by Marilee Jolin
In honor of Women’s History Month, we will present essays throughout the month by local authors documenting, honoring and celebrating powerful women who inspire us in South Seattle and beyond.
When I started my job at Amara, a not-for-profit foster care agency, I thought I had a pretty solid understanding of systemic racism and how it affected the child welfare system. I knew that children of color were more highly represented in the foster care system, I’d heard disturbing stories of prospective adoptive parents specifying they only wanted “a newborn white infant”, and I understood implicit bias was part of the landscape at every turn.
But that was before I met Angela Tucker.
Angela was at my first in-person interview at Amara and I was immediately struck by her brilliant smile and twinkling eyes. I instantly hoped to be her friend. In the interview, I was very impressed – and slightly intimidated – by her searing questions and no-nonsense approach. I left uncertain if she liked me as much as I liked her but very much hoping I’d get the chance to find out.
It turns out, after 4 months at Amara, we like each other quite a bit. Moreover, getting to know Angela’s personal story – how it has led to her work advocating for adoptee’s voices, as well as working with adoptive families and birth families – has shown me my previous assumptions left out a great deal about the experience of adoption in the United States, especially across racial lines.
Before I got to know Angela very well personally, I watched the 2013 documentary about her search to discover her roots and meet her birth family, Closure. Angela was adopted as a baby during the era of closed adoptions and grew up without any knowledge of her birth family. This created significant dissonance for her, even though she deeply loves and has a wonderful relationship with her adoptive parents. She longed to see herself – her blackness – reflected in her role models. As her adoptive parents are both white and she was raised in Bellingham, WA there were essentially no black people around to provide a racial mirror.
So, at age 21, Angela set out to locate her birth family and documented the whole thing in a moving film. I won’t say more – I don’t want to ruin the story for you – but it’s definitely worth a watch.
Watching Closure was an intense introduction to Angela – a bit of an imbalanced way to begin a friendship, I thought. But when I expressed that to her (“Kinda weird that you know nothing about me but I know a lot of personal, intimate detail about an intensely vulnerable area of your life…”) she just chuckled and explained that is actually why she did the documentary – and what motivates her work at Amara. Sometimes it’s awkward, she said, but if my story can help elevate adoptees’ voices and shed light on the real challenges adoptees face, then my choice to be vulnerable with my private life is entirely worth it.
“Elevating adoptee’s voices” might not be an idea you’re familiar with. Possibly even you haven’t heard the term “adoptee.” I hadn’t until I came to Amara. Angela explained to me that “adoptee” is an important term, as opposed to the more commonly used “adopted child.”
“At what point do we get to stop being children?” she asked me somewhat sarcastically, going on to explain how many laws around adoption (particularly ones that support closed adoptions) function to treat adoptees as children no matter their age: having to request permission from a judge, for example, to receive a copy of one’s own birth certificate. Indeed, many states still don’t allow adult adoptees any access to their birth certificate.
Angela’s work elevating adoptee voices manifests in a few different ways. She is the Director of Amara’s Post-Adoption Program that works with adoptees and those who love them. Keenly aware of the complicated needs around transracial adoption, Angela leads workshops for adoptive families about parenting children of a different race (in the US this is almost always white parents with children of color). She teaches folks to get beyond a “color-blind” mentality and instead support their children’s identity as kids of color. This could mean seeking out POC role models, talking about race, helping adoptees remain connected to birth families and communities, and much more. All with ongoing support from Amara – and Angela herself.
I’ve been very moved by the powerful mentorship program Angela and her team created called STAR. STAR is the brainchild of a young man adopted through Amara who one day left a note on Angela’s desk suggesting a program that would allow him to hang out with other adopted kids. STAR stands for Strong, Tough, and Resilient as these qualities are the hallmark of adoptees across the spectrum.
Unlike many programs that focus on matching adult mentors with youth mentees who will learn from them, STAR mentors and mentees are all learning from each other. Angela and her team intentionally blur these lines with the understanding that adoption is a life-long experience and that, at all stages of life and development, adoptees continue to work out their story and their identity. At this year’s kick-off event, for example, one mentor noted how being around the young adoptees, who talk about adoption openly, is already encouraging him to more openly discuss his own adoption, something he was discouraged from as a child but is finding great healing and hope in as an adult.
In addition to supporting adoptees, Angela’s program works with birth families. This aspect of her work has been particularly compelling to me. Angela exemplifies a deep compassion and understanding for birth mothers, birth fathers, and extended biological families, advocating for adoptees to maintain or build connections with their families and communities of origin. In witnessing her compassion and advocacy, I realize that I’ve internalized incorrect, racist, and harmful messages about birth families and adoption.
Primarily, that birth mothers are the only family worth worrying about. This image of a single woman “in trouble” handing over her baby to welcoming arms leaves out so much. What about the birth father? Or his family? What about Aunties and Uncles and Grandmas? For the first time I imagined hearing that my brother had gotten a girl pregnant and she had given the baby up for adoption. I would be horrified because I would have wanted to be a part of that person’s life. In limiting our expectation to simply birth mother we are removing the child from a much larger context and community in which they have roots. That is all part of culture and identity and it’s important.
Angela has opened my eyes to an entirely new way of understanding family when it comes to adoption. I’d long believed that when a child is adopted, they leave everything behind and become part of a new family. I bought into the idea that this was “best for the child”, so as not to confuse them. However, since being introduced to Angela and her work at Amara as well as her speaking, blogging, and online community The Adopted Life, I’ve come to understand a more complex constellation of family is required to fully develop a child’s identity and healthy sense of self. I’ve begun to see how beautiful it is when adoptive parents join with birth family to support and care for all the aspects of an adoptee’s development throughout their life.
Angela Tucker is a remarkable, revolutionary woman. A deeply intelligent introvert, who has unflinchingly opened up her own personal story for the benefit of adoptees and their families, for the strengthening and empowerment of the adopted community, and to create deeper understanding and compassion for those (like me) who have so much to learn about adoption. I am honored to call her my friend and to learn from her every day. I am thrilled to support the work of her Post-Adopt program at Amara. I am blown away by the powerful truth she speaks so calmly and I’m grateful she is responding to that truth with decisive action.
Featured image: Bryan Tucker