by Mark Riccobono
From the Editor: The tenth anniversary of the opening of the Jernigan Institute occurred on Thursday, January 30, 2014. Mark Riccobono wrote a piece to commemorate this milestone and published it in the blog that chronicles much of our work at the Jernigan Institute. Here is what he wrote:
In October 2003 I came to interview for a job with the NFB. I remember that my interview with NFB President Marc Maurer was on a Sunday because that was the only day I could come to Baltimore. It was quiet at the NFB offices. When we finished our formal discussion, Dr. Maurer asked if I would like to take a walk around the new part of the building—we referred to it as the Research and Training Institute at that time. Before our walk Dr. Maurer cautioned me that the building was still under construction.
I had been listening to leaders of the Federation talk about the programs we would establish in this new facility for almost five years by that point. In fact, very early into our capital campaign to raise the funds for our institute, I dove into the middle of the speculation about what we would do with this new resource. I graduated from college just before the fundraising began (1999) and immediately made a pledge, which I doubled after the first year as my understanding of the initiative grew. The August/September 2000 issue of the Braille Monitor recounts the presentations of a number of contributors to the capital campaign at that time. These remarks are documented in the article “Creating Our Own Future,” and my address is summed up by these lines: “[I] pointed out that the first step of this campaign of action is finished. It is the original conception of the Institute. We are now the army charged with building the facility. The tools we bring to the job are our minds and our pledges. The third step will be to dream up and execute the Institute programs that will accomplish what needs to be done to bring about the changes that must occur for blind people to reach full participation as first-class citizens.”
I had no part in the first, conceptual phase of the campaign. Those ideas were already being considered in one fashion or another when I came to be part of the Federation in 1996. I was right in the middle of the second phase and planned to do all that I could to make it a success. I had not really thought about the third phase and how I would contribute until that quiet day in October.
As Dr. Maurer led me through the partly finished interior of our new building—navigating around ladders, wires, and other construction-related debris that we did not take time to investigate—he described what parts of the building would be and how we might use them. The beautiful twelve-thousand-square-foot Members Hall was an echoing, bare, concrete-floor room that felt more warehouse than dynamic meeting space, but Dr. Maurer painted a verbal picture of what we might do to inspire the nation from that room. The third-floor space that now houses our Jacobus tenBroek Library and Independence Market seemed like a cold den of snakes, in the form of random wires hanging from the walls and sometimes underfoot. Yet Dr. Maurer described a library of our creation, telling the stories of the blind through the decades of the Federation and the untold accomplishments of the blind before that time. I had not understood how much capacity I had to contribute to that third phase of development until I took that walk around our still-unfinished building and heard our visionary leader describe his dreams for our new space.
Three months later we opened the doors to our new building. January 30, 2004, was an extremely cold day in Baltimore. The streets had just barely been cleared from a good snowfall earlier in the week. The new building radiated with warmth as members of the Federation and friends from around the world enjoyed the celebration of our transition into the execution phase of our Jernigan Institute. I can still feel the anticipation in the air and recall the exciting speculations that filled the conversations that evening. In many ways, even after ten years, the feeling has not waned, and the conversations are no less exciting.
Reflecting on a decade of execution in phase three of our plan to build our own future, I am amazed how fast it has gone and how much it has transformed our dreams. I also reflect on a question Dr. Maurer often puts to us after we have completed another project or launched another initiative—has it changed society more or has it changed us more?
As I remember where we started and observe where we are today, the relationship between the broader society and our own dreams and expectations as blind people is evident. I can say with confidence—about my own life and the blind people who have invested their energy, imagination, and resources to executing the transformation of our dreams—that we have changed more. Our expectations are raised, our determination has been strengthened, our imagination has broadened, and our energy to take on the next big challenge is renewed. In turn it is that spirit that influences the society around us and changes the nature of the way we are included in the fabric of our communities. If I have learned anything from our accomplishments during these ten years, it is that in fact you cannot change society without first being invested and prepared to change yourself. As they say, “I am all in!”
When I think about the next decade of our organization and the programs that will spring from our NFB Jernigan Institute, I recognize that our success is entirely dependent on our readiness to invest in our dreams. On this anniversary I am committing to reinvest my energy, imagination, and resources to the next decade of our work in the NFB. I am dreaming of what is next, and I am eager to hear the dreams of my blind brothers and sisters across the country.
While we pause to celebrate our tenth anniversary, I am reminded of the Wall of Honor that bears the names of the many contributors to the second phase of our Jernigan Institute—the fundraising phase to secure the resources necessary for construction. Although these words describe those who contributed to the second phase, I believe they are adequate to describe those contributing to the execution of our work today: the members of the NFB. As you consider the text from our Wall of Honor, I ask you to commit to invest in the building of our dreams and to share with us what your dreams are for our future as blind people.
Text from the NFB Jernigan Institute Wall of Honor:
Believing in ourselves, recognizing our capacity to construct our own future, accepting the responsibility to shape the destiny of the blind today and in the decades to come, forging a climate to foster the possibilities for true equality for the blind, understanding the need to collaborate with our blind and sighted colleagues in forming a future filled with opportunity: all of this is the dream embodied by the National Federation of the Blind Jernigan Institute.
We offer possibilities to those who believed there were none; we give hope to those who are without it. The hands that have built this building have changed the nature of the future for us all.