Braille Monitor                                                                 December 2006


Leadership in Action:
Jernigan Institute Establishes New Program to Empower Youth

by The NFB Jernigan Institute Education Team

From the Editor: In early October blind students from a handful of residential schools across the country gathered at the Jernigan Institute for an intensive four-day program that opened prospects and changed lives. Here is a report of what happened:

Mark Riccobono

Here at the Jernigan Institute youth leadership and empowerment are central to our work. Recently we have been working to build relationships with educators across the nation, including strengthening ties to schools for the blind. As a result of this effort, we talked with a number of leaders in residential schools across the country to generate new ideas for empowering the current generation of blind youth. These discussions have produced a pilot program that we call the NFB Transition Leadership Academy.

The NFB Transition Leadership Academy made its debut during the first week of October 2006 as nine students, accompanied by chaperones, from schools for the blind in Washington, Texas, Arizona, Indiana, and Kansas visited the Institute for a week of leadership, mentoring, and learning activities designed to develop leadership skills, confidence, a positive view of blindness, and broader career awareness. In order to achieve these goals, the Academy focused on the importance of collective action and empowering blind youth to find their own voice in advocating for issues that touch their lives.

After arriving at the National Center for the Blind, the group was greeted by the core of blind mentors who would be working with them throughout their stay. The first item on the agenda was a discussion with NFB President Marc Maurer about what leadership is, how one becomes a leader, and what the necessary elements are to build successful endeavors. By the end of the discussion we were all prepared to imagine and build greater opportunities. Dr. Maurer challenged the students to create something so dynamic that the whole world would pay attention.

On the first full day the group headed to Washington, D.C., to visit many historic sites in order to consider how great endeavors are built. Two knowledgeable and entertaining tour guides showcased our nation's capital, emphasizing American history and the symbolism behind several of the monuments on the National Mall. These guides helped explain the purpose of the monuments and pointed out the concepts typically conveyed through the visual presentation of the structures. In addition NFB Director of Governmental Affairs James McCarthy and Government Program Specialist Jesse Hartle accompanied the students on this day-long outing, allowing them to place their tour in the perspective of the organized blind movement.

On day two successful blind people presented workshops on topics such as owning your blindness, the importance of mentoring, and overcoming barriers in careers. The students learned from leaders like Betsy Zaborowski, executive director of the Jernigan Institute, and Joanne Wilson, executive director of the NFB Department of Affiliate Action. Further, students learned about a variety of related topics through hands-on activities such as challenging each other to a game of Family Feud with a Federation twist. The students then engaged the NFB Governmental Affairs staff in discussions about laws and legislation and the development of policy. The group learned about the way the NFB develops organizational policy statements--resolutions adopted through the national convention--and about the choices that must be made in developing policy priorities.

In keeping with legislative style, the students participated in a debate, arguing the pros and cons of such issues as "Should there be a federal mandate for all forms of entertainment, including movies and television, to include descriptive services for the blind?" and "Should blind individuals accept discounts or special privileges offered at public facilities or events?" Students were challenged to argue positions regardless of their own opinions, and they worked with blind lawyers to prepare their cases. In the end winning teams were chosen by the audience based on how well organized and convincing their arguments had been, regardless of the position being held. This provided students with an opportunity to understand how to develop policy arguments and to think about the broader effect of policy decisions.

On day three the students were exposed to technology and careers in advanced science. A visit to the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center provided a rare glimpse into the vast array of career opportunities in fields related to science, technology, engineering, and math. Additionally the students had the opportunity to observe blind employees at NASA doing groundbreaking work and to learn about internship opportunities. The students also spent time with the skilled staff of the NFB's International Braille and Technology Center for the Blind (IBTC), where they learned about the newest developments in technology, how to evaluate the best technology for them, and how as consumers of technology they can influence technology development. This culminated in a demonstration and discussion about the Kurzweil-National Federation of the Blind Reader led by James Gashel, NFB executive director for strategic initiatives.

On day four the group could be found keeping an aggressive schedule of visits in Washington, D.C., In contrast to their transport during their previous visit, the group used the Washington Metro system for all of its travel in the District. Through a visit to the Library of Congress, the students learned about preserving history and culture, and they enjoyed an informative lunch with Frank Kurt Cylke, director of the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped. The group also traveled to the Executive Building at the White House, where they received a warm welcome in the historic Indian Treaty Room. This visit culminated in a presentation by longtime blind Federationist Olegario D. Cantos VII, associate director for domestic policy at the White House. Finally the group received a rare tour of the Capitol by Stacy Cervenka, another successfully employed blind Federationist, who serves as staff assistant in the Office of Senator Sam Brownback of Kansas.

As is customary during NFB programs, the students undertook a number of challenge activities in order to reinforce their self-confidence. Under the direction of skilled blind mentors, the students and their chaperones participated in activities such as grilling their own meals over an open flame and cutting down their fears by using a gas-powered chainsaw. These activities were done under blindfold to reinforce a phrase that came to be a theme throughout the Academy, "Vision is not a requirement for success." Of course the busy schedule, fast-paced travel on the Washington Metro, and a host of other incidental activities like lighting a fire in the fireplace for evening relaxation communicated clearly to the students the high expectations we all have for them and reinforced the message that vision is not a requirement for success.

The Transition Leadership Academy also issued a new challenge to its participants. As an outcome of their time at the NFB, students were expected to design a project that would allow them to make a contribution to their communities and would help educate people about blindness or serve blind people themselves. Their projects were to be based entirely on issues of deep concern to them, and they had total freedom to plan their projects in their own way. The students presented their preliminary project outlines at the closing dinner for the Academy. A number of NFB leaders, including Dr. Maurer and Dr. Zaborowski, heard the presentations and had an opportunity to ask questions. The students successfully articulated well-conceived projects and fielded all of the questions as if they were experienced veterans. The students are now back home planning to implement their ideas in their local communities with the support of the NFB as needed. The Jernigan Institute will be receiving reports from these students, and we are confident that the results will be worthy of report in future issues of the Braille Monitor.

The NFB Transition Leadership Academy has raised expectations and taught these blind youth to exercise their voices in everything that matters. The results of this effort are best seen in the reports we have received since the students returned home. Here is an excerpt from one of these reports:

On September 29th, 2006, I flew to Baltimore, Maryland, to attend a four-day conference hosted by the National Federation of the Blind. I had no idea what it would be like, and it certainly never crossed my mind that I would experience the best four days of my life and meet such influential people. I just thought it would be another great social event and that I'd be able to further my advocacy skills. Indeed I was able to do both of those things, but I came away with much more than I could have ever imagined!
One of the biggest moments for me was finally accepting my blindness. It never occurred to me that I had a negative attitude about it because, as far as I knew, my attitude was just fine. As I heard Betsy Zaborowski tell her story, though, it hit me. It was not until then that I truly accepted my blindness. I finally acknowledged that yes, I am blind, but it is nothing more than a characteristic. It does not define who I am or even stop me from doing what I love; it just is. I have the ability to make a difference in the world just like anyone else.

--Chelsea Munoz, Texas School for the Blind

As a result of the successful completion of this pilot program, the NFB Jernigan Institute education team is planning to expand this effort in the future. Through building relationships with educators and administrators across the country, we will continue to raise expectations and build opportunities for this and future generations of blind students. We are in our own transition--a transition to a time when every blind young person in America believes in his or her heart that vision is not a requirement for success. Furthermore we are committed to working to create an environment in which every professional and parent accepts this proposition and implements practices that support this standard. While we have much more work to do in this transition, we can measure our progress in the lives of students and chaperones like those who participated in the NFB Transition Leadership Academy, who have gained or strengthened their beliefs about blindness and who will join us in our mission to carry this message forward to future generations.