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

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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.)

#BlackDisabledGirlMagic Series: Keah Brown, Entertainment Journalist Using Her Words to Empower

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Photo of Keah Brown, a brown skinned young Black woman. Keah is looking directly into the camera and smiling. She has her hair straighten and parted to the side, and wearing a white, red, and denim colored sweater.

One of the reasons I wanted to do this series was to capture the diverse lives of Black disabled women. Very few spaces have given us the opportunity to discuss what it is like to be a triple minority, much less by someone who possess those same identities. Providing an environment where people can be candid about the obstacles they face while navigating the world and embracing who they are is an important part of my advocacy work.

Keah Brown is a 25-years old entertainment journalist, writer, and essayist from Western New York. She recently created the #disabledandcute hashtag that went viral in February. This hashtag allowed disabled people to proclaim and display the diverse beauty that exists in our community. Keah is a dynamic writer and friend, and her presence in the community cannot be ignored.

Here is Keah in her own words about learning to accept herself and using her work to empower other Black disabled women:

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#BlackDisabledGirlMagic Series: Kerima Cevik, Disabled Writer, Activist, & Redefining the Rules

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Photo of Kerima Cevik, a brown-skinned Black woman. Kerima is facing away from the camera, with her beautiful gray hair covering her face. She is leaning against window blinds, with the light from the window softly hitting her face.

It is so important for Black disabled women to have a village – a group of individuals who understand her fully. A group of uplifters, motivators, and truth sayers who will give you gems of knowledge and love when times go dark. These women will understand your frustrations in ways that many do not and cannot You will never have to “prove” why something hurts because they will automatically know why – they have been through it too. Becoming an advocate has allowed me to build a dynamic village of disabled women, particularly Black disabled women, who hold me down and will empower me when my spirit is running on E.

One of those women is Kerima Cevik, a disabled mother, writer and blogger that resides in Washington, D.C.  Kerima was one of the first Black women I found who has written about historical Black disabled people.  She has inspired me to do the same, as seen when I feature disabled Black people whose stories are left out of the history books.  Kerima’s interview is a powerful read, so much so that my heart was overwhelmed at the truth gems she dropped for this series.

Without further ado, here is Kerima, in all her unapologetic and fierceness being:

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#BlackDisabledGirlMagic Series: Heather Watkins, Disabled Writer, Mom, & Community Leader

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Image of Heather Watkins, light-skinned Black woman who is standing in front of a off-white colored door. Heather is smiling directly to the camera, and is wearing a black-and-white multi-striped top with black pants. Heather has her hands placed on her hips, which are in a relaxed pose.

As we continue with the #BlackDisabledGirlMagic series, we have seen the various perspectives about the lives Black disabled women live and our worth shared in our own words. If you have noticed, I have asked each woman the same questions; this was purposeful. Though we all share the same identities of being Black, disabled, and women, we exist and interact in this world from different lens. Those differences are influenced by our upbringings, disabilities, ages, geographical location, educational and professional backgrounds, and so forth. Black disabled women are not a monolith, and that is what I wanted to highlight during Women’s History Month. We may encounter similar battles, but our views on life, our bodies, and survival are greatly individualized, as it is for everyone else.

Heather Watkins is a blogger, disabled mother, community leader, and dear friend that reside in Boston, Massachusetts. Heather has become an older sister to me and was one of the first Black disabled advocates I befriended. Heather’s voice in the community is important because of her life experiences and ability to see people beyond the surface.

I am honored to share Heather’s words and life outlooks with you all:

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#BlackDisabledGirlMagic Series: Kathy D. Woods, Fashion Designer for Little Women

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Image of Kathy D. Woods, a Black little woman. Kathy is outside and standing in front of a white building. Kathy is wearing a red-orange snakeskin-printed dress with black dress shoes. Kathy is smiling directly into the camera.

Fashion and feeling good in the clothes you wear are important, and for some disabled women, it can be a challenge to find apparel that fits your body type and shape.  Luckily, clothing lines are recognizing that disabled women (and disabled people in general) are an overlooked consumer market, and are designing clothes that makes us feel comfortable and confident.

Kathy D. Woods has taken this one step further by becoming a designer that targets little women like herself by establishing her self-titled Collection brand:  Kathy D. Woods.  Kathy resides in Santa Clarita, California, and has received national attention for her brand and the work she is doing to allow disabled women to feel fierce and dynamic as they conquer the world.

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#BlackDisabledGirlMagic Series: Keri Gray, Millennial Who Is Passionate about Intersectionality

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Photo of Keri Gray, light-skinned Black women with a small afro who is smiling into the camera and throwing up the peace sign. Keri is dressed in business attire and is standing near a black podium. The podium has a white sign on the front of it that reads: “national youth transitions center.”

For Women’s History Month, I want to spotlight the phenomenal Black women I know who are trailblazers and deserve to have their voices and stories well-known.  These women are individuals I respect, admire, and am proud to know on a personal basis.  In our community, we do not celebrate #BlackDisabledGirlMagic enough or give praise to the ways we have made our own paths and are doing incredible work.  These women are the present, and their advocacy will impact future generations and empower budding advocates, especially Black disabled girls.

The first woman featured for this series is Keri Gray.  Keri is 26 years old, and resides in Maryland.  I met Keri a year ago at the White House event for Black Disability History, and we instantly connected based on our passions to uplift Black women.  Her advocacy work spans many spaces and organizations; she is the Rising Leaders Initiatives Program Manager at the USBLN, the Education Committee Chair for BYP100 DC, and one of the Co-Founders for the Harriet Tubman Collective.  Keri is definitely one of the women I call my “disabled Sistagirls,” and I am blessed to know, support, and love her voice and friendship.  

Without further ado, this is Keri Gray, a prime example of #BlackDisabledGirlMagic:   

VT:  Tell us about yourself.  

KG:  I was born in Salisbury, MD and raised on the south side of Longview, TX. I grew up in an environment where I had to literally cross the railroad tracks in order to do anything besides kick it at a friend’s house. My life has often looked like an Ice Cube “Friday” movie, lol. It has come with a lot of laughs, good friends and family, and some unfortunate situations. I believe it is my faith and hard work that has allowed me to blossom into who I am today.  

 

VT:  What is it that you do?

KG:  In my work, I identify as an Intersectionality and Youth Programming Artist. I enjoy designing programs that empower Black women, young people with disabilities, and communities of color. The issues that I address in my work are hard. How do you fight against long standing and systemic issues such as racism, sexism, and ableism? How do you re-imagine and then design a world filled with opportunities and access? These are hard questions, but I feel it is a part of my purpose to address these issues.

 

VT:  Why is it important to you to uplift the experiences of Black disabled young women in your work?

KG:  One of my biggest fears is to turn into a “hidden figure.” A person who did a lot, but was never recognized for their work. Some people would say that I should not aim for recognition. But to be honest, I am tired of Black women, and particularly young Black disabled women, not getting the recognition and respect that they deserve. It is important for me to uplift the experiences and narratives of young Black disabled women because we deserve it. I’m drawn to young Black disabled women because I am one. The intersections of my identities create an unique narrative that is impossible for others to fully understand unless they are also young, Black, disabled, and a woman. Young people are the center of any revolution, and often the creators or inspiration for innovative designs. Young people are powerful. In my daily life, I hope that I can encourage and create connections for those who are like me.  

 

VT:  What are the obstacles Black disabled women face in society?  In our disabled community?  

KG:  There is really no place for Black disabled women. Black disabled women deal with racism and sexism in the mainstream white society, and then we deal with ableism and sexism in the Black community. Black women are often the main audience and backbone of the Black church, and yet, their voices are silenced and their participation is limited. The obstacles to being a Black disabled women can feel endless.  When I think of these obstacles I quote a piece of Lucille Clifton’s poem: “Come celebrate with me that everyday something has tried to kill me and has failed.”

 

VT:  How can our community support/uplift Black disabled women?  What does that look like for you?

KG:  It would be helpful for our community take a step back and allow for Black disabled women to have more opportunities to step up. I would also like to see allies financially invest in opportunities for Black disabled women to get together. As Black disabled women, we need time and space together. We need to see each other, we need to love and uplift each other, and we need to learn from each other. It is my belief, that when Black disabled women are able to build a strong community together then they will ultimately invest back into other communities, organizations, and businesses.

 

VT:  How did you come into your Black disabled womanness?  What struggles have you experienced, and are still conquering?  

KG:  To me, being a Black disabled woman is about embodying confidence and practicing consistent self-love. I have struggled with both concepts over the years. Due to my lack of confidence, I often hid my disabilities growing up. Due to my lack of self-love, I would harm myself and allow other people to harm me. I am not proud to say that I have settled in relationships and I have settled in job placements However, I am happy to say that my level of confidence has grown a lot over the years. Being a Black disabled woman means loving the unique qualities about myself. I have scars all along my body, and I think they are a beautiful testament to my survival. I have this prosthetic limb that allows me to walk anywhere I want, and I think its shiny metal is an unique characteristic that not many can show off. I definitely have a Black woman’s attitude (lol), and I think that’s sexy. It allows me to push past bullshit, and create authentic projects that relate to real narratives.

 

VT:  If you could tell your younger self anything, what would it be?  

KG:  I would tell my younger self that “you are going to be okay.” At the age of 26 years old, I have already experienced heartbreak three times. Each time, I felt like I was dying and that life would always be a bit gloomy. Although I am still hurting and healing from my past situations, I now have a better understanding of love and moving forward. I would want to tell my younger self, that you can heal from heartbreak and it is possible to experience love all over again. That’s truly a blessing.

 

VT:  For the Black disabled women who may read this, what words of wisdom/love would you want to share?  What does it mean to be a Black disabled woman in America?

KG:  I have found that Black women will find ways to self-medicate to escape from the hard burdens of life. We will attempt to escape through drugs, sex, materialistic items, or anything to distract us from feeling alone and unworthy. There have been times in my life where I have turned into a different person completely. I urge Black disabled women to find healthy ways to deal with the hardships of life. It’s critical to find sisterhood, to practice self-care, and to practice grounding techniques. Don’t give up and don’t lose yourself during hard times.

 

VT:  What’s a little known fact about you?

KG:  I am a huuuge hip hop fan! Music, and specifically hip hop, often inspires in my work. Rappers are some of the most raw, vulnerable, and creative hustlers that you can learn about. I actively try to bring that level authenticity and unpolished realness to my work. Shout out to Queen Bey, Nicki Minaj, J. Cole, Solange, and Chance the Rapper.

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Final Thoughts

The reason I wanted to do this series is because of the lack of visibility of Black disabled women and the impact felt when our experiences are not included in the movement or in society.  When I started RYV! four years ago, I did not know a single Black disabled woman doing advocacy work.  Four years later, I am privileged to know many, and have them become a part of my disabled village.  I want this series to showcase the talents and excellence that exists, and allow budding Black disabled women advocates to know that they are not alone – we are here.  

If you want to learn more about Keri and her work, you can follow her on Twitter:  @keri_gray.  Next week, you will meet a woman who has a stylish and fierce clothing line that allows disabled women to feel comfortable in what they wear.  Can you guess who she is?  

Black History Month 2017: Donald Galloway, Disabled Social Worker Who Fought for Inclusion

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Image of two disabled men strolling and rolling down an outdoor pathway. Man on the left is Donald Galloway, tall Black man with an afro with a guide dog by his side. Man on the right is Ed Roberts, white man who is in a wheelchair. Both men are facing the direction of the camera while in mid-stroll/roll.  Photo credit:  Ken Okuno.  

For my last feature for Black History Month, I will spotlight the life of Donald Galloway, a man who was not hesitant to take on authorities when it came to the inclusion of disabled people.  Donald’s story resonated with me because he was a social worker like myself, and in reading his advocacy legacy, fighting for justice and inclusion is the call we answer as helping professionals.  As with many of the Black disabled social workers I know, our involvement in this movement is a unique mixture of ramping our voices while fulfilling the ethical duty we have as professionals.  Donald was no exception to this, and I felt that as we are nearing the end of Black History Month and about to begin Social Work Month (which is in March), telling his story will bridge the two worlds I am proud to be a part of.  

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Black History Month 2017: Brad Lomax, Disabled Black Panther

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Image of 2 Black men outside wearing suits. Brad is on the left in his wheelchair and Greg is on the right crouching down. Both men are smiling for the camera.

One Black disabled advocate from the past I have enjoyed writing about is Brad Lomax, who was a member of the Black Panther Party (BPP).  One of the reasons Brad’s story and involvement resonates with me is because of him confirming his unapologetic Blackness and disability.  He was a proud member of BPP and used his participation to urge the Party to become a part of a major time in disability rights history – demanding the passage of Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act in 1973.

I want to take a different angle in discussing Brad by focusing on the impact of the activism that led to the enactment of Section 504, and why Brad’s advocacy matters.  

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Black History Month 2017: Johnnie Lacy, Defiantly Black & Disabled

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Image of Johnnie shown smiling directly into the camera. She is sitting in her wheelchair wearing a buttoned shirt, with an office desk to her left.

Image of Johnnie shown smiling directly into the camera. She is sitting in her wheelchair wearing a buttoned shirt, with an office desk to her left.

In continuing with my Black History Month focus on Black disabled leaders, I am proudly sharing the story of Johnnie Lacy, a woman who directed the Community Resources for Independent Living (CRIL) in Hayward, California for over a decade.  The photograph of Johnnie is from the collection of Kenneth Stein, an advocate with a passion for history and highlighting those forgotten trailblazers that rivals my own.

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Black History Month 2017: Remembering Joyce Jackson, Black, Disabled, & Phenomenal

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Image of Joyce shown smiling, walking down the wide sidewalk in an Oct 20 t-shirt, with a large crowd of people with balloons and signs behind her. She is holding up the right side of a big banner that says "FULL RIGHTS FOR DISABLED PEOPLE -- IMPLEMENT 504."

Image of Joyce shown smiling, walking down the wide sidewalk in an Oct 20 t-shirt, with a large crowd of people with balloons and signs behind her. She is holding up the right side of a big banner that says “FULL RIGHTS FOR DISABLED PEOPLE — IMPLEMENT 504.”

For Black History Month 2017, I will feature the names, faces, and voices of Black disabled people who were a part of the influential advocacy efforts made during the heart of the Disability Rights Movement.  As I have stated on the blog, the erasure of Black disabled people from disability history is profound, and the same offenses are committed when we discuss Black history.  Taking action to correct these wrongs is a steadfast passion of my advocacy; these stories must be told so that Black disabled people will have disabled historical figures to look up to and be proud of.

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