There has been a growing emphasis within the American Association on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities (AAIDD) and the field of intellectual and developmental disabilities on identifying and supporting the next generation of leaders. AAIDD, like many other professional organizations, has a membership base that is unbalanced. A large majority of AAIDD's membership consists of long-term members, with students and early career professionals constituting a much smaller subset. However, AAIDD has increased its focus on recruiting and supporting the next generation of professionals through targeted activities and programs—and progress has been made. For example, an Ad Hoc Committee on Student and Junior Member Recruitment and Retention has been formed that focuses on student and early career issues and organizes multiple activities targeted to the needs of this group, including an Early Career Development Webinar Series, a Guide Program that matches student and new members with AAIDD Fellows to provide an immediate connection to the organization and its activities, and a Student and Early Career Professional Newsletter. Furthermore, the 2008 Annual Meeting targeted explicitly the participation of early career professionals in the program and supported their attendance at the conference. All of these efforts represent positive steps toward ensuring that the next generation is invited into and supported in our organization. However, although there are more supports and programs in place for students and early career professionals within AAIDD and the field as a whole, there also continues to be, from my perspective, a great deal of concern being expressed in various forums about the degree to which the next generation has the “passion” and the “commitment” that has driven so much of the progress in the field over the past decades. Specifically, I often hear two variations of this theme during discussions of recruiting and supporting the next generation of leaders. First, the basic question: Does the next generation of leaders have the passion to continue to drive change in the field? And second, a slight variation on this general question: How can the current generation of leaders create this passion in emerging leaders?
I understand the concern about passion and commitment. Ensuring that the next generation is committed to pushing the field forward is critical to sustaining the progress that our current and past leaders have spearheaded. I will be the first to admit that I (speaking as a member of the next generation) have had very different experiences than many of the current and past leaders in the field who I respect and admire. I did not experience firsthand the horrors of institutions in the 1960s and 1970s. I did not witness or play a role in the emergence of the principle of zero reject in special education. I was not a part of the rapid development of new technologies for teaching and supporting individuals with severe disabilities in their neighborhood schools and communities. I would argue, however, that passion can develop in different ways around different issues and still be reflective of the same level of commitment to fostering advances in our field and society. In other words, the lack of these experiences should not necessarily imply a differing level of passion and commitment. For me, my passion and commitment have grown out of seeing that, although there may be a mandate for zero reject in special education and a strong movement toward supporting people with disabilities in their communities, the actual experiences of people with disabilities often do not reflect the ultimate goals of these movements. Every time I walk into a school and see students with disabilities who are not held to high expectations, who continue to receive services that are segregated and are based on a label rather than on individual strengths and needs, and who do not receive individualized supports that build on their strengths and enable them to become self-determining, my commitment to working in partnership with people with disabilities and their families to make change in society grows. I know many of my colleagues feel the same level of passion and commitment.
Furthermore, I argue that questioning the passion and commitment of next generation of professionals can be dangerous, particularly as it can be interpreted as a concern that passion and commitment might be a problem for this generation and can create situations where individuals may not feel valued for the work they do or for the commitment that they have to the field. This issue often comes up in my conversations with other early career professionals. Even the rephrasing that I often hear— “How do we create this passion?”—can still be the wrong question if the underlying assumption is that this passion is not present or that this passion has to be created. Instead, I think the more relevant question is how can AAIDD create structures for effectively mentoring and supporting emerging leaders who have this passion and commitment; or to put it another way, how can conditions be created that support people who have passion and commitment to take on roles in AAIDD that enable them to expand on and refine the ways that they apply this passion and commitment?
These questions reflect different assumptions, that passion and commitment are present and that the role of AAIDD is to nurture and support the expansion and refinement of this passion, not to create it. To me, the most pressing issue is identifying and actively recruiting, mentoring, and supporting early career professionals who have this commitment and passion to AAIDD and the field. I think the central questions should be: How do we make AAIDD an organization where professionals feel supported to learn from each other, across generations? And, how can we foster acceptance of the various experiences that professionals from diverse generations and areas of expertise bring to the table and ensure that all of these experiences are respected and used synergistically to foster not just the maintenance of the progress of the past 50 years but another 50 years of rapid and pervasive change? The first step is shifting the focus from creating the passion to building on the passion and commitment that already exists. The next steps must then involve acting more systematically to create opportunities within AAIDD to enable early career professionals to receive mentorship and support to become involved in the organization and the field.
It also seems that these next steps, creating systematic opportunities for involvement and leadership, are particularly important in the process of recruiting the next generation to AAIDD. Some of the concerns regarding the level of commitment of the next generation of professionals may be emerging because of the lower membership of students and early career professionals in AAIDD. However, there is a growing body of literature that focuses on generational differences (Manolis, Levin, & Dahlstrom, 1997; Williams, Coupland, Folwell, & Sparks, 1997) and the implications of these differences for leadership and participation in professional organizations (Rodriguez, Green, & Ree, 2003). It is important to recognize that, in general, the reasons that early career professionals choose to become involved in and take on leadership roles in professional organizations may differ from the reasons that previous (and perhaps future) generations choose to get involved. This does not necessarily mean that early career professionals are not committed; however, it may mean that early career professionals need to be approached about membership and leadership in different ways. For example, Levin (2001) discussed that in earlier generations membership in professional organizations was often viewed as fundamental to professional service and networking but that later generations tended to be more focused on the benefits derived from belonging to a professional organization (particularly as there are more and more professional organizations to choose from) as well as the benefits and demands of taking on leadership roles within such organizations. Levin asserted that there is no research to support the comments that are often made about early career professionals not being committed, but he did assert that later generations may be less likely to take on a leadership role simply because it is offered. Instead, it is critical that (a) a clear relationship between the role and the individual's talents be made when offering the leadership opportunity and (b) the way in which the individual's leadership role will enable the individual to contribute in a meaningful and efficient way to the organization is made obvious. In other words, early career professionals want to feel that they are being recruited for their talents and are going to be able to put their talents to use in a meaningful and efficient way. Although the desire to contribute in a meaningful and efficient way may be universal, given the multiple roles that are available to early career professionals, it may be more important to explicitly focus on how opportunities to fill such roles are structured and delivered. Furthermore, creating opportunities for recognition for valued contributions is critical to early career professionals, but even the way such recognition is provided may need to be reconceptualized to be responsive to technological advances as well as to be more specific to the talents being recognized.
Discussions of generational differences are broad and do not reflect individual variation, and other factors may be exerting more influence across generations on decisions to join AAIDD and assume leadership roles. However, it seems critical to AAIDD's ongoing efforts to recruit and involve the next generation to have high expectations and to begin with the assumption that early career professionals want to be involved and are passionate about and committed to the field. However, the way that such involvement is “sold” may need to be significantly adapted to focus explicitly and directly on creating paths for involvement and leadership that apply one's specific strengths and talents and provide effective support and mentorship for the refinement and application of these strengths.
Karrie A. Shogren, PhD firstname.lastname@example.org), Assistant Professor, University of Texas at Austin, 1 University Station/D5300, Austin, TX 78727