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Servant Leadership: Fausto’s Lesson for Sign Language Interpreters

Gina Oliva presented at StreetLeverage – Live 2014 | Austin. Her talk draws attention to the philosophy of Servant Leadership and how it can be adopted by sign language interpreters interested in changing the world for Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing students.

You can find the PPT deck for her presentation here.

[Note from StreetLeverage: What follows is an English translation of Gina’s presentation from StreetLeverage – Live 2014.  We would encourage each of you to watch the video and access Gina’s talk directly.]

Important Men in My Life

Today I am going to introduce you to two important men in my life.

Robert M. Oliva

Here’s my Dad – All of us have fathers who inspired us in some way – I often like to tell stories about how my Dad influenced me.

First, let me tell you that I was born on November 4, 1950. Now why would I tell you the exact date of my birth? On that day, my father was about 30 years old. Then, many years later, on November 4, 1996, my Dad died – on my 46th birthday – and that was such a special and touching thing. On that day, I was so struck by this “coincidence” — Such an awesome thing.

Now for quite some time, my Dad and I had struggled over the issue of “how to be deaf.”  But on that day it just hit me so hard that I must tell his story and my story – how different these stories were and how the two stories had such meaning for children today. So that’s my reason for sharing with you about him.

Really, my Dad was the epitome of internalized audism, before we even had that terminology. And he was my only model for how a deaf person should behave. How to fool others, how to pretend, how to pass, how to passively accept with that sense of “Ok, I guess that’s how life is. I can’t change it but I have to live with it. I just have to put up with it even though it may be hard or cause suffering.”

As it happened, when I was 20, I learned about Gallaudet University and the Deaf Community. I entered that community and shared information about it with Dad – I tried to introduce him to the community, in a manner of speaking. But he took a stance — “No thanks, that’s not for me –not me.” That began another maybe 10 years of struggle between us, for me a losing battle – eventually I gave up.

But what was so interesting was that my father worked most of his adult life at the New York Daily News. He commuted from our home in Connecticut, using the train to commute every day.  Some years later – I can’t remember if it was after he died or around that same time, I was having lunch with a friend and mentioned that Dad had worked for the Daily News. I was shocked when she told me her father also worked at the Daily News. Then she told me that many Deaf men worked there and I was even more shocked.

I was so shocked that Dad had never told me this.

But then, as I thought about it, I realized how significant this was. It had so much meaning for me that he never told me about those “other deaf people.”  Clearly, he did not identify with them – he did not think of himself as “deaf.”

Later in Dad’s life, when he retired, he was very isolated – socially isolated. His retirement lasted 17 years and what did he do during those years? Paint. Paint and draw and build things. Really, he was very smart, he was well read, could write and speak, used a hearing aid. But, he spent most of his time alone.

When my first book was published, I wanted to have some of his artwork in my book.  The publisher told me I would have to pick one painting– really I wanted to have ten! But they said, “No, pick one.” So I said, reluctantly, “ok.” I looked around my house – many of Dad’s artworks are on my walls – somehow none of them seemed right for my book. I happened to go into one room that I don’t go into often – my “stuff room” – you know, you probably have one too.  I noticed on the floor one painting, just propped up on the floor. I looked at it and thought wow, perfect!!! Here it is again (on the PowerPoint slide):

That painting – a rose – standing out by itself – beautiful and in bloom…with some softly blurry/vague or hinted at flowers behind it – it seemed just perfect for my book. So I call it “A Solitary Rose.”

Fausto Delgado

Now, let me introduce you to the other man I referred to earlier:  That young man was born almost 100 years after my father. Actually, closer to 90 years – last night I did the math – still that’s almost 100 years. Anyway, this man, like my Dad, was born into an immigrant family. His mom and dad moved from another country; they were learning English and struggling. He had hearing aids, he “can speak” and was attending a public school. But obviously his frustration, his sense of “that’s how life is can’t change it have to live with it just have to put up with it” was too much for him, beyond what he could bear.  So last November he decided to end his own life. He jumped in front of a train in San Francisco. How heartbreaking is that. Very sad. This hit me — and others who have had similar experiences — as so very sad.

And so, I introduce you to Fausto Delgado. I hope our work will keep his memory alive.

Incidental Learning for Deaf and Hard of Hearing Children

Now that I have shared those stories, I want to move on to the substance of my presentation – my recommendations or new ideas. Actually, these are not really “new” ideas, but are ones that I would like to emphasize. I have two concepts I want to present to you — two “juxtaposed” concepts. “Juxtapose” is one of my favorite words, by the way. I will share these concepts that seem unrelated but I will explain how they are related.

The first idea is regarding what is missing in public schools. It was mentioned yesterday that 90%, or at least 80%, of deaf students are now mainstreamed. More and more frequently, they are in schools with no other deaf students, and more and more have cochlear implants. I know we are all aware of this. But what is missing in these public schools [for deaf and hard of hearing children] and what is the key factor to the feelings of isolation? I have discussed this with many of my friends who also grew up in public schools. It is a topic that comes up so often in conversation that if I had a dollar for every time it was mentioned, I would have twenty or thirty thousand dollars. What is really absent in public schools is this thing – we have a sign for it – you all know this sign — it looks like the “pac-man” of early video games – two hands held in front of your eyes/face facing each other and going “chomp chomp chomp” then move them all around your field of vision – this represents “people talking all over the place.”.

We asked ourselves and I ask you, what do you call this phenomenon represented by this sign?  Does it have a name?  My friends and I would call it the “pac-man phenomenon.”  The sign represents what we lived with day in and day out – the ever-present conversations going on around us.  This phenomenon is experienced everywhere – it is something mainstreamed deaf children (and adults) live with, not only in the USA, but everywhere.

When my colleague and I decided to do research and write about this topic, we realized we needed a more academic term to fit this concept. After much consideration, we picked another word that I like, “ubiquitous.”  Conversations between and among people happen everywhere, everyday – any place where there are people.  People talk, people chat, everywhere and everyday. There isn’t even a specific English word for the ubiquity of conversations that go on all around you; to a hearing person, it’s just “life”.

This part of life is not limited to location but happens everywhere you can imagine – the cafeteria, the coffee shop, the food store, and here at the conference, everywhere! These ubiquitous conversations are what the kids are missing in public schools and they are aware that they are missing stuff – they can see the conversations going on around them – they wonder, “What are they talking about?” This is a daily, hourly, even minute-by-minute thing.

Now, there is some new research, which I was thrilled to hear about, by a woman from Rochester named Mindy Hopper. Her dissertation (I drove from D.C. to Rochester to read because she could not send it to me) is on the topic “Incidental Learning”. Her research is really fascinating. The design of the study was so amazing, it seemed like it must have been conceived by a deaf person who has lived without access to ubiquitous conversations. Luckily, I now have permission to share Dr. Hopper’s dissertation with anyone. I want you to think about what you can do in your locality or position to help promote incidental learning. I know that sign language interpreters struggle to decide which conversations to interpret and I would like to see us spending more time and thinking more deeply about this.

“Servant Leadership” in the Deaf and Sign Language Interpreting Communities

Gina Oliva
Gina Oliva

So, the concept of pac-man/ubiquitous conversation is one side of the juxtaposition I referred to earlier. Now, for the other half of the juxtaposition, I want to share some thoughts about leadership. I picked this specific leadership principle because it is one that I was drawn to when I taught classes on leadership at Gallaudet. If you grew up in the 1960’s, I am sure you remember the name Hermann Hesse. We were radicals, hippies, interested in Eastern religions. One of Hesse’s books was centered on a character named Leo – now, I see many of you shaking your heads in recognition. Leo was seen as a humble servant within a group; people saw him as the person who did insignificant things such as cleaning and preparing food.

One day, Leo suddenly disappeared, and everything broke down – the group fell apart. It turned out that he had been the leader. It was hard for people to realize that he was the leader because he was so humble. That story inspired a man named Robert Greenleaf to develop an approach called “Servant Leadership”. I selected four of the many concepts that make up servant leadership to share this morning. More can be found online. I picked the four skills, qualities, and characteristics of servant leadership that I believe apply to our work. And by “our”, I mean sign language interpreters and the Deaf community. I would give this same challenge to the Deaf community, as well.

The first two skills are closely related: conceptualization and foresight/hindsight. This means that we have to know history, understand how it brought us to where we are today, and visualize a better future. The third skill, which been discussed at length since yesterday, is to focus on the community and the individuals who make up the community.

The fourth quality I want to mention — which I feel may be the most challenging — is persuasive skills. Recall Doug Bailey-Bowen talking about “connectors, mavens, and sales people,” from Malcolm Gladwell’s “Tipping Point.”  The salespeople are those with the ability to absorb information and then explain it to others who know nothing about the topic at hand. To do this, you have to know which words to use, which tone to use, how to sequence or organize the information.  [Salespeople ask themselves, “Should I say this first?  Or that first?” Being able to persuade is a tremendously important skill.

Sign Language Interpreters Can have an Impact

Now, I want to suggest some ways to combine and apply these skills in our work.

Looking at the first two skills of conceptualization and hindsight/foresight, I want to preface my suggestions by saying that do I recognize we are all busy and that the many technical, interpreting-focused issues take much of your professional attention. But, I want to draw your attention to education – specifically the history of deaf education and what a key role this plays in deaf history, as a whole. Yes, there are other elements in deaf history, such as culture, but at the center of it all is deaf education — particularly the shift from Deaf schools to mainstreaming.

I believe that all of you, as sign language interpreters, need to know this history and keep abreast as things unfold – be aware of who is doing this, who is doing that. You should know what CEASD is doing, what Hands & Voices is doing, and what’s happening in the Early Intervention arena. I believe sign language interpreters need to keep abreast of what allies and opposing forces are doing. If you understand the gestalt — the big picture — you will be in a much better position to think about what interpreters’ roles can be. You can have a vision of how you and interpreters, in general, can plug in and have an impact on the big picture, the system. You can then have an impact on the community and “make life better” for the children as well as the adults they will become.

I want to offer some information that you may very well not be aware of. Let’s consider two age groups of deaf students: 0-5 and K-12.  To support children from birth to age 5, there is an annual national conference – EHDI [Early Hearing Detection and Intervention]. This conference provides a regular opportunity for professionals and advocates to come together to network and learn from each other. Deaf people have taken the opportunity to attend these conferences. In fact, the number of deaf individuals attending keeps increasing. In 2013, according to information provided to me by the conference organizers, individuals who requested sign interpreting or CART accounted for almost 10% of those in attendance. And, not all of these deaf people work in the field of early intervention. But they go to show the face of Deaf Adults, to make their presence known, as advocates.

However, for deaf children in K-12, on the other hand, there is no counterpart to the annual EHDI conference – no venue where Deaf professionals and advocates can meet with those working in K-12. This has been a big gap since CAID, which was mostly attended by professionals from deaf schools, weakened. So, I challenge you to think about how the sign language interpreting community might become involved in that situation.

Closing Thoughts

In summation, I want mention persuasive skills once again. I want us to be working, not as individuals, but as a group, taking collective action. If we are all divided into smaller units with each group advocating for different things, no matter what we may be advocating for, it will not be successful. Congress needs to see that we are working collectively, with a common message – and the message must be carefully structured in order to have an impact. As I mentioned before, in my opinion, being able to persuade others is our biggest challenge. So, that concludes my presentation. Thank you all so much for being here.


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