Flexin’ My Melanin & Talking About #DisabilityTooWhite at the NABSW Conference

Leave a Comment

White background with drawings of 4 Black women from the shoulders up of various skin tones and hairstyles.  Each woman is wearing an alternating pink or purple top.

I took a hiatus this month from blogging to prepare and attend the National Association of Black Social Workers (NABSW) conference in National Harbor, Maryland.  It was the first time I attended the conference, as well as presented about #DisabilityTooWhite to my social work colleagues.  I was ecstatic to attend a conference where I would be surrounded by melanin, and it was the spiritual and emotional rejuvenation I needed.  

Flexin’ My Melanin:  Black-Centric Spaces Are Necessary

The past few weeks has been challenging for me.  Professionally, I was running on E due to dealing with microaggressions and reverse ageism, which were new occurrences for me to handle.  However, by the time I went to the conference, I accepted a new position that aligned more with my values, ethics, morals, and I was thrilled for the new chapter to occur.  Accepting the new job and attending the conference meant that I had a week to be away (both physically and electronically) from a major stressor, and that I would have a pseudo “spring break.”

I was familiar with NABSW from being a member of the collegiate chapter at my alma mater while in grad school, but had not been involved with the organization since graduation.  What attracted me to the organization was its Afro-centered focus for colleagues and the Black community, which makes it unique from other social work entities.  

When I received my program outlining presentations, it was amazing to read about workshops that touched on various aspects of the Black experience.  One of the first workshops I attended was about Womanism in Leadership, which made my Womanist heart almost burst out of my chest.  That workshop caused every one of us who was in attendance feel alive at all the truth gems dropped during that 2 ½ hours session.  To be in a room with mostly Black women talking about the struggles and triumphs we endured in embracing our Black womanness felt like a spiritual revival of sorts.  The energy in that room made my soulful cup runneth over; after feeling depleted for so long, it was welcomed to be made full again.  It was there that I knew coming here was the correct move, and it set the tone for how the rest of the conference would be.  

Over those three days, I was surrounded by Blackness – various shades of beautiful people that felt like home.  I do not have many opportunities to be in all Black spaces, but after that week, I am going to make it a priority to find and place myself in them.  What made NABSW stand out to me was the attire worn:  many people were dressed in African-inspired garments, which I never seen in a professional space.  As our guest speaker stated, NABSW is one of the few Black organizations where you can display your African heritage proudly in a professional setting.  To have Blackness be unapologetically seen by those of all ages was powerful – I need more of that in my life.  

#DisabilityTooWhite at NABSW

I was urged by a sorority sister to submit a proposal to the conference because there was not a disability-theme workshop at last year’s event.  I decided that I would discuss the hashtag and why Black social workers needed to be culturally competent and better allies to the disabled community.  Being that it was a conference that honed in on the Black experience, I outlined the plight of Black disabled women in my presentation to illustrate how intersected experiences affect the opportunities and inclusion of those who are multi-margainalized.  Those who attended my workshop asked great questions and gave examples of how they had witnessed ableism played out in school settings, which was something I touched on when I discussed cultural deprivation and the school-to-prison pipeline.  

Educating and engaging with members of the Black community is instrumental to my work, especially since Black disabled people struggle to feel accepted and included in this particular space.  Black social workers can play critical roles in aligning themselves with disabled advocates, moreso disabled colleagues, to eradicate the issues that pervade our community specifically, the broader society, and within the profession.  In my opinion, there is no reason for social workers to be ignorant of disability history, culture, and how being marginalized within and outside of one’s disability status affects our lives and access to services and equality.  Getting in formation, so to speak, about disability is long overdue, as I have stated in a recent article for the New Social Worker Magazine.  Conducting workshops at social work conferences on the diverse disabled experience is a passion of mine, and these opportunities validate how important my voice is in these spaces.  

Self-Care:  Always On My Mind

While at this conference, I did not one, but TWO presentations – the aforementioned one for NABSW, and 15 minutes after I was finished, I did one for the Western Social Science Association (WSSA) conference via Skype with Steve Brown and Alice Wong.  I never did two presentations back-to-back before, but it was a welcomed new challenge.  The WSSA workshop was a panel discussion surrounding disability culture and how it has changed since Steve developed the definition in the 1990s.  It was awesome to be asked by Steve to be on the panel, and to have the opportunity to talk to a new audience.  I have enjoyed working with Steve and Alice as we prepared for this workshop, and I look forward to more chances to work with them soon.  

In the midst of being out-of-state and doing presentations and panels, I did find time to unwind.  This was a semi spring break, so I had the pleasure of staying with one of my fave disabled Sistagirls, and catching up with some of my favorite advocates for food and drinks.  Having that kind of downtime was necessary for me to enjoy myself while being away from home.  All work and no play makes me a dull woman, and there is absolutely nothing about me that is dull.  Seeing familiar and new faces for a week was refreshing and much-needed – interacting with those I care about is a part of self-care for me, and I am glad to have done it.  

Final Thoughts

Being at the NABSW conference was a wonderful experience, and I look forward to attending and hopefully presenting about disability again in the future.  I made some great connections with individuals who work with the disabled community and/or teach about disability at their universities, and am eager to see where those contacts lead me in the work I do.  

Sometimes you need a break from the hecticness of life to get centered – doing work for RYV, speaking on disability, and meeting new people were what I needed for that to occur.  

(Featured headlining image:  Courtesy of Pixabay.)

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.

Leave a Reply