Other People's Words

Interview w/ Stacey Milbern of the National Youth Leadership Network

Posted in Uncategorized by Tera on December 7, 2010

This is a transcript of Autism Women’s Network’s interview with Stacey Milbern, Outreach Coordinator for the National Youth Leadership Network about bullying and the intersections between ableism, heterosexism, transphobia and other -isms.


Sharon daVanport: Good day, everyone, and welcome to AWN Radio. We are the Autism Women’s Network on Blogtalk. I am your host, Sharon daVanport, and today is Monday, December 6, 2010. Joining us today will be Savannah Lodgston-Breakstone and Stacey Milbern of the National Youth Leadership Network. Before we bring them on, though, we have just a few quick announcements. Our AWN sponsor, LifePROTEKT, is doing upgrades with our sponsorship package. We will let you know just as soon as it is complete, so that when we get the green light on that we will do our next drawing for the GPS locator and one year of free service through LifePROTEKT. So just keep sending us your stories to be eligible for the drawing, and you e-mail us for that entry at info AT autismwomensnetwork DOT org.

I also wanted to mention that today’s show is going to be dedicated to the young people who this past fall committed suicide because they were bullied for being gay. We’re going to talk more about that during today’s show, so that we bring it full-circle and you undestand what we mean by that. So now I’m pleased to have join us today as our guests…First we’re going to bring on Stacey Milbern. Stacey is a youth activist with the National Youth Leadership Network. [It] is an organization that has been working to build power among disabled young people, and in response to the tragic news of [unknown] [15?] young people committing suicide this past fall because they were bullied for being gay, Savannah and Stacey and a team of disabled young people have been using art and media to talk about the connection between the gay, lesbian, bi, trans and disability communities, and the way that violence is experienced by many who do not fit into society’s little box of normalcy. Again, AWN radio does respectfully dedicate this show to the young people who committed suicide.

So I’m going to bring on Stacey now. Welcome to the show, Stacey.

Stacey Milbern: Hi, Sharon. Thank you for having me today.

Sharon daVanport: Well, I thank you very much for taking the time to come over to visit with us and let us know what the National Youth Leadership Network has been doing, especially in response to the tragedy that happened this past fall. Before we get started, there’s actually two starting points. I want to make for sure before we get too far into our discussion, we might talk a little bit about vocabulary and maybe some of the words that you use.

When we talk about the different language that maybe perhaps is being used today. I know that when you and I visited when we were getting the show together, I was really hesitant and honestly felt a little uncomfortable, because I didn’t want to say the wrong thing. I didn’t want to say something that would be offensive or not say something that you prefer, and I appreciate you being very patient with me and helping me [laughter] understand. I come from a generation where a lot of the words that I know that you use personally are words that would’ve been offensive, in the ’80s when I was in high school in the late ’70s and early ’80s. So if we could start with that, I’d like for you to speak to that a little bit, about language and why you’re embracing some words that in generations past were offensive.

Stacey Milbern: Sure. Thanks, Sharon. Well, I think the first thing to say about that is it’s not only in GLBT communities, but also in disability communities and communities of color that language is consistently changing and taking on new meaning. I think that’s always going to happen—kind of a natural process. In terms of words that I use to describe myself, there are two schools of thought right now among GLBT folks, and one is talking about needing to show society that we fit into this box of what is considered normal.

Sharon daVanport: Right.

Stacey Milbern: In that school of thought, you see a lot of folks saying: “Okay, this why we should fight for the right to be married. This is why we should fight for the right to serve in the Army” kind of thing. All those issues. And then in the other school of thought, you have people that identify more as queer instead of GLBT. Even though that is a word that historically holds a lot of trauma, a lot of folks are using that to describe more of a liberation movement and talking about: “Why should anybody try to fit into what’s normal? We should be smashing that idea of what’s normal, because it hurts us all.”

Sharon daVanport: Okay.

Stacey Milbern: So you see those two schools of thought and the way they both take on violence and bullying tells a lot, I think, about how people identify with the community and where their politics lie and all those things.

Sharon daVanport: Right. If you could speak a little now to what the National Youth Leadership Network is, how you guys got together and organized yourself, and to this great organization and what you’re doing.

Stacey Milbern: Sure. Definitely. So the National Youth Leadership Network, which folks can go online and check out, is an organization that is led by young people with disabilities for young people with disabilities. So what that means is that we really do a lot of work to try to be a resource base for youth with disabilities, because we recognize so many barriers are access- and information-related. So, yeah, just making sure young people have the information they need, whether that’s about things more typical, like employment, or it could be relationships, how to develop support systems, how to be in a world that accepts you—all those kind of things. And in addition to that, we really work to connect young people together. We do a lot of work with youth organizations that are run by youth with disabilities and all kinds of stuff like that.

Sharon daVanport: Okay.

Stacey Milbern: So we do some exciting—what does that say? “I am the [unknown]” I don’t even know—so we have a lot of exciting things going on right now. Yeah.

Sharon daVanport: Well, that’s good. So you are specifically a youth leadership network that addresses disabilities?

Stacey Milbern: Yeah. [It’s] specific to the disability community, but in the last year, we started to recognize the way that we belong to multiple communities and how communities are connected to each other.

Sharon daVanport: Okay. Let’s talk about that. That’s a good point, Stacey. That’s something we really wanted to talk about today: how the disability community is connecting to other communities. Can you make that connection, draw that connection for our listeners on why we’re talking about disabilities and the gay, lesbian community today?

Stacey Milbern: Yeah. So, again, I think a lot of times the GLBT community gets talked about in this really one-dimensional way, where we’re just talking about one person liking somebody who’s the same gender and we’re not talking about a queer perspective, where we talk about how people are resisting ideas of masculinity or femininity. Or people are resisting gender norms, body types, all these kind of things. For me, that really just fits so perfectly with disability, because we’re talking about two communities that oftentimes defy norms and how those communities get treated when they defy norms. There’s a lot of connections there.

Sharon daVanport: Okay.

Stacey Milbern: So we’re talking about bullying today. That’s a perfect one where people don’t fit in and their bodies get policed.

Sharon daVanport: Right. So you’re saying that you can identify. Being a person that you identify yourself as having a disability, you also identify with another community, because what brings you together and what you identify with is the way that you’re discriminated against. Is that what you’re saying?

Stacey Milbern: Well, I think not just discriminated against, but moving through the world with a non-normative body identity.

Sharon daVanport: Oh, okay. Sure.

Stacey Milbern: Yeah, disabilty and GLBT [folks?] both fit out…so [unknown] is all a big box on the [screen?] right? I think on the inside of the box you put people who speak English, middle-class folks…What else is there? All kinds of folks go in the middle and then you draw a box around that, and then on the outside you put people who don’t fit in, and you do that for immigrants, people of color, people with disabilities, GLBT folks, working-class folks, and just looking at how those boxes get maintained. There’s a lot of connections there.

Sharon daVanport: Okay. Now, something that really caught my attention, something that the NYLN has been doing, that’s how you guys have been using art and media to draw attention to just what happened this past fall and the 15 young people—I guess it’s over 15 now—who’ve committed suicide, because they were bullied for being gay.

Stacey Milbern: Yeah.

Sharon daVanport: Talk to us a little bit about what you’re doing when you say you’re using art and media. What are you doing?

Stacey Milbern: Sure. The first thing we did is earlier this fall, when these suicides started to happen, we felt really impacted by them and connected really deeply to the young people who were experiencing this violence. So our organization put out a statement that was pretty widely circulated, where we talked about the need for the disability to work with other communities and also address bullying as violence.

Once that statement started getting conversations going, we were approached by one of our members who asked us if she could make condolence cards for the families of these young people. So we didn’t have their contact information, of course, so we decided that we would follow her lead and start collecting cards, do things like that, and then use them to create awareness about this issue and talk about how people experience violence in their communities. Just how to hold people accountable when that happens.

Sharon daVanport: Right.

Stacey Milbern: So we’ve been collecting cards and posters and artwork and letters and poetry, and we have 30 pieces right now. So we’re in the process of compiling that and putting it online. And then we continue to hope to do more outreach via radio interviews like this and on college campuses and all those kind of things. So it’s a pretty exciting time, in terms of when you have tragedy or crisis, using it as an opportunity to create change.

Sharon daVanport: Right. Right, that’s a good point: using something that comes up, maybe it seems like it’s so devastating, but taking it as an opportunity to create change. That’s a very good point, Stacey. What is the message that you’re trying to get out when you go to college campuses, when you display the artwork? What are some of the bottom-line messages that you see a lot of the people in the NYLN are trying to get out there, and you personally?

Stacey Milbern: Sharon, can I read you our [unknown] from the statement?

Sharon daVanport: That would be awesome. Yes, please.

Stacey Milbern: Okay, let’s see. This was earlier this year:

“In the past five weeks, more than a dozen youth have committed suicide. All of these young people were targets of violence and bullying. They were part of – or thought to be part of – the gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, or queer (GLBTQ) community.

“This news breaks our hearts. As an organization led by young people with disabilities, many of us have been bullied, too. We know what it’s like to be told that we are not worthy of life. We know what it means to be on the verge of suicide. Because of this, we want to speak about what is often left unspoken. We want to emphasize the value of the lives that ended because of unjust judgment, hatred, and disrespect. We want to call on our communities to be more accountable [responsible] to one another when people hurt each other. We want our communities to work end violence and bullying. We want to challenge our movements to create a world where youth do not resort to suicide or self-harm. We also want to grieve together about the loss of these lives and the feelings of emptiness, aloneness, and unworthiness that led to these events.”

And then we have five points that we put out after that.

Sharon daVanport: Do you want to share those, too?

Stacey Milbern: Sure.

“We want to charge our community—specifically the disability rights community where we work—to do the following:

1.) Shift the work that we do. We must change values. NYLN focuses on interdependence and building community support systems. We must talk about what it means to be a community and how we can really be accountable to each other. Billy Lucas was told to “go kill himself.” Asher Brown’s family said he was “bullied to death.” Bullying is violence. Our communities need to recognize violence so no one is alone in experiencing it.

2.) Actively work against violence. Billy Lucas was told to “go kill himself.” Asher Brown’s family said he was “bullied to death.” Bullying is violence. Our communities need to recognize violence so no one is alone in experiencing it.

3.) Say no to harmful media messaging. Media is in charge of so much of the messaging we get about GLBTQ community, people with disabilities, immigrants,and others. We need to tell companies that we will not support them when they put out messages that perpetuate [spread] hatred. As disabled and GLBTQ youth, we must also put more effort into creating our own media so we can hear our own stories being told.

4.) Move beyond one-issue agendas. We could talk about bullying and not talk about violence or media. We could talk about it as a disability issue and not talk about GLBTQ youth. But violence does not fit into a one-issue agenda. If we are not connecting community experiences, we are not doing enough.

5.) Address the issues in all arenas. As of October 2010, only 45 states have addressed bullying in public schools. We must make sure laws protect people everywhere

We want to have these conversations in community. We hope you will join us.

And then it says: “Signed, the National Youth Leadership Network.

Sharon daVanport: Okay. Now, are you circulating this message from the NYLN? Is this what you take when you do presentations and you address people at college campuses?

Stacey Milbern: Right now we’re just using this as a conversation starter, and we’re in the early stages right now of reaching out to colleges. But what we hope to do is develop a curriculum that specifically speaks to how heterosexism and ableism work together.

Sharon daVanport: Okay. I told you this last night and then a couple weeks ago, when we met, Stacey. I’d like for this time that you’re on here to more or less be your time, to where you are able to get this message out. It’s such a tragedy what happened, and when we heard that you guys over at NYLN were actively doing something about this and wanting to speak up about this, we were just really excited to have you on the show, and we want you to use this as an avenue. Can you go through some specific points? Or did you want to take those five points and maybe mention how you’d like to see our communities go about doing this? I like point number 1, where you said there needs to be accountability.

Stacey Milbern: Yeah.

Sharon daVanport: That’s huge. So when you say that, it’s one thing to say it, but what do you think our communities need to do more that you see that they haven’t been doing, when you talk about accountability?

Stacey Milbern: Yeah, well I just think the disability rights community, where things like, historically, the focus has been on service provision as well as civil rights legislature. So we have a lot more rights than we did 20 years ago, so we’re more powerful as individuals. But I don’t know that we’re more powerful as a community So we say “shifting the work we do,” we mean talking about what does it mean to be a community to each other? How can we be each other’s support system? When one person gets hurt, how can we address it instead of expecting the state to solve all of our problems?

Sharon daVanport: Right.

Stacey Milbern: In terms of interdependence, in NYLN we really look at challenging the American myth of independence and looking at how disability forces the conversation to move past “I deserve to be independent” to talking about no person lives on an island by themselves. Nobody can be truly independent, and if we want real liberation or real community, we have to recognize that people need each other. How can we need each other in a way that supports everybody being included?

Sharon daVanport: That’s a good point, Stacey.

Stacey Milbern: Yeah. Just really, really pushing the conversation to be about interdependence rather than independence.

Sharon daVanport: I see. Okay. What are some things that you would like to see personally or with the NYLN? What are some of the things you would like to immediately see? Is there anything more than any other that you are trying to focus on? Is there a method to the message you’re getting out? Is there something that you would like for all of us to know?

Stacey Milbern: Totally. I think right now the most exciting work NYLN is doing is to really talk about systems of power. So again, in the disability rights movement, we talk a lot about discrimination, but we don’t ever really talk about ableism. So we’re talking about all of our experiences with oppression, but we’re never calling it “oppression.” But I feel like once we start talking about systems of oppression like ableism or racism or heterosexism, that’s when we can really talk about creating change.

So first I would really just like the disability community to have language to talk about how disability or our ideas of ability get used against people.

Sharon daVanport: What do you mean by that? “Being used against people”? Can you give us some examples?

Stacey Milbern: Sure. Yeah. The way NYLN defines “ableism” is as: “A system of power that favors ablebodiedness—able-bodied people.”

Sharon daVanport: Right.

Stacey Milbern: So we see the way that government favors able-bodied folks, or we see that education systems favor neurotypical folks. So rather than talking about that as individual situations, connecting it as patterns and looking at how these things that we experience every day are a part of a whole class of people being kept down, so that another whole class of people can be kept up.

Sharon daVanport: Okay.

Stacey Milbern: I feel like, when you start having that conversation, that’s when you really get to talking about a student at a school experiencing bullying, that’s not just bullying. That’s violence to keep that person in a certain class and all that kind of stuff.

Sharon daVanport: Right. Has the NYLN or you personally or anyone there been able to reach out to any of the families yet? Are you still compiling things together and working on that?

Stacey Milbern: Yeah. We want to be really thoughtful and strategic and really [intentional?] about it. So we’re trying to take our time and not be pushed by an outside pace. But, yeah, we’re in the process right now of compiling everything, researching it all, and making sure that we know specifically what we want to say, instead of doing really sloppy connecting to people that are grieving.

Sharon daVanport: Right. That’s really good, Stacey, and real thoughtful of you to be considerate of that at this time. I appreciate how you brought out earlier in one of your points how one of the young men who committed suicide did so and his parents believe he was literally bullied to death, because he was actually told to go and kill himself. Not to seem morbid or anything and to talk about details, but I’d like to just for a moment talk about…that’s pretty severe. You talk about that, and that’s probably why you highlighted that in one of your points that you were bringing out. That goes to show that this isn’t just someone being upset and they did something and they lost their life. This is really someone who ended their life and they were even tormented in that way and told to do so.

Stacey Milbern: Yeah.

Sharon daVanport: Is this something that when you talk about this particular youth—and we don’t even have to just zero in on that, other than to bring out the point—is it something that you see when you’re talking about patterns? You were talking about connecting these things as patterns. Is that in itself a pattern, when you talk about bullying? It seemed like an awful lot, this past fall. I don’t know if it’s because it made the headlines, it made the news, and there was so much about it. What do you think these patterns are, and how can we address them?

Stacey Milbern: Yeah. [Unknown] question. I feel like that’s why AWN’s work is so important. For example, if you look at the list of people, the majority of them, except for two people, are all identified as men. So there’s two things to say about that. One, we could say, is that all the media coverage didn’t cover GLBT women, which is a huge issue. We see that with autistic women; we see that with disabled women—the lack of coverage.

We could also connect this to society’s idea of masculinity and people not fitting into it. And when we have that conversation, we can also have a conversation about how do women defy gender norms, and then how are those neurotypical, hetero, white, able-bodied norms used to really push out people that are different? I think that’s a big pattern, with the people whose lives were recently lost.

Sharon daVanport: Right. Has the NYLN thought about approaching schools? Are you guys doing that, and talking to young people in high schools?

Stacey Milbern: Right now, again, we’re just trying to…I don’t know. I think a lot of organizations start out really big and then they lose a lot of speed. So we’re trying to pace ourselves and figure out exactly what we want to do. Right now, our membership is starting by just focusing on local colleges in our individual areas. So we’re going to do that over the next [two?] months, and then hopefully expand the conversation in the early Spring.

Sharon daVanport: Right. Well, I think this is just wonderful, Stacey. Are there any other points that you wanted to bring out? I know that we had planned on Savannah joining us and she had some points that she was going to bring out, but we can bring her on later. It looks like she’s having some problems getting through to the switchboard. Sometimes Blogtalk has some problems getting connected through. So I wanted to let our listeners know that we had Savannah on the schedule, but it looks like she’s having a real difficult time getting through to the switchboard. So if we could finish up the time with you being able to share with our listeners, then. I know you and Savannah had gone over a lot of different points. Is there anything else that you’d like to share about NYLN or the movement, and what you’re doing?

Stacey Milbern: Sure. Let’s see. I think one final point about this is it’s not some kind of recent phenomenon. I think self-harm and bullying is a constant. And it’s just that this Fall, the media covered it a lot. We need to also look at the young people that lost their lives. They were all over the country. I think a lot of times, people like to think: “Oh, that’s happening in Mississippi,” but it’s not. These are literally all over the country. These are in people’s neighborhoods; these are in people’s schools, and it’s definitely an issue for everybody.

Sharon daVanport: Right. I think that’s a good point; it’s happening everywhere. I think sometimes we become a little bit numb if we watch the news a lot. We just do. So many of these things are happening that it doesn’t become personal to us until it touches us personally, and that’s sad in itself, to think that we have these walls and barriers put between us and other people, to where we don’t view their experience as being something that we need to take pause and really reflect on and think about. I guess, because I’m a parent, it really touched me when I saw these young people. They’re out there killing themselves and feeling like there’s absolutely no reason for them to be on this earth, and that’s just so tragic. It’s very tragic. I think that the message that the NYLN is trying to get out there, and the way that you’re organizing it and trying to be very conscious of the very sensitive nature of the entire situation that inspired you, I think it’s just beautiful the way you guys are doing it. You talk about you’re putting things online. Can we go over to the website and view the artwork that you’re putting online? Is it at the actual website for the NYLN?

Stacey Milbern: Yeah. If you go to NYLN.org, we’ll be putting it up throughout the week.

Sharon daVanport: Okay. Can you give us an idea of what it is?

Stacey Milbern: Sure. Some of them are cards and the messages are things like: “Bullying must stop. I’ve been a target, too.” One is this beautiful, beautiful poster. I can’t even describe it; it’s so gorgeous. It’s as if you were looking through a million different pieces of glass at a rainbow. It’s really beautiful.

Sharon daVanport: Oh, wow.

Stacey Milbern: There’s one movement elder who’s been contributing her poetry. She’s an older disabled lesbian who’s been working in [unknown] communities, so that’s going to be there. There’s all kinds of really heart-wrenching pieces that are going to be online this week.

Sharon daVanport: Wow. I’m really excited. I’ll be over there to look at that, and we will definitely post over at the AWN a link to that as well for people to go over there and look.

Stacey Milbern: Thank you, Sharon.

Sharon daVanport: Oh, you’re very welcome. I just appreciate you taking the time to be with us today. Is there anything at all that you’d like to say in closing? We always do this at AWN radio. We always allow our guests to close out the show and say anything they like: any kind of message you’d like to leave our listeners with, or maybe share with us something I didn’t ask today that you’d like to make for sure we get into the show.

Stacey Milbern: Yeah. So just as a final plug for NYLN. Membership is open to anybody, so that means youth with disabilities, our parents, our adult allies, our siblings, our support systems. If folks sign up to be a member, they have access to all this information. We send out an e-mail twice a month with scholarships, internships, poster contests, all those kinds of things, as well as keeping up with the network. So I would definitely tell folks to check that out.

Sharon daVanport: Okay. That’s awesome, and I will go ahead and make sure that we get all of that posted over at AWN for you guys, Stacey. I just thank you so much for being our guest today and explaining to everyone about the National Youth Leadership Network.

Stacey Milbern: Thank you, Sharon.

Sharon daVanport: All right. You have a great day, Stacey.

Stacey Milbern: You, too. Bye-bye.

Sharon daVanport: All right. Bye-bye.

[Stacey hangs up]

Okay, everyone. That’s going to do it for us today on the Autism Women’s Network on Blogtalk. We appreciate you joining us here on AWN radio, and we will be posting our lineup coming up for the next three months over the next two weeks, so be watching for that over on our website and here on Blogtalk. Thank you again to all our listeners, and we will see you next week on Monday: same place, same time. Thank you. Bye-bye.


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