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I Celebrated Black Disability History At the White House!

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As you may have noticed, there was no new post on the blog last week – I took an impromptu trip to Maryland to attend a Black History Month White House event!

Last week was incredible, in more ways than I can accurately express in words.  I still have to pinch myself because I cannot believe that it happened, and that I was at the White House surrounded by so many Black and proud advocates and allies.  

Like all amazing stories, let’s start at the beginning…

How Receiving the Official Invitation From the White House Left Me Speechless

On Friday, February 19th after 8 pm EST, I received the following email in my inbox:  

Official White House invitation to attend its Black History Month event

Official White House invitation to attend its Black History Month event.  (Click for better viewing.)

At first, I thought the email was a spam message, and when I checked the email address and saw the .gov ending, that was when I knew it was legitimate.  

And of course… that was when I started to hyperventilate and lose control.  

My first thoughts were, “How did the White House find out about me?  Who or what put me on their radar?  The White House wants me?  ME?!?!?!?”  I rarely become speechless, but this moment literally left me with no words.  

I was conflicted on so many levels, from wanting to share but also wanting to keep it a secret, to figuring out the logistics of how I would get there because I do not drive or have the financial means to drop $500 or more for an impromptu trip (due to being on a fixed income).  I decided to tell only 3 people that night – these 3 people were those who I knew either were not on social media and/or not as active as I was.  I had many folks try to guess, but I was not cracking until I had a game plan of what I was going to do.  I was bursting at the seams the entire weekend about the invitation, and was uncertain if I could attend, and possibly miss out on an incredible opportunity and honor.

Operation “Get Vilissa to the White House” Was Spearheaded

By Monday, I had responded to the White House, telling them of my predicament that I may not be able to attend due to traveling challenges.  I got a response back, saying that the event would be livestreamed on Thursday.  

Though the response was nice, it left a tart taste in my mouth.  The tartness was from the fact that transportation and money were obstacles for me to get to this event, and the frustration of possibly missing out on this moment was not okay with me.  

I reached out to a friend and inquired about possible traveling means that may work, and they suggested riding a train to Washington, D.C.  When they looked at the railway fares, they were considerably cheaper than flying, especially since this was a short notice trip.  Amtrak was the best option to take, especially with their discounts for adult disabled passengers.  

Now that I had a viable transportation option to consider, that left housing – where would I stay?  Luckily for me, I have relatives who live in Baltimore, and a cousin of mine had recently semi-retired from her nursing position within the last year.  I called her to inquire about staying with her during the week, and she said yes!  Fortunately, she only work on the weekends at the hospital, and would be home that week.  

WIth housing and transportation arrangements sorted out, all I had to do was book my train ticket, get my hair done, pack, and head up North for the White House.  I was actually going to the White House!!  I could not believe it, nor could those in my family and friend circles – it blew my mind that this trip was really happening.  It felt like God had orchestrated the details perfectly; all I had to do was take the leap (or for me, roll) of faith, and soak it all in.  

Traveling By Railway as a Wheelchair User, & Seeing the Southern Landscape Along the Way

I had planned to spend Tuesday night in Charlotte with a friend, and have them drop me off at the Amtrak train station to board at 7 am Wednesday morning.  Getting everything done in 24 hours was hectic, but by the time I got on the train, it all came together smoothly.  

Me on the Amtrak train Wednesday morning.

Me on the Amtrak train Wednesday morning.

This trip was the first time I had travelled beyond the Carolinas – the farthest “north” I had been was Charlotte.  To see the countrysides of North Carolina and Virginia were breathtaking.  It made me realize that Southern states tend to look the same, particularly when you travel through the rural areas.  

The train ride itself was quite a new experience.  I sat in my wheelchair the whole time, in the designated section for disabled passengers.  I was a bit worried about how hard the train would rock with me sitting in my chair versus sitting in the train seats, but the rocking was not hard or made me feel like I would tilt over.  There were a few bumps here and there, but for the most part, staying in my chair was a good choice for me.  

The conductors and staff on the train were very friendly, and helpful when needed.  I received assistance when I wanted something from the dining cart, and when I had to open the sliding door to the bathroom.  The train bathroom was big enough to fit my manual wheelchair, but it made me wonder about those with larger wheelchairs (powerchairs and scooters) and if it would be a very tight fit for them.  Besides the bathroom observation, everything else was accessible for those of us who used mobility aids, which eased my mind tremendously as a new traveller.  

Getting to Baltimore Penn Station took close to 11 hours, which was long, but when you have moving scenic landscapes to view, plus conversing with other passengers and listening to music on a tablet, the time on the train did not drag at all.  

I arrived in Baltimore close to 6 pm, and my cousin was waiting for me at the elevator.  From there, I settled at my cousin’s residence that evening, and looked forward to travelling to Washington, D.C. and visiting the White House.  

Off to the White House!

By noon on Thursday, I was on the road to Washington, D.C. heading to the White House.  On the way, I looked at how D.C. meshed business and housing together to create colorful buildings that seemed to never end.  There is no denying the history of the Nation’s Capital when you are passing by buildings and statutes that have been around for ages, long before I was even a thought to be born.  

We found the Eisenhower Executive Office Building pretty easily, and had to park the car to get to the security gate.  At the gate, I presented my government-issued ID card, and stated why I was seeking access to the White House campus.  After having my security clearance checked at the gate, I was allowed onto the premises.  From there, I would have to go through another series of security checks; this time, rolling through a metal detector, having a metal detector wand swiped over my front and back, and my personal items screened on a machine, along with getting a green badge to wear that identified me as a guest in the building.  

Once the final security checks were completed, I gained access inside the White House premises, and made my way into the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, headed to the South Court Auditorium.  When I found the Auditorium, I met a few advocates who arrived early as I did, along with Maria Town, who is the Associate Director and Liaison to the Disability Community for the White House.  

Some of us wanted to visit the White House gift shop, and I tagged along to see more of the Eisenhower Building.  On the way to the Shop, we ran into some furry White House royalty – Sunny and Bo!  As an animal lover, I was too excited to meet and pet the First Dogs, especially Sunny since she came right up to me.  

Me holding the leashes of Bo & Sunny!!

Me holding the leashes of Bo & Sunny!!

Black Disability History:  Why It Matters

The event was a discussion and musical performance of the contributions of African Americans with disabilities as part of the White House’s Black History Month focus for February.  The event lasted for an hour and a half, and consisted of 2-person speaker discussions, and a musical act.  

The speaker discussion segments were my absolute favorite parts of the program.  The first discussion was led by Keri Gray, Youth Transitions Fellow at the National Council on Independent Living, and Patrick Cokley, Program Director at the Workforce Recruitment Program.  Keri and Patrick discussed the intersectionality of Blackness and disability, and the importance in recognizing how connected these two identities was imperative for those who belonged to both groups.  To hear these two professionals discuss a topic that I am passionate about as an advocate and focus on within my work had me buzzing within.  Intersectionality and the emphasis of respecting dual or multiple identities are gravely missing within both the Black community and the disability community.  To know that others not only understood, but also vocalized that intersectionality is pivotal to ensuring that everyone is visible and respected was validating – it was not just me who recognized the importance of this.  

Keri Gray & Patrick Cokley

Keri Gray & Patrick Cokley

The second discussion was led by Dustin Gibson, Program Manager at Three Rivers Center for Independent Living and Nancy Zirkin, Executive Vice President at the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights.  Dustin and Nancy discussed the similarities and differences between the Civil Rights Movement and the Disability Rights Movement, and the takeaways we can utilize to make disability and civil rights advocacy more effective in the modern day era.  Dustin’s focus on the Black Lives Matter movement in his commentary, and how important it is for Civil Rights to include disability rights and the voices of disabled Black people resonated with me.  It touched on the intersectionality piece from the first discussion, but digged deeper to show that these groups were fighting similar battles that needed to be addressed within both movements.  Being disabled carries many obstacles within that identity by itself; when you factor race into a person’s experience plus living with a disability, there are unique challenges that the combination of dual identities creates for that person that goes unnoticed when these identities are viewed separately.  That was the overall message of this second discussion – recognizing that many of the injustices and inequalities we are combatting separately affects those disproportionately who are Black and disabled, and now is the time for both communities to make space for the voices of Black disabled people to be a part of the change that has to be done.  

Dustin Gibson & Nancy Zirkin

Nancy Zirkin & Dustin Gibson

Other speakers at the event came from divisions of the federal government who either worked on issues that pertained to the disabled community or the African American community, and shared how their particular division is working hard to eradicate the barriers, stigma, and discrimination we face as a people.  To learn about the work that is being done on the federal level shows that the government is doing its part to protect and expand the rights and opportunities of disabled Americans.  

No White House event would be complete without a musical performance, and Blessing Offor, Vocalist and Multi-Instrumentalist who appeared on a season of the singing competition “The Voice,” showed us his musical chops with singing three songs.  I had never heard of Blessing before that afternoon, but I became a fan while he sung and strummed his guitar.

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Singer & Musician Blessing Offor.

The Melanin Was Popping!

On a personal level, the melanin was popping at the event.  I have never been in a room with so many disabled Black people in my 30 years of living.  Various shades, sizes, and abilities were represented, and it felt good.  It felt empowering to be around disabled Black advocates like myself who were leaders and game-changers within their respective circles  I harp on the importance of Black disability representation and interaction because it matters – to be amongst those who were not only disabled, but also shared the same racial identity, is something that should be the norm and not the exception within disability advocacy.  

Me and Keri Gray

Me and Keri Gray, Youth Transition Fellow at NCIL

It was especially wonderful to meet and connect with some of the disabled Black women who attended.  Two that I plan to reach out to is Keri Gray, whom I mentioned earlier in the post, and Yvette Pegues, Miss Wheelchair USA 2014-2015.  These two ladies are fabulous in their own right, and I thoroughly enjoyed making new disabled Sistagirl acquaintances.  

Me and Yvette Pegues, Miss Wheelchair USA 2014-2015

Yvette Pegues, Miss Wheelchair USA 2014-2015 and me

Realizing that I & Ramp Your Voice! Have Fans & Supporters in D.C.  

The unexpected surprise about the trip was the fact that I and Ramp Your Voice! have made names for ourselves.  Keri Gray came up to me when she entered into the Auditorium, and asked if I was Vilissa from Ramp Your Voice.  I told her yes, and she shared how she was a huge fan of my work, and that I created a space for someone who looked liked her.  

I was well taken aback by her compliments.  Here I was reading her mini biography from the handout we were given about the speakers at the event, and I was impressed by what I read of her.  To have her exclaim that it was HER who was impressed by ME felt surreal.  Keri was not the only attendee or speaker who knew either my name or about RYV! – having your fellow colleagues share that they admire you or your work really touches you deeply.  That kind of professional validation uplifted my spirits as an advocate and energized me – it gave me the “umph” to continue to push forward with my work, and to brainstorm ways to connect with such like-minded advocates.  

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Final Thoughts  

After the White House event, I stayed with my cousin until late Friday afternoon, then boarded the train to head to Charlotte in the wee hours of Saturday morning.  I made it back home Saturday afternoon, with enough time to cast my vote for the SC Primary.  

When I think about this trip, it was truly a bittersweet adventure.  How could there be any bitterness from what I shared, you may wonder?  

This was the first major experience I had since Grandma (Big V, as I called her on the blog) passed on Christmas Eve.  When I boarded the train Wednesday, that day marked exactly two months since her death.  On the train ride, I thought about how my life has changed in ways that I did not expect.  Two months ago, I dealt with the greatest loss I had in my young life; two months later, I am making a very impromptu trip to fulfill an invitation request from the White House.  Whenever I would be away from home, I would always call Big V to let her know when I arrived at my destination, and to tell her what I was getting into while away.  It felt strange to not phone home, or hear her excitement about me going to the White House.  Not being able to share my joy with her was another “first,” and that is where the “bitter” comes from.  

Though she is not here physically, I know she was with me the entire time, and will be with me in spirit for the next big moments I have.  I know she was looking down on me, smiling, just filled with pride about my adventure to D.C.; knowing that takes some of the bitterness out from her not being here.  

This trip to the White House was one that came completely out of the blue, but I am so grateful to have been able to travel and be a part of something incredible that focused on what drives my work – being of color and disabled.  This is a moment that will be on my mind for a very long time, and will impact the message I plan to continue to share with the world.  I needed this trip, and it has lit a spark in me to research Washington, D.C., and the disability advocacy scene to see where I and my message fit in.  

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If you want to watch the event, check out the above video.  Start the video at around 28 minutes.  A bonus – you will see me on the front row!

P.S.  This is the 150th post on the blog – what a great achievement to meet, & an awesome blog post to write for it!  

About Vilissa Thompson, LMSW

Vilissa is the Founder & CEO of Ramp Your Voice!, an organization she created to establish herself as a Disability Rights Consultant & Advocate. Ramp Your Voice! is a prime example of how macro-minded Vilissa truly is, and her determination to leave a giant "tire track mark" on the world.

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