In the autumn of 2012, the NFB community was shaken to learn that the national office was laying off 19 staff members at its headquarters in Baltimore. For those of you uninitiated readers, understand two things. The National Federation of the Blind was considered to be the largest and most influential voice of the organized blind in America. Also, employment is a much sought after, often elusive goal for blind people. As I have explained elsewhere in these pages, the NFB often served as the intersection between community and employment for many of its members.
So it was understandable why my friend Amy got roaring drunk on the eve of the convention of the Nebraska affiliate of the NFB in October, 2012. Amy was a loyal member of the Federation and had been an employee at the national office for about two years. Her job was safe, but some of her friends and coworkers were not. Amy wasn’t sure if her situation would continue to be secure going forward. So, she got shitfaced, then spent the next day nursing a hangover with crackers and water in her hotel room as the convention kicked off.
At the time, I was living in Colorado. I happened to be back in my home state standing as godfather to my new niece, if you can believe it. I attended her christening, then went to the NFBN convention the next day. It was a strange feeling being back amongst my fellow blind Nebraskans. I felt like an outsider looking in.
The sharpest memory that comes from that weekend was provided by Jim Gashel, fellow Coloradoan and national representative for the Baltimore headquarters. For those unwashed in the blood of the lamb, each state convention gets a national rep who comes with the proxy of the national president of the organization. It Is customary for each rep to deliver a report to the assembled convention body during the general session, as well as a keynote speech during the evening banquet. For me, it was often an excuse to go hit the head and grab some NABS snacks in the back of the room.
During Gashel’s remarks, he brought up the topic of the mass layoffs in Baltimore. This was 11 years ago, so I’m paraphrasing, but his remarks went something like, “Dr. Marc Maurer made the very difficult but necessary decision to lay off a portion of the staff.” At that point, a few people applauded, then quickly ceased when they realized that the applause was not going to swell.
What happened next was pretty stunning. Gashel said, with no sense of empathy or irony, “No, go ahead. That’s an applause line.” So, people applauded on mass. Amy and I were dumbstruck. Did the audience understand that they were applauding the loss of 19 jobs? Of course, they were really applauding Marc Maurer’s courageous sacrifices that had to be made for the greater good. Whatever the angle, it was tactless, heartless and cruel.
I remembered Gashel’s applause line later on that evening. Our state president pulled several students aside and gave them a stern talking-to. Apparently, they were laughing and chitty-chatting during Gashel’s banquet keynote speech. His wife Susan was offended by their irreverence and lack of respect, so she let the higher-ups know of her displeasure. And, the kids got a lecture. I don’t know if they got sent to their rooms without any of Nancy Oltman’s prize-winning cake.
Think about the dichotomy of those two situations for a moment. Gashel wanted everyone to applaud the termination of 19 jobs from the national office, but there was no sense of loss or regret in his words. Later, his wife gets pissed at a couple of college kids for a lack of respect. Absorb these disparities and you’ll have a decent snapshot of the culture within the NFB.
Sidebar: Nancy Oltman’s cakes were the stuff of legends around Nebraska NFB circles. They really did put Pillsbury to shame. Some people paid hundreds of dollars at fundraising auctions just to own one of her cakes.
I was thinking of that fateful convention and Jim Gashel’s applause lines two days ago when I learned that Blind Inc., one of the three NFB training centers in Minneapolis, would be closing at the end of this week. Their official statement on the matters reads as follows:
“The Board of Directors of Blindness: Learning in New Dimensions, Inc. (BLIND, Inc.) regrets to announce that we will temporarily suspend all of our programs and services as of January 1, 2024.
We take this action with heavy hearts. After extensive deliberation over our current financial and organizational obligations, we believe suspending operations at this time in order to make future plans is the best and most responsible available course of action. This decision comes after a review of compounded circumstances that have developed over a period of years, leaving our organization with inadequate resources to advance our mission at this time. One factor of this evaluation is that our current building, the Pillsbury Mansion, which is on the national historic registry, needs millions of dollars in renovations that must be done in a manner that preserves its historic character. Unfortunately, we have determined that we are not in a position to undertake the necessary building renovations while still providing quality adjustment-to-blindness training.
We recognize that this decision will be painful to our students, our dedicated staff, and to all of our supporters in the community. We acknowledge that it comes at a particularly difficult time, with the holiday season and new year upon us. We were not able to find a viable way to alter the timing of this decision. Our leadership is working with the National Federation of the Blind, Louisiana Center for the Blind, and Colorado Center for the Blind to help during this transition.
We deeply appreciate all of the work everyone affiliated with BLIND, Inc. has done over the past three decades to help blind people build the skills and confidence to live the lives they want. Our high-quality training has impacted thousands of people, not only the many students that have walked with us, but also the blind community who connect with the positive philosophy and high expectations demonstrated from our alumni and friends. With the continued support of our board, partners, and community, our goal in the coming months is to re-imagine what adjustment to blindness training can be, and to reopen our doors with fresh approaches and insights and on a sound financial footing.
BLIND, Inc, established in 1986, is a training center and community of blind and low-vision people, proudly affiliated with the National Federation of the Blind. We believe blind people can do anything. Every day, we encourage and challenge each student. When you believe in yourself and experience a thriving community of positive blind people, nothing can hold you back from pursuing your dreams. Our mission and values will continue to guide us to dream without limits, be bold, and work with love. Thank you for your support.”
Merry Christmas and Happy New Year, Blind Inc. staff. Nothin’ says lovin’ like being fired for the holidays. “Chestnuts roasting on an open fire.” “Frosty the snowman, was a jolly happy soul.” “Riccobono took an axe, and gave the center 40 whacks.” Hope you can find work in 2024, cuz we may or may not be back.
I have to say that this statement is a slight step up from Gashel’s callous “applause line” comment. At least they acknowledged the shitty timing of the decision. Still, you can hear the martyrdom dripping from each word, even amidst the boiler plate sloganeering. “Live the life you want,” indeed.
The underlying sentiment is pervasive within the NFB, but as I’ve learned after talking to others in the nonprofit sector over the years, it is not unique to them. The critical importance of the mission is often weaponized against anyone who wants to openly question the maltreatment of employees, or to suppress employees who wish to economically advance within the organization. “If you truly appreciated the lord’s work that we’re doing here, you’d understand that we have to sacrifice you to save others, Hell, if you really love us, you’ll applaud your sacrifice on the altar of the greater good.” I have no doubt that this message is being implicitly or explicitly transmitted to the soon-to-be former employees at Blind Inc. during this yuletide season.
I could parse and deconstruct the statement, but it would be futile at this juncture. There’s just too much I don’t know. I do seriously wonder why it wasn’t possible to relocate the program to more modern and affordable surroundings, but I’m sure a certain segment of the blind elite would find questions like this pedestrian and sophomoric, so I’ll just leave it lay. It’s also quite evident that there is a hell of a lot more going on here than just issues involving an outdated building. Many hard questions will need to be asked and answered over the coming months. Every dues-paying member of the NFB should be outraged by this sad development. I wish the general membership had the intestinal fortitude to press the leadership for the answers, but I am skeptical of any such outcome. I am also highly skeptical that there will ever be a Blind Inc. 2.0.
But back to 2012 for a moment. Lest Amy be embarrassed by my portrayal of her, I have to admit that she wasn’t the only person who got shitfaced that fateful October weekend. After the banquet, I began consuming alternate quantities of Fat Tire and something called a, Cattle Prod. My memories are really sketchy, but I think a Cattle Prod involved the fusion of Royal Crown Cola and Jack Daniels Whisky. I can’t be sure. By 1AM, I have a very fuzzy memory of being wheeled back to my room on a hotel dolly. Apparently, I sang karaoke versions of “Love, Me,” and “Mamas, Don’t Let your Babies Grow Up to be Cowboys.” If you’re curious how it sounded, you can probably find a recording of it somewhere on the internet. It’s every bit as embarrassing as you might guess. I also vaguely remember drunk dialing my girlfriend in Denver and hugging a lot of people. I’m a big lovie bear when I drink.
At 4AM, I woke up on my hotel room floor, my pants around my ankles and a cold puddle underneath my stomach. I won’t mention my roommate’s name because he’s respectable now.
At 8AM, my dad called and said they’d be over to pick me up in an hour. So I showered quick, said goodbye to my fellow blind, all of whom seemed reserved in their expressions of affection toward me, and I went to our family cabin, where I tried to shake off my monstrous hangover and put on a good face in front of my new goddaughter. To this day, that convention drinking bout was the worst black-out episode I’ve ever had.
Two weeks later to the day, at the banquet of the NFB of Colorado state convention in Boulder, Julie Deden won an award for her exemplary service to the organization. I got so angry, I started banging my empty coffee cup on its saucer until someone in leadership told me to quit it or get out. I think I was on Fat Tire number six or seven at that point.
The next morning, I shamefully slinked out of the hotel without saying goodbye to anyone. I went home to my apartment, tried to sleep, and wound up with the dry heaves on the bathroom floor at about 11:30 AM. There, retching and grunting with bile in my throat, I looked in the metaphoric mirror and decided that I might…might have a drinking problem.
That part was easy. The part where I had to admit that I might…might have an NFB problem didn’t come for many years. But that, gentle readers, is a story for another blog entry.
As for Amy, she worked at NFB headquarters for a few more years. She eventually left the national office and moved to San Francisco, where she happily now shares her crackers and water with the homeless.
Does anyone remember Jim Gashel’s letter of, “caring concerns,” that he published two years ago in the wake of the NFB’s internal investigation of the sexual misconduct scandal? One can’t help but read it (particularly Section II) and get the sense that Gashel was being relegated to the storage closet of history. I read it and gave it the applause it deserved. I have no idea where Gashel is now or what he’s doing, but I doubt he’s in the unemployment line.
Before I depart, let me say that I’ve been pretty flippant in this entry. It’s what I do. But I genuinely feel bad for the men and women who got laid off from Blind Inc. Most paid NFB underlings are decent, hard-working people who honestly want to make a positive difference in the lives of the blind. Whatever incompetence transpired behind the scenes, the workers at Blind Inc. didn’t deserve the holiday shit sandwich they just got. As I’ve stated before, blind people can’t just lose their jobs and pick up and work for Uber or Chipotle to carry on through from paycheck to paycheck until a better job comes along. I really, really hope they’ll be all right.