Our Roots: Advancing Human Rights and the Tradition of Serving Our Nation

MARK RICCOBONO: Thank you, Ryan, for the PAC report, we appreciate it, and thank you for the great activity on the PAC plan. It's exciting that we're stepping up our efforts to advance our movement. You heard in the presidential report, we've got a lot of great work that we've done, but there's still a lot ahead. So the dollars are appreciated. Our next item I'm excited about is advancing the tradition of serving our nation, United States Foreign Service, cultural competence, and living the Federation philosophy. Senator already made some introduction. Our speaker is policy advisor in the United States Department of State's office of international religious freedom. And she has many distinctions, including working for the Senator. She advances religious freedom in United States government foreign policy working at the intersection of promoting religious freedom and conflict prevention, including countering violent extremism. She speaks four South Asian languages, as well as Arabic, and has a wealth of experience in several international contexts. Again, there's a lot we could say about her. If you have been around the Federation for a while, you have probably met her before. She is a lawyer by training who she has received her JD from the University of California at Berkeley in 2007. She, among other achievements, is the first blind Muslim American woman to receive the prestigious George J. Mitchell scholarship. She has been one of our national scholarship winners, which you know is a distinction, and she served for a time at various levels of our student division. I'm really pleased to introduce to our podium, literally to our podium, she's in the building, so I'm grabbing the NFB mask to put on, Mariyam Cementwala! (World Falls by Indigo Girls playing)

MARIYAM CEMENTWALA: Good evening. Thank you, Mark, and thank you Senator Durbin, and with you your chief counsel, who gave one young lawyer the chance to enter the world of international affairs. I'm honored and privileged today to represent the office of international religious freedom, and the person who leads that office, who also has a distinguished political career.

If you pluck up a shrub, plant, even a full grown tree, and try to plant it somewhere else without its roots, that plant or tree will not survive. It will wither. It will die. But if you pull up even a budding shrub, plant, even a full grown tree, even a branch of it, by the roots and replant it anywhere, that shrub will blossom and bloom. The tree will bloom and thrive. Now, I didn't come here to talk about botany. But like plants, we need our roots to survive, to thrive. So what are our roots? Let me come back to this question. On a sunny morning in early 2012, I hailed a taxi outside my apartment building to go to work, expecting an ordinary 20-minute drive. I was an officer in the political section of the U.S. embassy and I explained to the driver that when we approached the American embassy, we should pull up at the first guard entrance, not the second one. We played a game I often played with ex-pat taxi drivers. They would ask in Hindi, Urdu, or Arabic, so, where are you from? I asked them where they thought I was from, thinking the clue was obvious that they were dropping me off at the American embassy. This driver became exasperated with the game, asking every country in South Asia, proceeding to Iran and the Stans. He said, why don't you tell me where you're going? He asked, where am I going? He said, the American embassy, but I thought you needed a visa. I said, but I told you to stop at the first entrance, the staff entrance, not the visa entrance. He said, I thought that was just because you didn't know where it was, because you're blind. I said, yes, I'm blind, I'm an American, and I work there. He said, you work there? But how, you're Muslim, you wear a hijab, and you're blind! I said, yes, I work there. And they don't let me work there. They want me to work there. They need me to work there. Because I make their understanding of foreign policy, foreign cultures, and foreign peoples better. At that moment I didn't quite realize the magnitude of is incredulity and my immense privilege. I took so much for granted in my daily life. What this taxi driver was questioning in 2012 was what the National Federation of the Blind's founder and first president, Jacobus tenBroek, had written in the California Law review in 1966. Whether and how we, as blind people, as people with human differences, abilities and disabilities, have the human right to live in the world, the right to work in it, and to influence the course of human destiny rather than allowing charitable actors to influence ours as wards of others. Don't we deserve the right to belong in the world and out of it? The right to privacy? The right to enjoy full and equal access to the modes of transportation, communication, information, and public accommodation? And the right to contribute as full and equal citizens to our communities and our countries? My conversation with the taxi driver triggered my memories of teaching a course on the blind civil rights at UC Berkeley in 2002, where tenBroek had once taught as a law professor, and from where he founded this organization that celebrates its 80th birthday this year. It also triggered my memory of the gentleman I met at the 2002 NFB convention and an unfinished story I always wanted to hear. Those of you who only knew him through his obituary and writings, let me share our collective story, and with it the story of this organization's role in changing our nation's diplomatic history. Abraham, known as Rami, Ravi was a diplomat working in foreign affairs, our outreach and programming in India. I'm of Indian descent and speak several South Asian languages, as you know. On one typical convention evening, when groups huddle in corners and hotel lobbies, Rami began peppering me with many questions in his distinctive British accent, questions I was ill equipped to answer about the host country to which he would be hosted. His job traveling around the world and learning about and living in different cultures and places and establishing relationships with foreign peoples on behalf of the United States seemed intriguing and glamorous to a 20-year-old who had just completed a bachelor's in political science. He planted a seed in my mind that night, but I was dedicated to law school and a lifelong practice of law, or so I thought. The story he didn't tell me that evening that I subsequently spent researching was how, despite graduating with degrees from Oxford University and University of Chicago and speaking several languages fluently, he had struggled back in the 1980s to join the United States Department of State's foreign service, and how the National Federation of the Blind had given him the support and stood with him in the fight to open the doors of the diplomatic corps for aspiring diplomats with disabilities. Even though he had passed the written and oral assessments, some leaders in our government, including the then-director general of the Foreign Service, George Vest, questioned whether he could understand and interpret the nuances of diplomatic negotiation. Such as body language and facial expression. Without sight. Could he protect classified information and reside in foreign countries where he would be asked to serve? But Rami, who grew up as a leader in the National Federation of the Blind, working with Dr. Kenneth Jernigan to organize the Illinois affiliate and fight for civil rights and equal employment opportunities, refused to back down, be bought off by financial settlement, or cower in the face of Congress, which held hearings in 1989 to determine if he had the skills to serve as an officer. He made the case that no international treaty has been made on the basis of a wink or a nod. He and members of the organization changed policy through collective action, never caving with complacency to the world as it is. They pushed the Department to take a case by case approach to allow individuals with disabilities to serve in the United States Foreign Service. Today, people like me are the beneficiaries of those important advances in our country's quest for human rights. So I come back to the question: What are our roots? Our roots can be found in our history. In our philosophical and attitudinal architecture. In our faith and values that keep us grounded. And in the people who remind us of and help reinforce those values in our lives. Like Rami, I grew up in the blind civil rights movement, and I'm glad that I developed some of my leadership skills and policy chops there, organizing state student division events, advocating for myself and others to have the right to make our own choices about the rehabilitation programs we attended. And even walking out in protest from a camp with fellow blind colleagues because the camp's administrators decided to segregate blind camp counselors from sighted ones so as not to influence young blind campers to think it was okay to be too independent. If you haven't read distribution tenBroek's parable of the organization of the bald mal con tents or pariahs in his 1956 banquet address, within the grace of God, now is a good time to catch up on it. The staff of the late '90s and early 2000s wasn't all that different from 1956, I discovered. And perhaps we've got a ways to go still now. One of the turning points in my life was choosing to go to the Louisiana Center of the blind and fighting with the California center of rehabilitation to get there. Unfortunately this remains an age old struggle. After getting through layers of bureaucracy, I finally told the district administrator he could deny me the right to exercise my choice, and if he did, I would appeal, or he could grant my request. But either way, I was going. He decided he wouldn't bother denying my request. In my teens and 20s, I was learning how to be a mal con tent and pariah well. From people who knew me before I became a diplomat, who keep me grounded, and who still shape and enrich my life today, along with that guy who told me to go to the center in the first place on our first date, mind you, my husband Ali, known to many as Chris Foster. Ladies, if he tells you to go to the Center, he's probably a keeper. The lessons I learned about life, attitudes about blindness and disability, travel, and even home ec, helped me throughout the world. When Joanne Wilson, the Center's founder and first director, the epitome of leadership in my view, and someone I'm very grateful to call a mentor, visited me at one of my recent posts, I proudly showed her my freedom bill and the five tier spinning book case I carry all around the world from post to post. These stand as daily reminders of my philosophical foundation and roots. That blindness can be reduced to a characteristic, not a handicap, with the right tools, training, opportunities, and attitude, and that we can and must compete on the terms of equality, and if I need to, I can use a table saw again. After other advocacy jobs, I started in March 2011, long after Rami retired. People had had all sorts of questions for him then. What about now? Well, as one of my staff members got really comfortable with me, she piped up memorably one day in the embassy elevator, Mariyam, remember you said it was okay to ask you anything about your blindness? I have a question. How do you know when you get your period? To which I answered, well, how do you know when you get yours?

During one of my early chores, I arrived at a charity reception on behalf of the embassy, and a bunch of women suddenly encircled me. We want to hear your story, we want to know how you got here. I was confused. Here? In a car!

No, how did you get here to this country? Um, on an airplane? No, to represent America in the embassy, in the government. We want to know everything. You're so amazing! When I returned from the reception, I shared the exchange with my deputy chief of mission, who must have been channeling Michael Bailiff when he said: Well, it could be worse if they thought you weren't amazing! If you're going to have extremes, may as well have their positive impression and use it to build the connections and trust. Use it to your advantage! So I did. Candidly, my disability has been a huge advantage in building relationships of trust with contacts on sensitive issues of human rights and religious freedom. Because one of my vulnerabilities is on display for others to see. Seeing that I have a vulnerability allows others to feel comfortable to open up. The currency of diplomacy is reliable and accurate information. I've used what others in society might continue to perceive as a vulnerability as an advantage in every posting. For instance, in one of my recent tours, I was given an incredible opportunity and an impossible task. I had 18 hours as I was packing out of that post to get in a car, go to a far flung region of the country in which I was serving, and to organize meetings there, return two days later, and produce a draft cable about the political landscape and people's attitudes. I knew no one there. But I had a strong network of people with disabilities I knew in the capital city. So I contacted a couple of its members and leaders, incidentally both blind, and I asked them to help me organize meetings with their professional and social networks. They didn't just help me because I'm an American diplomat. They helped me because we had built a relationship driven by our commonalities of human difference. And in my success was their support and their success. Today in my current posting, I work at the State Department's office of international religious freedom. Under the leadership of Ambassador Sam Brownback, who himself has a legacy of championing the rights of persons with disabilities in his distinguished political career. Supported by him and office leadership, I again brought my disability experience to bear in recognizing a policy gap and working to address it. Our office works to promote and protect the right of religious freedom for people around the globe, including minorities. But when houses of worship are in accessible, when faith leaders organizing religious pilgrimages gently turn people with disabilities away, when religious leaders teach that Albinism or other differences are the result of evil or witch craft, when activities are held on inaccessible platforms, persons with disabilities are once again excluded from their freedom of religion and belief, from participating in community with others, and enjoying freedom from stigma and their right to live in the world. I'm blessed to come from a faith community in which my spiritual guide and before him, his father, have been incredible pillars of strength, support, open mindedness and inclusion. When there were plenty of naysayers, they have been my champions, never limiting me on account of disability. But every community of faith has those not so enlightened. Once, someone who clearly disregards the concept of reasonable accommodations said to me, I use my blindness like a sympathy card. Ironically, I was abroad without family assistance, and I simply was asking to be close up, to touch and be touched since I don't experience my sight like others. Another time, when I was being guided through throbbing crowds to the sacred black stone, someone taunted, if she's blind, why is she here, why are you bringing her? You can't expect everyone to be wise and inclusive, but when people exclude or belittle you, don't recoil or allow yourself to be distanced from your community or faith. Confront ignorance, difference, and injustice by calling it out. Because if you don't, you enable its perpetuation not just to yourself but countless others who might not have your strength and conviction. My experience inspired me to work with the colleagues at the bureau of democracy, human rights, and labor, as well as the agency for international development to launch the freedom of religion or belief inter-agency working group. The mission is not just to address the challenges of religious freedom persons with disability face, but also to promote inclusion to drive the best practices for community inclusion. Faith leaders play key roles as social and political influencers, and engaging them on disability rights is not something we've done as a concerted part of foreign policy. What's more, we realized they could have a tangible impact on service delivery and challenging the negative stereotypes about a disabled person's quality of life during the COVID-19 crisis. So, on July 1st, we launched a global social media campaign called every life is worthy, which will continue until the ADA's 30th anniversary, and will conclude with a virtual round table to which I hope you will tune in. You can learn more about my job, the working group, and the office of international religious freedom at tomorrow's breakout session at 11:30. But for those who won't be up quite that early, what I want you to remember is your perceived vulnerability is not a disadvantage at all. It's just part of your humanity, as it's part of mine, and it's made me a sharper, smarter diplomat more rooted in the principles of human dignity, respect for human difference, human rights, and equal justice. My own background in advocating for myself and others at Washington seminars decades ago now, and elsewhere, has instilled in me the important recognition as a diplomat of civil society's value in formulating good policy. Without organizations like the National Federation of the Blind who speak loudly for themselves as constituents, ready for a fight, ready to go to the barricades, can you even imagine what laws and policies would look like for persons with disabilities? Not just in the United States, but the world over? Our thinking and approach doesn't just matter here at home. It has a global impact. Advancing human rights, not charity, but opportunity. Not tolerance, but respect and acceptance. Not dependency, but independence. Not exclusion, but equality, is this in organization's DNA. That's in your roots.

So as the leaders and members of this organization look ahead to this 80th birthday and on to the next 80 years, I leave you with a challenge. In 1997, toward the sunset of his life, Kenneth Jernigan harkened that the day after civil rights is fast approaching. Sitting them in the audience as a young scholarship winner, I thought like many that we had almost arrived. It was imminent! We wouldn't need to raise voices and signs in protest. The days of confrontation are in the past. Our future would be communication and public education. But according to Cornell University's disability statistics research, between 1997 and 2017, the employment rate for persons with disabilities between the ages of 18 and 64 had risen by less than 12%. 63% are still unemployed. In 20 years, the rate among this group that lived below the poverty line had only dropped by 1.8%. Here's another snapshot. Looking at the picture just three years ago in 2017, 34.5% of nondisabled Americans between the ages of 21 and 64 had obtained a bachelor's degree or higher education, as compared to just 14.8% of Americans with disabilities in the same age range. Look at this another way. Ask yourself how many blind people you know who work exclusively in the field of blindness or disability, even in law, because they were pushed to do so to get a secure job. What I've learned from my experiences, and in reflecting back on Rami's, is that there's no doubt that progress towards integration has been paved with this organization playing a crucial role. But perhaps, as we had optimistically hoped in 1997, we haven't quite arrived at that day after civil rights. Hindsight is always 20/20. While it is acceptable, even normal, for civil society organizations to build up communication and public education campaigns, to become the recognized expert conveners rather than the outsiders, confrontation remains a necessary tool to combat covert and overt discrimination. The shape of injustice may have changed. But the root of injustice has not. It still stems from willful or uncorrected ignorance, a belief in the superiority of ability and inferiority of disability, and unequal access or none at all. Today the fights are different. There's access to the buildings, perhaps, but not to the technology that helps run them. There's access to millions of books and newspapers, but not equal access to the tangible information and technology that can help persons with disabilities get jobs and keep them. There's even the legal concept of reasonable accommodation. But the sighted, nondisabled implementers, in their infinite wisdom and years of experience with disability and blindness, are more than happy to set the policy on what is an effective reasonable accommodation, like how and when to use readers! If you just keep your head down, quietly do your job, and let them push you around. As Martin Luther King said, injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. So the challenge is how and when to speak up. How to confront while convening. How to harness collective action once again and fight complacency. And when necessary, how to get back on the barricades and not back down. But being on the front lines of the barricades is part of the roots of this organization. Rami Rabi never backed down, and he taught me by example never to do so either. These are my roots. And they are yours. When I move around the world, I thrive because these foundational lessons are always with me. No matter where I go, as long as I have my roots, I know my spirit won't wither. It won't die. So no matter where you go, now, and over the next 80 years, or 800, hold onto your roots. As Rami Ravi did, as Jerry Whittle did, as Brian Miller did, and you too will continue to thrive. God bless you, and God bless the United States of America. Thank you.

MARK RICCOBONO: Thank you, Mariyam, appreciate your call to action. And I know that Rami is cheering for you now for continuing his legacy and tradition of service. So thank you for your service to our nation and for being a real example of the Federation philosophy. Thank you for being here. Appreciate it.