by Denise Avant
From the Editor: Denise Avant is a current member of the National Federation of the Blind Board of Directors. She has been an affiliate president in Illinois and is currently very active in the American Bar Association. Here is an article she wrote that focuses on our efforts at diversity and inclusion:
The National Federation of the Blind has as one of our core values diversity and full participation in our mission to achieve equality, opportunity, and security for all blind people. In 2017, President Mark A. Riccobono established the Committee on Diversity and Inclusion to help the Federation achieve these core values. I am a member of the Black Leaders Serving for Advancement (BLSA), one of the subcommittees of the Diversity and Inclusion Committee. Since 2017 we have put on events prior to national convention to highlight the leadership and potential leadership of Black members in the Federation. We expanded our awareness efforts this past year to put on programs throughout the year.
In his 2018 banquet speech, President Riccobono recognized and celebrated the vital contributions of blind women leaders in the Federation. March was Women’s History Month and BLSA celebrated the month by putting on a program with powerful, intelligent, and dynamic Black women leaders: Dorothy Griffin, president of the NFB of Georgia; Barbara Manuel, president of the NFB of Alabama; Suzanne Turner, first vice president of the NFB of Ohio; and Sabrina Simmons, second vice president of the NFB of Michigan. I had the privilege to serve as the moderator, and Harriet Davis from the NFB of the District of Columbia served as our Zoom host. We were joined by President Riccobono and our Chairman of the National Federation of the Blind Board of Directors and First Vice President, Pamela Allen. Many others also joined in our deliberations, sharing their insights on leadership, their thoughts on attributes of successful leaders, their challenges, and their women mentors and so much more. They spent time with the audience, answering questions about leadership, participation in the Federation, and facing issues about blindness. These women shared their love of serving people and passion for the work of the Federation. Here is some of what they shared:
Dorothy Griffin is the president of the National Federation of the Blind of Georgia and serves as president of the Atlanta Metro Chapter. Her sister Joanne Johnson invited her to join the Metro Chapter when she moved to Atlanta. Dorothy held many roles at the chapter level: fundraising chair, secretary, second vice president, first vice president, and finally president. She was asked twice to become the affiliate president, and she turned it down. When initially asked, she said, “I don’t know what it takes to be an affiliate president.” Finally, after talking to her husband and praying, she decided to run. President Riccobono told her that if she were elected, she would be the “commander and chief.” She was elected. “I take my role very seriously.” She loves and respects our brand, our values, and people. She wants to help transform their dreams into reality.
Dorothy understands that running the affiliate is a team effort. Her honesty, transparency, and love for people has helped her be a successful affiliate president. “If it’s something that I don’t know, I am not afraid to say it.” She is not hesitant to reach out to people and learn.
Dorothy loves helping people, frequently taking calls from blind people at all hours of the day and night. The calls motivate her because, “It just touches my heart and I just want to help them move to the next level, where they want to be.”
One of the challenges she faces is that some men do not like to follow women leaders. “I struggle with that. I can’t change who I am. All I can do is continue to be there for everyone.” If an individual has a problem, she is willing to discuss the matter with them and allow the person to figure out a resolution. “A lot of times, people just want to talk, and you just give them some things to think about.” She gets involved only if necessary.
In addition to her Federation activities, Dorothy works for NFB-NEWSLINE®, has her own business, and is a deacon in her church. Her husband is a truck driver, and they have a blended family of children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren, most of whom do not live in Georgia. Her affiliate and NFB-NEWSLINE work provide her even more of an opportunity to reach out to blind people. In addition to working two phones, she stays well organized by keeping color-coded binders and spiral notebooks for her business, NFB-NEWSLINE, the Federation, and her home. Her Federation members urge her to take time for herself, which she will do.
Barbara Manuel has been the president of the National Federation of the Blind of Alabama since 2018, and she was re-elected this past March. A close friend would talk to her about the Federation. She joined the Federation in 1986. The affiliate had a convention in her city. When she heard the speech by the national representative, “I immediately knew this was a movement I had to be a part of.” She joined the Mobile Chapter and later served as its president for eleven years. She served on the Alabama affiliate board for many years, eventually moving to first vice president and becoming president when Joy Harris stepped down due to health reasons. She also serves on the Board of Directors of the National Association of Blind Merchants.
Barbara says, “It has truly been a joy for me to serve in the National Federation of the Blind. My heart is one of service.”
Barbara is successful in her role as president because she is blind, and she knows how blind people are treated. It is this understanding that helps her step into her role as an advocate when she gets a call from a blind person telling her that they have been mistreated or discriminated against. Second, she loves bringing people together to do work in the affiliate. “Everyone has tools and talents that they bring to our affiliate to enhance it, and I want to give them the opportunity to do so.”
Barbara finds that being an African American and a woman can sometimes be challenging in her leadership role. When issues arise, she tries to assess herself first. But she still finds there are times that she does not receive needed support because of her race and gender. Nevertheless, she does not dwell on the problems but relies on the members that do support her. “At the end of the day, if we’re touching one life, I can endure all of the other biases that take place in this journey.”
Barbara also finds it challenging at times being a new president because she doesn’t have all of the answers. Yet she is comforted by the knowledge that people at our national office in Baltimore and Federationists across the country are willing to and do help her. “I am open and willing to learn,” she says.”
Barbara is a blind merchant. In her first years as president, she admits that she really did not balance things very well. When she was working, she would find time to work on Federation matters because there was so much work to be done. Federation tasks would spill over into her personal time. But she learned to address issues without them overshadowing her entire day. Barbara stated that this last convention left her feeling burnt out. She has decided to devote affiliate matters to certain days, and this seems to be working out.
Suzanne Turner came to the Federation in the 1980s. She was elected as president of the Cleveland Chapter at her first meeting. She stepped down after one year. It was difficult for her to lead effectively because she did not know much about our organization. After retiring from her job in 2010, she went to a state convention. “Barbara Pierce and Richard Payne sparked fire in me. I rejoined, and I have been running ever since.”
Suzanne’s attendance at one of the national leadership seminars helped her to understand where she wanted to be in the organization and the work she wanted to do. The books, “Building the Lives We Want” and Walking Alone and Marching Together” changed her life. She recalled that the chapter “A Passion for Humanity” about Isabelle Grant resonated with her. Subsequently, she became the president of the Cleveland Chapter and took on roles at the affiliate level. When the first vice president of the affiliate left to take a job in California, Suzanne stepped into that position. She was elected to the position of first vice president in 2020.
Suzanne believes that her honesty, consistency, transparency, and professional brand are the attributes that have made her a successful leader. Telling her story shows her honesty and demonstrates her shared experiences with others. It’s her personal brand that she tries to convey to community partners, members, and potential members.
Suzanne believes that the key to resolving resistance to leadership is negotiation. She has an open-door policy in her chapter that encourages members to talk to her directly. She works to understand the perspective of the person. She examines herself to make sure she is not the source of the conflict. If she is not the problem, she will work with the member to try to move forward.
Suzanne does not feel any burnout yet, “though I probably should.” She is just happy to be involved doing the work of the Federation. She explained that she reaches out to people by phone and is constantly on her computer emailing and checking Facebook. Her goal is to build trust with people so she can influence and delegate. Suzanne loves problem-solving and seeing people flourish.
Sabrina Simmons is second vice president of the National Federation of the Blind of Michigan and chapter president of the Detroit Chapter. Sabrina was invited to an NFB of North Carolina Christmas party in 2012. She had a great time at the party and joined the chapter. When she moved back to Detroit, Michigan, she searched for the Federation. Someone told her where to find the Detroit Chapter meeting, and she attended on a Saturday afternoon. She was excited by what she heard and decided to get involved with the chapter and then with the affiliate. She served on the chapter board and three years ago became the chapter president. She was elected to the affiliate board and then to the second vice presidency.
In 2015, Sabrina won a Kenneth Jernigan Scholarship and attended the national convention. Her affiliate president and vice president showed her the ropes, and when she heard Pam Allen speak at the Rookie Roundup, she became excited. “When you hear our leaders say, ‘The NFB turns dreams into reality,’ it has done that for me.”
When dealing with her members, she tries to be transparent. She also tries to learn from other leaders and allow others to learn from her.
When facing challenges in her chapter, she takes a person-to-person approach. One of the biggest struggles she had was not being liked by people. But someone shared with her that she wasn’t going to be liked by everyone. She explained that you have to have sympathy for people because, “Everyone thinks and acts in a different way. People come into blindness at different levels, and people come into the organization at different levels of blindness. Some people are resistant because of their personal thoughts and fears about blindness. Some people are resistant because they are hurt by blindness at a young age. They never really develop good friendships and things of that nature. So it is good to know people and where they are coming from. Find out where they are coming from and help them move forward in their talents.”
Sabrina balances her work and Federation activities because she owns her own business as a technology trainer. This enables her to do Federation work when she needs to get something done. Her friends and family are also supportive of her in everything she does, whether it was caring for her teenage son, now an adult, her business ownership, or her Federation work.
Sabrina says she is available to talk to her members and yet still has down time for self-care and to meditate.
Whether it was mother, grandmother, sister, a close family friend who was a congresswoman, or other Federationists, Dorothy, Barbara, Suzanne, and Sabrina told us that throughout their lives many women have acted as their mentors and role models, helping shape them into the leaders they are today. Ever Lee Hairston and Pam Allen have served as mentors to all of the women. Barbara says, “I appreciate their wisdom and willingness to give direction to those who are new.” Suzanne notes that Pam Allen’s wisdom, poise, and grace has helped her to flourish and has given her an opportunity to be better. Suzanne is an admirer of Dr. Isabelle Grant, who went around the world spreading the positive message about blindness. Suzanne says of Dr. Grant, “She spread diversity and inclusion across the world.” Sabrina noted that one of her panel members, Dorothy Griffin, whom she met at a leadership seminar in 2017 is a mentor to her. Dorothy is always willing to talk to her if she has something on her mind, “If we’re at Washington Seminar or convention, I always find time to share a moment with her.”
The Committee on Diversity and Inclusion is looking for ideas to help foster diversity and inclusion in our organization. If you have ideas, please email them to our co-chairs, Shawn Calloway and Colin Wong at [email protected].