have the success I have now as a BCBA, responsible for overseeing programs that deliver ABA therapy to children with autism.
Earlier this year, when the Children’s Health Insurance Plan (CHIP) was used as a negotiating tool in the Federal budget debates, Congress and the President of the United States risked access to health care for over 203,000 Virginian children to win a political battle. Within my organization, 13-15% of our clients had EPSDT Behavioral Therapy-Outpatient ABA services because they were enrolled in CHIP. When cuts to the Medicaid budget are discussed in the news, I think of the 675,000 children in Virginia who have healthcare because of Medicaid funding. I cannot separate politics from the workplace. Ignoring the fact that families live in fear of losing healthcare, I am ignoring barriers that impact their ability to participate in ABA therapy. Tip for clinicians: set up family/ caregiver training in a manner that promotes their involvement, so that if a client loses access to ABA therapy because of a budget cut at the state or federal level, at least the caregivers are able to use ABA therapy techniques in our absence.
I received positive feedback from my behavior analytic peers when I was advocating for the renewal of CHIP. Now, I must wonder... when told to keep politics out of the workplace, was my political activism overlooked because the loss of CHIP would have meant loss of pay for them?
In 2017, John Kelly, the Secretary of Homeland Security at the time, confirmed that the Trump administration was considering the separation of families at the US-Mexico border, to deter migrants via threat of punishment. As early as October 2017, and confirmed by Jeff Session’s announcement of the “zero tolerance policy” on April 6, 2018, children and parents migrating into the United States via the US-Mexico border were being separated from one another. The children and parents were relocated to separate holding facilities, often hundreds or even thousands of miles from one another. The rationale for use of such intervention is still debatable. Some in the Trump administration referenced the Bible. Others stated that the separation policy was law (even Fox News reports that it was never a law). Blame was deferred. No one has apologized. And, as of 7/19/18, children and parents remain separated, with no specified date for reunification identified.
DNA identification technology is being used in some cases to identify children and match them with their parents. Is there informed consent? What happens to the results, are they kept in a federal database that is HIPAA compliant? Will the private health information gained for the purpose of reunification be re-purposed for ulterior motives, akin to the story of Henrietta Lacks?
This Administration is using interventions that result in trauma, with significant negative long-term health impacts already documented when we have not addressed the need to have comprehensive immigration policy reforms in the United States (Kirmayer, et al., 2011; Porter & Haslam, 2005).
As a behavior analyst, I’m well aware that punishment techniques are a last resort, as they do not teach a replacement behavior. What replacement behavior is there for crossing the border if we do not treat these children and adults with civility and respect, refusing to listen to them and understand what motivated their risky behavior that could have resulted in death. I have never felt the need to cross a desert, risk being raped, murdered and/or dying of thirst or injury, in order to escape an aversive or deadly home environment. Having no understanding of the setting events, behavioral history, environment that results in a person to choose to migrate to America, I am in no position to punish someone for wanting to live. I am sickened by the verbal behavior used to label human beings as animals, as lesser than. This IS America; we have a strong history of antecedents and consequences related to dehumanizing minorities. Just look at the history of treatment and laws that made it possible to separate Native American children from their parents, moving First Nation persons from their homeland to make room for Anglo-Saxon immigrants who were encouraged to populate the West. The United States has been built to be the model of individual wealth and success, but at the cost of many human lives and generations of trauma.
In Walden Two, B.F. Skinner imagined a better world that used behavioral principals to live pro-social values of collaboration, conservation and humanism. When did it become faux pas to be a behavior analyst AND an activist?
On September 1, 1967, Martin Luther King, Jr. was invited to the American Psychological Association (APA)’s Annual Convention in Washington, D.C. He delivered a speech titled, “The Role of the Behavioral Scientist in the Civil Rights Movement.”
"Negroes want the social scientist to address the white community and 'tell it like it is.' White America has an appalling lack of knowledge concerning the reality of Negro life. One reason some advances were made in the South during the past decade was the discovery by northern whites of the brutal facts of southern segregated life. It was the Negro who educated the nation by dramatizing the evils through nonviolent protest. The social scientist played little or no role in disclosing truth. The Negro action movement with raw courage did it virtually alone. When the majority of the country could not live with the extremes of brutality they witnessed, political remedies were enacted and customs were altered."
Dr. King was murdered seven months after the APA Convention address. His words sadly ring true today. If the threat of punishment by a certification board or random peer prevents us from acting upon Dr. King’s call for behavioral scientists to engage in political action and non-violent civil disobedience in response to oppressive and harmful actions of persons in power, I believe that history will show that we stood idly by although we claimed we were working on socially-significant behavior change goals.
I will no longer be afraid of a stranger reporting me to my certification board for standing up when others are afraid to do so. Dr. Mark Mittaini, ABAI President, recently said that behavior analysts need to "be brave." To me, that means I need to speak out against discrimination, policies and procedures that harm other persons or myself. I will continue to disseminate my science, and the use of data and facts when others cry out that science is “fake news.”
If fighting for the rights of my clients to have access to healthcare is political, then I am proud to identify as politically active. As a friend once told me, “I was a citizen before I became a behavior analyst.”
At this time, I cannot separate citizen from behaviorist. I will continue to advocate for policy changes that extinguish the separation of children from their parents or cease the killing of civilians in Syria. My workplace is the world. I believe that I have the privilege of having behavior analysis on my side, the side that actively cares about people and considers compassion as integral to the delivery of behavior analytic services to consumers (Geller, 2002). I have the privilege of having an adequate income thanks to the growing job market for ABA therapy service providers, thanks to the political engagement of our consumers and peers across these United States.
I believe it would be a disservice to the world to exclude the behaviors of advocacy and education from my identity as a behaviorist. I am pro-behavior analysis and pro-human. I am a humanist behaviorist, and I will continue to be a voice for the voiceless and advocate for human rights. THIS IS WHY I AM AN UNCOMFORTABLE BCBA.
Geller, E. S. (2002). How to get more people involved in behavior-based safety: Selling an effective process. Cambridge Journal for Behavioral Studies, www.behavior.org.
Kirmayer LJ, Narasiah L, Munoz M, Rashid M, Ryder AG, Guzder J, Hassan G, Rousseau C, Pottie K. Canadian collaboration for immigrhant and refugee health (CCIRH). Common mental health problems in immigrants and refugees: general approach in primary care. CMAJ. 2011; 10.1503/cmaj.090292.
Porter M, Haslam N. Predisplacement and postdisplacement factors associated with mental health of refugees and internally displaced persons: a meta-analysis. JAMA. 2005;294(5):602–612. doi: 10.1001/jama.294.5.602.