Braille Monitor                  December 2021

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Why Should We Do DEI?

by Ronza Othman

Ronza OthmanFrom the Editor: This article was taken in large part from the Maryland Spectator, the newsletter of the National Federation of the Blind of Maryland. Ronza is our affiliate president and is very active in our diversity, equity, and inclusion effort. She makes a splendid argument that all of us bring to the organization those things we value and make us who we are. At the same time, she makes it clear that we need to be respectful of others and not let the things we value put off others who hold different points of view. We are an organization made stronger by including people of all religions, all races, and all identities. If blindness is a cross-section of society, to be representative we must also be that cross-section. As you read her remarks, really try to be in her place and feel what she has felt. Ask how we can conduct ourselves in a way that honors our faith while also honoring the faith of others.

Included here is the editor's note that introduced her article in the Maryland Spectator:

[Editor's Note: In recent years the National Federation of the Blind and the Maryland affiliate have begun devoting time, energy, and resources to incorporating Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) principles into our thinking and programming. One question some have asked is why the NFB has placed such an emphasis on DEI and how DEI impacts our core mission of helping blind people live the lives they want. The article that appears below attempts to answer that question and will hopefully spark a dialogue among the membership.]

How does an organization with thousands of members from different backgrounds, experiences, and interests but with one shared commonality come together to embrace diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI)? We listen, we hear, we think, and we grow. This is how we've faced every challenge in our eighty-year history, and we'll be stronger for the experience.

In the past few years, I've been visiting with members of all of our chapters and divisions to talk about what diversity, equity, and inclusion means to each of us and how we can incorporate DEI into our programs. I've learned that on this issue, like every other, our members are a cross-section of society. Some believe DEI is critical to our future and integral to our present. Some believe DEI is important but will over time enhance what we do and that societal shifts will be absorbed into the NFB naturally. Some believe DEI is not something on which we should focus our energy and resources because we have other more important work to do.

I fall into the camp of individuals who believe we need to take active steps to incorporate DEI into our programs. More, I believe we need to talk about DEI in a way that changes thought patterns. I don't believe DEI should solely be programs we operate or trainings we give—though both are important. I believe DEI is a mindset, and I believe it is critical to our future as an organization.

Diversity means understanding all of the ways we are different from one another. This may be based on protected factors like race, color, national origin, religion, age, disability, sex, gender identity, LGBTQ status, and so on. But different characteristics may also include political affiliation, generational membership, life experiences, ideology, economic status, geography, and basically any other characteristic we can think of. Equity means creating full access, opportunity, and advancement for everyone irrespective of their differences. Inclusion is the extent to which people feel a sense of belonging within an organization. Diversity is about our differences, equity is about fairness regardless of those differences, and inclusion is about the culture that celebrates those differences, makes everyone feel welcome, and fosters fairness. All three are interrelated but distinct from one another.

I believe that the NFB has come a long way in terms of incorporating DEI into its mindset. But I believe some of our members haven't yet understood or bought into the need for it in what we do organizationally. This is why I am writing this article.

I am brown. I am Palestinian-American and the daughter of refugees whose family won the green card lottery days before I was born. I am Muslim, and Arabic is my first language. I am a cisgender woman. My family was very socio-economically disadvantaged when I was growing up. I am an attorney. I am a survivor of trauma. I am blind. These are some but not all of the characteristics that comprise me. These are some of the characteristics that make me diverse, and when I join most groups, these are some of the characteristics that make me different, or these are some of the characteristics that make me the same as others.

For example, most members of the NFB, but not all, are blind. Our sighted members are statistically fewer than our blind members, but we need their perspectives and experiences for the NFB to work, e.g., parents of blind children, educators, sighted partners, and family members. I am cisgender, and statistically I am in the majority. But we need all gender identities to participate and feel included in order for our organization to work. I am brown, and statistically that means I am in the minority. But we need people of all races in order for this organization to work. I am Muslim, and that means I am in the minority, but we need those from all faith backgrounds and also those who don't ascribe to a faith tradition to participate and feel included in order for our organization to work.

I didn't always feel that my differences were welcome in the NFB and in the blindness community as a whole. I struggled a great deal early on as a result of being a Muslim. I have severe dog allergies, so if I tried to avoid being around service animals, people made comments about how my entire religion hates dogs (which is untrue). I remember a state convention when an invocation was very spiritual, and the speaker commanded everyone to "stand up and embrace Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior." In Islam, though we believe in Jesus, it is sacrilegious to refer to Jesus as the Lord and Savior. I did not stand up, and another member sitting next to me began pulling on me, physically forcing me to stand. I told her I was intentionally not standing, and she told me I was being rude and disrespectful. I tried to resist, but in the end her physical strength forced me to my feet. It wasn't possible to make this a teachable moment during an invocation where people are supposed to be silent. This was a humiliating and demoralizing experience. It could have been avoided though, if my neighbor would have respected my differences and created an inclusive environment for me. It also could have been avoided if the speaker thought ahead of time about the fact that many members of the convention were not Christian and had given a more inclusive invocation.

More recently, I attended a chapter meeting that began with a prayer. I was not expecting the prayer, and it echoed some of the same language about Jesus Christ as the Lord and Savior. I felt blindsided by it and did not have the opportunity to step away. I thought long and hard about whether to share my discomfort, and ultimately, I decided I had an obligation to do so. If I, as a state president, stay silent, then how could I expect non-elected leaders to speak up? I realized it was my duty to share this perspective. This too is why I am writing this article.

The NFB is an organization founded around our shared commonality of blindness. We come together to educate, advocate, and lead on issues important to the blind. We bring our differences with us because they are integral to who we are. We possess shared differences, e.g., our race, our religion, our gender, and gender identity. But we also have to recognize that sometimes, by incorporating a particular characteristic that is important to some of us but not all, we are excluding others of us.

I've heard from people who have said they believe the NFB is a Christian organization and that they do not feel welcome as non-Christians. I understand why they feel that way because sometimes my fellow members impose their particular characteristics on me, so I feel that way too. This is the anatomy of a majority—the majority doesn't often realize that others think differently or have different characteristics. This is usually not intentional—it is just how majorities work. I believe we have come forward a great deal, but we still have work to do. Every member should feel welcome in the NFB irrespective of any characteristic they possess, and it is incumbent upon all of us to create that inclusive culture.

I have also heard from some that the people who are insisting on incorporating DEI are trying to prevent people with certain differences from participating in the organization, e.g., those who are religiously devout. I challenge that notion and vehemently disagree. Those of us who come from underrepresented communities have had to carve out our space so we can educate everyone on our particular characteristics. This is true in society, in history, everywhere. The majority has a lesser need to carve out its own space because it already has space in the mainstream. The majority should not be silenced but should be open to listening as well as speaking, to learning as well as teaching, to hearing new ideas as well as sharing its own.

Let me be clear. We are asking for people who are not part of underrepresented populations to be inclusive; we are asking them to think about things they say and do that impose their particular characteristics on all of us. I am not, for example, asking blind Christians to stop being Christian. I am asking them to consider that words they use in an invocation may more than exclude me—their words may alienate me. I will commit to do the same when thinking about people who possess characteristics that are different from my own.

I believe we in the NFB have made a great deal of progress in DEI during the past decade. I believe we have more progress to make. The NFB Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Committee is leading the way for us nationally, and the NFBMD DEI Committee is providing advice and guidance to the affiliate and local chapters. I implore each of you to remember that DEI isn't a concept to be advanced only by those who are underrepresented. It is the responsibility of each and every member.

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