Braille Monitor April 2006
Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow
by Mary Ellen Jernigan
From the Editor: Over Presidents’ Day weekend affiliate presidents from across the country gathered in Baltimore at the National Center for the first ever presidents’ seminar. It was organized and conducted by Joanne Wilson and her Affiliate Action staff. Anyone lucky enough to have been present will tell you that it was an unforgettable experience.
Saturday morning, February 18, began with an address by Mary Ellen Jernigan, NFB executive director of operations, a Federation leader in her own right for many years and a thoughtful observer of the blindness field since 1965. She is also, of course, the widow of our longtime leader and beloved colleague, Kenneth Jernigan.
Even as we were
listening to her address, we realized that we were hearing one of the great
Federation speeches. It continues to resonate in our hearts and minds, changing
the way we think about the NFB and the way we live in the world. This is what
I thought it might be well to begin this day by thinking together a bit about who we are. When you ask that question, a number of obvious answers spring to mind—we are teachers and lawyers and students and vendors and rehab professionals. We are leaders in the National Federation of the Blind. We are a vehicle for collective action. We are the Voice of the Nation’s Blind—and all that. But that’s not what I’m talking about when I say I want us to think about who we are. Those things are what we do; they are not who we are.
My mind started going down this track for a number of reasons. Joanne wanted me to talk to you about Dr. Jernigan. I think she had in mind a sort of behind-the-scenes anecdotal telling of stories that would somehow capture or recapture for us the magic of his energy and presence. All of us who knew him have our treasured memories of what he did and said in this or that situation. From this blend of memory, reality, myth, and legend we construct the story of the man we loved—who for nearly five decades was at the center of forming and shaping and building this movement that has brought us here to Baltimore this weekend.
But this man is dead—it’s coming up on eight years that he’s been dead. And except for the sentimental appeal of it all, it’s a fair question (a phrase he frequently used) to ask what does it matter? What’s the point? Why bother to remember him now or think about what he said and did and thought?
He always asked the hard questions and demanded that you go where your mind led you—even if you didn’t at all like where it took you. Unless we get more than warm, fuzzy feelings from telling each other our stories about Dr. Jernigan, we’d do better this morning to set about getting the work of the Federation done, and that’s exactly what he would tell us if he were here.
So I’m going to tell only one story. I think it meets the criterion: I think it tells us something. Here it is:
A few weeks before Dr.
Jernigan died, I got a summons for jury duty. I wrote asking to be excused,
and I was. A few weeks after he died, I got another summons. In Baltimore City
jury duty is, under the best of circumstances, a moderately unpleasant experience.
You are herded together with several hundred others who would also rather be
somewhere else, sit in a crowded room with noisy ventilation on hard chairs,
and wait to be told by a peremptory voice over a loud speaker what you are to
do next—you get the picture. The energy in the room is sour and surly. One of
the first orders you are given is to line up with your summons in hand and present
yourself to the clerk to check in and receive your $10 jury duty pay—a sum which
hardly begins to cover the cost of parking downtown.
As I stood in the line, my disposition was as sour and surly as that of those around me. Each person approached the clerk, who without looking up reached out, took the summons, crossed a name off a computer printout, and thrust a ten-dollar bill at him or her. While I was standing there, it did briefly cross my mind to think what a dull and dreary job this woman had, before turning back to my own boredom.
Imagine my surprise as, when my turn came, she lifted her head from her printout, looked straight at me with what I can only describe as clear, shining eyes, and said softly, “Jernigan, oh, I knew him,” as she proceeded to describe glowingly and with detail her exchange with him in the jury pay line. I snapped out of my grumpy stupor and spent the rest of that jury duty day pondering the experience. Under the most unfavorable circumstances this woman had had perhaps a sixty-second encounter two or three years earlier with Dr. Jernigan, yet thousands of such encounters later, the life-giving energy of that encounter still lived somewhere inside her and radiated out to me on that day.
My encounter with her,
like hers with him, had a profound effect. I have come back to it over the years,
and it never fails to give me some deeper understanding of why, not just for
me as an individual, but for us as the Federation, there is still something
of value—something that is life-giving for us today, something that goes beyond
mere loyalty and reverence for the past—that we get from thinking about Dr.
Jernigan. More precisely, it is thinking about who we are that matters. And
for me at least, thinking about Dr. Jernigan helps me know more clearly who
we are as the Federation. If it doesn’t do this, he would not have us do it
at all. There is a modern day philosopher and spiritual writer named Eckhardt
Tolle. One of the things Tolle says is this:
“Every human being emanates an energy field that corresponds to his or her inner energy state, and most people can sense it. Even if they don’t know that they sense it, they feel it subliminally, and it determines how they feel about and react to that person.”
Tolle also says that this inner something is who we really are, that only the present moment is real, that the past and the future are only thoughts, and that, to the extent that the mind occupies itself with anything other than the present moment, it is unconscious—that is, it misses the only reality there ever is, the now. Tolle’s concept of an inner energy state that people can sense and that defines who we are, and the idea that what we do with each present moment is our only reality resonate deeply with the way I see the Federation and Dr. Jernigan’s contribution to it.
For, if individuals have an inner energy state that, apart from anything external, defines who they are, so organizations have a collective internal energy. And that collective internal energy comes from, but is more than, the individuals in it and encompasses more than current time. All you have to do to understand this concept is to think about the national convention. The convention is alive as something that is more than merely the individuals who are there. You know it, I know it, and anyone who shows up there for the first time feels it almost instantly. It was what Dr. Jernigan was talking about when he wrote in his last banquet speech, “I never come into one of our convention sessions without feeling a lift of spirit and a surge of joy, for I know to the depths of my being that our shared bond of love and trust will never change, and that because of it we will be unswervable in our determination and unstoppable in our progress.”
This something at the very core of the Federation, this collective inner energy state, this who-we-are as opposed to what-we-do—this something I believe is the unshakeable knowledge that the characteristic of blindness is merely one of the thousands of attributes that define an individual; that blindness does not in and of itself limit an individual in ways that are more significant than those imposed by other characteristics.
Notice that I said “knowledge,”
not “belief.” Knowledge is deeper than belief. It is hope and belief backed
up by fact. I think Dr. Jernigan (and Dr. tenBroek before him) started with
belief—inner and unshakeable. The Federation, as the collective organism that
is more than all of us combined, transmuted that belief (piling up fact after
fact after fact) into knowledge—inner and unshakeable.
If Eckhardt Tolle is correct that this inner energy is sensed by the people we encounter, even if only subliminally, and if it truly determines how they feel about and react to us, think of what that means. Is it any wonder that Dr. Jernigan had the effect he had on people? Is it any wonder that students come away from our centers able to do jobs they never dreamed they could do? Is it any wonder that the convention is alive in more than just a figurative sense?
Now couple the inner energy that is who-we-are with the concept of the now—being fully conscious to the present moment as the only reality that ever exists—and think what that means. It explains the power of the Federation in a way that little else can. It also explains the jury pay clerk (and many others as well who remember an almost chance encounter with Dr. Jernigan). He was as present to her that day in the dreary jury duty room as he would have been if he were talking to the president of the United States. And that was always the way it was with him.
When we focus on each moment and bring all of our energy to what that exact moment requires, we have amazing power. It doesn’t matter whether we are doing something as mundane as arranging transportation for someone to get to a chapter meeting or something as lofty as delivering a banquet speech. If we are fully present, we build life. This is the Federation, and we are alive.
Any reasonably rational assessment of the Federation would conclude that we should not have been able to do what we have done. Blindness is not a characteristic that selects for success as our society is structured. The staggering unemployment rate, the essentially non-existent capacity for Braille instruction, and the massive public misconceptions all conspire against us.
Think about it this way: in 1978 the Federation was nearly broke. The mail campaign had been suspended because of lawsuits in Ohio and Pennsylvania. The Iowa Commission for the Blind and Dr. Jernigan were undergoing vicious attacks by the Des Moines Register on an almost daily basis. The U.S. attorney had piled on with a high-profile federal investigation aimed at furthering her gubernatorial campaign. Many of you in this room lived through those days and provided part of that inner energy—that who-we-are at the core—that moved us relatively quickly through them.
I don’t remember exactly when the chant, “We know who we are, and we will never go back,” began at the banquet, but once it started, it caught on with fervor because it rang with the truth. That basic truth not only that we know who we are, but also that we are who we are, never changes. But what we do does change. It always has. It always will. It always should.
I was not around in the
fifties, but I know that it was a time of working on the welfare laws, trying
to assure at least a meager financial subsistence, fighting for the right to
organize, and working to eliminate the most demeaning and custodial parts of
the rehab system.
I was around in the sixties—having met Dr. Jernigan just before my twenty-first birthday and having started to work for him shortly thereafter. This was the decade of the employment breakthroughs in Iowa, the perfection of our style of mobility and orientation-center training, the emergence of a whole cadre of promising young Federationists who were to become leaders in the decades that followed.
The seventies were years for the building of affiliates, the leadership seminars, and the emergence of more leaders. It was also the decade of our most brutal confrontation with the reactionary elements of the blindness system.
In the eighties we built
infrastructure—the National Center, a full-time president whose activities were
not circumscribed by employment responsibilities, an expanded staff, and our
own independent training centers in Louisiana, Minnesota, and Colorado.
With the nineties came the emergence and then consolidation of our position as the dominant force in matters dealing with blindness in this country—symbolized most clearly by such things as Dr. Jernigan’s and then Dr. Maurer’s leadership of the North America/Caribbean Region of the World Blind Union, the appointment of Fred Schroeder as rehabilitation commissioner, and our development of cutting-edge technology.
Also with the nineties came our demonstration to friend and foe alike of the depth and rock-solid stability of the Federation with the seamless transition from Dr. Jernigan’s leadership to Dr. Maurer’s. Marc Maurer is now in his twentieth year as our president. He learned and learned well from Dr. Jernigan. But he also has forged from his own resources, experience, and personal integrity a brand of leadership that is his own. Not a leadership that merely conserves and mimics the past, but one which is fully present to our own moment, our own reality.
Dr. Jernigan’s time was not the time of Dr. tenBroek. There was overlap and continuity, but not sameness. Likewise, Dr. Maurer’s time is not the time of Dr. Jernigan. Again there is overlap and continuity, but not sameness. For this decade—the first of the new century, although it’s hard to characterize a decade until you have a chance to look back on it with some perspective, I think the exponential expansion of the vibrancy, depth and breadth, maturity, and general aliveness of the National Convention may come to be its defining factor.
The elements of renewal of commitment, the incorporation of rookies into the body of the Federation, the mentoring of scholarship winners, the reaching out to parents and blind children, the hammering out of policy—sometimes confirming, sometimes changing our direction, the giving of hope to the hopeless, the sharing of resources—financial and emotional—, the love falling on all who care to receive it: these things give to the convention a unifying dimension—one that marries the unchangeable who-we-are at the inner spiritual level with the ever-changing what-we-do at the tactical and strategic levels.
When we look back on this decade from the vantage point of future years, the growth and development of programs in the Jernigan Institute will also be important to us. These programs will be in the realm of the what-we-do and are simply a new expression of who-we-are.
Newness always has some element of fear about it. The course is uncharted. Mistakes can be made. But we have never been a timid people. The fifties’ fight for the right to organize and the curbing of demeaning and repressive rehab practices required courage. It was new territory. The outcome was uncertain. Likewise with the brutal confrontations of the seventies. There will always be new territory. The course will be uncharted. Mistakes might be made at any time. But our old chant will always ring true. We know who we are. And I add to that, we always will. With that knowledge, the what-we-do, over the long haul, will also always be true.
As I bring these ramblings
to a close, I want to share with you something from a letter written by Ita
Ford, a Maryknoll sister in El Salvador. She wrote this letter to her niece,
Jennifer, twenty-five years ago—a few months before she was killed. This is
what she said to Jennifer:
“I hope you come to find that which gives life a deep meaning for you. Something worth living for—maybe even worth dying for—something that energizes you, enthuses you, enables you to keep moving ahead. I can’t tell you what it might be. That’s for you to find, to choose, to love.”
As I look around this room, I know that we are not all named “Jennifer,” and I know that we do not all have an “Aunt Ita.” I don’t quite know how the mailman could have gotten so mixed up, but somehow all of us got that letter from El Salvador.