Stay in Role and Network
Let’s look at Cooptation and Figure Out How to Respond
We all need to pay the bills. No one wants to live in poverty, and for those of us who have experienced it at one point or another in our lives, the memory of it activates an involuntary reaction to do whatever we have to do to keep that pay check coming in, even if it means looking the other way when we see something that’s not right, or going along with the status quo because no one else around us seems to be concerned about it. Personally, I have resorted to the advice “choose your battles” on too many occasions, either from laziness, exhaustion, hopelessness or self-preservation.
The fear of losing our jobs and plummeting into poverty, or losing our jobs and not being able to maintain the level of “comfort” (a relative term) afforded us by that biweekly paycheck, is a huge reason why cooptation of peers in the workplace is so common. Secondly, we all want to be accepted, to have pleasant relationships with those we have to spend at least 40 hours a week with. It certainly is a lot more fun waking up in the morning feeling relatively safe and secure in our relationships with our coworkers and bosses, knowing we will have a few laughs and maybe catch lunch together. Compare that to waking up not knowing what awaits us on the battle field if we speak our truth and refuse to comply with an assignment that is outside the realm of authentic peer support. Our employers, including peer-run agencies, give us marching orders inspiring us to be “disruptive innovators,” but it is we who have to learn on our own how they want us to do it; without rocking the boat, without making anyone feel uncomfortable and by prioritizing billing, not relationships. “Well, we are a business,” they tell us when they step away from the podium. They have been coopted.
The first time I heard the term “disruptive innovators” it was in reference to peers being employed in the mental health system and practicing a relational model based on mutuality and reciprocity. The last time I heard the term “disruptive innovators” it was in relation to insurance reimbursements. The for-profit managed care Medicaid companies were taking over straight Medicaid and calling themselves “disruptive innovators.” Hence, cooptation of language.
It’s kind of an oxymoron, but in order to avoid cooptation in the workplace we need “us” in positions of power. But we have to be coopted to get into a position of power in those organizations in the first place. The rise to power requires an awful lot of compromise, as well as silence when witnessing egregious abuses by our superiors, lest we be gaslit for our “perceptions.”
But the peer movement was never about obtaining “power over.” Many of us have experienced abuse and oppression by the powerful, whether it was a parent, a teacher, a doctor or a boss. The peer model is about all voices being heard, witnessed, and valued. We cannot counter cooptation as individuals acting alone. We cannot counter cooptation by developing peer agencies that adopt the hierarchical model with its “at will” employment policies. What we need to avoid cooptation is strong leadership. The peer movement does not equate “leadership” with power. We are all leaders. Power, on the other hand, is alluring. It pleases the ego. It fills up the empty hole inside of us that tells us we are not enough. In that way, power becomes an addiction, and those who have it will fight to the death before they relinquish it.
There are multiple complex issues that contribute to cooptation, and while power dynamics is the obvious one, cooptation is still largely a denied consequence of a historically marginalized, dehumanized group threatening the structure. We are at risk for cooptation because we are human and we want to be safe and we settle for the leftovers. And who the hell wants to go to battle every day? And what does going to battle every day do to our nervous systems anyway?
We minimize the risk of cooptation by networking with like-minded peers who are having conversations and openly discussing both how we are victimized by oppression and how we are perpetrating it. That’s a good place to start. Finding safe places to talk about our experiences in the workplace is crucial, especially for peers working alone in mental health settings. We need to be validated. Change is, at times, a painfully slow and imperceptible process, both individually and collectively. We didn’t start this fight for justice and we certainly aren’t going to end it. All we can do is figure out what our individual and collective purpose is at this point in history, and choose that battle.
Note: Denise served as a peer specialist on the MHA in Ulster County’s ACT team to becoming its director. She has served as residential manager, employment specialist, IPRT coordinator and director of wellness services at the MHA. Denise initiated multiple projects that collaborated with community organizations to bring mental health and substance use-related issues into public discussions. She is a certified WRAP facilitator who has both helped to start and support self-help groups and has presented on peer support, trauma-informed care, voice hearing, cultural diversity, suicide and the human/canine connection. Denise is the author of multiple essays on recovery as well as the book “Institutional-Eyes,” which profiled her experience in the military where she was first psychiatrically hospitalized. From 2017-2019, Denise worked as director of peer services at NYAPRS where she oversaw multiple projects that employed peers and trained organizations on how to incorporate peer services.
Pullout: “We minimize the risk of cooptation by networking with like-minded peers who are having conversations and openly discussing both how we are victimized by oppression and how we are perpetrating it.”