Virginia Wade is not the hero that America deserves, but she is the one that America needs.
She is one of the most remarkable outdoor adventurers you've probably never heard of. Just a sophomore in high school, she's already hiked close to 1600 miles of the Appalachian Trail, competed at an international level as a downhill skier, and is aiming at international competition as a gymnast. She's embraced the outdoors as a part of her identity to the extent that she insists her high school peers refer to her by her trail name, "Tutu", has written a book about her adventures, and is working on a musical that is receiving support from Microsoft.
And she has Down Syndrome.
Her mom, Amy Martin, is a regular favorite at Seattle Boldly Went events, and was featured in one of our first podcast episodes. Angel had coffee with her yesterday, and their conversation (at least as filtered through my own interpretation based on Angel's account) centered on ways that Boldly Went, and the outdoors community more generally, could do better, not just at incorporating a wider variety of people, but at actually humanizing them. Treating people who are frequently categorized as flawed in some way as equals, in defiance of cultural assumptions and ingrained patterns of thought and behavior.
Amy is a force of nature in her own right, and knows something about the topic: she's been instrumental in advocating for Tutu to make sure that she has opportunities to excel in a world where she's underestimated and brushed aside as a matter of course. Amy is a mom who has recognized her daughter's potential - not just as a kid with more challenges than most, but as a fierce, beautiful human being with gifts to offer the world - and has fought successfully to make sure she has the chance to realize it.
While Angel and Amy were having coffee, America was mired in a collective ALL CAPS shouting match sparked by what can only be described as the hate fueled madness of our ostensible leader. The debates were, you could roughly say, on the same issue that Amy was concerned about, approached from an entirely less-sensible angle - the dehumanization of athletes. The President of the United States had referred publicly to black football players protesting injustice against their communities as "sons of bitches". It's a phrase decent people avoid using, and it implies, literally, that these human beings, citizens of the country he leads, are dogs. Again, speaking roughly, the debate was between those who agreed that these people were SOBs, and those who didn't.
At the same time, the extent of the humanitarian disaster in Puerto Rico following Hurricane Maria was becoming apparent, and questions were (and are) being raised about why the response, both public and official, seems so different there - in a Spanish speaking, predominantly brown, black and poor US territory - than in Texas and Florida following recent disasters of lesser scope.
While the issues involved here - race, socioeconomics, colonialism, and disability - have some dramatic differences, I've personally been processing these conversations alongside the thoughts Angel discussed with Amy, because they raise some of the same fundamental questions. Who do we think of as a human being? Who do we treat like something less? What are the consequences of those attitudes, particularly for the people being dehumanized? And conversely, what is the potential for individuals and for society if we do the opposite, and humanize those that are popularly or officially pushed aside? These issues aren't just about our president, or our leadership, they're about our broken culture and the darker impulses of humanity as a whole. They're questions whose answers are too easily assumed settled. And they're questions that Amy and Tutu's lives speak to powerfully.
I think it's natural, generally speaking, to distance yourself from problematic aspects of your own culture when you recognize them - to instinctively develop rationalizations for how those problems are someone else's, and not your own. And one of the ways people do that is to identify with subcultures, or countercultures, that they view as separate from the dominant problematic one. I personally find that the outdoors community can be used in such a way fairly easily, because although it's still developing, it has a lot of features that can seem like a direct antidote to much of what ails the larger American and Western culture:
It's true, for instance:
Shared struggle, which is what virtually every outdoor endeavor is about, has the power to produce a sense of common humanity among the people who engage in it, regardless of their background.
The dirtbag vagabond lifestyle that is often required of those who are serious about outdoor pursuits, and which the outdoors community idealizes, has the potential to produce cross-cultural relationships as efficiently as any strategy we know of.
And the grand perspective of the natural world puts our human issues in context, and levels the playing field in a way that has the potential to break down artificial human hierarchies, at least philosophically.
But while it's true that countercultures can offer correctives to their larger context, it's simply not reasonable to idealize your own chosen pocket as above reproach. Whatever it's strengths, and even if one could argue that the outdoors community is generally a bastion of sanity compared to the larger political climate, it has also developed its own peculiar problematic elements and tendencies towards dehumanization - or at least towards it's own type of caste system. Dirtbag culture has developed to varying degrees as a white thing, a thin thing, and a male thing, which is to say that it's centered the old regular power brokers, and has at times made others feel unwelcome or uninvited.
And more relevant for our current purposes, it's also developed as an able-bodied thing. In discussing her own experiences with Tutu in this world, Amy has pointed out the tendency to make her a token, or to create a "separate but equal" space for her which has had a similar effect: to gesture towards inclusion while simultaneously creating structures that lead to exclusion from the community. What's really needed is full participation in the community as an equal, or by extension, a recognition of her full humanity.
The strategy that Tutu and Amy have used in this context might not save the world, but it's instructive and applicable for those of us seeking progress in the midst of modern social madness. Simply stated, they've refused to accept Tutu's second class status, or to be defined by prevailing presumptions about what is possible. The Tao of Tutu could be expressed in a Yin and Yang of their approach towards her athletic endeavors, where Amy has said that as a parent, when Tutu has faced challenges, she "just believed in her", and Tutu has said that when she falls down, "I get back up". And together they've pushed forward. Their shared approach combines confidence, assertiveness, and perseverance, and has resulted not just in a series of remarkable achievements for Tutu herself, but a forced worldview shift for the people who doubt her, and by extension other kids with disabilities. In short, their approach works not just to help Tutu succeed, but to make the culture that they live in more humane.
It would be overly simplistic to say that progress on issues as complicated as institutionalized racism just depends on a bit of perseverance and confidence. But it's not too much to say that Amy and Tutu are a damn inspiring example of people fighting back against dehumanization at a time when it seems like culture is pushing in the opposite direction. Because of who she is, 7 months on the Appalachian Trail is more than just that. Representing the United States as a downhill skier is more than just that. And Tutu's potential to compete internationally in gymnastics is more than just that. All of those things are examples of success in a social situation where failure is a solid option, and an undeniable demand for respect in a culture that would normally ignore her.
While we're clearly not there yet, the fundamental truth that's being promoted, by Amy, by those guys taking a knee, and by the people shouting about the inadequacy of our response to the crisis in Puerto Rico, is that all humans have equal value and should be treated with dignity. However long it takes culture to catch up, Tutu is an amazing example of someone, even with differences, even in an imperfect situation, who behaves as if that's true. She's not the hero we deserve, but she is the one we need.