On Labor Day I took my son to Starbucks for a little mother-son date. While we were there, we noticed this flyer advertising upcoming events supported by a program called Starbucks in the Community:
Notice especially the Autism Speaks event in the middle, one of the ubiquitous walks A$ holds around the country. Given that I support the #BoycottAutismSpeaks movement, I inquired at the counter about who I could talk to about removing support from this A$ event. I was given a business card, and wrote the following letter the next day. (I’m sharing the letter in full both so I don’t have to resort to awkward “and then I said” reportage, and also in case anyone wants to borrow the wording or the rhetoric in future letters to Starbucks. I hereby give blanket permission for you to share and use this.)
“Dear Ms. [name redacted],
“Yesterday I took my 9-year-old to Starbucks for cake pops and a game of cards, one of his favorite things to do. (We usually go to the store in Round Rock on Palm Valley Blvd.) While we were there, I noticed a Starbucks in the Community flyer advertising several upcoming fundraising events. I’m so delighted to see an international franchise taking interest in local communities. But I want to draw your attention to one of the organizations your flyer supports, Autism Speaks, in the hope that the stores in your district will withdraw support from this organization.
“You may not know that the Autistic community has been actively boycotting Autism Speaks for quite some time now. Said differently: the very people Autism Speaks purports to help do NOT support the organization. A number of organizations in the disability community have banded together not only to boycott Autism Speaks, but also to get word out to the public about the damage Autism Speaks has done to Autistic people. Here, for example, is an eloquent open statement about the boycott:
http://www.boycottautismspeaks.com/why-boycott-1.html. Let me highlight a few points from this document:
-“Autism Speaks’ senior leadership fails to include a single autistic person. Unlike non-profits focused on intellectual disability, Down Syndrome, Cerebral Palsy and countless other disabilities, Autism Speaks systematically excludes autistic adults from its board of directors, leadership team and other positions of senior leadership.”
-“Autism Speaks has a history of supporting dangerous fringe movements that threaten the lives and safety of both the autism community and the general public.”
-“Autism Speaks’ fundraising efforts pull money away from local communities, returning very little funds for the critical investments in services and supports needed by autistic people and our families. Only 4% of funds donated to Autism Speaks are reinvested in services and supports for autistic people and our families.”
-“Autism Speaks’ advertising depends on offensive and outdated rhetoric of fear and pity, presenting the lives of autistic people as tragic burdens on our families and society.”
“Regarding this last point, please see the attached image of the flyer I spotted in the store. Note the final sentence: “Walk Now for Autism is an inspirational & impactful opportunity to raise money & awareness to help change the future for all those who struggle with autism.” As it turns out, my son–who was with me and saw this flyer–is Autistic. He does not struggle with Autism. He is actually quite proud of being Autistic. He does, however, struggle with a larger society that paints him as less than normal, or needing to be “cured.” My step-daughter is also Autistic. My children do not need awareness campaigns, and they
do not need to be cured. They need legal rights, community and social services, and acceptance for who they are.
“There’s more to the boycott document, and I hope you have the opportunity to read it in full. And there are many more such blogs/ essays/ articles (see, for example: http://emmashopebook.com/2013/11/13/whats-wrong-with-autism-speaks/, and http://www.forbes.com/sites/emilywillingham/2013/11/13/why-autism-speaks-doesnt-speak-for-me/.) If you would like to read a more recent indictment of Autism Speaks, here’s an op-ed in the L.A. Times by Steve Silberman, whose new book NeuroTribes is the most complete history of Autism ever written: http://www.latimes.com/opinion/op-ed/la-oe-0824-silberman-autism-speaks-20150824-story.html. Again, let me highlight one moment in the op-ed:
“Imagine a world in which the leadership of the NAACP was all-white; now consider that not a single autistic person serves on the board of Autism Speaks. This absence makes itself felt. As people on the spectrum have struggled to overcome years of stigma and negative stereotyping, the group has framed their condition in terrifying and dehumanizing terms. Its 2009 video “I Am Autism,” which debuted at the United Nations, portrayed autism as a creepy stalker: “I know where you live, and guess what? I live there too. I hover around all of you…I work faster than pediatric AIDS, cancer and diabetes combined… I will plot to rob you of your children and your dreams.”
“This is what Autism Speaks does in communities. This is how Autism Speaks portrays children like mine. This is what Autism Speaks does with the money raised at walks such as the one advertised in Starbucks in my town.
“I hope you will reconsider your support of Autism Speaks. If you are dedicated to supporting Autistic people, I suggest that you consider supporting the Autism Self-Advocacy Network or The Autism Women’s Network instead. I’d be happy to talk more with you about how to support Autistic people in our Central Texas community.
“I’d like to continue taking my son to local Starbucks stores. We treasure these board game / card playing afternoons and he adores those lovely cake pops. But I cannot take him to places that support organizations that label his life a “struggle” and him as “lost” or “kidnapped.”
Mant thanks in advance for your consideration.
I wasn’t alone in my objections. Several other parents–even more than the people I reached out to!–wrote to object, and I’m happy to report that Starbucks responded. The acting district supervisor not only sent my email to her media staffer to vet my resources, but also contacted Seattle headquarters. My name has been given to to southern district supervisor in charge of community relations; I certainly plan to follow up.
I talked with the district supervisor this morning, and here’s what I learned: Starbucks has had a long association with Autism Speaks. It started with a couple of parents in partner organizations whose children are Autistic. The parents felt that A$ was making a positive difference in their lives, and worked with Starbucks to create a partnership. (The gist here is that Starbucks supports A$ walks elsewhere, too, not just here, so this is a much bigger battle!) So corporate headquarters now knows about the #BoycottAutismSpeaks movement, but also has a long relationship with people who are passionate about A$. Starbucks needs to know who to support.
And here’s where YOU come in: Starbucks continually reviews its relationships with community partners. The company is committed to supporting A$ walks through the end of the year, but that commitment is not permanent. If we can give them local community partners to support in lieu of A$, they will listen. I want to emphasize that the supervisor I talked to was quite eager to support the needs of people, not organizations. It makes perfect sense to her that if A$ is not supporting people, we need an alternative. But WE have to make the case, and WE have to give them an alternative community partner to support.
WHAT YOU CAN DO:
- If you are new to the #BoycotAutismSpeaks movement, please take some time to read the links above. Then ask yourself: do you really want A$ in your community?
- Forward this everywhere. Let everyone know that (1) Starbucks, as an international cooperation, supports A$, and/but (2) they are willing to listen and talk.
- Send your own letters. I promised not to give out email addresses here (*send me a private message, hint, hint*), but there’s a dedicated portal for suggestions about community involvement here: http://mystarbucksidea.force.com. the supervisor I talked to insisted that suggests posted here are constantly reviewed and discussed at corporate. You could also leave a comment here: http://store.starbucks.com/customer-service/cs-landing.html. Or, contact your local store, find out who the district supervisor is, and send an email to that person.
- Find / create alternative events for Starbucks to support (and please work with organizations run by or supported by #ActuallyAutistic people). It’s easier for Starbucks to work with partners who host specific events. (This is another reason why it is so easy for them to support A$.) #ActuallyAutistic people who run organizations: please help us all get the word out about your events so we can support your work.
- If you are reading this and you are already working on a similar campaign, please contact me! I want to work with you to amplify our efforts.
- People in Central Texas: please let me know what’s going on in your community that helps #ActuallyAutistic people.
Who’s with me?