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A Call for Transformative Justice: Letter to the Oregon Health Policy Board

Dear members of the Oregon Health Policy Board,

I am writing to you today with a sense of reflection and a profound appreciation for the demanding roles you fulfill within the State of Oregon. My name is Sher Griffin, and I proudly served as an employee at the Oregon Health Authority, holding the position of Project Manager for Systems Transformation and Alignment in the Behavioral Health Unit. Remarkably, my journey with OHA commenced on September 3rd, 2022, exactly one year ago, the day after labor day. As I sit here composing this email at 2:01 AM on September 4th, I find myself stirred from slumber by visions of transformative justice.

Upon my entry into the Oregon Health Authority, I brought with me an unwavering commitment to catalyzing systems transformation. Prior to joining OHA, my educational journey led me along a dual path, culminating in an honors degree in Psychology of Addictions from Purdue Global and academic credentials as a Certified Alcohol and Drug Counselor, earned at our esteemed local community college, PCC. My extensive qualifications also encompass peer mentorship, mental health peer support, trauma awareness, anti-racism, and awareness-based systems change. The path leading to this point in my life has been one characterized by recovery and personal transformation. I proudly identify as a survivor, having triumphed over addiction and the social exclusion and healing the complex trauma that often accompanies it.

As you are well aware, addiction recovery is not a one-size-fits-all process, nor is it a one-time endeavor. It is an ongoing journey of reclaiming a life that was lost to socioemotional turmoil. Thus, even as I embarked on my role at OHA, my personal recovery was still evolving, despite being three years into it. My personal transformation involved rediscovering a lost self – a self that had been obscured by a society that often misunderstands the essence of Autism.

Early in my recovery, I recognized that I was different, although I lacked the words to articulate the constant sense of rejection I had experienced throughout my life. It was only a month into my employment at OHA that I began to articulate how our social systems were inherently inadequate for someone with my unique needs as an individual with Autism. Drawing on the principles I had learned in recovery, I communicated my needs carefully and diligently.

This ongoing communication extended over a span of nine months, during which I actively sought accommodations through various means. This process eventually culminated in an official diagnosis of Autism and ADHD. However, the established structures and deeply ingrained mental frameworks within the Oregon Health Authority remained incapable of acknowledging that individuals, such as myself, might necessitate alternative modes of communication or have distinct sensory and social requirements to excel in their roles and engage fully within the workplace. Unfortunately, it is regrettable that the Oregon Health Authority exhibits deeply ingrained ableism.

I have a deep personal connection to this issue for several reasons. Firstly, I had to confront and challenge my own internalized ableism to gather the courage to ask for the accommodations I needed. Secondly, when I did not receive the simple acknowledgment and accommodations required to perform my job effectively, it led to an extreme autistic burnout. Autistic burnout is essentially a result of systems' expectations overload. It occurs when a system, including its structures and mental models, fails to accommodate neurodivergence, leading to executive and cognitive overload that effectively disables the individual.

Unfortunately, due to the persistent denial of accommodations, a fundamental lack of understanding, inherent bias, stigmatization, and the pervasive sense of exclusion that defined my tenure at the Oregon Health Authority, I felt compelled to resign from my position on June 6th, 2023. This decision was prompted by the culmination of what is known as a "systems expectations overload," often referred to as autistic burnout. Within the autistic community, this condition is medically recognized and termed as Acute Neurocognitive Malfunction Crisis.

Towards the end of my employment, in the wake of one subtle accommodation denial after another, a significant exclusion incident occurred. I was removed from a learning collaborative project I had been leading for over six months. In the absence of leadership, I shared the role with another team member in addition to my Project Manager responsibilities. However, without prior notice or any communication, I was excluded from the event to which the host organization had invited three team members. This team was thoughtfully composed by the team itself with diverse roles and skillsets, and the decision to exclude me was perplexing.

The humiliation I felt was excruciating, exacerbated by the fact that my organization was well aware of my lived experience, my disability, and my sensitivities. This event marked the beginning of my executive and cognitive functioning deteriorating recognized as Acute Neurogonitve Malfunction Syndrome. No one was willing to listen to me, and no one was prepared to be accountable for explaining why I was excluded from the event. I reached out directly to the decision maker, Ebony Soan Clarke, via email, but received no response. My supervisor, who was my third during my relatively short time at OHA, was unable to effectively articulate the rationale behind the decision. Consequently, I escalated the matter to the human resources department.

Unfortunately, the human resources department is entrenched in their ableist ways and unwilling to engage in helping me resolve the situation effectively, even with a formal complaint. In the following weeks, my autistic burnout escalated to the point where I couldn't even process simple verbal instructions, I was now in an acute neurocognitive malfunction crisis. This led to errors in requests for sick time and created a contentious exchange between my supervisor and me. Although I had previoulsy documented my burnout through a questionnaire and in verbal one-on-one discussions, as well as additional messaging on the group's team channel, my supervisor simply couldn't comprehend that I was unable to perform seemingly simple tasks to her expectations. This was akin to asking someone with carpal tunnel syndrome to manually transcribe meetings, an endeavor that would be incredibly painful and frustrating.

With my functioning severely compromised I was effectively disabled and after numerous discussions with my therapist and my broader support system, it became unmistakably clear that I had to terminate my employment. My well-being was at risk, and the workplace was causing me harm with no foreseeable resolution. Upon my resignation, it was suggested that I could escalate my discrimination claim to another office for further investigation.

However, without immediate support, understanding, and accommodation, I would not have been able to regain the functionality required to continue my role or take care of myself and my other community respnsibilities. Thus, I resigned with a pending discrimination claim and a coercive suggestion from human resources to protect my job through FMLA. However, it's essential to note that I was not incapacitated due to an external issue or a family medical matter; the problem I faced was directly related to the work conditions. In hindsight, I realize that I should have been supported and offered worker's compensation, but the ableism ingrained in the structures and mental models I encountered prevented this recognition.

In my discrimination claim, I outlined two fundamental requests that I believe are essential for my healing and for transforming the Oregon Health Authority into a more neuroaffirming environment while reducing ableism for all its future employees. These two requests remain my core objectives. I strongly believe in transformative justice, recognizing that our conventional justice system may not be forgiving or restorative. Without resolve I will have to apt for the convential path and this journey will undoubtedly be challenging for both myself and the Oregon Health Authority, with potential repercussions even in the public sphere.

While my story is unique to me, I am not alone in experiencing the pervasive and detrimental effects of an ableist workplace. I have engaged in conversations with former colleagues who have shared similar experiences, and we have recently heard about the experiences of individuals like Angela Carter. I even encountered these behaviors from a Union representative, highlighting the lack of awareness within our broader social systems about neurodivergent disabilities. There are many more individuals like us, some too afraid to speak up due to the fear of economic instability and housing insecurity, while others are still grappling with the aftermath of workplace trauma. The Oregon Health Authority is impacting the mental, emotional, social, and physical well-being of its neurodivergent employees.

I want to emphasize that I don't intend to patronize any of you. I have researched each and every one of your backgrounds and recognize the valuable expertise and professional experience you bring to your honorable positions. However, I also don't want to assume that you all possess the same depth of knowledge about neurodivergence that I have cultivated. Neurodivergence has been my intensive focus of study for the last three years, and I consider myself a scholar of transformative social change.

The lived experiences I've shared are just one integral piece in understanding the underlying factors contributing to our addiction and housing crises in the state. I currently have an immense privledge of housing stability, thanks to the support system I have in place. If this support had been absent throughout my employement at the Oregon Health Authority or in the early stages of my journey, the outcomes could have been significantly more damaging. This is the stark reality for the most marginalized members of our community which are represented in the Oregon Health Authority workforce.

I am requesting restorative measures in the form of four years' worth of my salary at the Oregon Health Authority, which should also encompass the value of the health insurance associated with my position. The impact of autistic burnout is long-lasting and has caused irreparable damage. My ability to restore my functioning to its prior state is uncertain, and I anticipate needing an extended period to recover from the trauma inflicted on my nervous system.

Furthermore, I am requesting the implementation of comprehensive trauma awareness training, which must prioritize neuroaffirming and LGBTQIA-affirming workplace principles. This training should be meticulously designed and made mandatory for all staff members. It is essential that this training extends to encompass a transformative leadership training for both the current leadership team and those who will assume leadership roles within the organization in the future. Lastly, it is crucial to recognize that there are multiple employees who, should they come forward, also be considered for these restorative measures. Their personal experiences and needs should be taken into account when assessing the impact of the organization's actions.

To advance the resolution of these concerns, I propose the crucial next step is embracing public accountability. The erosion of trust within the Oregon Health Authority has become evident, and it is imperative to restore that trust to ensure we can effectively serve the people as they rightfully deserve. I eagerly anticipate your response and further dialogue on this matter.

Allow me to remind you of the Oregon Health Authority's mission: "helping people and communities achieve optimum physical, mental, and social well-being through partnerships, prevention, and access to quality, affordable health care." I firmly believe that you do not endorse the exclusion of neurodivergent individuals from shaping and executing this mission.


Sher Griffin

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