by Justin Salisbury
From the Editor: Originally from Connecticut, Justin Salisbury has traveled around the eastern half of our country in his pursuit of education. He has participated in many initiatives for equality and social inclusion, both inside and outside the National Federation of the Blind. He writes here about some of the concepts he has encountered in this work and explores the spaces where minority classifications intersect. Here is what he has to say:
I was talking with a longtime friend from our Puerto Rico affiliate about our career futures. He wants to be a teacher of the blind, and I told him that we would love to have him in Connecticut. When he asked why, I told him it was because he was from the island. For those who don’t know, the state of Connecticut has a very large Puerto Rican population, especially in the eastern half of the state. I stopped myself immediately and thought about what I had said. The demands of our schedules pulled us away from each other before we could carry the conversation further, and I wished instantly that they had not. I had made a mistake by telling him that we would want him because he was Puerto Rican. His value comes from much more than his ethnic background, and I had wrongly communicated to him that it was his primary credential to contribute.
It has become fashionable to try to make organizations as diverse as possible. I think it is wonderful for organizations to have this goal, but I think careful reflection on the reasoning for the diversity push is important. In the organized blind movement we are making strides to become more diverse and have more diverse populations represented in our membership and leadership. I have discussed diversity themes with many great minds, some of whom are Federationists, and I am writing to share what I have learned.
I often hear people in many organizations, including ones that have nothing to do with blindness, emphasize the desire to have leadership and membership from multicultural backgrounds. This includes race, ethnicity, religion, gender, sexual orientation, disability, and the like. There is value to this goal, but there are potential pitfalls in the description and implementation thereof.
I am a blind person, and I am also Canadian First Nations, which we often call “Native American” here in the United States. I don’t have every kind of minority status, but I do have two that are relatively uncommon. A lot of people ask me to show up at things to represent one community or the other. Whether or not people realize it, this communicates to me that my value is generated by simply being blind or simply being First Nations. It comes from something that I am rather than something that I do. It comes from something I did not earn instead of something that I earned. The process of maintaining this value is simple: stay alive. The capacity to decrease this value is nullified; no level of laziness can take it away. Is increasing my value possible? It must be, but so much focus on that unearned value tends to lead people to take harbor within it. Society does it to us, and we often do it to each other. Just as we don’t mean it or maybe don’t realize it, we can give the benefit of the doubt to the rest of society that their intentions were not malicious. Dr. tenBroek taught us that we must ensure that our road to Hell is not paved with other people’s good intentions. Here, if we are not careful, we can pave a similar road for some of our members, thus affecting all of our members.
When I was in my doctoral program at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, I planned to focus publicly on only two things: academics and the National Federation of the Blind. That lasted until I was spotted by other Native American students, and I was recruited into Wunk Sheek, the broad Native American organization on campus. At our meetings we would often hear that some event or club reached out to us, asking us to come represent the Native American community. Our value at those events and activities was inherent to our race and not to ways that we could present or actively contribute. It was important for us to extend our coordinated support only when it helped us grow. As the National Federation of the Blind’s Executive Director Mark Riccobono, who is now our President, taught me at a leadership event in Wisconsin, it is important to focus specifically on doing the things that build our railroad. I was proud to be able to contribute that wisdom to Wunk Sheek because of what a Federation leader had taught me. If Wunk Sheek were to go out for everything, our purpose would become that of condiments for everyone else’s burgers, and we would not be taught to be contributors beyond providing our diversity itself.
What some organizations used to call “underserved populations,” increasingly more organizations today call “underrepresented populations.” I like this shift in our society and am not surprised that we see this valuable transition in rhetoric led by universities. I attended the University of Wisconsin on a fellowship for underrepresented ethnic minority students in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences; this program has been used as a model for many others. It was always communicated to us that we were expected to step up and be leaders in our fields, and many of us did. I personally am much more likely to join an organization that tells me that I have something to contribute than one that tells me that I need to be served by their greatness. “Underserved” identifies the population as one primarily to be served rather than represented. In Jim Omvig’s book, Freedom for the Blind, we learn that one of the most important characteristics of achieving first-class status is giving back. It follows that, if a population is viewed primarily as a recipient of the services of another, that population does not have first-class status. If we are systematically viewing subgroups of our movement as second-class within our movement, we are marginalizing that population much the way that the blind are marginalized in the general public. If this is the case, we are not capitalizing on the full potential of those populations to contribute to our movement. It may be easy to misunderstand me here; I am not saying that democratically-elected leaders from privileged social strata cannot adequately represent members from traditionally marginalized social strata. The National Federation of the Blind represents all blind people; this is true. It is also true that diverse backgrounds and sets of experiences in the leadership of our movement equip those leaders who intend to use them to connect and work with individuals with similarly diverse backgrounds and sets of experiences. I expect that many of us would agree that the true cross section of society that blindness affects is not yet perfectly represented in our membership.
We all know what it is to be the token blind person. We know when someone is inviting us to participate in something solely to draw the appearance that the program or activity in question is inclusive to blind people or people with disabilities. We know that our value in those situations is largely perceived to derive from the fact that we are embellishing the status of those who are really participating with the credit of charitably including someone with our disability. When the reporters want to take our picture with the elected official or keynote speaker after waiting for all the other members of the public to go through the line, we know why they do it. They want to report to the world that our disability is there as a part of their program. They are seldom truly pursuing us for our credentials or our capacity. If we are not careful, and if we do not stay close to the National Federation of the Blind for recalibration, in the words of Jennifer Dunnam, we can come to believe that our value in that situation is not defined by who we are but by the fact that we are blind.
The public does it to us, and it is done with good intentions. We cannot allow our road to Hell to be paved with these good intentions, so we must not pave that road for anyone. If we pave the road to reduced productivity for blind people who also represent traditionally underprivileged social strata, we are teaching them to sit back and to allow their value to be generated by their characteristics. If we systematically reduce the productivity of those individuals, we, the nation’s blind, cannot access the true value that they have. It follows then that we are reducing our own productivity by reducing it for others who contribute to ours. Just as we ask others to do for us, we should do for others. We must find ways to break down barriers to the full participation in our movement to all blind people and insist that nobody be a token. The potential is too great to squander.
We are working to ensure that social strata do not inhibit a blind person from participating to his or her fullest potential in our movement, but we also don’t want the strata to become branded as the reason for that person to participate, distracting us all from his or her true potential. When great leaders arise in our movement, it is their contributions that make them great, not the diversity cards in their hands, even if they have a killer hand.
Sometimes someone from an underrepresented population can have the ability to connect with populations who are not being effectively reached. In my case I’m sure there are some blind Native Americans whom I may be able to reach in ways that non-native members may not be able to reach because of my background. There are other components of my identity that could also function the same way. Maybe it is in connecting with people who come from towns so small that the only danger outdoors at night comes from bears and coyotes. Maybe it is with people who grew up in poorer communities right next to wealthier ones. Maybe it is in working with students who are the first person in their family to ever pursue higher education. These factors are also sources of diversity and can create opportunities to reach more people. In our movement there is a value to being able to connect with people who might not otherwise feel connected. Maybe more visibly contributing Latino members can help us reach more Latinos in the general public, a goal that we have since they are the largest minority group in our country.
Sometimes, there are benefits that come from being an active part of the National Federation of the Blind that really have nothing to do with blindness. We are a family and a community of people who work hard and care about each other. The more we interact with people from all types of backgrounds, the more we can demystify those groups and become comfortable with them. For some of us the Federation may be the only place where we interact with someone of a particular religion or country of origin. I know that this is sometimes the case for me. Even better, maybe the Federation is the only or primary place that we can have positive interactions with someone from a particular background. Maybe it is the most positive type of interaction. I run into much hostility from African-Americans on a daily basis, but the very positive relationships that I have with people like Anil Lewis, Roland Allen, and Ever Lee Hairston help me keep my sanity and faith in that group. This helps me be able to work with a population that spans far beyond the blind community, and it strengthens me as a person. We need blind people to be as strong, capable, and confident as possible in order for us to achieve first-class status. We are blind people, and we are simply people too. Our Federation family has a unique ability to serve these types of roles in our lives because of how emotionally powerful our work is. Learning to believe in ourselves and working together to raise the expectations of blind people, transforming dreams into reality, is not something that we do with no emotional benefits. The Federation strengthens us even more than we strengthen it, but it can do so only if we keep feeding the fire.
When people ask us to show up and be blind for them, they are teaching us that our value comes from being blind and showing up. Let us be careful not to tell any potential contributor to our movement that his or her potential value is so limited. Together, we can find out what we can truly achieve. We can push the limits and capitalize on the talents and enthusiasm of everyone who wants to contribute.
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