by Mark Riccobono
From the Editor: Our elected President assumes responsibility for an incredible number of tasks, one of them overseeing our program to recruit, grow, and nourish our membership. It is obvious that President Riccobono sees this as a major priority, and here is what he says about his coming to the organization and what we must do to ensure that others keep coming:
One of the most important titles I have been able to put next to my name is member, National Federation of the Blind. I first became a member in 1996, and I cannot imagine a day in my life when I will decide to no longer be a member of this great organization. As I travel the country talking to people about the work of our movement, certain predictable questions come up including but not limited to: what does it mean to be a member; how do I join; and what are the benefits of membership? More often than not, I find that people have not joined because of misconceptions about membership in our organized blind movement. I also find that the idea of “membership” in an organization takes on different meanings depending on your background and perspective. In this article I will attempt to share with you what membership in the National Federation of the Blind means to me and what I believe we, collectively, hope it means for each of our present and future members. If you are not yet a member, this article is an invitation to explore joining us and an opportunity to create understanding about who we are and why we need you to be in our family. If you are already a member, I hope this article speaks to your experience in our movement and contributes to your growth as a leader. If you are not sure whether you are or are not a member, I hope this clears things up and encourages you to make your membership status definitive.
It is important to begin with some organizational basics related to membership. Let us start by talking about what membership in our organization is not. I grew up in the 1980s when the Members Only brand emerged in the United States. It was a cool thing to have something that sported the name “Members Only,” and we sought opportunities to create social circles for ourselves that we considered “members only” regardless of whether you owned any of the merchandise. For example, in elementary school my friends and I had a Ghostbusters Club (based on the 1984 movie) where we could easily limit the participants since there just were not many characters in the movie. We created our own rules and expectations for participation—sometimes driven by the movie but often with our own agreed-upon alterations—and we had a good time. However, the goal was not to bring other people into our club. In fact, we liked that it was a closed membership. We were already friends and our “members only” club strengthened our bond. This notion of membership is much different from what I have found in the National Federation of the Blind over the past twenty years. In our organization we believe in an open membership policy where all are welcome to be considered for membership and, with only a few exceptions, our meetings are open to non-members to observe even if they cannot vote on matters of importance—only Federation members can determine its policies and elect its leaders. While only members of the Federation have certain rights and privileges within the organization, we hope to have as many blind people as possible join with us in our mission to improve the lives of all blind people.
Open membership means that we do not put significant qualifiers on being a member of our organization. It is worth talking about the handful of qualifiers we do have for membership.
To begin, you have to want to be a member, and you need to pay dues to a chapter, division, affiliate, or the national organization. Our goal is not simply to sign people up for the membership roll; we seek members who want to actively participate.
In general, another qualifier is that the majority of our members have to be blind. On a nationwide basis better than 90 percent of our members are. Thus, on a national basis, we do not need to worry about sighted individuals joining and taking over our organization. However, at the local level this sometimes becomes a problem when a small chapter starts inviting many sighted people to be members. The constitution of the National Federation of the Blind and every entity under the Federation requires a majority of the membership be blind. By blind, we mean a functional definition of blindness as Kenneth Jernigan so eloquently described it decades ago in his speech “A Definition of Blindness.” One major exception to this policy is our National Organization of Parents of Blind Children—one of our national special interest divisions—where a majority of the members in that specific division need not be blind. In fact, that division includes the vast majority of the Federation’s sighted members, but it is not the exclusive place where sighted people participate actively as members. I list this as a membership qualifier because we are, first and foremost, an organization of blind people, led by blind people, and directed by blind people. While we are on the topic, you cannot be elected to our national board of directors unless you are blind.
A final qualifier is that an individual must be prepared to uphold the standards we expect from each other in this organization. The standards of membership and for leaders of our organization are set by Federation members themselves. They are articulated in our Code of Conduct (https://www.nfb.org/about-us/history-and-governance/code-conduct). Essentially, we come together through the common bond of blindness to serve as a vehicle for collective action by the blind. We seek to treat each other with dignity and respect, and we value an atmosphere free from discrimination and harassment of any type. It is worth noting that those seeking to be leaders of this organization have additional responsibilities above those of everyday members. While all members of the organization are asked to support the policies and programs of the Federation—see the Federation pledge at the end of this article—leaders of the organization are expected to implement the policies and programs. This means that leaders need to take actions consistent with the organization’s policies and that leaders should not commit themselves to organizations that actively work against the Federation.
In short, the membership of the National Federation of the Blind is the class of individuals, a majority of whom are required to be blind, who pay dues to the organization at the local, state, or national level (joining at the local and/or state level gives you automatic membership in the national organization).
The mechanics of qualifying to be a member of the National Federation of the Blind are truly that easy. However, the process of understanding the power of membership in this organization and coming to be an active participant in the decision-making process of it often feels much more daunting to new members. This is why we have recently initiated an onboarding process for new members to welcome people into our organization and assist with navigating the things that long-time members like me take for granted today.
In order to become a member of the National Federation of the Blind, you have to join one of the parts of our organization. While there is not one path to membership, keep in mind that where you join makes a difference as to when you can actively vote on Federation matters. Here is a simple breakdown.
Our organization operates at three levels: local, state, and national.
Local: The local level of the Federation is typically represented by a chapter—in my city I participate in the Greater Baltimore Chapter. Chapters are typically geographically organized, and in larger communities there are sometimes multiple chapters in order to facilitate local meetings more effectively. Again, using Baltimore as an example, we have three local chapters that meet in the Baltimore region comprising Baltimore City and Baltimore County. Local chapters are generally not incorporated but serve as a subordinate part of the state affiliate which is incorporated as a 501(c)(3) organization. Most chapters meet in person, but some state affiliates have established at-large chapters which are meant to bring together members who cannot, for one reason or another, meet in person regularly. Additionally, state affiliates will frequently establish special interest divisions which bring blind people together around a common topic. These divisions are distinguished from chapters in a couple of ways. Divisions bring people together around a topic area rather than organizing geographically, and they typically have one major business meeting each year as part of the affiliate convention—whereas most chapters meet every month. Although it is not required, it works best when members of a division also participate in a local chapter. Members of local chapters or divisions are automatically made members of their state affiliate and the national organization. Additionally, members of a state affiliate division are often automatically made members of the corresponding national division. Local division membership dues reflect inclusion of a small amount—generally $2—for dues to the state affiliate and national organization. Local chapters set their dues, and they are generally at $5 or $10 per year. The goal is to ensure that economic status is not a barrier to membership, and the Federation does not use dues as a fundraising activity.
State: There is one state affiliate in each of the fifty states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico. Local chapters and divisions report to their state affiliate which helps to coordinate the activities of the organization. Each affiliate has an annual convention which serves as the annual business meeting and determines the policy direction for the affiliate. At the state level, the affiliate convention elects the board of directors and establishes the local priorities. Through the charter of affiliation with the national organization, the state affiliate work must be consistent with the policies and programs of the national organization, but otherwise there is significant discretion as to the implementation of program activities.
National: The state affiliates come together to form the national organization. According to the constitution of the National Federation of the Blind, the annual national convention is the supreme authority of the organization. The convention sets policy and elects the board of directors. The constitution sets forth the duties of the President of the Federation, who serves as the chief executive, and the duties of the board to manage the organization between conventions. Members who attend the national convention are invited to vote on policy matters with the exception of roll call votes where each affiliate gets one vote. Each affiliate selects a delegate to represent the affiliate at the convention and cast votes when necessary. The delegate frequently is the individual who serves on the organization’s nominating committee—the one committee in the Federation which is not appointed by the President. There are some members who only join the national level, but it is not the general membership path. Frequently people join the Federation as members of one of our national divisions. That membership only grants membership in the division and the national organization as a whole—it does not give you any membership rights at the local and state level. However, national divisions are a common way for people to come to know our organization. Frequently, this is an avenue for getting people connected with our local chapters and state affiliates where the real engagement in the work of the organization can happen. Individuals can also join as at-large members of the national organization. At-large members are typically people who wish to show their support without plans to be actively involved. However, this can also be an avenue for people to get to know us before they join at the local level. At-large membership at the national level is extremely small, and it is not a membership option we actively promote because it is much more effective if people participate in the organization through our local affiliates. What makes our organization strong is a powerful local network of organized and engaged members.
Membership in the National Federation of the Blind opens up opportunities for service and for fellowship that I believe are unparalleled. Being a member gives you a connection to thousands of other members all over the country. In my experience, this means having thousands of people who are prepared to support and assist you at every turn in your journey as a blind person. That includes people who are newly blind and struggling to learn what blindness means in their lives as well as people like me who start to think we have it all figured out—until something new comes along or a blind person breaks into a new area that we had not considered previously. I find that every day I am learning something from the powerful network of the Federation.
Being a member also gives you the power of collective action when dealing with issues facing the blind in all aspects of life. This includes at the individual level where if I run into a problem—like someone wanting to take my children away because of my blindness—I know I can call upon my friends in the Federation for help. Membership also gives me access to the training and experts who can help me be a stronger self-advocate. So often the discrimination and artificial barriers we face can be dealt with when we are equipped with the knowledge and resources to understand the law and the expectations that should flow from it. On a broader scale, being a member gives us the power of individual effort collectively focused. In our organization, we select our direction together, and we push toward that end together. It makes our outcomes more effective and more likely to succeed. Similarly, we uphold the value of not dividing ourselves—when we pick a position, we all agree to push in that direction without fighting among each other. Together we are able to make significant progress that we could never accomplish alone.
This brings me to what membership is not. Membership is not giving up our own individual perspectives and beliefs. Those who are not members of our organization sometimes falsely say that we must be brainwashed. In fact, the membership of the Federation is as diverse and opinionated as you can find, and we continue to seek channels to strengthen our diversity. Debates happen throughout the membership about policies to pursue, what our shared philosophy about blindness means and how it applies today, and whether or not a specific concern is within the area of interest to our organization—blindness. Our diversity helps to make our decision-making better. Once we agree by a vote to have a policy or elect a leader, we support them until we vote in a different direction. To some degree, we are constantly testing our policy positions, sometimes through actions in the halls of power and sometimes on the streets of America where we face the low expectations of society. Those who do not know us mistake unity for lack of individuality. This is not the case.
It is worth saying that membership means supporting the will of the majority. This sometimes means that your idea wins, it sometimes means that someone else’s idea wins, but it most often means that a combined idea is the one we select and pursue. The membership moments I enjoy the most are when we get a room full of blind people discussing a topic, and in the end whatever action is decided upon cannot easily be credited to any one individual. It is important to recognize that being part of an organization like ours means that you will not, and should not, always get your way. We are a team, and that means members have an obligation to work together. From my perspective, it is actually the joy of working together. In fact, that is exactly why our membership medallions have the Braille contraction of the word “together” embossed on them.
The original launch of the Members Only brand in the 1980s used the tagline "When you put it on, something happens." This tagline applies equally to membership in the National Federation of the Blind. I know that when I started being a proud member of the Federation my confidence completely changed. As a Federation member I walked more confidently because I learned the techniques that blind people used to be successful, and also because I knew that thousands of people had my back. Furthermore, I wore the pride of knowing that I had their backs as well. Even more importantly, through my active participation in the National Federation of the Blind I got to know other members in a very personal way, and I came to think of them as part of my Federation family. I now have family members all over the country and not just family in name only. I know them, and I know I can count on them. This is something you can really only understand by coming to be a member of our organization and participating actively in it. When you start wearing your membership in the National Federation of the Blind—understanding it in your heart and your mind—things will happen to change your life for the better. These are the benefits of membership that are too priceless to value and too intangible to measure. If you make the commitment to participate actively in our movement, you will begin to discover the reasons that I am a lifelong member and wear this organization proudly in my daily life.
There are lots of other things that membership means and benefits that membership provides to us. I think it is more meaningful if you come discover them for yourself, and by becoming a member you get to help decide how we use our resources and what our priorities will be in the future. Very selfishly, I hope you become a member because it will enhance my own membership experience. I will have another person to work with, another friend to lean on, and another blind person to steal nifty tips and tricks from. I know from my experience that we are stronger together and that your diversity will enhance and improve our organization. Once you join, please share your ideas about how we can do what we do even better, including articulating the meaning of membership and the benefits of our collective action.