by Mary Ellen Jernigan
From the Editor: Mary Ellen Jernigan joined the National Federation of the Blind in the decade of the 60s. She began her career in the field of blindness by working for Dr. Kenneth Jernigan at the Iowa Commission for the Blind and rose to become its assistant director. She moved to Baltimore in 1978 and has worked for the NFB since that time handling everything from the minute details of accounting and auditing to the planning for the computer infrastructure at the Jernigan Institute. She is best known to many for the miracles she performed in coordinating our national conventions, but she is most loved for the insight and commitment she reveals when she puts pen to paper and reveals her intellect, heart, and spirit in her infrequent speeches and presentations. One of the things I love about her personality is that she is strong and at the same time flexible; certain of her basic philosophic and ideological beliefs and at the same time reflective enough to examine them. We wish to thank her for all of the years of hard work, intelligence, and creativity that have made this address possible. Here are the comments she made to a seminar focusing on convention planning held over the weekend of February 19 and 20, 2016:
When President Riccobono opened this conference yesterday afternoon, he said that each of our conventions has two dimensions—the logistical and the political. He told us that we must learn to manage both of those dimensions, making them work together seamlessly, to create a convention experience that amplifies the characteristics inherent in the promise and power of the Federation.
Then he described that experience as it first hit him twenty years ago: “I entered the lobby of the Anaheim Hilton, carrying my rickety fold-up white cane….and just being in that space, I felt joy and hope and power and love falling all around me. Listen to that one more time: Just being in that space…
Although he didn’t name that experience for us yesterday, I want to name it for us tonight. It is the third dimension of the convention. I call it the Spiritual dimension. A little more elusive than the other two dimensions—the logistical and the political. But just as real. And we have been talking about it yesterday and today—or at least nibbling around its edges without quite bringing it straight out into the open.
Let me go back to our president. About six months before he became our president, when he was directing the Jernigan Institute, he spearheaded a branding exercise: very expensive, time consuming, headed by outsiders, and heavy on following a canned set of procedures dictated to us by our assigned facilitators.
If you are getting the impression that I was less than excited about the whole project, you would be right. Let me just say here that I have learned not to underestimate the wisdom of our President.
During the first session as we started through the canned process, all of us were describing proudly the wonderful programs and activities of the Federation—especially the ones to which each of us felt some pride in our own contributions. Suddenly, our facilitator interrupted us and said with some exasperation, “No, No, No! Stop talking to me about what you DO. I want you to talk to me about who you ARE.” That was when I stopped sulking about the process and began to listen.
Many of you know that I have been involved in managing the logistical details for our national conventions for the last forty-five years or so. This has meant that for several months of each of those years the planning of those details has taken much of my energy and attention. So, obviously I don’t think such details are unimportant.
But, they are important only in the context of how and whether they contribute to who we are.
The things we do—our favorite programs and our cherished projects—are not who we are. The two are not independent of each other—they are most certainly interconnected, but they are not the same.
All too often, for many of us, our tendency is to focus mainly on the tasks themselves—getting whatever it is done efficiently and competently—planning the agenda, selecting the speakers, confirming that they will remember to show up, selling the banquet tickets, printing the badges, making the restaurant guides, whatever.
Just as the convention should not be about its logistics, it should not be primarily about more information. Information has its place; we have many avenues of getting it out, and we are good at doing so.
We invite speakers to our conventions and then suffer through program items filled with facts, figures, and statistics—how many books in which formats did the library distribute, how many closures of which kind did the rehab agency rack during the year, what field trips did the students at the school for the blind take?
But ask yourself. When you go home from convention, what do you take with you? What makes you anticipate the next one? What makes you save your money and your vacation days so that you won’t miss it? I doubt that it’s those facts and figures.
At its best the convention is about what we create when we come together. It’s about something no one of us can do without the rest of us.
To me this means that we should be able to take each and every part of our convention—from the seemingly insignificant act of working at an information table to inviting speakers and planning the program agenda—and relate that act to who we are. And if we can’t do that, or don’t like what we see when we do, then it is something we shouldn’t do—or we should at least evaluate how we are doing it.
How does including this specific activity in the convention transform dreams into reality? Does it reflect respect? Is it inviting? Does it encourage participation? Does it raise expectations? Does it encourage people to know that their contributions make a difference to themselves and others? Is it inspiring? Is it filled with love? Does it offer hope? Does it create something that did not exist before we did it?
If you can’t answer yes to at least some of these questions, then ask yourself another question: why are you planning to do it at all?
At their best our conventions are alive with the vibrant energy of who we are at our deepest level. Though conventions are not the programs and activities that we undertake, they most certainly create them.
Let me give you an example. I started teaching cane travel at the Iowa Commission for the Blind in 1966, and I was good at it. Joanne Wilson was one of my students, so was Patricia Maurer, and for a brief period, Marc Maurer also. I was trained by a sighted travel teacher who was there before me, and when I left, I trained another sighted person to take my place.
Dr. Jernigan was director of the Commission. He had hired all three of us. He was proud of the Iowa travel program. It was part of cutting edge Federation philosophy—what could happen when rehab programs were run by people who believed in blind people. And yet he, Kenneth Jernigan, our leader and president, hired only sighted travel teachers.
He took our students with their exceedingly long white canes to NFB national conventions, where they showed off their exceptional skills—to the envy of many and the irritation of others. Soon the Iowa students began showing others how to use a long white cane to travel more effectively.
Our Federation training centers still offer cutting edge cane travel training, but today most of our travel teachers are blind, and it took our coming together in convention to make it happen. It came about because of relationships and factual observation. It came about because of a shift in our collective thought processes that something was not quite right in our thinking. It came about because of an openness to change.
Today there are specific elements that give a unifying dimension to our conventions: renewal of commitment, the incorporation of rookies into the body of the Federation, the mentoring of scholarship winners, the reaching out to parents of 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. Through all of this mingling and melding, something new and precious emerges—something that manages somehow to be collective, and yet very personal to each of us. When we do it right, this is true for longtime members and new recruits alike.
So, I would say that the primary function of our conventions is to tend and nurture our own integrity as a life-building movement in a self-renewing way. Not in a static way that carves into stone what was done in the past or believed to be “right,” but in a way that is right for the times in which we live now.
When we do that, the future form of the ever-changing “what-we-do” at the tactical and strategic levels will be merely a new expression of the unchanging “who-we-are” at the inner spiritual level.Joy and hope. Power and love. Falling all around us. Or we might simply say it this way: “The lobby of the Anaheim Hilton.”