Reflections from Access to Power

Image Description: “Reflections from Access to Power” written on top a circle filled with stripes of yellow, orange, and red. Photos of seven Access to Power Fellows line the bottom of the image.

We just graduated the first-ever cohort of the Access to Power Fellowship! A virtual 7-month leadership development program for Jewish organizers with disabilities in their 20/30s offered in partnership with Sins Invalid, National Council on Independent Living, and Detroit Disability Power, with consultation from Leili Davari, the program ran January – July 2021. The Fellowship included trainings, small group coaching sessions, and individual coaching with experienced disabled organizers. We sat down with Allegra Heath-Stout, the Director of this Fellowship, to hear more about what Access to Power meant for JOIN for Justice and our broader communities. 

Q: Tell us who was in the Access to Power Fellowship and how it was unique?

There is a real difference between making accommodations within an existing program and designing a program from the beginning for multiply-marginalized people. Access to Power was the first program we’ve designed from scratch for Jews with disabilities, with an eye towards the intersecting marginalizations of  race, gender, and class. 

By designing the program structure with access at the center and providing a stipend and other support, we’ve been able to support the leadership of fellows who have often been excluded from leadership development opportunities.

We had a cohort of 20 Fellows engaged in volunteer or professional organizing across the US and Canada. The cohort is very diverse, with a wide range of disabilities and significant representation of Jews of Color, trans and nonbinary Jews, and Jews from poor and working class backgrounds.

Q: What does having the Access to Power Fellowship mean for the Jewish community?

In the Jewish world and more broadly, there are many programs serving people with disabilities but far fewer developing their leadership and really seeing them as leaders. One impact of this Fellowship is shifting how we think about the role of people with disabilities in Jewish community: not just as recipients of service, or people to help or to include, but more as leaders who have unique contributions to make.

Developing the leadership and organizing skills of disabled people benefits all of our communities. Ableism harms all of us by pushing us to value productivity over wellbeing and to try to fit ourselves into limited normative boxes rather than embracing all that we are and all the ways we can support one another. Disabled people have a unique understanding of this oppressive system, and a unique perspective on how to dismantle it and build more just, interdependent communities. 

Q: What does having the Access to Power Fellowship mean for the disability community?

The disability community has a variety of leadership development opportunities, but not many accessible ways for leaders to be trained specifically in community organizing. The Access to Power Fellowship is one step towards filling that gap, not only by training the 20 Fellows directly, but also through the organizing they’ll go on to do within and beyond the disability community.

Q: What were some of your takeaways from making the program accessible to a group with such a range of disabilities and access needs? 

It is crucial to budget for access, and a lot of access needs can be met with thoughtfulness, creativity, and time. I was reminded that some forms of access are not expensive or super complicated, like offering an opportunity to complete an application over the phone rather than in writing, sharing agendas in advance, or changing the font of a document. Some can be complicated when they’re new, but just take some dedication and practice to figure out, like integrating chat and spoken conversations in a group with varied processing styles.

This experience also makes me think about the ways access is both something organizers have to plan for and something that depends on how the group interacts with one another – a way of relating to one another. Accessibility is an organizing skillset. Dustin Gibson, from People’s Hub, addressed this with the Fellows in a powerful session called, “Building Access-Centered Cultures in Organizations and Movements.”

In the Fellowship, we worked together to create a space where people felt comfortable showing up at varying levels of capacity and ability to participate. When Fellows were sick or tired and could only show up with video off and make a few comments in the chat, they knew that they and their participation were valued. Applying this ethos to our broader organizing spaces and beyond is part of building the world we want to live in, where every person is valued for who they are.

Q: What impact do you think this program has had on the Fellows? 

For many of our Fellows this was their first extended experience in a disability community. In this unique community, many Fellows developed more self-acceptance around their identities as people with disabilities and as Jews, and as disabled Jewish people of color, disabled Jewish nonbinary people, and more. By the end, many felt more empowered to show up as their full selves in their organizing groups, their Jewish communities, and beyond. Many also left the Fellowship with greater self-understanding and clarity about the role they want to play in justice movements. 

One thing that really stood out to me was how the Fellows came to deeply value this cross-disability community. Many left the Fellowship feeling motivated to find and create justice-driven cross-disability communities after the Fellowship.

Q: What else do you need people to know about Access to Power?

I want people to know how crucial our partners (Sins Invalid, the National Council on Independent Living, Detroit Disability Power, and consultant Leli Davari) have been in planning and implementing the program. We could not have done this alone. People should check out their incredible work. 

These partners came on board early in the planning process, and played key roles in shaping the curriculum, developing the criteria for Fellows and recruiting and selecting them, leading trainings, navigating access challenges, and adapting the program based on feedback throughout. This incredible team ensured that the Fellowship was grounded in disability justice and on-the-ground disability organizing, and helped connect the Fellows to the broader disability community. 

These relationships are already impacting JOIN for Justice more broadly. For example, Dessa Cosma, Director of Detroit Disability Power, spoke on a panel about multi-racial disability organizing as part of Don’t Kvetch, Organize!, our online course. Ivy Hest, one of the Access to Power Fellows (and a Jewish Organizing Fellowship alum), moderated the vibrant discussion. 

Q: What are the top 3 things you learned from leading the Access to Power Fellowship?

1)  We have a great need and an exciting opportunity to make our organizing cultures more sustainable. So many people (with and without disabilities) are shut out of movement work because they have caretaking responsibilities, need more rest than their peers, can’t keep up with the pace of meetings, or countless other reasons. Having more sustainable organizing cultures that move at the pace of the people who want to participate and welcome people to contribute with the capacity they have would help us build power and benefit from a wider range of leaders who have so much to offer our movements. 

2) It is imperative that we value the many ways people participate. Disabled people are at the forefront of creating ways to organize that more fully honor all of our humanity and the fact that we all have both bodies and minds. Through the Fellowship we’ve had powerful conversations about (and practice in!) building organizing cultures where organizers can be frank about their needs and what they can offer. These cultures are rooted in interdependence and value a wide range of contributions. 

3) Cultural work plays an important role in organizing. One of our partner organizations, Sins Invalid, focuses on creating art, writing, and education about disability justice, rather than running organizing campaigns. In organizing we take stock of  the world as it is currently and move toward the world as it could be through campaigns. Given the intense marginalization of people with disabilities, it is often a challenge to survive, let alone cultivate a vision of a truly liberated world. This is where cultural work comes in. Art and cultural work is how we get the space and support to both get through the day-to-day slog of oppression and dream of the world we are fighting for as organizers, the world as it should be. The work of Sins Invalid has been foundational in building a framework of disability justice and visions of that liberated world.

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