Somethin’ From the Oven

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.

Merry Christmas.

Tosty

In the autumn of 2016, I was seated in a banquet room in Denver at a convention of the National Federation of the Blind of Colorado, swigging beer number three (or was it four) listening to Kevan Worley, the bumptious and loquacious master of ceremonies, as he berated the sound guys from the stage.

“Hey! Sound guys! I’m just gonna say…Where we are…where we wanna be!” he bellowed. Then he said, “If our sound guys can handle it, we’d love for anyone listening on our stream to give us a call on Skype and say hi.”

I pulled out my phone and sent a text. “You should call in,” I wrote.

Two minutes later (or was it five) my phone rang. I answered and the warm, familiar voice said in my ear, “What’s the number?”

Five minutes later (or was it 10), Kevan eagerly grabbed the mic (again) and said, “Folks, we have a guy on Skype who wants to say hi. Maybe you remember him. Tom Anderson, from Kansas.”

The room exploded in the loudest ovation that I’d ever heard at an NFB convention anywhere. It was a riotous, joyous shriek that kept going and going. Eventually, much of the crowd burst into the chant, “TOSTY! TOSTY! TOSTY!” In my beer-fogged brain, I remember a thought emerging; this is the most authentic, heartfelt cheer I’ve ever heard at a convention. At the point, Tom had been absent from Colorado for almost 18 months.

In May, 2015, Miles Thomas Anderson retired from the Colorado Center for the Blind as a Braille instructor after a 27-year career. I left work early to attend the party. It was a strange, almost surreal affair that was dampened by an accidental power outage that left the CCB in total darkness throughout the entire proceedings. The good lord was making a statement that was unmistakable. The CCB was losing a light that could never be replaced.

Tom could often seem nonplussed when speaking publicly, but he took the occasion with his usual good grace and humble humor. The party was well-attended, including many VIPs from the national office in Baltimore. Many of his former students were in attendance as well. It was clear that Tom was leaving a professional legacy that was vibrant and strong. I remember the speeches from the leadership seeming canned and perfunctory, counter to the tributes from his students, which all seemed natural and sincere.

A year before Tom’s retirement party, I was hired as a summer counselor for the CCB youth program. I was set to be a cane travel instructor. It was the most tempestuous, heartbreaking three months of my life. Two weeks of training were not nearly enough to prepare me when the students came to the CCB. On the third day after they arrived, a latecomer named Andrew joined us. He was a soft-spoken lad who seemed overwhelmed by everything at the center. At one point I asked him, “How ya doing?” He said, “I haven’t even had a tour yet.”

So, I gave him the nickel tour. At one point, we came to the braille room in the basement, in which were housed shelf upon shelf of braille volumes. Andrew and I walked through the door and were greeted by Tom’s customary, “Hi, Ryan.” It was at that point, with the smell of the library in my nostrils and Tom’s warm greeting in my ears, that I began to relax a little.

After Tom explained the braille room, I sent Andrew upstairs and lingered with Tom for a moment.

“How you doing?” he asked.

“Tom, I think I’m in over my head,” I said as I exhaled a cloud of pent-up anxiety.

“Well, you’ll be alright. Just take it one day at a time and try your best to listen to what your students are telling you.”

As I walked out of Tom’s library I thought, if I could be half the teacher that Tom was, I would count it as a win.

As it turned out, I didn’t even come close. Not even in the ballpark. But then, Tom Anderson was (and is) a tough act to follow. He was a steady, unassuming leader without exuding the forceful qualities that are so often sought and projected within the power players of the NFB. There was nothing artificial or disingenuous about Tom Anderson. When he spoke in his halting, tentative style, you knew that he was not selling you anything that he did not believe in his own heart. When he spoke of the history of the National Federation of the Blind, he spoke with love and affection. When he imparted the NFB’s positive philosophy of self-empowerment, he spoke in the spirit of gentility, not in hackneyed clichés. When he spoke critically of the organization, there was no self-serving aspect to it. Tom did not trash talk other people for his own personal gain, even when they deserved it. His honesty was always tinged with compassion and an empathy that came from a real and humble place.

I’ve alluded to the fact that Tom was not the best public speaker. He could sometimes stutter or fumble his words, as if he were searching through his vast book knowledge to pull out just the right modifier or qualifier. But the veil of hesitancy fell away when he spoke of his faith. He orated upon the subject of the love of God with a rising, staccato-like barrage of verbiage that resembled the thunderous “click-clack” of a Perkins braillewriter. Tom Anderson was an unashamed Christian. There was a reason why he was always asked to deliver the invocation at both state and national conventions. When his words turned heavenward, his timber would sharpen and his voice would rise and fall like the tide, sometimes bordering on tremulous passion for his holy savior.

Everyone who knew Tom Anderson knew where he stood with regard to questions of the power of the almighty Jesus Christ. Yet, I don’t ever remember Tom castigating anyone who did not share his view. He was not a fire-and-brimstone preacher man who hurled pronouncements of doom for those who did not accept the holy word. I remember him more as a stalwart messenger who spoke of his witness openly and unreservedly, but who did not cast stones at others. Tom was that rare kind of Christian that I respected. He always appeared to live the beliefs that he preached to others. I remember vowing that, if I ever got married, I would want Tom Anderson to officiate my wedding. How sad that this will never come to be.

I remember when I first met Tom in the summer of 2001. I was visiting the CCB for a three-day stay and met him in the braille room. I spoke to him of my belief that braille was paramount in the learning development of blind children. Naturally, he agreed. Then he asked me, “What would you say that you struggle the most with in your braille?”

My answer was automatic. “The slate and stylus.”

“Ok,” he responded. “So, I want you to slate me one page of contracted braille telling me about yourself.”

So, I wrote Tom one page of braille talking about myself. When I was done, I slapped down the stylus and said, “My right hand hasn’t been this sore since I watched The Spice Channel a few months ago.”

My companion who was with me at the time gasped, sure that I had offended Tom’s pious sensibilities. For his part, Tom threw back his head and laughed. It was a warm, infectious sound that drifted through the room like the smell of freshly baked bread. Tom was a strong Christian, but he was not a prude. He did not swear, but he did not police the language of others out of moral purity. Later that day, we all sang Eric Clapton’s “Layla,” with Tom singing the loudest while stomping on the floor as if he were leading a revival.

Tom and I kept in touch after he left Colorado. Through the power of WhatsApp, we spoke about the changing nature of politics, the changing culture of the NFB and of small things such as new-fangled iPhone apps, country music and books worthy of attention. When I moved to Omaha in October of 2017, Tom was a stable presence throughout my emotional turmoil. “Colorado is not the center of the universe,” he would tell me. “The Midwest really is a great place to live.” I took a measure of comfort knowing that Tom was just down the road in Overland Park.

Tom and I were closely aligned politically, which often made us feel like outriggers in an organization ubiquitous with professed liberals, many of whom were drifting toward progressivism. But Tom professed his political views in the same manner that he spoke of his faith. He was open and honest, but not a firebrand. He bemoaned the rise of Donald Trump in the Republican Party, but ultimately, he set upon the path I could never tread when he seemed to accept that Trump was a force that had to be dealt with reasonably, if not fully embraced.

In the past year or so, Tom and I drifted apart a little. I must confess that I pulled away just a bit. I drew back instinctively after January 6th. In discussing it with Tom, I was disconcerted to hear him describe the attack on our nation’s capital as, “civil disobedience.” Recent Facebook posts from him seemed to take a turn toward anti-vaccination, a position that is distasteful to me. In a world where so many people that I once loved and respected seem to have gone off the map, I didn’t feel I had the heart to fully reckon with the idea that calm, gentle, reasonable Tom Anderson may be losing his marbles. For me, a certain remove served as a measure of self-protection.

August has been a month bookended by death and loss. My uncle passed away at the beginning of the month after suffering a stroke on the 4th of July. We were not close, but I have fond memories of him from my childhood and I grieve for his remaining family. Two days ago, a close friend suffered the loss of her long-time partner. I didn’t know him, but watching her suffer the ravages of his death will be painful. But, of all the losses I’ve felt of late, the one that impacts me the most is that of Tom Anderson. When I heard of his passing last week, it was a bolt from the blue.

I was not prepared when I heard the news that he was gone. My first thought was one of anger, toward myself. I wish I had given Tom the same benefit of the doubt that he gave so many others when he taught all those years. If nothing else, Tom earned respect from me. If I was going to write him off as another Christian broken by Donald Trump, at least I should have given him a fair hearing before making my final judgment. Now, I will never know where he truly stood. I will never have the chance to thank him for all he did to inspire me during my time in Colorado. I will never be able to bid him a proper goodbye.

And yet, knowing Tom’s belief system as I did, I know that he is with God right now. I know he can see into my heart and can see my regret at not keeping in touch. I know that he is following the word of his lord and savior and that he has forgiven me. Someday, perhaps I’ll be worthy of that forgiveness.

As for Tom’s legacy, I will always remember him as a light that touched a great many people. Tom believed in the power of the written word and its ability to transform lives for the better. Whether he was reading Harry Potter, Lonesome Dove or The Bible in braille, he was always reading something. May that spirit continue to flourish amongst the blind of the world.

God bless you, Tosty Andersox, and thank you for all that you have given to us. We love you and miss you.

God’s speed, my friend.

PS: If you want to know while we all called Tom, “Tosty,” find someone who knew him and ask them. The best way to keep Tom alive is to speak of him.

Can a Blind Person Fly the Plane?

I’m trying to remember the last time I wrote in this blog. I think it’s been months. I admit fully and firmly that I’ve dropped the ball. Frankly, I’m tired. I’m tired of talking to myself. I’m tired of feeling like one of the few sane minds in a room full of cuckoo birds. I’m tired of watching people whom I know to be smart, rational people put their brains in their back pocket. I’m tired of the encroaching groupthink mindset that wants to push me into being absolutely for things, or absolutely against things.

Take Elon Musk, for instance. The guy recently went through with one of the dumbest moves in financial history when he purchased Twitter. The left went bonkers, screaming about the horrors of an eccentric, often erratic millionaire taking over a website mostly known for its high levels of toxicity and reflexive vitriol. In some quarters, folks are acting as if winter is coming. Maybe a nuclear winter, complete with total, eternal darkness, sparse life underground and 12-fingered children playing with two-headed mongrels in piles of glowing dust.

And why? Because, Musk dares to espouse the value of free speech. How dare he consider allowing Trump back on Twitter. How dare he give a platform to haters, homophobes and heretics?

Worse yet, he dared to cut Twitter’s bloated staff by half, a privilege extended to any new management when they take over a company. The former heads of Twitter knew this was a possibility when they agreed to sell. Included in that massive slashing of personnel was the entire accessibility team. For those uninitiated in the disabled club, these are the people who insure that Twitter is useable for those folks who do not interact with their computer devices in conventional form; folks like myself who use a screen-reader to voice the text on my screen.

Predictably, the disability justice crowd went nuts when the news came down last Friday. I’ve learned to reduce much of the shrieking of the online woke mob to background noise, but a few people whom I consider to be reasonable, level-headed thinkers also began to doomcast. One of them was my pal, Steve Sawczyn.

I mention Steve specifically and by full name because he is my benefactor. Steve is the reason why this blog exists; financially speaking. He pays the bill every year that allows me to continue to log in and share my inanities with all of you. I know Steve personally and he is a calm, kind man with a decent family who is generally not given to panic, hyperbole or capriciousness.

This is why I was startled when I read a tweet from Steve in the wake of the mass firings that said, “A few hours ago, Twitter laid off its entire Accessibility Experience team. This is sad not only because so many lost their jobs, but because so many more around the world may lose their voice.”

My response to Steve was characteristic of Twitter in immediacy and tone and indicative of my foul mood. “That is a load of horseshit! You can’t possibly believe that.”

Steve’s response was equally characteristic, equal parts brevity and deadpan. “This too shall pass.”

I want to repeat that I know Steve and he is a smart cookie. If he really believes that many blind people would lose their voices if Twitter should become unusable, he’s making this argument in good faith. A lot of the woke disabled left do not argue in good faith, such as their recent efforts to cast the legitimate questioning of John Fetterman’s fitness for office as, “Ableist.” If Steve says it, I’m sure he believes it to be true.

I have also learned a very painful lesson over the past seven years or so. No one is too smart to be stupid. Let me be clear that I am not saying that Steve is a stupid man. Quite the contrary. However, even the smartest people can behave in a stupid manner if they give themselves permission to do so.

I can’t tell you how many people whom I previously viewed as those of high intellect and strong character who evolved in their defenses of Donald Trump’s every action and utterance from tentative rationalizations, to shameless justifications, and finally, to full-throated cheerleading. The consequence of this was for the left, also populated with a lot of people who should know better, to use Trump as an excuse to rationalize, justify and cheerlead their own stroll down the path of casual authoritarianism. See previous arguments on abolishing the filibuster for more information. The latest culmination of this is the second of two speeches delivered by the current president of the United States, warning that, if Republicans win back control of Congress this coming Tuesday, Democracy will be endangered.

This unfortunate phenomenon is what us political junkies term, The Flight 93 Mentality. It stems from a now-deleted essay by Michael Anton in 2016, comparing the eminent presidential election to the doomed Flight 93 that crashed in a Pennsylvania field on September 11, 2001. Anton’s ultimate point was that Americans (those who chose to vote for Trump) were the ones who would save the plane before it became a deadly missile that would inevitably destroy our country.

The premise was poppycock in 2016 and it is abject folderol now with Biden piloting the plane! I’m sure that Biden is typically unaware of the grand paradox (there’s that P-word again) of his assertions. If voters exercise their democratic privileges, they will only preserve said privileges if they keep one party in power without a proper counterweight. Come to think of it, I doubt Biden even knows what a paradox is. I’d hate to see him try to pronounce it. God, I love ableism!

How does this relate to Elon Musk and Twitter? Very simply, Twitter is a large source of the problem. Various doomcasters, doomscrollers and doomtrollers all find plenty of fodder on Twitter. Indeed, why can’t we distill the great nuances of life down to 240 characters, static photos and short video clips?

Am I saying Twitter shouldn’t exist? Hell no! It’s the consequence of a free society with innovation at its core. Am I saying it’s largely a cesspool of digital sewage? Absolutely! The whole blue checkmark debate reveals a virtual cast system perpetuated largely by those who decry cast systems in other quarters. Am I saying that blind people shouldn’t care about Twitter? Of course not. Bud disabled people around the world had a voice long before Twitter came to prominence and, now that we’ve proven that the bell cannot be unrung, we will find a way to express ourselves should Musk crash the plane in a grand, fiery plunge.

I think some of this current panic mongering comes, not just from the fear of lack of access, but from a personal animus toward Musk. Many people (disabled included) view Musk as a Trumpian figure who’s takeover of Twitter signals the decline of the noble order of values that once held sway in this valiant land of blue checkmarks. This is more uninformed fiddle faddle. I am not a cheerleader for Elon Musk. I don’t see him as a conservative avatar, or an avatar of any sort, for that matter. Like most rich people, the guy is probably equal parts crazy, narcissist and asshole. He has too much of an affinity for the Chinese government for my liking, which means he probably enjoys his own brand of autocracy. But how is this any different from the previous regime who chose to suppress the Hunter Biden story in hopes of swinging the 2020 election in their favor?

Elon Musk is now the sole controller of Twitter. That is the reality. He’s not going anywhere and he will not be cowed by online theatrical protests. If Twitter really is a hallowed ground of sacred principle, and if the disabled want Musk’s attention, how about trying to start a dialogue with him rather than going all fetal position inside of your own comfort bubble? Or maybe Jonathan Mosen will have his way and the NFB will sue Twitter. If there’s one thing the NFB knows how to do, it’s sue. I guess Mosen likes the NFB now, or at least, he likes them when they suit his purposes. I hope he doesn’t have any underage daughters who plan to attend their convention without a bodyguard.

In the meantime, another guy I follow on Twitter noted yesterday that the Instacart app seems to have become partially inaccessible. You can load your grocery cart, but you can’t check out. Yet, not a peep from the usual suspects. I guess mundane things like buying groceries isn’t nearly as sexy as hand-wringing over a crackpot rich dude who just took a wrecking ball to the latest international order.

Finally, on another subject, I wanted to write a long blog entry about the death of Queen Elizabeth and the profound sadness I felt when she left us. I guess it’s just not in me. I will simply say that, upon her death, it felt like the last truly adult head of state left the table. Now, it feels as if the kids are flying the plane. I know that new leaders will rise and some of them will be competent, but right now, it feels as if we’re in a void with no one to look to for guidance. What we’re left with is a country that can’t even hold a Prime Minister, another that will likely have a rematch between two addled octogenarians for the presidency in two years, war in Eastern Europe and a lot of countries who are casually veering toward authoritarianism. Does this seem like doomcasting to the two of you who are reading this? If so, than I have plenty of good company. God save the Queen.

As for you, Steve, if you’re reading this, feel free to pull the plug when the next bill comes due. The world will have to wait for my final thoughts on Better Call Saul. Honestly, at this point, I think I’m past caring.

Betrayal: Part Two

I get it.

There’s a reason why I pasted Erick Erickson’s letter in this blog. It resonated. You live with something for years until it becomes part of you. Every day, it stares back at you from the depths of the mirror, but you’re so used to it that you can’t see it. You don’t know when it became a part of you. You don’t know when you learned to live with it. But you know it’s there. Kind of like being fat. One day, you put your pants on and your belt is tighter and you have to go up a notch. You don’t know when it happened, but you know why it happened.

It feels as if the last six years of my life have been rife with betrayal. In 2015, I was a Republican. I held a certain set of conservative beliefs that informed my world view. My daily enmeshment in a hostile work environment where my beliefs were constantly challenged, assaulted and ridiculed only strengthened them. Those who identified as liberals and progressives in my life acted predictably. The derisive barbs, the clumsy baiting in the break room, the pointedly unsubtle conversations within earshot, the mocking laughter were all true to form for leftists. At some point, I stopped arguing, recognizing the futility of any attempt at constructive dialogue. Mike Rosen and conservative allies on social media were my quiet workplace refuge.

It was one thing to be assailed by liberals. It was quite another when the party I believed in slowly surrendered to a hostile external force that sought not to change it for the better, but to erode it for the sole purpose of self-glorification.

In April of 2016, I attended the Colorado state Republican convention in Colorado Springs. I heard a lot of dialogue during that day. Most of it was healthy and respectful. Some of it was unhealthy and toxic. All of it was robust. I had no inkling that five years later, the GOP would be transformed into a monoculture of personality held hostage to the ego of one man.

I didn’t leave the GOP after Trump was elected. I recognized that most of the people who voted for him did so for reasons of pragmatism. He wasn’t their first choice in the primaries and they were stuck with him. Trump was not the final straw for me. That honor belonged to Roy D. Moore, a senatorial candidate in Alabama who had quite apparently sexually harassed a number of women. The GOP didn’t care and happily endorsed him. Apparent electoral victories had blinded them to reality. That was when I walked away.

That was over four years ago. Nothing the Republicans have done in the interval have made me regret my decision to leave. On the contrary, their subsequent words and deeds, particularly after Election Day, 2020 have only shown me that I made the right choice in walking away. The putrid resolution passed a week ago censuring Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger, while simultaneously labeling January 6th as, “Legitimate political discourse,” proves to me that the GOP party I once knew is now an alien wasteland.

But worse than the betrayal of a national party populated by figures I don’t know is the sudden and radical metamorphosis of people I do know. Relatives and friends who once championed the same conservative values as I do (the value of honesty in politics, respectful discourse, the value in the rule of law), now make sad excuses when leaders like Trump take every rule we’ve ever lived by, wipes his ass with it and flushes it down the crapper. It makes me wonder if these people, some of whom were moral mentors, ever really believed what they preached to me, or if they were always lying. Sadly, they can’t see the changes within themselves. They think everyone else has changed while they have remained static. But this isn’t true. Their refusal to see what they have become while deflecting their role in it is tantamount to betrayal.

One person who was fundamental in the shaping of my conservative values literally got in my face when he learned that I wouldn’t vote for Trump in 2016. “Ryan, your problem is that you’re unseasoned!” he said.

Unseasoned? I participated in two separate Republican primaries as a delegate in Colorado. I’ve visited Washington D.C. three times and been to Capitol Hill as a member of the National Federation of the Blind. I was even involved in student government at UNL for two years when I went to college there. I think it’s safe to say that I am the member of my family who is the most seasoned when it comes to politics. Another mentor, a man who is a devout Christian, characterized the attack on the capitol as, “Civil disobedience.” Sadly, this style of argument has only become more commonplace during the reign of Trump and after.

I’ve never been accosted while peeing in a public bathroom, but I have been bullied, hectored and guilt tripped by people who took my descent from the common Republican ethos very personally. They acted as if I was the traitor. I’ve even had idiots on Facebook call me a traitor, as if my refusal to bend the knee to one man embodied the betrayal of my basic patriotism and love of America. Yet, this is their warped view. This is where we stand today.

As bad as things are in the mainstream political realm, it’s worse as a blind guy. In 2015, I was a solid member of the National Federation of the Blind. My journey with the Federation had been a rocky one. As I stated in my resignation letter, my level of involvement with the organization has fluctuated over the years. When I first became involved, I was deep in the movement. By the time I moved to Colorado, I was on the periphery. By 2015, I had worked at the CCB as a summer youth counselor and was an elected officer in the Denver chapter. It felt good to be home again. When I moved to Omaha, I was quickly elected as Second Vice-President. I agreed to serve despite a growing reservation about the changing direction of the organization. This was solidified in December of 2020 when the #MarchingTogether Movement took root.

I won’t go back over my journey in detail. One can read my past blog entries on the subject if one wishes to chart my progress. I will simply write of two separate incidents that happened that proved to me that it was time to head for the exit.

The first occurred on July 31, 2021 during a contentious state board meeting of the National Federation of the Blind of Nebraska. The subject of the suspension of Fred Schroeder came up. Naturally, much volatile discussion ensued. One member who was a participant at the meeting, though not elected to the board, began to defend Schroeder, claiming that he should not be judged solely on his transgressions. He worried that Schroeder’s accomplishments would be overshadowed by these accusations that some leaders felt were a result of a, “Kangaroo court.” I argued vociferously that the punishment of Schroeder did not go far enough. His retort to me was, “Ryan, you don’t know what you’re talking about!”

This was a man who identifies as a Republican and a conservative. This was a man who sat with me in a Village Inn in 1998 over green chili and peanut butter pie and argued passionately that Bill Clinton should be impeached for his conduct in the Oval Office. This was a man who argued vehemently that character matters in our leaders. Yet, I’m the one who doesn’t know what he’s talking about!?

While this verbal tumult was occurring, the people who should have had the most to say sat silent. That includes the state president, who also serves as a member of the national board. She largely stayed out of the conflict. She might have weighed in and given us a clue as to the happenings behind the scenes that went into the decision-making process, but this isn’t how Federation soldiers are trained. They don’t go off script, they don’t contradict the national leadership and they always refer questions (particularly those born of descent) up the chain of command to the message factory in Baltimore. In other words, she was doing her duty as a Federationist, all while neglecting the needs of the membership on a local level.

Eight days after the board meeting from hell, I sat alone in my recliner with a cold beer in my hand and listened to a podcast featuring Wayne Pearcy’s story of abuse suffered at the hands of a camp counselor during his time as a summer student at the Colorado Center for the Blind in 2004. Wayne never named his abuser, but it was clear that he was talking about Brent Batron.

Brent Batron, a one-time mentor and friend to me and to dozens of other students and counselors. Brent Batron, who had espoused the paramount virtues of positive role modeling at seminars, chapter meetings and in private conversations. Brent Batron, who had resigned abruptly from the CCB eight months before the podcast dropped. The Nebraska board meeting was bad, but this was infinitely worse.

I worked for Brent for three months in the summer of 2014. I loved the guy. I respected the guy. Hell, I even hoped that when the time came for Julie Deden to finally step down, Brent would take the reins as the Executive Director of the CCB. Brent was smart, but not intellectually imperious as are so many leaders in the NFB upper crust. He was relatable in a blue collar, down-to-earth way. He was a family man who appeared to be faithful to his wife and kids. He was a born teacher who made you want to be better at your job. He was funny, good natured, friendly and approachable. He was also a predator. When Wayne dropped his revelations, I instantly knew they were true. I didn’t have any direct knowledge. I’d heard a lot of names whispered throughout my time in the NFB. Brent’s was not one of them. I don’t know how I knew. I just fucking did.

It is impossible to explain the pain this harsh truth wrought without explaining the role my time at the CCB played upon my psyche. Looking back, I view my job at the CCB in the Dickensian sense. “It was the best of times. It was the worst of times.” I was a guy doing God’s work, showing blind youth how to live as independent, self-reliant blind people. I was also a guy in over my head, teaching teenagers skills that I was never fully sure of within myself. I always felt as if I were running in quicksand, never certain if I was serving as a positive or negative example as a competent blind adult. The constant weight of responsibilities for the welfare of someone else’s kids after years of bachelorhood took a toll. I found myself sleeping in fits and starts, jerking awake suddenly in the night wondering if one of my boys had snuck out to smoke pot. I would stand in the shower in the early morning wondering how to face another day guiding a kid with obvious cognitive impairments, hoping he could just get himself dressed. I would go through another day dead sure that I was facing harsh judgments from my fellow counselors. There were even a few times when I thought of just quitting and going back to my quiet life, but I stayed for the kids and for Brent. If I could just stay on Brent’s good side, I knew I was doing something right.

By the end of the summer, I was burned out, exhausted and in a black hole of despair. I felt like an utter failure. I had planned to get certified in O&M instruction, but honestly, it was a relief when the job at AIN became available and I could change course. Being responsible for other people was too soul-crushing to be endured for an intractable period of time. Now, years later, I discover that I spent the best parts of myself worrying about what affect I was having on the young and impressionable, all in service to a sexual predator and his enablers! Days and weeks of partial insomnia and self-torment while others who were guilty of actual sins slept soundly? Nights of sweating bullets wondering how I would get through the next day without making another mistake while our leader drew his designs on one of our boys!? Fuck! That!

Sidebar: Karma can be a royal bitch or it can be kind. If not for my time at AIN, I never would have ended up at Radio Talking Book, which proved to be the best job I’ve ever had. God bless Jane and Bekah. They both shepherded me through a lot of heart healing.

Last August was when I stood in front of the mirror and saw betrayal staring me in the face. That was when I knew with absolute clarity that it was time to leave. Now, I am a man who is politically homeless and philosophically destitute. I still have my conservative principles, but the betrayal from the NFB cuts far deeper. The Republican Party was merely an apparatus that I would play a minuscule role in in hopes of furthering political change, but the NFB was my community. They were my kindred spirits in the world of blindness. They wrought a kind of betrayal that inflicts the most grievous wounds of all… The betrayal of family.

There is no betrayal more deeply personal. And I don’t mean to get all emo on you guys here, but it hurts. It hurts like a mutherfucker. That’s all I’m saying. The pain is fuckin’ real. And this kind of pain…all I’m saying is…I don’t know when the fuck it’s gonna go away.

Resignation

Dear Fellow Federationists:

It has been my pleasure to serve as your president for the past year. However, I am writing to let you know that I will not seek, nor will I accept the nomination as President of the Omaha Chapter in January, 2022. Once my term has concluded, I will be leaving the National Federation of the Blind. The following letter will explain my reasons.

I have been a member of the NFB for 27 years. There have been times when I have stood at the periphery of the organization, particularly during my first several years living in Colorado. Yet, I could never fully bring myself to part from the movement that has played such a central role in shaping me as a blind adult. But now, I feel the time has come for me to take my leave.

I have many reasons for choosing to exit at this time. Some are personal, some are professional and some are political. The biggest reason involves the scandals that have erupted across the movement over the past year. When a number of women came forward with their stories of survival in December, 2020, I instantly believed them. I did so because of things I witnessed while serving in various leadership roles in the Nebraska affiliate, as well as working for and being involved with the Colorado Center for the Blind. Though I was tempted to leave the organization at the end of 2020, I decided to give our national leaders one more year to see how they would respond to the allegations brought forth by the survivors. I also wanted to take proper stock of the efforts of the #MarchingTogether Movement, spearheaded by our erstwhile state colleague, Stacy Cervenka. Though I did take exception to some of Stacy’s tactics and messaging, I felt that her core mission to hold the leadership to account for the crimes of certain leaders within the movement was a valid one.

After a year, the view from the trenches appears to be that little below the surface has changed. The collective of survivors appears to have gone silent and the leadership of the NFB, while mouthing all of the right words, does not appear intent upon real, substantive reform. While I applaud the formation of a survivor-lead task force, I question how much influence they have upon the leadership, or in which direction their influence might flow. I also take note that not a single person in a leadership role at the National Center, or at any of our three training centers, has appeared to have been punished for their active or passive complicity in the crimes of their subordinates. The one high-profile ejection, that of Fred Schroeder, does not go far enough in my view. Schroeder was given a five-year suspension from the organization with the option to return if certain conditions are met. I find this decision to be unfathomable, particularly when President Riccobono claims to possess empathy and compassion for victims of sexual misconduct. It is incomprehensible to me why permanent, irreversible expulsion would not be warranted.

The recent revelations published by David Gilbert in the Colorado Sun about the CCB, particularly those involving Brent Batron, a man for whom I directly worked and for whom I once held immense respect, serve as the final straw. If you have not yet read the piece, I urge you to do so and form your own conclusions. It is lengthy, but worth your time. For me, it served as one heartbreak too many. This, plus the recent election of Jessica Beecham as president of the Colorado State Affiliate, tell me that nothing has or will change in Colorado. My past observations lead me to believe that, as the Colorado affiliate goes, so goes the national movement.

Another reason I feel my time has come is due to the recent passage of Resolution 2021-02. During my entire tenure within this movement, I have taken heart at the notion that the NFB has been non-partisan in its mission. We will work with leaders of both political parties and will not endorse or adopt any political message from either camp. With the recent rise of more vocal elements of the woke left in the upper ranks of our organization, this position appears to be shifting. The NFB has now taken the position that voter suppression exists and that the blind are victims of it. I realize that many (perhaps all of you) might feel that this is a valid viewpoint, but you must be aware that it is certainly a partisan view that is often espoused by political leaders on both sides of the aisle who are more interested in servicing their own political agendas than in serious voting integrity. Since the electoral structure in the Federation at the national level is not set up for any meaningful challenges to the current leadership, and given the recent encroachment of leftist politics into our national messaging, I have no real reason to believe that any attempts at a substantive contest of ideas would be successful. I have no interest in lending any more of my time, energy or finances to an organization that trumpets progressive notions of diversity, equity and inclusion, all while doing less than its utmost to vindicate survivors of sexual assault within our ranks.

If you compare the history of open societies in the western world with those of more dictatorial, oppressive cultures, what you will find is that valid elections are the ultimate method of self-cleansing and self-correction. Said elections must be transparent and open to all citizens without fear of implicit or explicit consequence for each individual vote. Right now, we don’t have that at the top. If you doubt me, ask yourself when we’ve ever seen a national contest for president, or any other board position of import. I dare say that you will be hard-pressed to think of one. Moreover, if you will examine the plight of other organizations grappling with the issue of sexual misconduct, you will find that groups such as the Southern Baptist Convention are engaging in a more open, honest struggle with the issue. Those of you who may be apt to dismiss the SBC as a bunch of maga-loving, bible-thumping rednecks would do well to research the firestorm that erupted last summer. Then compare it to the recent history of the Catholic Church, where sexual predation is still a recurring problem, and where power flows to and from a very few at the top. Then compare the power structure and culture of top-down leadership within the Catholic Church to that of the NFB. I think the similarities will strike you.

I suspect that my decision will come as a disappointment to some of you. I humbly apologize for this. I have made many wonderful friends during my time in the NFB, both in Nebraska and in Colorado. I have also learned that many so-called friendships are transitory and transactional, dependent upon one’s status within the organization. These have been painful but necessary lessons for me to learn in the journey of my life.

This is why I genuinely feel that a clean and total break from the NFB is the best thing that I can do for myself emotionally, spiritually and professionally. It was not an easy decision, but it is telling that, as I was putting the final touches on this letter today, I happened to glance at the Braille Monitor and saw a quote from Ibram X. Kendi that was offered without critique or balance. This served as assurance that my decision is the correct one.

I will chair the January meeting, thus fulfilling my obligations to the chapter. After that, I am leaving and my decision will be final. My exit from the NFB will be a quiet one. I will not trash talk on social media or flame specific leaders. If asked, I will offer honest criticism and praise to the NFB, but I will not seek strife or confrontation without provocation. I do not intend to be a crusader for reform. I will simply follow the path of many of my friends who have circumspectly departed from the movement, carrying on with their own quiet lives and leaving the NFB to its ultimate fate. Nor will I join the ranks of any other national blindness organization that hangs its hat on anti-Federationism. That is not why I am doing this. I will just go quietly into that good night without fanfare or drama, this letter serving as the closing remarks to this long, circuitous chapter in my life.

Thank you to all of my friends for your steadfast love and support. Thank you to those few good and decent leaders who role modeled positive behavior for me.

Merry Christmas.

Sincerely,

Ryan Osentowski

Too Big to Fail

On June 20, 2021, the Special Committee formed to investigate sexual misconduct within the National Federation of the Blind issued an interim report. I read this report in full and found it to be deeply troubling, though not surprising.

For purposes of brevity, I will high-light one section that is a snapshot of the conclusions drawn by the external investigators. I will paste the relevant section below, then offer my analysis as an afterward.

Here is Section IV of the interim report:

IV.
LEADERSHIP RESPONSE TO SEXUAL MISCONDUCT ALLEGATIONS
AGAINST FREDRIC SCHROEDER
During the Committee’s work, it became increasingly clear that many within the
NFB community feel disappointment and frustration about how the NFB addressed
complaints alleging sexual misconduct on the part of Fredric Schroeder. Given Dr.
Schroeder’s prominence within the organization and the number of allegations about his
misconduct over the course of many years, it is not possible to conduct an objective
investigation of sexual misconduct within the NFB without addressing the subject of Fred
Schroeder. The Schroeder matter has been described, figuratively, as the elephant in the
room. In the Committee’s estimation, it has simmered within the organization for
decades, and the Committee believes it is healthy and necessary for the organization to
address it in a formal way in this Report. There are two principal reasons to do so. First,
Schroeder was a prominent figure within the organization and complaints concerning his
misconduct spanned close to four decades. Multiple people who either survived or
witnessed the misconduct have been affected. And, the handling, or mishandling, of that
misconduct has been identified by multiple witnesses as a factor contributing to their
mistrust of the organization’s assertion that it wants to improve the ways in which it
responds to these issues and, in some cases, to a decision to leave or decrease
participation in the organization. Second, the case illustrates the significant evolution in
the NFB’s response to sexual misconduct over the decades.
Because this aspect of the investigation concerns events and discussions occurring
over the course of decades, establishing every detail was not possible. Moreover, to
protect survivors, the Committee will not reveal specific details. Nonetheless, witness
accounts of conversations and events were largely consistent (with one notable exception
as set forth below) and several themes emerged. The preponderance of the evidence is
more than sufficient for the Committee to reach the following findings:
(a)
(b)
(c)
(d)
(e)
Schroeder engaged in sexual misconduct over the course of decades.
Although the Committee does not know the exact number of instances, the
Committee reasonably finds that there were many. Multiple women were
traumatized by him.
By the early 2000s, certain members of leadership were aware of
Schroeder’s misconduct and complaints relating to that misconduct.
Leadership’s response in those early days was not adequate.
Leadership’s response improved in and around 2014, as additional incidents
involving Schroeder were raised and as the transition from the Maurer
administration to the Riccobono administration occurred.
The response, however, was still not sufficient. Specifically, the decision
to support Schroeder’s candidacy for president of the World Blind Union
and to grant Schroeder a platform at annual conventions following his
resignation from NFB leadership positions was a mistake.
In our fourteen interviews concerning Schroeder’s misconduct and the response to
that misconduct, seven specific survivors of Schroeder’s misconduct were identified by
name. Witnesses described several additional incidents of sexual misconduct by
Schroeder but declined to identify the victims/survivors of those incidents. The survivors
allege misconduct of two distinct types on the part of Schroeder – predatory grooming
behavior with young women he mentored or supervised; and groping and aggressive acts
committed in connection with alcohol consumption. (Grooming is “manipulative
behavior that the abuser uses to gain access to potential victims, coerce them to agree to
be abused, and reduce the risk of being caught.” See https://www.rainn.org/
news/grooming-know-warning-signs.)
The Committee finds that, based on the statements of then-President Maurer and
additional witnesses with first-hand knowledge, leadership at the highest levels was
aware of the misconduct by 2002 at the latest. Specifically, after a report concerning
Schroeder’s misconduct was made to Louisiana Tech University in 2001 or 2002, then-
President Maurer learned of the complaint and discussed it with Schroeder and another
witness. The witness asserted that Dr. Maurer was upset that the witness had initiated the
complaint without talking with him first. Dr. Maurer admitted he was aware of the
complaint and recalls that the discussions at the time were centered around protecting the
reputation of the Louisiana Tech program and avoiding the potential fallout to that
program and to the Federation.
Five separate, credible witnesses have recounted additional confrontations or
conversations with then-President Maurer about Schroeder’s increasingly public
misconduct and the need to intercede. Each, however, came away with the clear
understanding that Dr. Maurer had no intention of intervening. The Committee
concludes that there was a sense of futility on the part of witnesses who brought to Dr.
Maurer concerns about Schroeder’s behavior. One of the witnesses reported talking with
Dr. Maurer about the issue before 2010. Meanwhile, an informal network of women
formed to protect younger members from Schroeder’s misconduct by devising creative
techniques for avoiding him or minimizing interactions. Dr. Maurer acknowledged
conversations with only one of these witnesses and with an additional person with whom
we have not spoken; he denied having any memory of the other conversations.
According to one witness, Dr. Maurer advised the witness that he intended for Dr.
Schroeder to become the president of the World Blind Union and did not want anything
to “derail” that. Dr. Maurer denied that that discussion occurred. Dr. Maurer explained,
however, that, as a result of Schroeder’s conduct, Dr. Maurer concluded that he could no
longer support Schroeder in his advancement within the NFB. Specifically, Dr. Maurer
stated that he would not support Schroeder as the next president of the NFB. Dr. Maurer
notified Schroeder of that decision in the fall of 2013. Notwithstanding the incredible
leadership Dr. Maurer provided during his tenure on many important issues, the
Committee concludes that, on this issue, Dr. Maurer failed in his duty to the Federation.
The Committee defers to the Board as to what, if any, action should be taken.
In or around October 2014, after Riccobono became president, a survivor came
forward after another incident involving Schroeder. She went initially to then-Treasurer
Pam Allen to report the incident, and thereafter the survivor and Ms. Allen met with
President Riccobono concerning the incident. The survivor reports understanding that, at
or around the same time, another person also came forward with allegations about
Schroeder.
Not long after, President Riccobono, Dr. Maurer, Mrs. Jernigan, and Dr. Schroeder
gathered in Orlando to plan for an upcoming event. President Riccobono, Dr. Maurer,
and Mrs. Jernigan used the trip as an opportunity to meet with Schroeder about his
misconduct. Specifically, the group had concluded that Schroeder needed to resign from
his position as First Vice-President of the NFB Board and as President of the Virginia
affiliate. President Riccobono recalled that, when they confronted Schroeder with the
allegations (and before they had the chance to request Schroeder’s resignation), Schroeder
did not attempt to dispute the allegations and offered to resign. Thereafter, Schroeder
submitted his resignation to the Board, the members of which were made aware of the
most recent issue raised.
In the November 2014 Presidential Release, however, President Riccobono
announced to the membership that Schroeder had resigned from the NFB Board for
“personal reasons.” President Riccobono stated that, although Schroeder had left the
Board, he was not leaving the Federation; President Riccobono expressed his
appreciation for all the work Schroeder had done and would continue to do for the
Federation. At or around the same time, Schroeder resigned from the presidency of the
Virginia affiliate.
There was no announcement from either the national organization or the state
affiliate that Schroeder’s resignation had anything to do with misconduct. In addition to
remaining a member of the NFB, Schroeder maintained his roles on the boards of the
World Blind Union and the NBPCB. One survivor who had previously reported
Schroeder’s misconduct listened to the Release, watched for developments over the next
several months, and wondered, “why did I bother?”
Less than a year later, Schroeder spoke at the General Session of the NFB’s 2015
National Convention, giving a speech entitled, “The Blind in the World: Spreading The
Federation Message.” (2015 Agenda, General Session, July 9, 2015). He was given a
similar platform at the 2016 National Convention, giving the very first speech at the
General Session. (2016 Agenda, General Session, July 4, 2016) (“The Blind in the
World: Leadership, Philosophy, and Action on a Global Scale.”). A month later, with the
NFB’s express support, Schroeder became the President of the World Blind Union.
Meanwhile, Schroeder remained the President of the Board of the NBPCB, having
been so since July 2011. When another member’s certification as a blind professional
was revoked in 2019 for sexual misconduct, it was Schroeder who wrote the letter to him
explaining his options. The NFB also continued to give Schroeder a platform; in 2017,
he once again was given one of the general session slots at the National Convention.
In 2019, Schroeder’s reception at the National Convention was different. Edward
Bell, the Secretary-Treasurer of the NBPCB, was scheduled to speak during the General
Session about consumer-driven professional development. Dr. Bell unexpectedly had to
leave the Convention and asked Schroeder to take his place on the agenda; Dr. Bell
viewed Schroeder as a natural pick because Schroeder was then the President of the
NBPCB. Dr. Bell reported that he, like many in the NFB, was unaware of the reason for
Schroeder’s resignation from the NFB’s Board. The audience, however, did not know
about the change in speaker. As a result, there was no opportunity for audience members
to avoid the presentation had they wished to do so. Multiple witnesses reported to the
Committee that, when it became apparent Schroeder would be giving the speech, dozens
of people stood and left the room (“the 2019 Walk-Out”).
It was this event – when a large group of members literally voted with their feet –
that caused leadership to realize that the decisions they made in 2014 were not adequate.
Leadership recognized that Schroeder should no longer occupy such a prominent position
at NFB events or continue to lead the NBPCB Board.
Since January 2021, when the NFB retained an External Investigator for Code
complaints involving sexual misconduct, five complaints have been filed against
Schroeder alleging sexual misconduct that occurred prior to his resignation in 2014. The
External Investigator recently completed her investigation into those allegations, finding
in favor of the complainants and recommending that Schroeder be suspended from the
NFB for a period of five years, at which point he will be allowed to reapply for
membership if he has complied with several conditions. President Riccobono adopted
the External Investigator’s recommendations in full. He also notified the World Blind
Union of the suspension. On June 15, 2021, the World Blind Union announced
Schroeder’s early resignation from his position as president.
Based on these findings the Committee concludes that, until recently, the NFB’s
response to Schroeder’s misconduct has been inadequate. Multiple witnesses offered
their perspective on why this occurred, explaining that Schroeder’s undeniable
professional accomplishments and contributions to the blind community made it difficult
for any leader to insist that Schroeder be held accountable for his acts, and further that
there was a general belief that the sanctions applied in 2014 – effectively ending
Schroeder’s advancement within the NFB – were fairly serious. But the public-facing
information about Schroeder was obviously very different. Schroeder’s ongoing access to
prominent placement on the NFB’s National Convention agenda and the NFB’s visible
(and reportedly financial) support for Schroeder as president of the World Blind Union
created the distinct impression that the NFB had nothing but the highest regard for
Schroeder. That was not fair to the survivors of Schroeder’s misconduct.
The Committee further concludes that the 2019 Walk-Out was a galvanizing
moment for the NFB, sending a clear message from survivors and their allies that no
member was too important to be held fully accountable for sexual misconduct. The
Committee believes that that message has been received and accepted, as evidenced by
President Riccobono’s adoption of the External Investigator’s recommendation to suspend
Schroeder’s NFB membership.

End of excerpt:

If you take this report at face value (and I do), then it is damning, not only to Fred Schroeder, but to former President Marc Maurer as well. It is clear that Maurer was explicitly warned about Schroeder’s behavior for at least 20 years and chose to place Schroeder’s political advancement above the welfare of individual members. I firmly and fully believe that this is consistent with Maurer’s character, both as a leader and as a human being. Read my previous entry concerning Maurer’s comportment at the 2001 Leadership Seminar for further illumination.

My personal belief is that Maurer, and other unnamed leaders in the report, damn well knew of Schroeder’s behavior long before 2001. The report clearly states that Schroeder’s transgressions go back at least four decades. Stop and absorb the import of that for a moment. I cannot overstate my informed opinion that Dr. Maurer viewed any and all complainants about Fred Schroeder as an inconvenience and that his refusal to deal with the issue is due to callous negligence on his part.

What’s more, President Riccobono was fully aware of the allegations against Schroeder shortly after he assumed the presidency in July, 2014. Yet, even after Schroeder was removed from the national board and from the presidency of the Virginia affiliate, he continued to hold prominent positions in speaking slots at our national conventions. The public walk-out protest at the 2019 convention put an end to this, but note that this occurred over a year after the implementation of the Code of Conduct. Even though Schroeder’s speaking engagement at the 2019 convention was last minute, it still occurred with the approval of Riccobono. I cannot stress enough that every official event that takes place at a national convention happens with the active or passive approval of the president, whether it has been planned long term or occurs with short notice.

But even more chilling than the allegations set forth is the punishment handed down to Dr. Schroeder. I stand aghast at the notion that Schroeder could do what he did and only receive a five-year suspension from the organization. It is inconceivable to me why permanent expulsion would not be a more appropriate consequence.

In my initial entry on this topic, I said that heads must roll. Schroeder was exactly who I had in mind when I made that statement. I’ve been hearing his name since the late ‘90’s in connection with the perpetration of sexual harassment and assault. If a lowly, insignificant member such as myself heard it, it is certain that those who were and are far more prominent and powerful in the movement would have heard stories of his misdeeds as well. The suspension serves only as a reprieve for Schroeder, not a permanent consequence. His victims (both those who have and who have not come forward), surely realize this. Survivors at the hands of less powerful predators within the NFB have also received the implicit message sent by the leadership.

Permanent expulsion accompanied by a forceful, public condemnation of Schroeder by President Riccobono might have satisfied the optics of the situation and would have been a just punishment. Instead, his suspension smacks of just another back room deal struck by the president. Put another way, Dr. Fredric K. Schroeder is too big to fail. I can’t help but think that this will only have a chilling effect on the complaint process going forward.

It is also noteworthy to examine Marc Maurer’s motivations for sweeping Schroeder’s misdeeds under the rug. The report makes it clear that Maurer intended for Schroeder to succeed him as president of the NFB. This is darkly illustrative of my previous entry in which I stated that presidents of the national organization are appointed, and that the election process by the convention body is a mere formality. Furthermore, Maurer wanted Schroeder to be the president of the World Blind Union. Yet, Schroeder has resigned early due to these emerging scandals. How’d that work out for the NFB, and for all of the blind who live in the world?

Men like Marc Maurer are gifted with a vast intellect, but said intellect often blinds them to other possible scenarios that may play out on the chess board outside of their field of control. But if Maurer could not foresee the fall-out from Schroeder’s behavior playing out on social media due to his generational viewpoint and his well-known lack of technological acumen, Riccobono should have possessed more sagacity.

The unholy marriage of political opportunism and the criminality of sexual misconduct, both in the mainstream political world and within the blindness community, cannot be denied. Section 4 of the committee’s report is a textbook example. I therefore renew my call for the NFB to adopt term limits for all national and state board members. One need only reread the section of the committee’s report on Fred Schroeder to understand the entrenched problems within the current governance of the NFB. Term limits are not an ideal solution to all the political ills, but in the specific case of the NFB at this specific time, I believe that they would solve more problems than they would create.

I will further state that, despite any task force, special committee or external investigator, the NFB will continue to experience these same structural failures until the leadership undergoes a transformation in culture. Such a transformation cannot occur without a free and open election at the top. If outsiders want to know when real change has happened, watch the national convention. When you see two candidates compete for the presidency, both chosen organically by grass roots campaigns, and when you see a vote occur that is not lopsided, then you will know that real change has come to the Federation.

Let me emphasize that I am not speaking of internal philosophical change. As my last entry states, I believe that the core principles of the NFB are sound. I’m speaking about shortcomings more fundamental to the dark side of human experience that transcend blindness; nepotism, cronyism and the viewing of human beings who are victims of criminal acts as collateral damage in the face of socio-political achievement.

Sadly, I have come to believe that my words, along with the cries of the survivors for justice, will fall on deaf ears. I wonder if more people won’t simply vote with their feet. I wonder if we’ll have enough of the membership left to hold the free and fair election that sparks my imagination.

The Dark Path

One week ago, the National Federation of the Blind took another step down the dark path of subtle metamorphosis. I’m not talking about the continuing firestorm over sexual misconduct. I’m speaking of policy. The NFB has now taken a public position on a controversy that should not be a blindness issue. It is the issue of so-called, “voter suppression.”

In Resolution 2021-02, the author makes the following provision:

“WHEREAS, the time and expense in obtaining state issued ID or other forms of identification can be onerous and therefore create a barrier for voters with
Disabilities;”

The action statements read as follows:

“BE IT RESOLVED by the National Federation of the Blind in Convention assembled this tenth day of July, 2021, that this organization condemn and deplore
all acts of suppression that make it difficult for blind and disabled voters to exercise their right to vote; and”

“BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED that this organization demand that state and local election officials protect the right of voters with disabilities to cast a private
and independent ballot, as required by HAVA and Title II of the ADA, without having to provide difficult-to-obtain state-issued identification and documentation;
and”

“BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED that this organization demand that all state and local governments implement legislation and election procedures necessary to expand
the number of polling locations so that they are accessible to public transit routes and so voters need only travel a reasonable distance to cast their
vote.”

I won’t go through all of the problems I have with this resolution. Others who spoke against it at the convention did a fine job of articulating its glaring weak points. Yet, in spite of very reasonable objections, it passed by a vote of 483/299.

This may seem like a minor event to some, but consider the enormity of what has just occurred. The National Federation of the Blind has now taken the position that obtaining a state ID is a form of voter suppression.

If you pay attention to current events, you know that this issue has been in the spotlight since the presidential election of 2020. Georgia, Texas and Arizona are just some of the states to come under fire from Democratic politicians, social justice activists and many members of a sympathetic media for attempting to tighten their election laws to prevent voter fraud; a problem that both political parties acknowledge exists. Corporate America has taken a stand, complete with the MLB moving the All-Star Baseball Game from Atlanta to Denver in protest. The president of the United States even compared new voting reform laws in red states to Jim Crow; a claim that is inflammatory and spurious.

My purpose in writing this is not to re-litigate the issue of voter ID. My larger purpose is to focus on the slow, gradual transformation that is taking hold of the NFB.

Whether you believe in voter suppression or not, if you are a member of the NFB, than you must believe as I do in the capabilities of blind people. Our contention has always been that our capabilities are equal to those of our sighted counterparts. By passing this resolution, the membership has now taken the position that we are a marginalized community that is, in fact, less capable than our sighted peers. Obtaining an ID is a hardship for us. This is not an issue of ballot accessibility or of privacy in the voting booth, but a basic issue of convenience.

The sentiments of those in favor of the resolution can best be summed up by a tweet from Patrick Bouchard, which states:

“Why do some people think we should exclusively speak up about issues that affect the blind and only the blind? Whatever happened to intersectionality? If something affects many people including us, we need to add our voice lest any solutions leave us out. #NFB21”

This didn’t happen in a vacuum. For years, there has been a growing strain of progressives within our organization who wish to shoehorn the NFB into larger causes with which the left sympathizes. One such example is so-called, “net neutrality,” championed by our late colleague, Rachel Olivero. Rachel brought a resolution to the floor in 2014 that would have had the NFB take a position in favor of net neutrality. It failed before the convention body because a majority of members felt that, despite claims to the contrary, net neutrality was not an issue specific to the blindness community.

Seven years later, we now see that the NFB has adopted the opposite view. We have abandoned our traditionally non-partisan stance in favor of a purely partisan political viewpoint. We have previously stayed out of mainstream controversies ranging from abortion to gun control to tribal identity politics within our movement and within the arena of public policy. The passage of resolution 2021-02 signifies that the wind is shifting. Today, its voter suppression. Tomorrow, it could very well be climate change, transgender athletes or police brutality.

Given the recent swell of woke language in statements from the leadership, I don’t foresee moderate influences gaining traction any time soon. If it continues to recede, there will come a point where many of us who hold views in opposition to the social justice movement will be forced to choose whether or not to continue to dedicate our time and energy to a movement that is no longer bipartisan. I do not look forward to such a choice, but to quote Phil Collins, “I can feel it comin’ in the air tonight.”

Beggar’s Choice

It’s been a few months since I’ve written about the issue of sexual misconduct in the NFB. I think it’s fair to say that the Federation has taken control of the narrative at this point. While the #MarchingTogether movement appears to have gone silent, the NFB leadership has conducted trainings in partnership with RAINN to raise awareness amongst chapter and affiliate leaders across the country. They have created a task force to deal with the issue and have appointed a special committee that will bring recommendations for systemic change in the culture.

Yesterday, I spoke with an attorney concerning issues I have been aware of in the past involving sexual misconduct within the leadership of the Federation. It was a difficult conversation and I must confess that it has left me shaken and shrouded in melancholy.

At one point, one of the two attorneys with whom I spoke asked me a very thought-provoking question. Given the fact that sexual abuse exists within all cultures and within all institutions populated by humans, is there anything that differentiates the blindness community from other institutions such as the church, the government or private corporations.

The larger question is, why do so many blind people who are actively or passively aware of sexual misconduct within their own community choose to stay silent on the matter? And when they do speak of the issue, why do they speak in whispers?

I’ve been dwelling upon this question for some months now and I firmly believe that the answer is, desperation.

If you read my previous entry, “Willful Blindness,” you know that the National Federation of the Blind has been a major power player within the blindness community since its inception in 1940. We have had a seat at the table in all major arenas; rehabilitation, vending, technology and legislation. Whether you have been a member, an opponent or a neutral bystander, if you are a blind person, you cannot deny the significant and largely positive impact that the NFB has had upon society over the past five decades. Even if you don’t care for our approach, you cannot quibble with the results.

The leadership is well aware of this fact. Those who have persevered to the ultimate corridors of power in the upper levels of the organization understand the stakes. It is within that framework of understanding that they have gaged acceptable levels of human collateral damage that come with the price of success.

But more to the point, the NFB has also been a primary creator of employment. We hire blind people at our national headquarters in Baltimore, at our three training centers in Colorado, Minnesota and Louisiana and at our numerous vending locations in the Business Enterprise Program throughout the country. We hire personnel to staff offices and positions in many of our state affiliates, we network with state rehab agencies friendly to the Federation philosophy and we have even made inroads into the government and private sectors with mainstream corporations, non-profits and government offices. Such examples include Target, Amazon and the Department of Labor.

For most blind people in western civilization, jobs are the ultimate in coveted currency. Many of us are raised to believe that we can compete on terms of equality for those jobs, but the reality is quite different. If you are blind, you know that many jobs are simply not open to you. Societal awareness and technological advancement have not yet afforded the opportunity for me to work as a police officer, a professional football player, a brain surgeon, a veterinarian, a restaurant server, a bank teller and scores of other occupations.

Many leaders in the NFB realize this plain fact despite their public rhetoric. As I told the lawyer today, “If you should lose your job at your law firm tomorrow, you could go work at a Wendy’s, a Best Buy or as an Uber driver if you’re desperate enough. Blind people don’t have that luxury.”

Every time a blind person fills out a job application, he/she has the big question at the back of their mind. Will I have the right tools to perform my work tasks successfully? Translated, this means, will the technology required be accessible to a non-visual worker? If the applicant should be fortunate enough to score an interview, another big question is raised. When should I disclose the fact that I am blind? None of these issues confront a sighted person, or even a visually impaired person with a large amount of vision, when they apply for a job. Even if you are successful in your job, you might not be able to rightfully advance due to simple issues of inaccessibility to the technology necessary to do your job effectively. Or you may be happy in your job, but suddenly find yourself unable to complete basic tasks which you have been doing for a long time due to a sudden upgrade in technology. This is the ever-shifting obstacle course that constantly confronts the blind working class in this country.

Those in power in the NFB understand this basic truth. They understand the power of positive networking. Those who are loyal to the cause are rewarded with career and monetary advancement. When you exist in a culture that emphasizes scholastic and professional achievement as the means to shatter societal barriers, the ultimate liberation comes in the graduation from government benefits to earned income. And that loyalty also comes with an unspoken understanding that those who are loyal will look the other way, and maybe even assist in the cover-up of criminal acts. I don’t paint all of the leadership with this broad brush, but there are vampires in positions of power who know full well that they have a legion of subordinates at their professional mercy.

I have more than a little empathy for people in this precarious position. I have worked for the NFB in various jobs, and I have worked for bosses who were sympathetic to the NFB. I have worked in the mainstream world and known what it’s like to be the blind outsider at a company of mostly sighted people. And I have been unemployed, waking up each day without the basic structure of a job to solidify my daily routine. I understand the disincentive to work, collecting a government paycheck. And I understand the fulfillment of depositing a paycheck into the bank that I earned with my own hands. I think it’s fair to say that I appreciate the occupational situation for the blind from every angle.

I have worked in jobs with a toxic atmosphere. I know what it’s like to come in every morning under a cloud of anxiety, asking myself, is today my last day? I have sat alone in my work area and seethed with nuclear rage, wanting so badly to go tell my boss to fuck off before storming out the front door. I have even been tempted to quit a job and go on Food Stamps. Note the title of this blog and soak up the irony of that statement. But then what? If I quit a job in righteous anger, how does it affect my resume? How do I just go out and get another job as a blind man? This is the sword that the NFB power structure holds at the neck of many of the silent members who are too intimidated to speak out against things they know to be wrong.

Never underestimate the power of a hard-earned paycheck. When Stacy Cervenka does interviews with the press and speaks of professional retaliation against the signatories of the open letter, I believe her. Cervenka started a movement, and much like the entrenched forces that went after Kenneth Jernigan in the ‘70’s and ‘80’s, counter forces are determined to hit the vocal members of #MarchingTogether where they live and make them regret speaking out.

But there is another side to this. In my previous entry, I said that I stand firmly against the absolutist notion that silence is complicity. This is a blunt force club intended to coerce those on the sidelines into taking a stance. Naturally, if that stance should be in opposition to those who cry out for justice, then they are a part of the problem, not the solution. The paradox of this position is that those at the forefront of the #MarchingTogether movement who have adopted these social justice tactics are also fully aware of the terrible quandary that faces the majority of the blind membership of the NFB. When they raise the cry of, “Silence is violence,” they either thoughtlessly downplay or callously disregard the plight of many of those who stand in subordination to the leadership. They conveniently ignore the fact that, while principles and high-sounding battle cries on social media are all well and good, even a modest stand on the right side of an issue might mean the difference between a weekly paycheck and a monthly social security check. In its own way, this inflexible stance is every bit as poisonous and pernicious as the behavior of the elitist NFB power structure who seeks to suppress their open critics.

I know a good number of people who were and are in positions of leadership within the NFB. Most of them are good, honest people. Some are even victims of sexual violence. They want to make a difference, but they fear for their financial and professional security. If people on either side of the issue cannot understand the nuance that accompanies this gray area, then they have surrendered too much of themselves to their cause of choice.

I am sorry to say that I have been aware of sexual misconduct and have not done my part to root it out. I have paid for my lack of principle. I will continue to take the consequences. All I can do now is to stand up and try to speak the truth in order that future students at our training centers and members of our movement can go forth in relative safety.

My preceding thoughts on this issue serve as an explanation, not an excuse. Everyone inevitably faces his/her moment of truth. I faced my own personal and professional test and I failed. But the situation on the ground has changed drastically in the past 20 years. The #MarchingTogether movement has forced the NFB to acknowledge systemic problems in the ranks of its culture. Everyone is now well aware of the problem. Going forward, many people will be forced to take a stand. In the meantime, the leadership appears to be taking substantive steps toward meaningful change. Only time will tell whether or not they are truly in earnest.

Willful Blindness

Let’s start with some basic table-setting before we get to the main banquet.

Sexual predation is not a partisan issue. It is not a Republican issue, though the GOP did try to monopolize it in the late ‘90’s. Nor is it a Democrat issue, though the Party of the People has tried to monopolize it since late 2017.

Sexual predation is a criminal issue. If a man has sex with a woman without gaining her consent, that is sexual assault. If a man touches a woman inappropriately, or compels her to render sexual favors to him under the threat of professional or personal penalty, that is sexual harassment. It is black-letter law.

Nor is sexual violence a feminist issue, though some radical elements of the feminist movement might claim otherwise.

The issue concerns everyone. Men will often hear words such as, “Rape,” “Sexual harassment,” or “#MeToo,” and one of three things will usually occur. Either they will dismiss the issue as a, “Women’s issue,” or they will become defensive. They say to themselves, “I wouldn’t rape anyone. I’m not guilty.” Often times, men will decide that it is easier just to shut up, smile and nod. If they speak out, they run the risk of being labeled as insensitive at best, or a rape apologist at worst. Why bother to engage with the topic at all when any struggle you might incur is unwinnable?

There are understandable reasons for these dismissive or defensive reactions from most men, but they are misguided. Sexual predation is a criminal issue that affects everyone. Every man has in his life a mother, a daughter, a sister, a cousin, an aunt, a friend or a coworker buddy who has likely been a victim of this crime. I can appreciate why many men want to reflexively back away from something they perceive as an emotional minefield, but now is not the time to change the channel. Men can and must be participants in the ongoing battle against this cancerous scourge.

I have been a political conservative since I was old enough to vote. I hold many views consistent with the canons of conservatism, including a traditional tough-on-crime stance. I also believe that victims’ rights are and always have been a core plank in the conservative platform.

I also believe in due process. I don’t believe that they are mutually exclusive. Under the Constitution, everyone is innocent until proven guilty. This truth is constrained to our legal system and is often disregarded in the court of public opinion. In my view, this is folly. Americans of all political stripes would do well to carry the principle into every area where sexual predation has crept. They would do well to adhere to the principle on college campuses, in the workplace, in social settings, in the home, and in the National Federation of the Blind.

I came into the NFB 25 years ago. I was attracted by their message of equality and full autonomy for the blind. During my 25 years of involvement, I have served in various leadership roles, including as the president of the Nebraska Association of Blind Students, as the Secretary of the Nebraska State Board of Directors, as the NFBNewsline Coordinator in both Nebraska and Colorado, and as a counselor at a summer youth program at the Colorado Center for the Blind. I currently hold no elected office or paid position at the national, state or local level. I give you my bona fides so that you can lend the proper amount of credibility to my following observations and conclusions.

Almost from the beginning of my involvement in the movement, I heard whisperings about certain leaders who had a bad habit of putting their hands where they didn’t belong. Several years after my entrance, I heard a story from a survivor who was and is a close friend and who continues to be a member in good standing. I believed her. Thus began my slow awakening to the reality of a darker side of the Federation. In subsequent years, other women who are also good friends confided in me with their stories of violations they suffered at training centers, conventions, seminars and other official NFB functions. It became clear that sexual predation was not only a latent problem in the Federation, but an open secret.

I believe the survivors who have now come forward in their social media campaign.

Several weeks ago, survivors began to write openly about their experiences at the three NFB training centers (the Colorado Center for the Blind in Littleton, CO, Blind, Incorporated in Minneapolis, MN, and the Louisiana Center for the Blind in Rustin, LA), on various social media platforms. The voices multiplied and gathered, forming an angry undercurrent on social media that grew with the passage of time.

The first inkling I got that something was afoot came on December 8 in the form of a ‘Dear Colleague’ letter from the National Blindness Professional Certification Board (NBPCB), with an attached copy of their code of conduct and grievance process. I thought it odd that they would dispatch the message to the entire NFB network. The picture became clearer three days later on Friday, December 11, when the National Office sent out a communique to all members across all platforms. The message reaffirmed that the NFB stands in solidarity with survivors of sexual assault. I think I’m being charitable when I describe the nature of the message as weak tea.

The communique was received by the campaign with skepticism at best, derision at worst. As the weekend progressed, the stories continued to mount in number and detail. The posts ranged from chillingly subtle to shockingly graphic. Many posters chose to keep their abusers anonymous, but some of them named names. The most disturbing aspect of the stories was the fact that some of the accusers had been minors under the care of the NFB at the time of the alleged assaults. It is not a stretch to suspect that the boiler plate response from Baltimore may have actually fueled the spreading fire.

The tactics of the #MarchingTogether movement, as they came to be known, proved effective. Five days after the initial response from Baltimore, on Wednesday, December 16, President Mark Riccobono issued a mass communication to the membership. Its subject line was, “An Open letter of Apology from President Riccobono.” The letter was appropriately conciliatory in its tone. Riccobono handled the subject matter with political deftness, never once criticizing the victims, their tactics or their credibility. He also called for empathy and understanding for those who may be defending the NFB in good faith, while simultaneously employing language that would mollify the social justice elements of the campaign. He seemed genuine in the assumption of ownership of his mistakes and sincere in his regret over the lack of transparency in the leadership’s efforts to combat this pervasive problem. Most significant was the fact that he outlined six concrete steps the Federation intends to take to deal with the problem.

I admit that I was skeptical when I read Riccobono’s words. My view was that the president and the leadership were attempting to cover their hindmost parts in an effort to stem the fiery tide.

Hours after Riccobono issued his apology, the survivors posted their own letter. It was a complex document that seemed as if it had been in the drafting for weeks, so it was likely not a direct response to Riccobono’s apology statement. It came with a list of counter recommendations that took aim, not only at the lax culture and protocols surrounding the perpetration and reporting of sexual assault and harassment, but at the general culture of the NFB training centers.

I seriously considered adding my signature to the letter, but while I stood in awe of the courage of the victims who came forward and signed it, I found certain recommendations to be problematic. In my view, they go beyond the scope of the problem of sexual violence and address areas that would be better served in a separate conversation. Discussions I’ve held with other potential signatories takes us all to the same conclusion. Many people stand in solidarity with the victims, but feel that elements of the letter seem to strike at the very heart of the structured discovery curriculum that distinguishes NFB training centers from other orientation centers for the blind.

This is where matters stood on the week leading up to Christmas, 2020. In a tumultuous year rife with general discontent and mounting anxiety and anger, this is the appropriate capper for our little corner of the world.

After the weekend of December 11, the first-hand accounts of assault by survivors seemed to dwindle to a trickle (at least on my social media feeds.) The subsequent argument mutated to a proxy version of “good Federationists,” versus “Good allies.” The face of the pro-NFB viewpoint, of course, is President Riccobono. The most prominent “good ally,” (and the biggest target) is the apparent founder of the survivors’ campaign, Stacy Cervenka. After his open apology, Riccobono went dark on social media with respect to the issue, though many of his surrogates have continued to defend the president and the organization at large. Meanwhile, Cervenka was readily available in all quarters, vociferously defending herself against mounting criticism.

Sidebar: I have never met either President Riccobono or Stacy Cervenka directly. I have never taken the measure of either on a human level. I have observed both of them from a distance. I had a brief acquaintanceship with Cervenka on Facebook in 2019, but disengaged after I found some of her viewpoints and comments to be problematic.

I have met Marc Maurer, President Emeritus of the NFB, on multiple occasions. I took an instant dislike to him when we first shook hands in 2000. Nothing in the intervening 20 years has altered my view of the man. My opinion (and it is only my opinion) is that the problems we now face are largely a result of his non-responsiveness to them during his 28 years as our president.

I am laying out my biases clearly so that no one will misinterpret or misattribute my words and motives the things I write going forward.

Now that I have given you the background, I will tell you the truth as I see it. In my view, the problems and solutions are very complicated and will not be easily remedied with a quick fix.

The National Federation of the Blind has had this coming. Frankly, we’ve had it coming for decades.

Given the nature and structure of our leadership, it is easy to see how predators and predatory behavior can flourish. The organization functions under the guise of a Democracy, complete with elections on the national, state and local levels. It’s true that local and state competitions are usually fair and open, with multiple candidates being allowed to run if they so choose.

The story is entirely different on the national stage. In my 20 years of attending and streaming national conventions, I have never witnessed an election in which a national officer or board member was opposed by another candidate in an open contest. In theory, the convention body elects the national board. In actual practice, the general body is a rubber stamp for the nominating committee, who is appointed by the state affiliates and who in turn selects the national president. It has always been implicitly but firmly understood that the current president will hand-pick his successor, and that said successor will ascend to the presidency unquestioned and unencumbered with no electoral challenge or protest from the general membership. In other words, Marc Maurer and Mark Riccobono were not elected to the presidency. They were appointed. The election was mere window dressing. If you are unfamiliar with the NFB and if this strikes you as a system that bears a resemblance to that of a monarchy, you aren’t far wrong.

The NFB has been the largest, strongest and most influential movement in the blindness community since its inception in 1940. There are sound reasons for this. We are well organized, we have a respectable treasury and, as a movement, we are driven by our philosophical convictions. The top-down nature of the movement insures that we are quickly motivated and easily mobilized when necessary. When it comes to blindness, the NFB has had a positive and undeniable impact on legislation, rehabilitation policies, the culture and in the legal arena. Aside from our home page, one need only google us to find long lists of our accomplishments on behalf of the blind.

The down side of this autocratic-leaning form of governance is the systematic minimization and, in some cases, outright smothering of reformation efforts. It is indeed true that it Is useful in squelching those who possess genuine mal intent toward the NFB and our goals, but it is equally poisonous when members with legitimate grievances, such as survivors of assault, attempt to petition the leadership for a redress of those grievances.

Some critics of the survivor campaign are faulting them for posting their stories on social media. I catch a whiff of victim-blaming in these criticisms, but more to the point, social media was the obvious avenue for this campaign to take after years of being denied a proper and fair hearing. It is inexcusable that Riccobono and company did not foresee something like this when they first implemented the Code of Conduct in 2018 in the wake of #MeToo. Social media gives survivors what they never had before; a platform on which to speak without fear of being suppressed or controlled and the ability of their supporters to instantly share their stories with the entire world.

I can’t say for certain that Marc Maurer knew about wide-spread sexual predation and covered it up during his 28 years as president, but frankly, I wouldn’t be surprised if he did. Based on what I’ve experienced of the man, I can easily envision him justifying the squashing of complaints of indecent behavior by powerful members in leadership roles in the name of the greater good. I attended a leadership seminar at the National Center for the Blind in Baltimore on Labor Day weekend, 2001. Maurer was overt in his desire to “use” budding leaders such as myself for the cause in any manner he saw fit. This is a man who used Ramona Walhof to speak in glowing terms of his willingness to be in absentia during the birth of his first child in order that he might fight for the cause in court. Some of his audience found him inspiring, but he made my skin crawl. It is not difficult to imagine him turning a willfully blind eye to the complaints of those whom he might find to be inconvenient to the advancement of the righteous and necessary cause of the organized blind.

There is only one real way to bring about a cultural change from the top down. I believe the solution is term limits for all national and state board members. This includes the members of the board of directors for all three of our training centers. I believe that all members interested in substantive internal reform should begin to investigate the process of amending the national and all state constitutions.

My friends will chuckle when they read this. They will remember how I used to argue against term limits. We’ll just say that I have evolved on the question. Our current situation in our state and on the national level demands reform. I believe that elected leadership in perpetuity breeds complacency, willful blindness and a rigidity of thought under the notion that the old ways always work. I’m speaking of the people mired in board culture, not the underpinning philosophy that guides our movement. I believe that term limits for elected leaders at the upper levels will force current leaders to do a better job of recruiting and grooming upcoming members for leadership roles. It will also insure that those who are providing safe harbor for predatory behavior through nepotism and cronyism cannot wield intractable power.

I know that term limits are not a perfect answer, but I believe that at this point in time, they are the best answer for our current difficulties.

As for President Riccobono, I’m willing to give him the benefit of the doubt for the time being. All matters of justice and willful blindness aside, he inherited this problem. Yes, he has mishandled the crisis thus far, but he appears to have taken ownership of the issue. Whether this is through a genuine concern for the victims, or out of political reaction from social media shaming, he deserves the opportunity to implement real and lasting change. In spite of his tardiness, if he has not adopted clear, demonstrable reform measures through a transparent process by the time of convention in July of 2021, he should step down.

Heads must roll.

I’m not talking about the French Revolution here. There is no benefit to beheading an innocent seamstress. My assertion is informed by political pragmatism, not blood lust. I want to see justice for the survivors and real, substantive change in the Federation, but justice and retribution do not have to be synonymous.

The hard fact of it is that people will not have real confidence that the leadership is serious about fundamental change until someone who seems untouchable is publicly excised from power and permanently expelled from the organization. In my years of service, I’ve heard the same half-dozen names come up over and over again. Some of these names have been prominent in the movement since the ‘70’s. If the NFB is serious about investigating claims, they will unearth these serial offenders and excise them from the movement and turn them over to the criminal justice system. If the membership in general and the survivors in particular see this happen, it will go a long way toward establishing the credibility that is necessary to facilitate the healing process.

I’ve been watching certain members of the NFB elite power class preen and posture on social media. They are saying all the right things, their verbiage dripping with woke sincerity designed to soothe and disarm. Deep down, they are frauds. In fact, they are part of the problem. I’m not speaking in extremist terms here. I believe that this is rank opportunism. I believe that many of them have been active enablers of the current situation. I think these people know who the serial predators are and have either actively or passively covered it up, thereby allowing them to find new victims. I’m not in favor of a witch hunt by any means, but I genuinely believe that these leaders need to be pushed back from positions of prominence if the evidence warrants it. Term limits would go a long way in solving this problem.

The numerous stories on social media do indeed show a clear pattern of predation at all three of our training centers. These stories alone should warrant investigations into the directors of those centers. If the investigators can demonstrate that any or all of the directors knowingly perpetuated a climate in which predators could seek out victims, they should be terminated and expelled from the NFB. If they are cleared, they should go on about their important work with a clean slate.

In recent days, a campaign of direct accusation and whispered innuendo has been mounted against Stacy Cervenka on social media. Some are questioning her motives, her methods and her exact role in the campaign of the survivors. I too am dubious of her motives and her tactics, particularly her personal conduct on social media. As a former member of the NFB for nearly two decades, Cervenka should have anticipated and been prepared for such attacks and criticisms when she first undertook this fight.

However, whatever I, or the leadership, may think of Cervenka and her overt and covert objectives, the stark fact is that the leadership invited such repercussions when they chose to ignore this growing blight. Sexual misconduct has been in our societal consciousness since the 1970’s. Even if you accept that the problem could not be properly handled due to a smothering blanket of cultural autocracy, you cannot avoid the pivot point of the code of conduct. Once that was implemented, the Federation as a whole validated the fact that sexual predation is a real and troublesome phenomenon in all aspects of our culture.

When you’re not at the table, you’re on the table.

One charge leveled against Cervenka runs, “Why doesn’t she stop attacking us and come to the table? Help us implement the positive change we all want.” Experience teaches me that this charge has a sinister tint to it. It is more likely that some leaders would draw Cervenka back into the fold by giving her the illusion of influence in hopes of seeking a way to effectively neutralize her. There are members of leadership who might even view her words and deeds as a declaration of war upon the Federation.

Moreover, according to screen shots of texts and Emails posted to Cervenka’s Facebook page, she tried to raise this issue two years ago when she contacted President Riccobono about these matters in the wake of the #MeToo movement. Riccobono responded with a combination of saccharine platitudes and hurt feelings.

Aside from the odd fact that Riccobono did not immediately try to engage in a constructive dialogue with her, he should’ve foreseen the fact that Cervenka, or someone like her, would eventually mount this sort of campaign. The crisis the leadership now faces was mostly avoidable. Yes, sooner or later, this kind of thing would have become public, but the NFB might have been better able to control the spread of the wildfire if they had gotten out ahead of it earlier. Now, Cervenka and the survivors hold the stronger hand and Riccobono and the leadership appear to be reactive in the seeking of solutions, rather than proactive.

Despite the leadership’s desperate need to control the situation, there is only one group that will decide how much power Cervenka holds. It is not the leadership of the National Federation of the Blind. It is not observers with a vested interest like myself. It is the victims. Thus far, Cervenka has proven to be their ally and an effective advocate. Her efforts to create a network for survivors to begin the healing process is particularly laudable. They, and only they, will have to decide what role she will play going forward.

For everything, there is a consequence.

When I was a youth counselor at the Colorado Center for the Blind in the summer of 2014, I tried to impart one important lesson to my students. Every decision has consequences.

Compare and contrast that to a lesson that Marc Maurer tried to teach me as I sat in front of his desk with 30 other young and hopeful NFB leaders, just 10 days before the tragedy of 9/11. As I chomped away on Peanut M N M’s like Pac-Man going after Power Pellatts, Maurer asked all of us to rank the five most important things that leaders in the NFB should accomplish. After he delivered the assignment, he bounced a coin on his massive desk and said, “Mrs. Walhof, I’ll bet you a quarter that none of them get it.”

We all wrote down our answers and read them later. They ranged from the usual; fundraising, membership recruitment, fundraising, insuring philosophical solidity, fundraising, legislative impact, legal victories in court and fundraising.

After we were finished, he collected his quarter from Mrs. Walhof and said, “The most important mission in the Federation is the selection and grooming of the next president of the movement.”

That tells you all you need to know about NFB culture at the highest levels. We are an organization that places a good deal of emphasis on leadership. I understand why this happens. I do believe in the ‘great man’ view of history. Riccobono leveled up in 2018 when he dedicated his annual banquet speech to the contributions of women to the Federation. If there’s one thing that NFB leaders know how to do, it is deliver a good speech. The response of the survivors campaign has proven that pandering woke lip service is no longer enough.

Leaders in the organization will find no shortage of praise and celebration once they come to power. If they pay proper homage to our core philosophy, engage in the quotidian drudgery of fundraising, membership recruitment and pounding the halls of their state capital, and if they proffer respect to the state and national leadership, they will find a path to greater glory.

I don’t think this is entirely unreasonable. Yet, when serious problems come to light as has happened now, the leadership must also bear the consequences of their actions and inactions. If the Federation rises upon the shoulders of its leaders, then it must also fall upon the actions and inactions of its leaders.

I want to make it clear that I am not in favor of a ‘burn it down’ approach. The NFB has done a great deal of good in its 80 years of existence. We can still continue to stand at the forefront of the advancement of the blind in society. But the time has come for an open and honest dialogue about the plague of sexual violence within our ranks and how to best combat it. That dialogue and subsequent change cannot occur without meaningful alterations to our top-down style of leadership.

I am an unapologetic defender of the structured discovery model of training for the blind. I firmly believe that our three centers are monuments to the words and intangible beliefs of the Federation put into tangible action. The blindness community would be worse off if our training centers do not remain as a viable option for blind people. As is so often the case, the flaws in the centers do not rest with the philosophy, but with the people in charge.

I also want to clarify that, as a conservative, I am opposed to much of the platform of the social justice movement. I believe that many of their viewpoints and strategies veer too close to fascism for my taste. It is far easier to detect injustice than it is to develop and implement viable solutions that result in true equity.

I will grudgingly acknowledge the irony that, while I am skeptical of the social justice movement, this topic would not have been pushed into the open without their dogmatic relentlessness. I also acknowledge the deep irony that, if we were to replace our current form of leadership in the NFB with the principles of social justice, we would ultimately be replacing one form of repressive governance with another.

I do not believe that silence is complicity. That is an absolutist slogan designed to force people into a binary choice while ignoring nuance and gray areas. Yes, sexual violence is an uncomfortable topic. With its emergence into the limelight, we all need to feel a little bit uncomfortable as we grapple with it. But certain elements of the “Social Justice Warrior” crowd will use this discomfort more as a blunt force cudgel rather than as an instrument of education and persuasion. This represents a serious error in strategic judgment and emotional temperament. If you want to implement real and lasting change, you cannot do so while alienating a vast swath of those whom you hope to persuade.

Castigating the leadership is one thing, but the general membership is another matter. I understand why many members have stayed silent over the years with regard to this issue. Many may have felt ill equipped to properly deal with the facts. Others may have been apathetic or unaware of the problem. A great number of members probably knew about the issue but stayed silent out of fear for their own personal or professional wellbeing.

Whatever the case, the truth is now out in the open. As members, we have the choice of either perpetuating the problem by continuing to sweep it under the rug, or grappling with our discomfort together in hopes of bringing about a positive and productive resolution for the survivors.

Honestly, this was the toughest essay I’ve ever had to write. It has forced me to stand in front of a metaphoric mirror and take a hard look at myself and my past actions. I am mindful of the fact that I may have hurt some of you with the words that I have written here. I have many friends who are Federationists and who are true believers in our cause. If you are reading this and are pained by it, I would respectfully ask you to compare your feelings to those of the victims who have gone unheeded for these many years. If your first instinct is to downplay the problem or to adopt a ‘circle the wagons’ mentality, I would implore you to consider the fact that our president has already acknowledged that the problem of systemic sexual predation exists and that our leadership has done too little to rectify it. There is no real question as to the nature and scope of the problem. The only question that remains now is, what can we do about it as we go forward?

This takes me back to where I started; the survivors.

I see the word, “empathy,” used a lot when having discussions of this nature. I am suspicious when this word is employed. I believe that its current day ubiquity has dulled its meaning. As a man who has never experienced full-blown sexual assault, it would be disingenuous for me to claim that I feel empathy for those who have undergone it. When I read the words written on social media from authors whom I don’t know, my heart hurts for them, but I can’t walk in their shoes.

That said, God bless you for your courage. Whatever happens, I hope you keep up the good fight. You won’t have an easy road ahead of you. This is an issue that cuts to the bone. Battle lines will be drawn, friendships will be lost, charges and countercharges will be leveled and lives will be drastically altered. Some will be your allies, others with ulterior motives will claim to be your allies and still others will attack you openly. I can’t know the future, but whatever happens, I pray that you can muster the strength to stay the course until you see the change wrought that you are fighting for.

While I can’t feel empathy for the survivors whom I don’t know, I do feel genuine compassion for my close friends who have been victimized. When the tide broke on social media, I spent a good deal of time on phone calls with friends who are trauma survivors. They are the reasons why I take this issue seriously and why I am choosing to break my silence. Whatever happens in the coming months and years, I want all survivors of sexual assault to know that I hear you and I support your calls to be heard.

To all of you predators out there who think you’ve gotten away with it, sleep with one eye open. When you wake up every morning, ask yourselves, is today the day?

Now that we’ve ingested our banquet entree, here’s your meager sliver of cheesecake. It is intended for everyone invested in the current debate. There is no intoxicant more potent than raw, unbridled power. Just ask the Republican Party.

Happy New Year.

Now, let’s go repair the Federation.

Branded

If you’ve been a member of a discussion group on social media, then you will recognize a familiar pattern. Someone will pose a topic. At first, respondents will stay on-topic. Eventually, someone comes along and hijacks the message thread. Then, the topic snowballs until the final comments bear little resemblance to the origins.

Such a case has happened on the Colorado Talk list over the past week. Therefore, I am posting the initial message that sparked discussion. I will then post my response, which came a week afterward. NFB members who read this will recognize many old arguments reborn here, though some of my comments may leave a bad taste.

Here is the original post:

Date: Sat 1/4/2020 8:37 PM
From: Colorado-Talk ; on behalf of; Jenny Perdue via Colorado-Talk colorado-talk@nfbnet.org
Subject: [Colorado-Talk] Thoughts on the motto living the life you want.

Dear Colorado talk,

Earlier in the month, Kevin asked us to write things about living the life you want. Yes, I could’ve answered this privately. However, I wonder though, if more people feel like I do then we know.

The national Federation of the blind motto is living the life we want. Which, is a great motto. But at my very first NFB convention. I soon discovered that living the life I wanted would never be laudedor celebrated or even acknowledged by The national Federation of the blind either within a convention, or, any other format.

Let me explain why I say that. I was born and raised in a time where if you had vision you had to use it whether or not it was viable or not. So, my education fell through the cracks even though I asked to learn braille repeatedly over my education. I taught myself braille in 1999 at a rehabilitation center for the blind in Daytona. By myself. With no help. Just me and my determination to learn but I wasn’t given the opportunity to learn as a child.

There are a lot of us out there in the same position. I’ve heard the stories. Oh you can do it, go back to school. Well, at 46 with maybe a six grade education, having taught myself braille. And don’t know Nemeth code. School is just not an option for me.

OK, that’s the backstory. Now, as a 46-year-old woman. I also have health issues. So working is not an option for me. Which means, no mobility training, no computer, no computer training, or anything else I might need because I’m not valuable enough to receive training because I’m not working or going to school or planning on doing either or.

So, now I come to my point. Though I have these challenges. And a lot of us do. I volunteer at the Humane Society here in Grand Junction. As far as I know, I’m the only blind person that I know anywhere in the country who was allowed by a shelter to volunteer.

My Specialty is working with cats or kittens that have been traumatized, or feral. Or for whatever reason that their behavior and trust and a human being is not there yet. Which, has helped several cats and kittens become adopted because I worked with them and taught them how to trust people again. Or even for the first time. That’s important right, that’s valuable right? But do we see that in our conventions. No.

We see John does a lawyer, we see DJane doe Jane doe has the most successful DEP vending in the state. Awesome, kudos, wonderful things.

However, those people were given way more opportunities than a lot of us are. What I do with the animals and others do for volunteerism is just as valid, and just as important, and should be celebrated just as much as a scholarship winner for college. I didn’t exactly get that option. A lot of us didn’t. So why do we feel like If we didn’t go to college, CCB, have a successful career, we are not as respected or validated within the national Federation of the blind community. And that includes nationally.

Bring in money and status does not make a person successful. It does not prove that blindness doesn’t have to be an obstacle. What proves that, or people who do the best they can with what they got. What proves that is the fact that for me, I’m the most well known volunteer at that shelter. I’m also the one they come to before cat is adopted to say farewell. I’m the one they come to when a cat is so Farrell or so frightened that it could lash out, and I’m the person that they know will spend hours with an animal to gain trust and make them adoptable.

The amazing thing is, people the shelter feel it’s valuable, people at the shelter see what a blind person can do, we are celebrated and appreciated. They even bought a braille label order to label the signs so that I would be more comfortable there The foster families for the animals, the people that come in and look at adopting a cat or kitten, I know the cats and kittens better than the adoption counselors do. Again, very valid, respected.

The question is, why isn’t that felt in the blind community within the national Federation of the blind. It just doesn’t.

I came out of that convention more depressed than I had ever been in my life. Well, in a long time 🙂 I felt like my life didn’t matter. Because all the kudos all the celebration went to people who are successful. Who don’t have the health trials I do, who didn’t have crap for education, who don’t even have a computer because we’re not valid enough within broke rehab to deserve one if we can’t work. Have no equipment. No mobility training since I went totally year and a half ago because I have too many health issues to work but not too many to get training.

I’m not trying to sound like a pity party, because that’s not it. I have a great life. I just wish my life At what I do with it in the parameters of health, lack of education, lack of computers, lack of equipment, lack of training Was just celebrated.

I knew a lot of blind folks who have tons of opportunities who sit on their butt and do nothing. And get everything they could possibly want as far as equipment goes. Fine, I’m glad they can. But when the most prominent and respected blind organization that works for equality only makes a huge deal about people who are bringing in the dough, and have a status, what is that exactly say to me as a blind person who is supposed to matter to the national Federation for the blind.

So, I guess what I’m saying is, you can live the life you want, you can also live the life you’re dealt. And handling that stuff for Grace doesn’t seem to matter. So, I just figured I would express it.

I will never go to another convention. I already feel like I’m not good enough sometimes, I most certainly don’t need it in the blind community. Much less and NFB. I am a member still, because I know that there are people like me too. We may not get the notice of a credit, but we’re here. I just don’t have to have it shoved in my face that I’m not important or valid in in the organization.

I hope the other people who feel the way I do will read this, I hope that you will know that you are important. You may not feel like it, you may not feel that the NFB feels like it, but you are. We all are.

Maybe if we help each other out more, instead of shoving everybody’s success in the faces of people who aren’t that fortunate People like me would Feel like we were An equal and respected part of it or like we matter.

Maybe the NFB needs to think about those of us who still need to function in life. Who still need a computer, who still need training, those things don’t disappear because you don’t work. So instead of spending a bunch of money on conventions that celebrate everybody’s good fortune and make quite a few people feel like crap. Maybe we should start helping those of us who didn’t have the opportunities and make the national Federation of the blind really the voice of the blind. I haven’t heard my voice yet

Jenny

Sent from my iPhone
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That was Jenny’s message. I wrote her privately and told her that I applauded her for starting this dialogue; one that I think is important, as well as her work with cats. Over the following week, many replies came. A few were from the leadership in Colorado. Eventually, the conversation was redirected toward the Colorado Center for the Blind, which is the NFB training center located in Littleton.

Here is my response to Jenny and others, which I posted to Colorado Talk yesterday afternoon.

Hello, Colorado!

Greetings from Nebraska, where the temperature is 6 degrees and we just endured our first major snow of the season. Yes, I’m rubbing it in. You guys deserve it after stealing the Baldwins from us.

I still miss Denver and all of you terribly (except Kevan, of course) and long for the days when the climate and public transit were more temperate.

I’ve been following this thread for the past week with great interest. Frankly, I was glad to see that someone raised the issue. For many of us outside of the leadership ring of the Federation, there has been a growing perception of a widening disconnect between the leadership and the general rank-and-file movement. The Federation has always emphasized leadership, of course, and it’s top-down style has engendered criticism over the decades. Perhaps nothing has changed. Perhaps the leadership is the same as it has always been. Or, perhaps the emergence of social media as a dominant force has magnified the cracks that have always existed in the NFB armor. Or, perhaps it merely gives our critics a larger megaphone with which to shout at us.

I think that there is a kernel of truth in all of these possibilities. Whatever the case, this is a conversation that needs to happen.

I found Scott’s remarks on the branding process to be of particular interest. I shamelessly acknowledge that I am a free market capitalist. That said, I think it is a mistake for the NFB to take a corporatist approach to our messaging. We are a non-profit organization, not for-profit. The methods by which we recruit and motivate our membership should be entirely different than that of a for-profit enterprise.

My criticism of the slogan itself can best be summed up by a friend of mine (who shall remain anonymous) who said that our new slogan, “Live the life you want,” sounds like the tagline of an ad that you would see for a retirement community. His/her critique is profound. Even though a select group of people chose this slogan, there is nothing in it that really stands out as uniquely NFB.

I was a fan of our prior slogan, “Changing what it means to be blind.” I thought it was simple, direct, accurate and most important of all, it contained the word, “Blind,” within the slogan.

I have a larger point in bringing this up. This is the first time I’ve expressed my view about our slogan on any platform, or in any venue. No one asked me my thoughts when we adopted the slogan a few years ago. The first I ever heard of it was in the summer of 2014, when a group of us filmed a video singing around the piano in the CCB lobby for publication on the NFB YouTube channel. By then, it was already our official slogan. I don’t recall any discussion of it at chapter meetings, on list serves, at conventions or in casual conversations with NFB leaders.

This is why I was glad that Jenny wrote the message that she did. I believe that the leadership needs to hear feedback like this from outside of their comfort zone. Unfortunately, we now live in a time when like-minded people seem to congregate together, excising those with whom they disagree from their sphere of interaction. This phenomenon has created an echo chamber effect. If the leadership has always been this way, our recent shift toward further societal and cultural polarization has probably exacerbated the problem. This is why I think Jenny’s message was healthy and necessary.

Before I continue, I’m going to take a fit break in honor of Jessica and Maureen.

I’m back now. My fit break consisted of me getting up, stretching, then going to the kitchen for a root beer. If you ladies don’t feel that this was adequate, take heart in the knowledge that it’s a diet root beer.

Talking of comfort zones brings me to my next point. Jenny, while I applauded your initial message, I do feel that you and others have subsequently muddied it more than a bit.

It’s one thing to criticize the Colorado leadership for their approach to state conventions. These are conversations that the leadership has been holding for some years now. Like national, I think they need input from those outside of their comfort bubble. That said, criticizing a policy at the CCB is quite a different matter.

Here’s where I acknowledge a bias. While I am increasingly skeptical of our national leadership, I have great heart for the mission, the staff and the students at the Colorado Center for the Blind. I worked there for three-and-a-half months and it was enough to scar me for life. Unlike a random, superficial slogan, the CCB is transforming our high-sounding words into concrete action. They aren’t merely changing what it means to be blind; they are illustrating one course of action for doing so. The sleep shades are an integral component to this. Anyone can use their residual vision for everyday tasks, but it is quite another proposition to go outside of your comfort zone in order to experience an alternative, non-visual method of performing an ordinary task such as crossing a street, frying bacon or hammering a nail. The use of the shades is a compulsory means of pushing a student into that mode of learning.

Maryann kind of stole my thunder on this point. I will merely echo what she suggested and urge you to study your rights as a consumer; rights that the NFB was instrumental in defining. As blind consumers, choice is a right that we all have, but the choice of the CCB to implement a curriculum that aligns with its philosophy is just as important as your right to choose as an individual.

If you want to criticize the leadership for their messaging or their convention agendas, fine. More power to you. This is a relatively new conversation and it is worth having. If you want to take issue with the sleep shades, the long cane, the importance of braille, etc, just know that folks like Diane, Julie, Dan and Brent have been weathering storms of criticisms surrounding these issues for decades. Their arguments are well-honed and have withstood the test of time.

Finally, I will toss out the Nebraska state motto; a slogan that has proven somewhat controversial.

“Nebraska: It’s not for everyone.”

The simple truth is that the NFB could adopt this same slogan. The Federation approach is not for everyone. I know the leadership is resistant to this reality, but that doesn’t change it. Yet, our presence is vital as an option for those who wish to pursue their growth and independence as blind people living in the world. If choice is a basic human right, the NFB must be a choice.

On the other hand, if the leadership is not effectively communicating that choice, it is incumbent upon them to modify their outreach. I believe that such modification depends upon honest dialogue, not that which is manufactured and controlled by a mere few.

Sorry for the length of this message. I’m off now for another fit break; Sam Adams and a cigar. Love y’all.

… Except Kevan, of course.

Sincerely,

Ryan Osentowski