From the Editor: Several years ago Joe Ruffalo, president of the NFB of New Jersey and member of the NFB board of directors, began talking about New Jersey’s At-Large Chapter, which was conducting regular meetings over the telephone and was growing amazingly. He had clearly gotten hold of a good idea and made it better. I asked him to describe what the Garden State is doing in the hope that it will inspire other states to try the same thing or a variation that will suit local conditions. Here is Joe’s description of establishing and nurturing a statewide chapter for those who don’t have a local group in their area:
In 2007 Joe Ruffalo was the national representative to the NFB of West Virginia convention, where he met convention attendees who met by phone as an at-large chapter because they lived in small towns around the state. A few months later he and several other New Jersey leaders attended a workshop at the National Center on chapter-building. That experience confirmed him in his notion that New Jersey should try to build a statewide membership chapter of those who could not get to local chapter meetings.
The NFB Department of Affiliate Action has access to publication lists and contact information for folks who have received white canes, which they can pass along to any affiliate trying to contact blind people who are not already members or who have become inactive. In March of 2008 Joe called a meeting of the New Jersey board, chapter presidents, and committee chairs to formulate a plan for organizing a chapter by inviting people to call in to monthly meetings of the At-Large chapter, approve a constitution, elect officers, and become an active part of the affiliate. The president of the New Jersey student division, Evelyn Valdez, organized the contacts to students and told them about scholarship opportunities and the student listserv. Every chapter president contacted people in two or three counties. The intention was by the time of the chapter’s first meeting to have identified a group of folks interested in meeting by phone. During these conversations callers identified people’s interests and needs and told them about Meet the Blind Month activities, the state convention, and state and national divisions of personal interest to the man or woman being called.
The purpose of these contacts was to get people involved in NFB activities and groups that they would be interested in. Those who fell into the at-large group had to agree to make a call the night of the chapter’s meeting. One of the primary goals was to demonstrate that these new-found people could be part of a national movement that was vital and exciting. To this end Joe arranged for a member of the national staff to be part of each meeting. These included Affiliate Action, Governmental Affairs, and NFB-NEWSLINE® staffers as well as chairpeople of national committees. Joe also invited interested affiliate presidents to join the meeting calls to see what went on. Joe was the president of the chapter, and the state treasurer assumed responsibility for the chapter’s books. Affiliate leaders took it in turn to take minutes for the meetings and write them up for chapter records.
During the first year forty-two people took part in meetings. Sixteen of them eventually left to start chapters or join existing ones. Participants in the meetings are constantly urged to invite friends to join the group. Each month several old members are missing, and new folks join. Minutes are emailed seven to ten days before the next meeting. Those without email receive a reminder phone call and the minutes in the mail. In New Jersey meetings take place the last Thursday evening of the month, unless this conflicts with a holiday. In this way everyone can keep track of meeting dates and times. The chapter uses the same conference phone number that the affiliate uses for its board and committee meetings.
Meetings have had as many as twenty-eight participants. Participants are asked to call in five minutes before the meeting is scheduled to begin. Joe takes attendance and makes a note of new people to be introduced. These folks are invited to say a little about themselves by way of introduction. The group then reviews the agenda and gets to work. Joe says that each month he tries to get several people to tell the group why they are taking part in these meetings. Almost always new people show up because someone invited them. Joe likes to point out that, if each person invites another person, the group will soon have doubled in size.
The group has an impressive record of involvement to show for its first year of activity. Not only have sixteen members gone on to join local chapters, but eleven went to the state convention. One received a Jernigan Fund scholarship to attend the national convention. One person went to the Washington Seminar, and one parent became involved with the national Parent Leadership Program. A number have contributed to the Imagination Fund, and two people volunteered to organize Friday afternoon activities at the state convention. A strong emphasis in meetings is getting involved and becoming an active member of the NFB of New Jersey. Joe reports proudly that the At-Large Chapter supports the programs and policies of the Federation and abides by its constitution. It is also helping to build and strengthen the affiliate in areas where historically it has been weak or nonexistent.