Making the Vision Come True:
An Open Letter to Arizona Federationists

by Bruce Gardner

From the Editor: The following article has never before appeared in the Braille Monitor. It was first printed in the Spring, 1997, issue of News and Views of Blind Arizonans, a publication of the NFB of Arizona.

This open letter to Arizona Federationists is a follow-up to the article entitled "Keeping Sight of the Vision--Leadership in the NFB." I strongly encourage the NFB members in our Arizona affiliate to study that article and this open letter carefully.

At our state convention in September, 1995, you elected me president of the NFB of Arizona. My acceptance remarks reflected on the fact that NFB philosophy (the truth about blindness), like good music, can motivate, inspire, and heal the soul and that the NFB is like an orchestra which produces that music. Each member of the orchestra has unique talents to share and a special part to play. The sounds produced by the violins, cellos, clarinets, and tubas are blended together to produce beautiful, inspiring symphonies. The orchestra conductor does not produce the music but leads, organizes, draws together, and elicits the music from the group.

Likewise, each member of the NFB has unique talents and a special role to play in the organization. The NFB state president, like the orchestra conductor, can do very little by himself. His role is to lead, organize, encourage, and draw out of the members the inspiring, motivating, healing truth of the Federation. Therefore the success of our affiliate will come as a result of our working closely together.

On October 28, 1995, we held a special board meeting which all Federation members were encouraged to attend. At that meeting we established a vision for our future in Arizona and identified a threefold mission of the Federation. As we discussed it that day, it is: 1) strengthening our members; 2) sharing NFB philosophy (or the truth about blindness); and 3) advocating for the blind.

Additionally we discussed leadership principles such as: a lazy mother does everything for her children; if you give a man a fish, you feed him for a day, but if you teach him how to fish, you feed him for a lifetime; and he who can do the work of ten men is great, but he who can get ten men to work together is greater. In other words we discussed the fact that NFB leaders need to be mentors, teachers, and role models, not just workaholics and service providers.

With these leadership principles in mind, we next identified and organized committees within the threefold mission of the Federation. In the area of strengthening our members, we established committees in philosophy, telephoning, new-chapter organizing, national convention arrangements, state convention arrangements, awards, scholarships, and Braille-literacy training for adults.

Within sharing NFB philosophy, we established committees in public relations, public speaking, dissemination of information, information and referral, new-member mentoring, and NEWSLINE(R) for the Blind.

In advocating for the blind, we established committees or positions in national legislation, state legislation, grievance advocacy, and the Governor's Council on Blindness.

Additional supporting committees and activities are material inventory coordinators, fund raising (PAC, associates, and SUN), computer data, newsletter, and Braille production.

Did we then or do we now expect each of these more than two dozen committees immediately to be fully staffed and functioning efficiently? No. We do not intend to run faster than we are able or to do so many things at once that we do not do anything well. But we have a vision of how the NFB can and will be in Arizona, and we intend to make it come true. The affiliate working together has made numerous and substantial strides towards that vision during the past year.

Did we randomly select which activities to work on first? Of course not. There is a critical priority in which the committees must be established in order to get the whole effort working. If the proper priority is not followed, we will get the cart before the horse, and little if any progress will be made. In fact it will be impossible for some of the committees to be effective unless other activities have first been accomplished.

Although he used different terminology, in his 1985 national convention banquet address Dr. Jernigan spoke of the threefold mission of the NFB and outlined the proper priority. We must begin with strengthening our members, which of course means that we first strengthen ourselves. Next we must share the truth about blindness with the public, including other blind persons. Then, and only then, can we be effective in advocating for the blind.

We have a natural tendency to focus on advocacy, but as an organization we will never be truly effective advocates if we do not first focus significant efforts on strengthening our members and sharing NFB philosophy. Then we must make sure we continue working on these two priorities as we go about our advocacy. We need an ever-expanding army of well-informed and well-prepared members who know the truth about blindness to serve as excellent mentors, teachers, and role models as well as advocates.

In order to build that army, our state board decided at its November, 1996, annual planning meeting that for the coming year (and probably longer) there are two committees on which we will focus our efforts. The first is the Philosophy Committee, which is the basic committee in the area of strengthening our members. The second is the New-member Mentor Committee, which is the fundamental committee in the area of sharing NFB philosophy. Following is a synopsis of what we have done during the past year and what we have planned for the coming year in these two areas.

Philosophy Committee--Strengthening Our Members

Background: When I first joined the NFB twenty years ago, I read all the material I could get my hands on. I was like a starving man at a banquet--I could not get enough. I drank up all the refreshing, invigorating truths in each article and speech. However, with the increasing pressures of practicing law, raising a family, and participating in church and community activities, I gradually found myself too busy to do all that NFB reading.

Fortunately, about two years ago, when I agreed to serve as state president, I again began reading each issue of the Braille Monitor and re-reading all the banquet speeches. I even started reading the Kernel Books. That old and wonderful feeling of satisfying a powerful hunger and quenching a deep and substantial thirst returned. I simply could not get enough. I discovered that the banquet speeches, Kernel Books, and other NFB material were similar to the Scriptures in that, no matter how many times you read them, you can learn something new and be strengthened by reading them again. I realized that, if I was too busy to read NFB material, I was simply too busy and needed to re-evaluate my priorities. I came to realize that reading some NFB literature--some truth about blindness--each day (or at least each week) to counteract the constant barrage of negative, inaccurate, and demeaning misconceptions about blindness we face is one of the most important things I can do for my family and for me.

What We Did Last Year: At our October, 1995, board meeting in which we established our vision of the future, we of course discussed NFB philosophy. I was amazed and somewhat disappointed at the difficulty our members had when they tried to articulate our philosophy. Mr. Omvig commented that readers of the Braille Monitor, banquet speeches, and Kernel Books should be able to repeat three or four sentences which summarize and encapsulate the truth about blindness. It was clear that many of our members, including long-time members, had fallen into the same trap I had and were not regularly reading NFB material.

As a result, in the area of strengthening our members, the Philosophy Committee conducted a special statewide philosophy seminar in March of 1996. We have also encouraged each chapter at every monthly meeting to discuss NFB philosophy. The chapters have begun listening to an excerpt from a banquet speech or a Kernel Book story and then discussing the truth about blindness contained in the excerpt.

Additionally the Philosophy Committee established an NFB literature-reading contest to encourage our members to read banquet speeches, Kernel Books, the Braille Monitor, Voice of the Diabetic, and Future Reflections. The first contest began on May 15 and ended September 14. Dozens of members participated in reading approximately 1,000 speeches, Kernel Books, and monthly magazines during those four months. The contest prize winners were announced at the state convention, but the real winners were those members who enriched their lives by reading, pondering, and absorbing the truth about blindness.

In an effort to facilitate this increase in reading, the chapters established librarians with multiple copies of NFB materials for circulation among the members.

Plans for the Coming Year: In the coming year we will focus on encouraging our members to read, study, understand, and internalize the truths about blindness contained in our NFB literature by:

(1) Seeing that each member in the affiliate has access to NFB literature, including the Braille Monitor, banquet speeches, the Kernel Books, and Walking Alone and Marching Together. It would be helpful for each chapter to have a complete set of NFB materials available for referral, study, and the education of new members.

(2) Encouraging our members to participate in this year's NFB literature-reading contest. This year our contest will involve reading all of the Kernel Books and Walking Alone and Marching Together. Each member is encouraged to read, ponder, and absorb the truth contained in our literature.

(3) Continuing increased chapter focus on meaningful philosophy discussions at every chapter meeting. Our chapters will continue to insure that each meeting contains meaningful and inspiring philosophical meat to strengthen our members.

(4) Continuing to conduct statewide philosophy seminars. These seminars are designed to compare the myths and misconceptions about blindness with the truth about it and help our members come to understand what this truth can mean in their lives.

(5) Getting as many people as we can to our national and state conventions. The NFB national convention has been described as a family reunion and has been compared to a gathering of the Scottish clans. It has just as aptly been described as an intense week-long training seminar of unequaled significance and importance to the blind. Our state convention is the same thing in miniature. I know of nothing more beneficial or important to the blind or to parents of blind children than attending the state and national conventions of the National Federation of the Blind.

(6) Encouraging our members to write their own Kernel Book stories. As we discussed at our 1996 state convention in the segment entitled "Kernel Books: Kernels of Truth," the Kernel Books, which contain true-life stories of blind people, are a vital part of the NFB literature. They should be read and re-read again and again. Our NFB reading contests have been established as a fun way to encourage individuals to discover the Kernel Books so that they can benefit from them.

You can lead a horse to water, but you can't make it drink. Please don't horse around--drink in the refreshing, invigorating, inspiring truths contained in the Kernel Books. The simple, sincere, common-sense stories can warm your heart and help heal your soul.

It has also been said that he who gathers firewood is twice warmed. That is true whether the wood and warmth are physical or spiritual. I hope you will read, enjoy, and absorb the warmth in each of the Kernel Books. But more than that, I hope you will be twice warmed. I hope you will gather spiritual firewood by writing your own Kernel Book stories.

As you read the Kernel Books and banquet speeches, or at any old time, think about your own life. Are you reminded of a time something of particular significance happened to you? If so, jot it down. Make a list of little happenings or ideas. Then go back and add some of the facts to one of the ideas, and before long you will have written your own Kernel Book story. If it is never shared with anyone else, at least you will have been twice warmed by it. And from my experience the warmth and growth that come from pondering, organizing, and writing a personal story are greatly magnified and extremely therapeutic.

But like a cowboy's campfire the light, truth, and warmth of your story can also bless the lives of other weary travelers. To paraphrase the Bible, let your light so shine that others may see your good works and be warmed thereby.

Don't worry that you are not a polished writer, and don't tell yourself that no one would be interested in what you have to say. Begin writing your stories. We want you to experience the growth that comes from pondering, organizing, and writing your own memoirs. Additionally we want the editor of News and Views of Blind Arizonans to be flooded with articles. If they are never published, at least you were twice warmed. But it may be that your article will be published in our newsletter, the Braille Monitor, or even a future Kernel Book. If so, you will have warmed, inspired, and blessed the lives of others as they read and absorb warmth and strength from your kernels of truth. (Note that the East Valley Chapter has decided that it will gather Kernel Book stories from its chapter members and compile them in its own publication.)

New-member Mentor Committee--Sharing NFB Philosophy

Under sharing NFB philosophy (or the truth about blindness), the most important committee is the New-member Mentor Committee. The other committees and activities under sharing NFB philosophy, such as public relations, public speaking, dissemination of information, NEWSLINE(R), etc., mostly reach out to find new contacts; but once they are found, it is the New-member Mentor Committee that primarily must keep track of the new contacts and share with them the truth about blindness. Therefore it is the New-member Mentor Committee that will:

1) Assign an active NFB member as mentor to each new contact it receives from all sources.

2) Send out the initial packet of NFB literature to the new contacts.

3) Keep track of new contacts and how well mentors are following up by contacting mentors and entering status reports into a computer database.

4) Work with the mentors to teach them how to mentor new contacts.

In this way new contacts will be given more frequent, timely, and personalized information regarding the truth about blindness.

Of course, the New-member Mentor Committee cannot function without an army of well-informed and well-prepared members who know the truth about blindness to serve as excellent teachers, role models, and mentors. Therefore, our motto should be "every member a mentor." We should all prepare ourselves to be effective mentors by reading, pondering, internalizing, and living the truth regarding blindness contained in our NFB literature. As it says in the Bible, "When thou art converted, strengthen the brethren." In order to be most effective as role models, mentors, and advocates, we must be, as Dr. Jernigan explained in his 1993 article entitled "The Nature of Independence," beyond rebellious independence and well on the way to normal independence.

In an orchestra not all of the members are the principal violinist, the first-chair clarinet player, or the conductor. However, each member is a musician and has a special part to play in the orchestra. Likewise in the Federation not all of our members are the chapter presidents, board members, or state president; yet each member can and should be a mentor with a special role to play in the organization. As an affiliate we have established our vision for the future. Working together, we will make it come true.