by Ryan Strunk
Editor’s Introduction: Ryan Strunk is the President of the Nebraska Association of Blind Students and very involved in his state affiliate. As many of us know, involvement in our local NFB chapters and affiliates is the foundation of our movement. In his speech from the 2002 student division meeting at the NFB national convention, in Louisville, Kentucky, Ryan creatively emphasizes the importance of local student involvement. Here is what he has to say.
Now, when I was in Kindergarten, our teacher used to sit us all down in a circle and she’d read us a story. We would all listen real intently, hanging on to that teacher’s every word, including, “Ryan, get your finger out of your nose.” I realize that we can’t all sit around in a circle, but I thought that maybe if I tell a story or two, I’ll achieve that same effect. So, for this occasion, I have decided to write my own storybook about the importance of chapter attendance, entitled, The Importance of Chapter Attendance. Also, please note that everything contained within this book is completely original and straight out of my very own head.
This is the Federation that we built. These are the affiliates that make up the Federation that we built. These are the chapters, which comprise the affiliates that make up the Federation that we built. Here are the NFBers who do not attend the meetings held by the chapters, which comprise the affiliates, which make up the Federation that we built. Let’s pause here for a bit of one-sided discussion. Is regular chapter attendance a huge problem? Well, not everywhere, but if it weren’t a problem at all, then I would not have been asked to address it. In fact, I know a good number of people who do not attend chapter meetings regularly, and many of them are from my home state. Why do they not come?
Well, Curious Ryan, the curious little Strunkey, wanted to know exactly why people weren’t coming. So, he hired the man in the yellow hat to drive him around in the little blue taxi and asked supposedly enthusiastic Federationists exactly why they weren’t coming to chapter meetings. Well, they had more reasons than Curious Ryan could count, but one of the most common answers was, “This chapter is too boring.”
Let’s stop again. Is this a problem? Well, sure. In this world where so much value is placed on entertainment and having fun, meetings in which the members do very little or very little of interest, will not appeal to some, in the slightest, and they will have one more excuse as to why they will not attend. Note, though, that this is only an excuse.
Here is something that might be fun; we could make the chapter fun. That, Mr. Strunk, can never be done; you cannot make a chapter fun. Not in a box. Not with a fox. Not in the rain or on a train. Go away, now Ryan Strunk and bother me no more with this trivial junk.
Now, wait just a minute. You can’t make a chapter fun? Why not? I am not suggesting that we turn each meeting into a variety show with acrobats, jugglers, and dancers, but something can be done. In chapter meetings in Lincoln, Nebraska, we hold drawings for door prizes. They do it in Baltimore, too, with prizes donated by the members. In the Metro Chapter of the Minnesota affiliate, the members hold a 50/50 drawing every month. Not only is this an incentive for attending, but it serves as a great fundraiser at the same time. Rosy Caranza, the president of the Ruston Chapter in Louisiana, told me that she randomly selects a person to lead the chapter in a rousing chorus of Glory, Glory Federation. I’m not sure I’d have the guts to do that, but I am sure that I would enjoy watching others doing it. Not everything has to be funny or lottery based, either. I doubt you would find many people who do not enjoy good discussion at some point.
This past month, I have been traveling about Washington with a team of organizers, and in one of the chapters we visited, we involved each of the members in a discussion of ways to build and strengthen these chapters. The meeting, which was scheduled to end at twelve noon, finally adjourned sometime after one, and not a single person was unhappy with the time spent conversing. Now, before I scare anyone off by making him/her think that chapter meetings will now last longer, let me explain something. The people at this meeting were so interested in what we were all discussing that the passage of time seemed secondary to them. When people feel as though they are involved, they enjoy themselves more thoroughly, and they contribute more readily.
There’s no harm in my meeting abstention, because I attend my national convention. Some people truly believe that the central, most important factor in being an active Federationist is whether or not one attends national convention. To those of you sitting in this room believing that at this very moment, I want to ask: if such is the case, do we really need local chapters and is local advocacy truly important? If you answered yes to either of these questions, which every one of you should have, then you admit that without local chapters and local action, there can be no NFB. And, if a chapter’s abilities are defined by its membership, why can’t your contributions help and why shouldn’t you give them?
But Curious Ryan, most of the people in this chapter are old folks. I don’t really want to go to that kind of a chapter. Well, Mr. Enthusiastic Federationist, you’re being awfully blunt, but I will field the question, and my simple, straightforward answer is why does it matter? We in the Federation are all striving to attain the same goals, and whether we are all twenty years old, one-hundred years old, or a healthy mix, age really has nothing to do with anything. As well, ponder the idea that many of the people you describe have established careers and an accumulation of wisdom. The donations they generously give to the Federation provide such items as our Newsline, some of our trips to convention, and our scholarships. The very least they should be owed is a bit of respect. Besides, if people are making attendance judgments based on the average age of the membership, what aspect of the Federation becomes more important? Security, Equality, and opportunity or superficiality and shallowness? Let’s focus on blindness.
I’d like to do what you suggest; support the chapter and all the rest, but the wrath of my leaders will be incurred if I try to make my voice be heard. Someone actually told me this once, though not in so lyrical a fashion. The answer to this question lies in democracy. A middle school teacher I once had defined democracy in the following manner. “When damn crazy people get together, oh, lordy, some crazy things happen.” Now, I suppose that no one ever told him that there is no “Z” in democracy, but regardless, he was and is absolutely right. The chapter is comprised of and defined by its members, and if a member wishes something done, provided, of course, that this something does not conflict with Federation philosophy or policy, there is no reason why the members cannot speak up and make themselves heard. The Federation is not a dictatorship. Chapters make the Federation strong and active members make chapters strong. Each of you here tonight has something to contribute to the Federation, and I would really like to see that contribution made. If we are going to change what it means to be blind, then we all must work to make it happen. Let us march together both nationally and locally, so that we can all live happily ever after.
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