Juneau I’ve often said that to be successful an organizer has to have one eye squarely planted on the ground where she’s walking and the other high in the clouds where she is trying to go. That has never been truer than in the case of the formal founding of the Mental Health Consumers Action Network (MCAN) of Alaska in Juneau, as the board, some members, volunteers, and supporters convened at the Vocational Training and Rehabilitation Center of the Central Council of the Tlingit and Haida Tribes.
The first, formal meeting of a new corporation’s board is stuffed full of the bureaucratic and legal requirements common to nonprofit organization everywhere: approving bylaws, conflict of interest and equal opportunity statements, electing board officers, enacting corporate resolutions, and so forth. In this case, I was chairing the opening meeting so had to warn the board members and others in the room that perhaps watching paint dry would be more interesting, but no one could make the case that MCAN was not formed in an open and transparent manner, because we were hanging it all out there.
When we got past the nuts and bolts, the more interesting part of the meeting was when we opened the discussion to the issues that mental health consumers felt need to be addressed as well as the vision and future direction of the organization. This is where the hard ground and the fluffy clouds become clearer in everyone’s sight. It is also where we can easily stumble at the horizon line!
Members had a litany of issues, many of which we had heard before: the stigma, the lack of intermediate or respite services to resolve critical episodes without full hospitalization, discrimination and non-existent employment opportunities, lack of short and long term housing availability, and more. One member though broke through the laundry list and argued that at the root of all of these issues was money. Not just money for programs and services, but more critically, the fact that mental health consumers facing the challenges of their disabilities without adequate housing or employment simply didn’t have the personal financial resources with SSI or any other disability payments to solve these issues individually. This was another lesson in organizing proving once again why listening is so, so important, especially to keep an organization and organizers from overlooking the obvious. The one thing no one had mentioned in my week of discussions was the simple fact that MCAN, as a membership organization of consumers, needed to aggressively fight for more money for consumers in order to allow them to leave independent and stable lives.
Non-members perspectives on MCAN’s work in the future tilted towards service provision and aspirations for what I had been calling “brick-and-mortar” solutions like creating treatment and multi-centers and expanding housing opportunities. Others suggested MCAN could become something on the order of a one-stop shop for consolidating information and referrals on services through its website or office and sorting out existing capacity and addressing gaps. Those with connections in the business community were heartened to hear that some existing services were being moved away from tourist areas that serve the lucrative cruise ship trade during the summer months.
Consensus was strong that MCAN wanted to look at all of these issues, and over time the organization would be able to climb higher towards the clouds, once it had proven that it could actually do its work successfully on the ground by building a mass organization of mental health consumers and giving them voice and an ability to take collective action. Even an ambitious organization at the beginning has to be able to first learn to crawl, then walk, then try to walk a little faster and farther, before being able to break out and run the marathon that is involved in building power and winning social changes, but MCAN is now on the track and moving forward.