Braille Monitor                                                                                                        May 2004

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Why I Am a Federationist: Both Ends of the Spectrum

by Ryan Osentowski

From the Editor: The following speech was delivered at the 2002 convention of the NFB of Nebraska. Ryan is now a junior philosophy major and is still a Federation leader: secretary of the Nebraska affiliate, first vice president of the Lincoln Chapter, and NFB-NEWSLINE® coordinator for Nebraska. I uncovered this document the other day and remembered why I had thought it would be a fine addition to the Braille Monitor sometime. This issue seemed to need some leavening of hope and inspiration. So here it is:

Ryan Osentowski
Ryan Osentowski

In considering why I am a Federationist, my train of thought began with the obvious reasons. The National Federation of the Blind is the largest, most powerful movement of the blind in the country. We're doing more for the blind than any other consumer organization for and of the blind. We've developed NFB-NEWSLINE, America’s Jobline, and the Kernel Books. We have built the National Center for the Blind in Baltimore; training centers in Colorado, Minnesota, and Louisiana; and now the NFB Jernigan Institute. We work every year to pass legislation that benefits the blind at the local, state, and federal levels, and we come together annually for our national convention so that we can be heard en masse. Then we have the Braille Monitor, divisions of all types, and a plethora of historically important speeches by such greats as Jacobus tenBroek, Kenneth Jernigan, and President Maurer.

I decided that the best thing for me to do would be to describe my ascent to the Federation and throw those facts in along the way so I could demonstrate how great the NFB is. Then I realized that most of the people in this room already knew about those things. Those who don't will come to know about them during the course of this convention. I decided that my speech might seem redundant and I would have to throw in some jokes just to keep the crowd awake.

Then my mind turned to more personal reflections. I thought I would talk about what I have benefited from in the Federation. But as I thought about that, one of the many voices in my head broke free of the chaos and said to me, "Easy there, Ryan O. You don't want to come off looking too selfish." I agreed with Mr. Voice, knowing that I shouldn't take this opportunity to stand before a convention audience and look like a golddigger. Yet for some reason the word "selfish" stuck in my head, and I began to ponder the concept of selfishness. What is it, and what does it truly mean? So I ran with the idea of selfishness.

When we think of selfishness, we view it negatively. We think of selfish people as putting themselves first, people who are egocentric, self-centered, and greedy. Those traits are often present, but is that all there is to the picture? What would happen if none of us ever acted selfishly? The chances are that our lives would go nowhere. When Jacobus tenBroek founded the National Federation of the Blind in 1940, what were his motives? Were they entirely selfless? Probably not. He surely wanted a better life for himself. He would not have been content to spend his days as a blind man begging for food and money just to live. He wanted more than that.

When Kenneth Jernigan became involved in the Federation, was he doing it just because he had nothing better to do with his time? Not very likely! He did it because he wanted to improve the quality of his life. He believed that there was more to life than making furniture at home to help support his family. When our own state president, Carlos Serván, was blinded in a military accident in his home country of Peru, he could have stayed home and become a wine taster. But he wanted more for himself as a blind person, so he came to America and achieved it. Didn't these men do what they did for selfish motives? Wasn't a great deal of self-interest and self-preservation involved? Of course!

When I was growing up in my hometown of Kearney, my parents pushed me to strive to be better than average. They wanted me to be happy and successful in life. Were they wrong to teach me these things? I firmly believe that my parents are a big part of the reason I am standing before you today. They taught me to some degree to be selfish in my life.

Let me expand that idea. Many of us have selfish motives for being part of the Federation; let's admit that. We all love socializing with our friends, throwing parties at conventions, traveling to places like Washington, D.C., and rubbing elbows with the folks on Capitol Hill. Many of us get a kick out of those things, and nothing is wrong with that. Yet something beneath those superficial desires also drives us. We all want better lives for ourselves as blind people. We all want to be employed and work at a decent job, making decent money. Many of us want to go to school and acquire a quality education. We all want to live in a world where our dignity as blind people will be protected from humiliation and discrimination.

Isn't it selfish to want these things for ourselves? Yet they are positive, healthy things to strive for in our lives. How would it be if we all just wanted to sit home with no job, no education, and no goals in life, indulging in simple, everyday pleasures? I say that this would be selfish, but not nearly selfish enough to be constructive.

If we were an organization of people focused only on ourselves, we wouldn't get very far. What about the other end of the spectrum? What about selflessness? We all know what that term means, don't we? A selfless person is someone who does for others or puts others ahead of him- or herself. Isn't that also a large part of what our movement is about? I mentioned Dr. tenBroek and Dr. Jernigan earlier and the fact that they were probably fueled by selfish motives when they founded and built the National Federation of the Blind. Yet it only makes sense that a large part of their motives were selfless. They were wise enough to realize that life does not exist in a vacuum and that their actions would affect many others. Sure, they wanted a better quality of life for themselves, but they also wanted a fuller, richer quality of life for all blind people.

If you doubt that, just look at history. Dr. tenBroek endured a civil war within his own organization and stepped down as president for a time. Yet he stayed. Dr. Jernigan endured public abuse from his enemies and the media during several years as NFB president in Iowa, but he kept on fighting for the blind. Could you continue in a job where you were assaulted every day? Would you want to continue when everything from your character to your personal life was attacked from every angle? Wouldn't any self-absorbed man say, "Enough! I've had it! You go your way and I'll go mine, and that's the end of it. Starting right now, I'm looking out for number one!" If you can say no to that, than you are a stronger person than I. Most people would walk away, but these men didn't. They stayed because they realized that the welfare of the blind was more important than their own self-interest.

That spirit of selflessness is still with us today. I recently attended a leadership seminar in Baltimore, and Dr. Maurer told us about his upcoming schedule. He read his calendar to us, and we all noticed that he didn't have a free weekend for at least three solid months. Can you imagine working a full-time job with no free weekends? That would be tough on us and our families, wouldn't it? Yet he does it without complaint because he realizes that it is necessary for him to work tirelessly for our cause.

Our movement is so successful because men like President Maurer, Dr. tenBroek, and Dr. Jernigan were selfish enough to want more for themselves, but selfless enough to want and work for it for others as well. As it is with so many things, a healthy balance must exist between the two. If we leaned too far in either direction, our efforts would stall, and we would become bogged down.

The selfish and selfless motives of our past great leaders are still remembered today through many of our actions in the Federation. Take, for example, our scholarship program. We're giving money to students so that they can improve themselves, thereby improving the quality of their lives. We also do it in the hope that they will come back to us and give the Federation the time, effort, and love a movement like ours requires of many.

America’s Jobline is a service for people to use to gain employment so that they can achieve the same result. When more blind people find jobs, it makes us all stronger. Those training centers I mentioned earlier are there solely to teach blind people to do for themselves, but they also help more blind people to become independent and demonstrate a more positive image of blindness that will benefit all of us.

I could go on, but I think you understand. The Federation continues to teach blind people to strive to do better for themselves. We have our own motives that are both selfish and selfless. Whatever our members' personal motives are, we have plenty of altruism to go around. Thousands of people dedicate their time, energy, and loyalty to this organization, and they don't receive monetary rewards for it. The rewards are intrinsic, knowing that we are building a better life for blind people in our country. People join together each year to help raise funds, spread our positive message about blindness, take minutes, balance the treasury checkbook, lobby for new and better legislation, spend time on the phone with newly blind people, bring people to chapter meetings, chair committees, and do countless other things that benefit our organization. They do these things because they are selfless.

That, ladies and gentlemen, is why I am a Federationist. I've gained a great deal personally during my time here. I've had a lot of fun, but I've also had the chance to grow as a blind person. My confidence has increased, and my attitudes about blindness have improved. My goals for myself have expanded. Yet while I have taken my share of what the Federation has to offer, I would be remiss if I didn't realize that I must give back as well. When the day arrives that all blind people can work in an atmosphere of fairness and equality; when everyone, blind and sighted alike, comes to know and respect our philosophy about blindness; when people are not ruled by their fear and ignorance of blindness, my time as an NFB volunteer will be over. Until that day comes, I will stand proudly upon the barricades with my blind brothers and sisters, helping to make our positive vision of the future come true.

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