Response Regarding Diversity and Inclusion

April 12, 2019

Dear Colleagues,

On behalf of the National Federation of the Blind Board of Directors, this letter is to thank the signatories for raising the issues detailed in, "An Open Letter to the tenBroek Disability Law Symposium Steering Committee" dated April 5, 2019. We acknowledge and take responsibility for the concerns raised regarding the Jacobus tenBroek Disability Law Symposium. In this response, we hope to clarify the evolution of the disability rights efforts we are involved in and to make some initial commitments to evolving the Jacobus tenBroek Disability Law Symposium specifically.

We understand and take responsibility for the fact that individuals have been harmed by the actions that we have or have not taken. The letter also makes it clear that hostility and misdirected blame have been unfairly targeted at the segments of the population that are most underrepresented at the symposium. We commit to seeking more effective ways of listening and acting on concerns raised in the future, and more fully pursuing the standards of equity and social justice that Dr. tenBroek championed. We apologize for our role in creating, explicitly or implicitly, a hostile and exclusionary environment in our law symposium. We have heard the urgent need for stronger representation of people of color, people who identify as LGBTQ, people from other marginalized identities with disabilities, as well as voices with lived experience regarding the topics being discussed. The commitment of the National Federation of the Blind to diversity is real, and we are prepared to evolve the Jacobus tenBroek Disability Law Symposium to ensure that it leads the way in broadening the diversity of disability rights generally. We invite, and in fact, need you to be a part of this evolution.

As President of the National Federation of the Blind, I have the ultimate responsibility for the programs we conduct and the environment that we create for guests to our events in and outside our building. The Jacobus tenBroek Disability Law Symposium is one of the most important events that we organize and host, and I am deeply disappointed that we have missed the mark in meeting the highest expectations for the symposium. The steering committee, along with a number of the Federation's volunteer members and Federation staff, helps to guide our work on the symposium. It is worth acknowledging that our steering committee members have volunteered dozens of hours of their time to share their ideas, connections, and insights to continue building the symposium into a dynamic community. We believe that they are also people who work from a place of love, and I know they share my disappointment that an important set of voices in our movement have been unintentionally or unconsciously unwelcomed and excluded. We acknowledge that we have work to do in formalizing the process for engaging individuals including people of color and people who identify as LGBTQ on our tenBroek steering committee. We are further committed to more clearly articulating the role of the steering committee and ensuring that they, like leaders of the Federation, remain guided by the diversity statement found in the NFB’s Code of Conduct.

We would like to take this opportunity to make it clear that while the National Federation of the Blind has been a strong supporter of the development of the Disability Rights Bar Association, it does not dictate the policies and practices of that entity. The National Federation of the Blind has supported that community through financial and in-kind support, and many of our members are active in the DRBA. However, the Federation does not direct the priorities of that organization. We have tried to create synergy through the tenBroek Symposium by providing space and resources to programs like DRBA and, more recently, the Deaf Law Day, to bring the community together rather than divide it. It is clear from the letter that our collaboration in these activities has created uncertainty about how they are planned and organized and who has responsibility for them. On behalf of the National Federation of the Blind, we plan to seek ways to make the processes more transparent and to share the priorities of diversity and inclusion with programs that are conducted in partnership with the symposium.

Seven specific items were identified as necessary reforms for us to achieve the quality of community at the Jacobus tenBroek Disability Law Symposium that we all want to experience, and we commit to considering those as important guides in shaping the symposium of the future. It would be disingenuous to make a complete commitment to achieving each of the reforms by the time of the 2020 symposium—especially after just one week of reflection. While this symposium is a critical forum in the disability rights movement, it is only one piece; the broader success will take the continued commitment and engagement of many more organizations. However, we ask you to recognize that our organization has made a significant commitment to this work. We know that it is going to continue to take real work to evolve the symposium effectively, and it is our intent to make changes for long-term growth not simply for short term effect. We ask that you hold us accountable, and we welcome your assistance and active engagement as we move down that path.

There are some immediate steps we are taking to begin this process. These are initial action items, and do not represent the entire scope of the work that lies ahead.

  1. We are reviewing the evaluation questions for the law symposium—this is why we have not yet sent out the program evaluation. We are examining the evaluation to make sure that it captures information about improvements that are needed. We intend to specifically include a feedback loop regarding diversity and recommendations for changes in the symposium that can accelerate improvements. Moreover, the evaluation summary will be written by someone who was not involved in the planning of the symposium in order to make sure that I, as well as our paid staff and the volunteer steering committee, receive the best unfiltered information about how we can do better.
  2. We have begun a conversation with the existing steering committee about the future of that group and how we will change the appointed participants in the next couple of months. It is not that we intend to only listen to the existing committee, but we believe we also need to actively engage them because of the time, energy, and expertise they have put into our symposium.
  3. We will seek to rebuild the steering committee to be more inclusive of the diversity of characteristics and perspectives that we want reflected in our symposium.
  4. We have shared your letter with the board of directors of the National Federation of the Blind as well as the co-chairs of the Federation's Committee on Diversity and Inclusion. I will be engaging the committee to seek further suggestions for how we can help make systemic changes in the pipeline of individuals going into disability rights work, and we will commit to share what actions our organization is taking during the next symposium.
  5. I will be reviewing with our staff the allocation of resources we put into the law symposium. Every year we invest significantly in the symposium. We have granted many appeals for discounts in registration to allow a broad cross section of participation. I am not aware of any appeal for assistance that we have turned down. It is possible that our organization should be putting even more of our resources into this event. I am committed to doing a deep dive into the details of the resources we have committed to determine if we can do better as an organization. In turn, I also welcome the participation of other national disability rights organizations in assisting us to find ways to provide grants for individuals to support their attendance at the symposium. I hope that we might all agree that the effort will be more successful if it is supported across the community and not simply by the National Federation of the Blind.
  6. We have begun examining the structure of the Jacobus tenBroek Disability Law Symposium and our process for soliciting program items. It is our hope that we will be able to provide a clearer call for papers for the symposium for 2020 and that we can engage you in helping us devise strategies for expanding the pool of submissions. We will also be considering whether a different format for the symposium will be more effective in expanding the voices included. Finally, we intend to build mechanisms into the symposium for active feedback regarding the continued growth and improvement of the forum as well as the broader disability rights community.

Those are our near-future steps, and we are certain that much more work will be needed. We are confident that we do not know all that we need to and that we are not aware of all of the people that are best suited to help. We take responsibility for our symposium, but we sincerely do need your help. We need to know where you can help and what your interests might be. We are certain that it will be impossible to fully implement every suggestion in the short term, but we know that we are bound to fall short if we do not receive your input. Please consider sending your thoughts directly to officeofthepresident@nfb.org with the subject line "#JTBLaw Recommendations" so we can consider them.

I close with again thanking you for your direct approach. I have attempted to be open and honest and invite you to continue the dialogue. I am certain there is more to learn together, and I hope that you will take away from this letter my sincere openness to continuing to build upon the legacy of Jacobus tenBroek in a way that each of us can be proud.

Sincerely,

Mark A. Riccobono, President
National Federation of the Blind