A Reflection on NSA 17 Dallas

Now that a week has passed since the National Stuttering Association conference in Dallas I’ve gained enough objectivity to reflect on two emergent themes: taking risks and intimacy.

Having been to one conference already, this year I had a different set of expectations. I knew how things were organized and had none of the first-timer anxieties. This comfort allowed me to take some risks that I never would have last year. Even before the conference began, I’d arranged to share a room with 3 women I didn’t know well, I joined a writers group that submitted a proposal for a workshop, committed to helping out a friend with a kids’ workshop and jumped at an opportunity to be in an improv skit in front of the other chapter leaders. During the conference, I kept up this momentum by participating in workshops that took me waaay out of my comfort zone, attending a drag show, inviting some teens out to lunch, and participating in a StutterTalk episode. I could go on.

Nor was I alone in this risk taking. Perhaps because it was my second conference I was able to see more clearly the actions of those around me. It seemed that people were constantly introducing themselves to others– not an easy task when you stutter. There were folks stuttering openly in the Starbucks line and joining in conversations with strangers at the pool. While I was aware of some of that last year, I was so overwhelmed by all the newness that my view was somewhat obscured.

What I found this year was that being able to take these risks opened me and others up to the intimacy available at the conference. The risks we took helped to peel away all the layers built up to cover our shame and fear of stuttering and at the same time created a pathway to connect deeply with both community and with individuals. Perhaps as well, it was the climate of the hotel. It was much darker than the Hyatt where last year’s conference was held. Or maybe it was the relatively few places to go outside the hotel that forced us to stay in and huddle around the bar. But, I think it was bigger than that.

Like many introverts who stutter, I often find socializing difficult and draining but I do crave deep exchanges. That is where the distinction lies. ‘Socializing’ is something we do with strangers or only somewhat familiar individuals. It implies superficiality. However, there was nothing superficial about our conversations during the conference. Rather, they leapt immediately to intense subjects like faith, substance abuse, disability and mental health, and often how these interact with our identities as people who stutter. Even those conversations that had us rolling with laughter seem significant in hindsight.

I don’t think this would be possible if we were not all people who stutter. We have this wonderful common framework that unifies us. In an everyday setting it might take years of knowing someone to dig this deep, but because we are willing to take these risks we get to level-jump past all the bullshit and dig into the really meaningful stuff.

Now that the conference is over, I can’t help but wonder how we continue the momentum and use it to create intimacy with our allies and build bridges to other communities. How do we take what we learned from the workshops on social justice and take even greater risks outside of the safety of the hotel?

What I’m left with is so similar to what I felt after last year’s conference. The reflection I wrote last year ended with the sentiment “In my heart and mind the conference is not really over. There is so much work to be done”. I feel exactly the same way now.

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