by Kevan Worley
From the Editor: Traditionally the Business Enterprise Program, operating under the Randolph-Sheppard Act, has been lucrative for blind people interested in managing everything from convenience stores to full-service cafeterias. Created in 1936 and expanded in the 1974 amendments in an attempt to reduce the high unemployment rate among the blind, the Act established a priority for blind people to sell on federal property. Contracts for facilities go through the state licensing agency (SLA), which is the rehabilitation agency for the blind of the state. The special relationship between the blind manager and the state agency creates tensions not normally found in most business arrangements. Since the contract is negotiated with a governmental agency, what role should it play in the day-to-day affairs of the facility, and what latitude should be given to the manager? If the state agency has contracted for what it considers a lucrative facility, how many managers can it reasonably assign? Does assigning more than one manager to a facility constitute a decision on the part of the state agency to limit how much blind people are entitled to make?
These arguments, while important to those involved in them, tend to obscure the real crisis now faced by blind managers and state licensing agencies. Facilities that have traditionally been awarded to blind people as a result of the priority given under the Randolph-Sheppard Act are being sought increasingly by other government programs to expand employment of the handicapped and by fast food chains. What appears below is a wake-up call to all blind entrepreneurs who work in this program to practice the innovation that successful companies are using in the twenty-first century. The following speech was delivered on June 11, 2010, by Kevan Worley, then president of the National Association of Blind Merchants, to the National Randolph-Sheppard Training and Leadership Conference, a collaborative effort sponsored by the National Association of Blind Merchants, the Rehabilitation Services Administration, George Washington University, and the National Council of State Agencies for the Blind. This is what he said:
"The most important form of leadership is not reactive, but creative. It examines conditions as they exist and examines what may be possible if energy and resources can only be focused." Dr. Marc Maurer, “The Continuity of Leadership”
Special Assistant Dale, Commissioner Ruttledge, Dr. Finch, Suzanne Mitchell, Terry Smith, members of the planning committee, honored guests, colleagues, and friends:
I believe in a better way. Here we are, in the second decade of the twenty-first century, at a conference of the principal leadership in Randolph-Sheppard. We are here for networking, for learning, and for frank discussion of where we are and where we are going as a program and a community. We work in a program that has been very good to many of us. It is important to recognize that truth. It's also important to recognize the ever-growing liabilities of a system conceived many years ago: a system rapidly becoming outmoded and obsolete. It is time for a better way.
Any time I begin my musings for modernization, some of my friends and colleagues get nervous. After all, no one likes change; most of us are risk averse. But the challenges we now face are numerous and insidious and call us to action. It is time we exercise that most important form of leadership to maximize our vocational potential and to become entrepreneurs. The dictionary defines "entrepreneur" as “1. a person who organizes and manages any enterprise, especially a business, usually with considerable initiative and risk; and 2. an employer of productive labor--contractor.”
I've told this little story before. I was once invited to a state meeting of blind vendors. I was dismayed by what I observed. The group seemed to exchange no zest, no passion, and no real information—just no exuberance for business. So I asked this old boy, "What do you think your biggest problem is here, ignorance or apathy?"
He said, "I don't know, and I don't care."
Okay, that's a little joke, but not far off the mark. We simply must evolve or face extinction. The second definition under “dinosaur” in the Random House Dictionary is "something that is unwieldy in size, anachronistically outmoded, or unable to adapt to change. Example: The old steel mill was a dinosaur that cost the company millions to operate." Sound familiar? We must change and modernize to build a better way.
We must have some guiding principles upon which to construct our better way. I would suggest the following: create jobs for the blind; protect Randolph-Sheppard; develop entrepreneurship; cultivate respect, dignity, and independence; strive for a measure of security; bring a passion for self-employment; act with enlightened self-interest; be committed to the principle of service to others; invest ourselves in the creation of jobs that allow us the ability to earn a good living for our families and to hold our heads high with pride, purpose, and promise.
Recently, at what I will call the Acme Commission for the Blind, the director had grown frustrated with the dysfunction in the program--understandably so. The director announced a basic outline for a legislative initiative. The vendors believed they hadn't been included appropriately at the earliest point in the director's development of the proposal--what I would call the white-board stage. The vendors felt strongly that their livelihoods were threatened; they reacted; the director reacted; the commission board reacted; the consumer organizations reacted; the attorney general reacted. The attorney general explained that active participation meant that the Acme Commission had only to advise the vendor committee before a decision was implemented. I looked at the ideas contained in the director's early draft. I concluded that they had a basis for discussion. In my view two important elements were missing in the director's early draft. One was security. We cannot have dramatic transformation without transition, and this plan, while innovative, could have endangered the jobs of over half of the Acme vendors in less than eighteen months. Second, the beginning of any reform discussion must include stakeholders. Do not seek our advice after the fact. Would you appreciate blind vendors’ beginning to redefine your job and then seeking your advice? Why not come to the committee and say, "We need to work together for reform," and start the process together? By the way, as all of this razzle-dazzle was happening, how many jobs were created? How many businesses opened? How many blind people maximized their vocational potential? How many were trained and empowered to provide best customer service?
In Kouzes and Posner's primer The Leadership Challenge they detail five best practices of management: 1) model the way; 2) inspire a shared vision; 3) challenge the process; 4) enable team members to act; and 5) encourage the heart.
Let's contrast the lack of collaboration we found in the Acme Commission story with a different model. Let's call this one the "Mile High Commission for the Blind." Over the past three years, the elected committee and agency management have pledged themselves to real partnership. Every bit of financial data is shared with the elected committee. The committee is empowered to ask probing questions and does so respectfully. The agency expects blind vendors to go to on-site visits and evaluate possible new opportunities. It is the norm, not the exception, for agency staff to copy the committee on correspondence between agencies. Brainstorming takes place in a nonjudgmental environment. There is a mentoring program. Vending commissions have doubled. New locations have come online. At least a half a dozen new vendors have come into the program, And the culture is professional and collegial. I'm told that in spite of bureaucracy, agency staff enjoy coming to work, and blind entrepreneurs believe they have a committed ally.
But they say it can't be done. The fact is that the most successful states are doing it. They are modeling a better way. Collaboration brings positive results. Subjugation brings denial of opportunity.
But, even in the best circumstances, in which the blind vendors and the state agency work from the same page, we are increasingly blocked in our valiant attempt to gain ground, create jobs, maximize potential, procure permits and contracts, and ensure enforcement of the Randolph-Sheppard statute. All too often it seems we're just late to the party. Mostly I have come to believe that it's no one's fault. I suggest that the construct of the 1974 amendments, though revolutionary for the time, has simply not been able to keep pace with the miraculous changes in society. We no longer live in the world of the ‘74 amendments: the world of the 55-cent gallon of gas, the rotary-dial telephone, or the eight-track tape. We live in the world of Google, Twitter, the iPad, Facebook, and fast food on every corner. Thirty-six years and we are fighting for an ever-shrinking segment of government concessions.
Recently a fellow called my office from a federal agency. He said, "I'm looking over this MOU (memorandum of understanding) with a state agency. It says, “semi-wet stand.” Can you tell me what that means?" Alas, I could not. Semi-wet? What? Is it in a swamp or perhaps one of our many facilities "in the basement, under the stairs, beneath the leaky pipe in the ceiling, across from the men's room, down the hall from the linen closet." And we wonder why we lose the marketing battle.
But we have a priority! Really? What we have is jargon and acronyms. We have designated state licensing agency, nominee, guidelines, policies, rules, and regulations. We have elected committees of blind vendors. We have the mini-Randolph-Sheppard act. We have the squishy and nebulous active participation. We have the Kennelly Amendments, locations, satellites, third party, and income sharing. We have set aside and the administrative fee. We have business consultants, specialists, promotional agents, and supervisors. We have fair minimum return. We have NABM and RSVA. We have the BEA, the ACB, the NFB, the NCSAB, the SLA, GSA, RSA, AEIOU, and the EIEIO, (just seeing if you were paying attention). We have snack bars; vending banks; facilities; vending routes; vending stands; blind stands; roadside rest areas; cafes; convenience stores; cafeterias; dining facilities; dry stands; and, I guess, semi-wet stands. But where is our Big Mac? Where is our "Think outside the bun?" Our "Mmm mmm, toasty?" Where is our "Eatin' good in the neighborhood," or our "Finger-lickin' good"?
If America runs on Dunkin', Randolph-Sheppard runs on conflict, controversy, and complexity--a lack of uniform standards and, all too often, low expectations. I've served as president of the National Association of Blind Merchants for a decade, and it takes me twenty minutes to explain our program to a potential customer. I'll bet it does not take Burger King, Quiznos, Starbucks, Compass, or Sodexo that long to market what they offer. They all have high-priced, well-connected people to sell their value proposition. They all do business on federal property, never mind the law. It is a law which, as envisioned by the framers, should not let food courts on federal property operate entirely without us. It should prevent the United States Postal Service from awarding a contract to control its vending to a private sector company. It should not have allowed our priority to become so warped, watered down, and weakened, so porous that Ability One and transnational corporations can steal our jobs. That's exactly what is happening.
Armed with our priority, we fight the uphill battle against well-funded corporate competitors. We are encumbered by bureaucrats who are complacent and often complicit. We react, but we do not change. We posture, we arbitrate, we litigate, and occasionally we demonstrate. In the 1980s, when Burger King and GSA cozied up, we picketed. That held them off for a time. We take a step forward and a step and a half back. We have been able to stop some intrusion and a total collapse, but we have paid a high cost. We have often been complacent and have acted as if we were entitled. We have been reactive, played the victim, and acted out of emotion rather than with intellect and imagination. Warren Buffet says, "If you cannot control your emotion, you can't control your money."
We have a program of vast complexity. The irony is that, with all of its terms, its definitions, and its multiplicity, the program channels every blind person who might benefit from a social-program/private-enterprise interface into a single stream: the narrow box of food service and vending. So, if you want to be a blind entrepreneur but have no interest in or affinity for burgers, Snickers, or Fritos, good luck. As Buddy Hackett once quipped, “When I was a child, my family's menu consisted of two choices: take it or leave it."
Others in our nation who are considered socially or economically disadvantaged are eligible to receive assistance, guidance, and preference for a vast array of procurement opportunities. Not the blind. The Javits-Wagner-O'Day Ability One program has its own jargon and complexity, but they have evolved, changed, and adapted. Once a broom shop for the blind, Wagner-O'Day is now a manufacturing and service-providing juggernaut. It has tentacles throughout the federal government and in the private sector. It has at least eleven-thousand goods and services on the federal procurement list--and it wants more. It employs thousands of blind and disabled people, many still at subminimum wage. It has hundreds of highly paid, mostly nondisabled managers and agents to represent it, and we spend our time trying to reach a common definition for active participation or try to determine what should be included in an RS-15 report.
In no way do I mean these comments to disparage or show a lack of respect to those visionaries who came before us or to those who work hard to protect what we have. More than thirty-six years ago, those who came before us thought "outside the lobby stand." They thought outside of the old blind futile system, replete with its limits and condescension. They imagined a bigger, better, more vibrant, empowering Randolph-Sheppard for the future. It’s time that we dream up a bigger, better, bolder program that meets the needs of today and the next generation. We can let the blind of 2046 worry about the next transformation. Joe Shaw, Catriona McDonald, and Jesse Hartle will still be around to lead that mid-century modernization.
We now have a choice. We can be whiners or winners, outraged or enriched, victims or victorious. It's really up to us. Earlier I made mention of Google. When I imagine a twenty-first-century platform upon which blind entrepreneurs can flourish, I think, "What would Google do?" In his excellent book, Howard Jarvis says, "Google is about creating and managing abundance rather than controlling scarcity. " We can continue to fight for crumbs, but, as Dr. Phil might ask, "And how's that working out for you?" We can innovate, take some risk, and think outside the vending machine. We can construct an expanded business-development model. We would do well to adopt the Google world view.
Consider the number of vendors in 1975, 3,810; vendors in 1985, 3,689; vendors in 1995, 3,510; and vendors in 2008, 2,400. I recognize that a number of factors bear on this trend. Nevertheless, it is clearly a downward trend. Consider this: twenty-two arbitration cases are in progress: seventeen vendor vs. SLA and five SLA vs. federal property management agencies. If we can't come to a recognition that we are in crisis, we will become like the proverbial dinosaur.
In “The Assimilation of Crisis," Dr. Marc Maurer says, "When the crisis occurs, do not lose heart. Face the uncertainty and press forward until what we have considered in our wildest imaginings comes true. Dream; have faith; build; and share the spirit."
I certainly do not have all of the answers, nor am I responsible for every imagining. I do, however, have my ideas and my imaginings. I have great passion to take up the task of brainstorming with all of you. I implore each and every one of you to dream bigger dreams, accept the challenge of crisis, and envision a better way. Martin Luther King in his "I have a dream" speech said, "Vision is the force that invites the future."
We can model a better way when agency partners allow blind vendors an equal place at the table, when blind vendors move beyond the petty and the notion that we are aggrieved, when we recognize the many staff members who give it their very best every day and bring honor to what they do, when RSVA and NABM can put away ancient rivalries and work for common benefit, when we can applaud the BEA chaired masterfully by Terry Smith for modeling a way forward: when we can do these things, we are finding a better way.
With this as a start we can inspire a shared vision for a transformed, modern, twenty-first-century business development program for the blind and go far beyond. We can establish a new construct to encourage and facilitate jobs for the blind through entrepreneurship. As a community we can consider the needs of others with disabilities as a part of our discussion without feelings of insecurity or fear. We can challenge the process through effective advocacy, both individually and collectively, and do it in a better way: more focused, less fractious; more collaborative, less confrontational; more strategic, less shrill.
We must enable team members to act. We must not be naïve: some will oppose anything new. Some competitors and bureaucrats will be wed to the status quo. Einstein said, "Great spirits have always found a violent opposition from mediocre minds."
It is not enough to take only the steps to avoid extinction. We must leap into a tomorrow of possibilities. If we are truly to be successful, we must encourage the heart. For all of this must be about heart; respect for one another; honor; integrity; compassion; and, yes, love. Coretta Scott King said, "The greatness of a community is most accurately measured by the compassionate actions of its members; a heart of grace and a soul generated by love."
My friends and colleagues, we can do this. We can dream up the kind of model we want to empower the blind for greater inclusion in society and greater economic freedom. Emerson said, "Do the thing, and you will have the power. But the goal cannot be some far off abstraction that one loosely dreams and procrastinates about. It must be a sharp goad for intense activity and applied effort." For us to make immediate, sustainable progress, we must act before we become irrelevant; before we become insignificant; and before, like the dinosaur, we become extinct. We must unite in common cause to dream, to plan, to anticipate, to include, to cultivate, and to care.
I submit that we have the intellect, the spirit, and the power to bring about a better way without destroying the opportunities we now enjoy. If we are to make a better way, if we are to make a real difference, it will take the work, the will, and the wisdom of each and every one of us to believe in that better way. So this is our time. This is our mandate. This is our call to action.