|Jerry Mast in his Labor Source days|
About that mission statement, I am afraid that after nearly twenty years I don’t recall the exact wording (sorry Mark!) but I surely remember the spirit of it. Labor Source sought to facilitate the successful careers of persons with disabilities by helping them and the communities in which they lived fulfill their mutual obligations to one another. The profound normative values implicit in this mission have had an enduring effect on my own personal philosophy of individual rights and responsibilities, and more generally, my sense of the appropriate relationship between individual and community. On the one hand, there is tremendous value in working hard at something, and in the process, cultivating a more meaningful sense of independence. Each of us owes – to ourselves and to those around us – a good honest effort at something productive. But on the other hand, no individual, regardless of his or her ability, is capable of complete success in this regard without the assistance of others. Each of us depends – in some form or fashion – on “levels of intervention” on our behalf. We are all important threads of what Martin Luther King Jr. called an “inescapable web of mutuality”. If we can think about who each of us is in terms of the values and perspectives that shape our senses of self and the world in which we live, then it’s an undeniable fact that Labor Source, and people associated with it, have helped make me who I am.
Since leaving Labor Source, I went to graduate school and have become a professor of public policy. My view of individual and collective action is informed by an article Mark Emery required staff to read and put into practice at Labor Source. The article argued that, in clinical terms, considering a person as a host for a variety behaviors - some desirable, others less so - was useful in being able to separate an individual from their actions. This in turn helps one to apply behavioral learning theory to shape behavior in productive ways using programs of reinforcement. This is not only useful for workers who have disabilities, it turns out it is useful for everybody! Understanding behavior as patterns of response to incentive structures is very helpful in the fields of public policy, economics and political science. Maybe the folks at Labor Source should teach the U.S. Congress a thing or two.
Beyond learning organizational and management skills, and shaping my personal and professional philosophies, my time at Labor Source also taught me some simple, but important ways of approaching life in day to day terms. One young man for whom I provided employment services taught me a few essential things in particular. He and I would ride the bus together, an activity that gave him great pleasure. In fact, I remember thinking at the time that it might not have been possible for him to be any happier. Which got me thinking, if riding the bus could make him so happy, couldn’t it make me happy too? There is a real wisdom in enjoying the simple things; so thank you Russ, for helping me realize that. We all face challenges, and sometimes we fall short of the expectations made of us. We all act inappropriately at times. Labor Source helped me learn the best thing to do when we mess up is ask forgiveness if necessary, then get back to work, and enjoy the bus ride home. There are many other stories I could tell, and I could mention many wonderful individuals who are not named in this essay, but who I think of regularly, who made such lasting, positive impacts on me. But you know who are. Thanks.
Are you interested in sharing your story for “50 Years, 50 Stories?” If so, contact Caroline Siegfried at firstname.lastname@example.org or 303-926-6405. We’d love to hear from you!