Investing in Learning

This is the second post in a series. Click here to start at the beginning.

The Learning Together, Connecting Communities cohort at our first gathering.

[Image description: A group of 25 people of various ethnicities and abilities posed in front of a window. Some stand; some kneel; one sits in a wheelchair.]

In order to create long-term change, grantmakers need to develop deep and lasting relationships with communities and, in particular, community-led organizations. With this in mind, Northwest Health Foundation (NWHF) launched an initiative in 2014 to understand the experiences of people with disabilities by building relationships with organizations led by and engaging people with disabilities. We called this initiative Learning Together, Connecting Communities (Learning Together).

Learning Together was a year-long $100,000 investment with three key goals in mind:

  • Learn more about efforts in Oregon and Southwest Washington that are engaging and led by people with disabilities;
  • Promote self-determination and build relationships among and with these communities; and
  • Use this process to inform the Foundation’s organizational practices.

Through Learning Together, NWHF made $10,000 to $12,000 general operating grants to organizations to support their existing efforts. (This, along with a couple other significant grants, increased our giving to disability-focused organizations to 14.9% of our funding in 2014.) More important to us, the initiative also included two gatherings that brought us and our partners together to, first and foremost, get to know one another, but also to learn from each other about our experiences and goals; explore the idea of a cohesive disability community, or communities, in Oregon and Southwest Washington; and think about intersections between disability, race/ethnicity and geography.

The organizations involved in the initiative were:

Autism Empowerment’s 2015 Easter Egg Hunt for Acceptance of All Abilities

[Image description: Kids with buckets and bags dash across a football field covered in plastic Easter eggs.]

Autism Empowerment. Founded in Vancouver, WA in 2011, Autism Empowerment is dedicated to enriching and empowering the lives of children, teens, adults and families in the Autism and Asperger communities. Autism Empowerment includes individuals on the autism spectrum in key staff, program development and volunteer roles. Everyone on the board of directors is either on the autism spectrum or closely related to someone who is.

Inclusive Arts Vibe Dance Company dancers

[Image description: Two young dancers with Down Syndrome in matching striped tank tops and shiny blue skirts. Both are kneeling; one supports the other as she leans backward, her arms spread out.]

Disability Art and Culture Project (DACP). The mission of the Disability Art and Culture Project is to further the artistic expression of people with both apparent and non-apparent disabilities. DACP views disability as a natural and valuable variation of the human form and utilizes the performing arts as a method of examining disability in relation to society. DACP’s Inclusive Arts Vibe Dance Company includes both Disabled and non-disabled youth.

Representatives from David’s Harp

[Image description: Two men and a woman stand in a group talking to one another. Their attention is focused on a notepad held in one of the men’s hands.]

David’s Harp. David’s Harp was founded in 1978 through a grassroots effort of over 100 volunteers and mental health professionals to provide a warm, friendly and supportive environment in which adults with major mental illness come together to achieve an improved quality of life and the highest possible level of independence in the community. David’s Harp offers a daytime, clubhouse setting where adults diagnosed with some variant of schizophrenia, major depression or bipolar disorder are provided with socialization and skill-building activities, as well as outings and engagement in the local community.

2013 World Refugee Day

[Image description: A young boy seated among rows of blue chairs waves an American flag.]

Immigrant & Refugee Community Organization (IRCO). Founded in 1976 by Southeast Asian refugees resettling in Oregon, IRCO’s mission is to promote the integration of refugees, immigrants and the community at large into a self-sufficient, healthy and inclusive multiethnic society. In one of IRCO’s programs, a volunteer is teaching a weekly ASL class to deaf Bhutanese and Nepalese students in American Sign Language and basic English skills. IRCO is also supporting these refugees with family mediation and employment workshops.

NAMI Walks Northwest

[Image description: A large crowd of people walk under a balloon arch. A banner reads “Start/Finish Line.”]

National Alliance on Mental Illness of Oregon (NAMI Oregon). Established in 1980, NAMI’s mission is to improve the quality of life of individuals with mental illnesses and their families through support, education and advocacy. NAMI Oregon provides education courses, support groups and a statewide toll-free resource helpline. NAMI Oregon is run, top to bottom, by members of the communities they serve.

2015 NAYA Early College Academy Graduation

[Image description: Three youth in graduation caps and gowns sit in front of a mural. They hold diplomas in their laps.]

Native American Youth and Family Center (NAYA). NAYA is the beating heart of Portland’s Native American community of more than 40,000 individuals. One problem NAYA seeks to address is the overrepresentation of Native children in the child welfare system. NAYA’s Independent Living Pathways program provides guidance to Native youth aging out of foster care, most of whom are affected by a learning disability. The Pathways program supports these youth by strengthening cultural identity, increasing personal development and self-esteem, and reducing risky behaviors.

Bus Riders Unite Mobile Rally

[Image description: Two women stand outside on a large expanse of pavement. One appears to be shouting. The other holds a sign that reads “Bus Riders unite! transit is a Civil Right.”]

OPAL Environmental Justice Oregon. OPAL builds power for environmental justice and civil rights among community members. One of OPAL’s programs is Bus Riders Unite (BRU). Since 2010, BRU, a collection of transit-dependent riders, has been fighting for transit justice, including opportunities for meaningful participation and an equitable distribution of services and benefits. BRU has approximately 100 low-income members of all races and ethnicities, including immigrants, people with disabilities, seniors and youth.

Westside Community Garden of Roseburg

[Image description: A woman leans over a raised garden bed made out of cinder blocks. There is a walker behind her.]

Umpqua Valley disAbilities Network (UVdN). In 1990, a group of community members, some with disabilities, identified the need to enhance disability awareness, increase community inclusion opportunities, and improve accessibility and other independent living services in Douglas County. UVdN’s mission is to serve people with all types of disabilities, their families and loved ones by fostering independent living, facilitating personal growth, honoring individual choice, raising disability awareness and promoting full inclusion in the community.

For us at NWHF the most rewarding part of the Learning Together, Connecting Communities initiative was the opportunity to spend a significant amount of time with our partners all in one place. We gathered in November 2014 in Welches, Oregon and April 2015 in Silverton, Oregon.

At both gatherings we aimed to set up a space of inclusion, in which everyone felt welcome and engaged. This meant asking each participant multiple times what we could do, and what the group could do, to help them participate. We asked this on our online registration forms for the gatherings; we asked in emails and on phone calls with gathering participants; and we asked again at the beginning of each gathering. Participants voiced a wide range of needs, from silent applause and dimmed lights, to sign language interpretation and breaks for dancing. We did our best to recognize and honor every request.

Former NWHF board member and chair of our Equity Committee, Darleen Ortega, speaking to the Learning Together cohort in Silverton, Oregon.

[Image description: A woman stands in front of a wall decorated with a web made out of Post-It notes and ribbon. She is gesturing with her hands.]

Learning Together gathering participants engage in discussion.

[Image description: Five people sit behind a long table covered in a white tablecloth. The man in the middle is gesturing with one of his hands, in the middle of saying something. The people on either side of him are turned to listen to him.]

This set us up to dive deep into some hard discussions. At the first gathering in November, we spent time talking about our long-term visions for the future. We also drew connections between our communities’ work, called out people and organizations that weren’t in the room but should still be part of the conversation, and considered the idea of a region-wide disability community. In April, we asked our Learning Together partners to lead sessions on cross-disability community and intersectional identity, leadership and self-determination. We also asked them to give us feedback on how Northwest Health Foundation and other foundations could be better partners to disability-led and engaging organizations.

Our web of connections.

[Image description: A computer-generated image of yellow and pink squares and green rectangles arranged in a rough circle with lines drawn between them. The pink squares and rectangles have the names of organizations typed on top of them. The yellow squares have words like “advocacy,” “education,” “community building,” etc.]

Learning Together gathering participants enjoying dinner together.

[Image: A group of people sit around a circular table eating and conversing.]

We got some good work done in November and April, but our gatherings weren’t all business. We did end up taking dance breaks. We also provided toys like Play-Doh, Slinkies and plastic dinosaurs for participants to manipulate while we talked and listened to each other. And, after hearing a request for it at our first gathering, we invited our partners to participate in an evening talent show at our second gathering. We wanted to connect as people, as well as partners.

NWHF’s Community Engagement Officer Michael Reyes performing at our Learning Together talent show.

[Image description: A man plays a guitar in front of a room of people seated around circular tables. A woman on the right signs the lyrics he is singing.]

Some of the toys we had at the gatherings for participants to play with while we worked.

[Image description: A plastic dinosaur with its front feet perched on top of a tub of Play-Doh.]

In all honestly, two short gatherings weren’t enough. We got just a taste of what we do not know and still need to learn about people with disabilities. We discovered that there is so much variation across communities of people with disabilities that the learning will never end. The Learning Together, Connecting Communities initiative turned out to be an excellent first step in our journey toward disability equity, but we know that the journey is going to take more than a few steps.

Click here to read the next post in this series.