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AutismBC Connects

Joni Oldhoff on Systemic and Intergenerational Poverty

April 11th, 2024

Guest Author

For Everyone

Content warning: Racism, discrimination, mentions of death and childhood sexual assault. 

 

My name is Joni Oldhoff. Some folks know me as Mihkoh. My pronouns are she/her or they/them. I live, laugh, love in the colonially known city of Victoria, BC — the rightful home of the Lekwungen. I was born here and I’m endlessly grateful to these lands that have held me for so long.

I have two kids, both of whom are neurodiverse, a loving husband, and a fat, lazy cat named Butters. We are underhoused and have squeezed all of our life and love into a tiny two bedroom apartment. It’s falling apart, we have no laundry, but it’s kept us safe and housed, so I try not to complain. Though my biggest dream is to have a place where my kids can play freely (and also somewhere I can do our laundry).

I am self-diagnosed as autistic/adhd. Turns out diagnosis is hard to come by. Not only is it next to impossible to find a doctor who can actually assess, but the thousands of dollars to access those doctors is unattainable for folks like me.

I am also disabled. I live with chronic widespread pain which limits my mobility.

My life in recent years
Joni and her son smiling in sunlight with trees in the background.
Joni and her son smiling in sunlight with trees in the background.

The last few years have been transformative, absolutely horrific, and incredibly beautiful — all at once. In 2020, the pandemic hit. I had to close down my business. Shortly thereafter, I became pregnant after nearly five years of infertility. Unfortunately, my pregnancy was fraught with difficulties, endless sickness, and pain. I had to file bankruptcy because I was unable to work and therefore couldn’t pay off my business ventures. My daughter was born in 2021. She brought peace and closure to my world in a way I didn’t know a tiny person could. She came into the world gently and covered us all in joy that completed our family unit.

All lightness in life must be contrasted with dark. This is just the way of things. Without darkness we would never appreciate the dawn.

I am a childhood sexual assault survivor, in 2022 I decided to come out about my abuse and file a police report. I guess, now having a daughter of my own, I wanted to protect the child in me who never had that opportunity. This experience unlocked a years-long process that was very traumatizing. My mental health plummeted, and I struggled a lot to just maintain any sense of wellness at all.

And then, as if I hadn’t been through enough, on my birthday last year (2023), my nephew passed away. It was the deepest sense of heartache I had ever felt. After a lifetime of pain, it was as if I had reached a pinnacle. I simply couldn’t hold anymore grief. I couldn’t even if I tried.

I’m writing this a week out from my birthday (and the one year anniversary of his death). Here I am nearly a year later, and I am still raw—but I’m healing. I have been shaped by grief in ways that most people will fortunately never have to know. 

I have always been told I am “too sensitive” that I “feel too much.”

As a youth, I hated this quality of myself. It was too painful to live in such an unjust world. Now as an adult, I’m starting to see that this quality is a gift. I may not be able to read social cues, but I am astutely aware of how my neighbour’s face changes when he’s feeling particularly lonely. I have always felt an affinity to the left-out kid, people labeled as weird or different. I’m good at noticing how the energy in a room shifts when people laugh, and am comfortable with silence over saviourism.  People often don’t know how to hold space for difficult things. We always want to fix discomfort. I think being autistic has allowed me capacity for the awkwardness of life that allistic folks don’t always seem to have.

I often joke that I am the type of autistic person who wants to be involved in everything, while simultaneously being involved in nothing. I oscillate between wishing I lived deep in the forest away from everyone, and also wanting to save the world (which unfortunately requires a lot of socialization)

To know me, you need to know that when I speak, I am speaking from the depths. My writing and my consulting reflect everything I can’t verbalize and yet experience and see. When I stand in front of crowds and teach, I’m speaking from a place that knows these topics intimately. Being autistic offers me a unique opportunity to not be afraid of honesty.

Recognizing my autism

I grew up in the 90s and early 2000s. When I was little, neurodiversity was still very much stigmatized. It wasn’t until my late twenties that I even started hearing about autism as a spectrum. As a child, I was hyper anxious. I was so worried all of the time and can remember dreading social situations.

I played a lot by myself. Not because I didn’t have friends but because I always struggled with feeling like I belonged anywhere. I thought to myself “maybe I’m an alien?” For some reason I just never felt at home on the planet. I even remember asking my older brother if I was adopted to which he replied, “I didn’t want to tell you, but we found you on the doorstep.” — A lie I laugh about now, but at the time it felt like it must be true.

As I grew up, I always knew I struggled in ways others didn’t. I always have found the world overwhelming and as I grew into a teenager that sense of overwhelm turned into a dark depression and unrelenting anxiety.  When social media platforms started offering a space for other autistic adults to share their experiences, I found myself constantly relating. It was then that the realization set in. For the first time in my life, I had language for my experience of the world and that was a double-edged sword. I was grateful I understood myself better, and also full of grief for the amount of time I’ve suffered in my experience in silence. I wonder often how my life may have been different had someone identified my struggle earlier.

 

Portrait of Joni Oldhoff against a brick wall.
Portrait of Joni against a brick wall.
On intergenerational poverty

We hear a lot about intergenerational trauma, but we rarely talk about the trauma of intergenerational poverty. I come from a mixed family, myself being biracial. Part Cree from Michel Nation and part Scottish from the lowlands in Argyll, Scotland.

My Scottish side were poor immigrants who landed in Canada seeking a better life. My ancestors, two great great grandparents who remained in Scotland, died in a poorhouse with malnourishment as the cause of death on their records.

My Indigenous family was forcibly enfranchised in the 1950s and our Indian status removed by the government of Canada. This meant that anything that was rightfully ours through treaty was no longer valid. Our land, our identity, our culture and any remaining rights were taken away and replaced with an indistinct status as “free men”. 

I come from two emerging histories of deep struggle, displacement, and enforced poverty. Fraught with immense loss and an endless pursuit to survive. This carried on generationally and transformed into just how we live everyday. We work to pay bills and feed/clothe ourselves today.

Savings and thoughts of tomorrow are a luxury only the wealthy can afford. How do we save for a rainy day when it’s always pouring?

Both of my parents also grew up in poverty and both were recovering addicts when I was born. My parents divorced when I was little, I was raised by a single mom in low-income Indigenous housing. My mom worked tirelessly to provide enough for a good life for my brother and I (and many other wayward kids who came through our doors).

Mom knows what it is to struggle, and her kind heart always does the most for others. Even when she was barely getting by herself. I think a lot of my empathy for others stems from my mom’s silent way of helping. No one ever offered her praise for her kindness, but she helped others selflessly more times than I can recall.

Despite the immense effort of myself and my family. People often underestimate how hard it is to climb out of intergenerational poverty when everything you have goes to survive today. There is a gift in this though, me, and others like myself, don’t look past the struggle of others. As people from poverty, we are masterfully skilled in building longer tables instead of higher walls.

On systemic poverty of Indigenous people

First, we have to understand that all ‘systems’ that currently exist in the western world of health, medicine, and even most advocacy, stem from colonial understanding. Indigenous people understand neurodiversity differently within our world view. Traditionally, to my people, autistic people were seen to have gifts that others don’t. I don’t mean that in a patronizing way, sometimes people can use the word “gifted” to package someone’s neurodiversity in a way they feel is digestible. That’s not what I mean here. What I mean when I say gifted is someone who has access to different ways of thinking and being.

That’s a gift that offers us more perspective and more depth in our experience of life. This is immensely valuable.

When we take all the barriers and vulnerabilities of what it means to be autistic in the world and we compound those with racism, discrimination, and intergenerational trauma, what you get is a really hard to thrive in world. We are at greater risk of poverty already as Indigenous people. One in four Indigenous people live below the poverty line. This isn’t because we aren’t hard working or care less. It’s because of enforced intergenerational poverty through harmful colonial laws, theft of our resources and land. To further this, racism in our society means we are already looked down upon for our struggles. Trying to ensure we have the basics of life covered, while managing a neurotypical colonial world, while managing racism and judgment, while trying to set up support for ourselves. It is a never ending, exhausting balancing act.

What puts Indigenous autistic people at greatest risk of poverty is this balancing act and the eventual burnout that follows. Being that most Indigenous people come from families that struggle with financial security- there is zero safety net. We have no choice but to continue pushing forward and surviving. Navigating the system to get help is exhausting because racism and old stereotypes about Indigenous people always rear their head. Approaching your doctor and saying you are struggling to work or provide for yourself because of being autistic is intimidating for most people. Doing so as a visibly Indigenous person means managing the bias of our society on top of doing that. If you can get through all of that without giving up, what’s left is a measly sum of disability income that barely covers anything and the cycle continues.

“What would a life free from poverty enable you to do?”

 

Joni and her son on a day at the beach.

Can I say that I love to dream about this? I know people have lofty aspirations but as someone from poverty, my dream is literally a home I feel safe in. That’s it. I have never known a life outside of poverty. I have known moments of security that are fleeting, but never have I known a deep sense of safety. Never have I known what it is to shop without worry, to live without worry, to afford things without worry. More than anything, I dream of a home that is mine. Where I’m not at the whim of greedy landlords or fluctuating rent. That my children and children’s children can live and thrive. Even now as a moderately successful consultant, as someone who stands in front of wealthy corporate leaders and teaches them values of decolonization, reconciliation, and reciprocity. I am a pay cheque away from homelessness at any given point most months. The juxtaposition never stops. There is such a huge divide between those who have and those who have not. People have a hard time understanding just how expensive it is to be poor. When you can only afford life day to day, you never can catch up let alone save for some outlandish idea like home ownership. There is never a moment of “everything is taken care of.” There is always something. There is always an expense of trying to survive, whether that be monetary, emotional, physical — or all of the above, something I am all too familiar with as I currently am navigating stress leave due to burnout.

Let me be really clear, I don’t dream of wealth. Culturally, spiritually, and morally speaking I don’t value having more than me and my family needs. Not when there are others in the world that suffer. Liberation from oppressive systems like poverty isn’t worth it unless I’m taking as many people along with me as possible. I would rather stay where I am with them than step on them to get up.

Being free from poverty would mean food in my fridge every day.

It would mean bills paid without that sinking feeling of “how do we get through until next pay day,” it would mean free time to focus on my writing, my creative pursuits, my passions. It would mean I wouldn’t cry on birthdays. I wouldn’t have to choose between laundry and gas. I would be free to give mutual aid instead of always being the receiver. It would mean I can support my disabled family members, I could buy and afford a cheap car. I could further my education without the guilt of financial strain on my family. 

Mostly though, it would mean freedom from one less chain of oppression. I dream of land where I can live, raise animals, grow food, and share with the community. Something robbed from my ancestors. Where I can host ceremonies and culture. More than anything, it would mean I can extend branches of love to others that also suffer.

I read that there are great artists, great thinkers, philosophers, and writers. Endless amounts of creatives in this world that we will never know because all those people are too poor to be those things. They are focused on survival and the world will never know them.

Conventional financial wealth isn’t success to me, success to me is how many people speak of me with kindness on their tongues. I may never know what it is to have lots of money, but one thing I never lack is gratitude. My ancestors, my Elders, my family – have instilled in me that true wealth comes from our hearts. It comes from being grateful for what we have and even sometimes the things we don’t. Would my empathy run as deep had I been born in a mansion? Who’s to say.

All I know is when we live in a world of scarcity, empathy for others feels dangerous. Not for me though, in my world there is always enough. Abundantly enough. If only we knew how to share and live in a good way with each other, we could feed and house the world many times over.

A message for Autism Acceptance Month

 

Joni Olfhoff is dressed professionally. Taken in her home.
Joni dressed for work, her child is in the background.

Autistic advocacy goes beyond acceptance. It involves normalcy, respect, and kindness. If you are an autistic person reading this, know that you aren’t defective. The world may one day catch up to the beauty that diversity offers. Until then, be your authentic selves the best you can. The world desperately needs the feelers, the deep thinkers, the perceptors, the deep empathizers. The things that make living in this world hard for us are simultaneously most needed. Do not doubt the value of those gifts, even under the weight of them. May you find the places and people who see you, honour you and value you. Against a world that tells you otherwise- may you learn to value yourself as well.

For allies, friends, families, employers of autistic folks — your understanding and love is paramount to our sense of wellbeing. You don’t have to understand our experience to support us with what we need to thrive. Autistics know ourselves best. Give us space to tell you what we need. Nothing about us without us. It’s enough to know we just need support sometimes. Educate yourselves about neurodiversity and continue to advocate beside us.

 

About the author

Joni Oldhoff (Mihkoh Pîwâysis) is an Indigenous woman of mixed Cree and Scottish heritage, living on the stolen land of the Lək̓ʷəŋən – the Songhees, Esquimalt and WSANEC First Nations. She is an activist, community organizer, writer, presenter and educator. She is a mom to two beautiful kids who are her whole heart. In her professional life, Joni can be found offering consulting to private and public organizations on reconciliation, decolonization, anti-racism, inclusion, lateral kindness and radical change. She can also be found moonlighting as an event organizer, journalist and poet. In her personal life she can be found playing with her family on the beach and dreaming of a better world.  

For consulting services please find her on Facebook @YoAuntyMihkoh where she offers weekly education, poetry and insights. 

For EDI workshops, trainings and conferences please connect via email.  

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