As organizers, we can choose not to be patient

By Samantha Eddmeiri, OFA Intern

The 1st Annual Disability Inclusion Summit in Philadelphia, leaders, community members, and grassroots advocates united to solve issues of education, community recreation, employment, and socially valued roles.

My mother is the most patient person I know. Not only did she raise quadruplets — an impressive feat in and of itself — but she also pushed herself to continue her career in education and began working part-time as an educator in our hometown of Lincoln, Nebraska. Most people would stop there and say that raising four kids was tough enough. But my mother loved her work and would always smile and say, “this was what I was meant to do.”

Unfortunately, I was not born with the amount of patience that she has. It’s partly why I became interested in politics and policy, a field that has its ups and downs built into the calendar. I quickly learned that advocating for what you believed in sometimes meant demanding immediate action, and other times it meant patiently building a local network of supporters and allies while policy-makers dragged their feet on actually doing something. Policy often moves at a glacial pace, and that’s when I find myself anxious and impatient for action.

So when I joined Organizing for Action (OFA) as an intern in February of 2018, you can imagine just how wide my eyes got when I saw what OFA volunteers like Anna P. were doing when local policy change didn’t seem to be changing fast enough.

As an OFA Fellows Leader, Anna saw an issue in her community that not only affected her family, but thousands of others across the city. As a mother of two wonderful children with disabilities, Anna wanted to bring people in her community together to talk about some of the challenges people with disabilities and their families face, and discuss ways for the city to improve. And that’s when she began applying the lessons from her past OFA trainings and fellowships.

“When I first reached out to some of these community leaders, they were nervous about attending. They were worried they would be exposed as not really being experts at all in this area, and they were worried about saying the wrong things. So I changed the format of the event to really emphasize that we were all equals. We’re going to sit in a circle. We’re going to break bread together. We’re going to connect as human beings. And we adjusted our ask to focus on three areas that are affecting people in this space: education, sports & recreation, and preparing people for employment or other socially valued roles.
“I don’t have the answers. No one person does. But maybe, if we respect each other’s experiences and work together in good faith, maybe we can help make things better tomorrow, and for years to come. And because of that small change in format, we suddenly started to get buy-in from the partners we needed to make that culture change. And most of all, we started to see people act in good faith towards one another — trying to listen, instead of blame or defend. Change is happening.”

And just like that, Anna’s #InclusionRevolution campaign to make schools, workplaces, and communities more accessible and inclusive for those with disabilities was underway.

Panelists Peter O’Halloran (SPEAC), William Deltoro (@IWantToWorkPA), Jennifer Sang (@BerneyLaw), Ludy Soderman (@PHLschools), Derek Green (@CouncilmanDerek), and Darlene Hemerka (@PubIntLawCtr) discuss special ed funding and the need to involve disabled students in their IEPs with audience members.

After months of planning, organizing, and what I can only imagine was a seemingly endless stream of emails and phone calls, Philadelphia’s 1st Annual Disability Inclusion Summit kicked off on March 17, 2018. Guests included people with disabilities, parents of children with disabilities, caregivers, healthcare providers, disability advocates, and key policy makers like Philadelphia City Councilman Mark Squilla. “Most of the guests had never even been in the same room before,” Anna said after the Summit.

Throughout the day, speakers shared stories of having to advocate to get their children into a local school, of not being able to participate in community events because venues weren’t accessible, and of trying to help others navigate difficult disability services when they relocated.

“When we fight for students with disabilities, all students benefit! When we come together and fight for the disability community, everyone benefits!” — Helen G., Councilwoman At Large

When we followed up with Anna to ask her why she thought her inaugural summit became such a success, she told us that community outreach was essential. “A key part of our outreach was to focus on the perspectives of different communities, people of color, immigrants, and refugees, who have all been underserved in our region,” Anna told a group of OFA organizers back in Chicago.

The Summit was the first time where a lot of these stakeholders and leaders had ever met with people with disabilities. And even though there were a few tense moments, Anna believes that the values that OFA volunteers are trained to espouse — respect, empowerment, and inclusion — really made a difference in bringing folks together who otherwise might not feel comfortable or trust each other to be in the same room. “Those values also helped us get on a positive path where we’re talking about taking action, instead of just endless venting. They allowed us to look at one another as a group that was capable of solving problems in our community.”

Sterling: “So much emphasis placed on individual responsibility. Yes, it’s important for people to learn their rights, but as a community, we have to fight for this information to be made accessible to people who may not have law degrees.”

And those values grounded the entire Summit, where the clear overarching message was one of inclusion and respect: People wanted the segregation in classrooms, parks, and sports leagues to come to an end. Their children just want an opportunity to be involved in the same sports, be on the same teams, and learn the same things as their non-disabled peers.

Check out Anna’s full highlights from the Summit here.

Like all good organizing events, Philadelphia’s Disability Inclusion Summit ended with an ask: that people who participate in that day’s discussion continue to talk about, fight for, and listen to disabled people’s rights beyond that day. As a number of speakers pointed out, these discussions—and the changes that would ultimately be implemented—would benefit more than just people with disabilities, but the entire community as a whole.

For me, Anna truly embodies what it means to be an organizer. She didn’t wait for policy-makers to take action or for an opportunity to present itself; she took the initiative, she organized, and she worked her tail off to bring her community together in an inclusive, respectful way. She became the catalyst for the change that she wanted to see. Because of her actions, people whose voices previously weren’t being heard got an opportunity to speak to key stakeholders, tell their stories, and ask for the change that they wanted to see within their own communities.

And that’s what makes organizing so powerful and important — you can choose not to be patient.