Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Gatekeeper: Open that Gate!

It's my first time. I am a deputy registrar; I have the power and authority to register people to vote. Our Springfield Action Team took on the goal to register as many people with disabilities as we can.

I'm drawn to history; fascinated by voting rights history and the struggle for the vote. I began thinking of the role of Registrars and Deputies played in people's history; most of it was not good.

Our Founding Fathers started the American Revolution with the battle cry, "No taxation without representation," because they wanted the right to vote for their own leaders, representatives and end British rule. Yet, when the war ended, who got the vote? Who got to pick their representatives? White men of means: landowners and merchants.

How'd they do it?

How did they protect newly found right to vote? They created jobs to shield the voting booth from, 'undesirables;' and gave them the misnomered title of "registrar". Gatekeeper would have been more accurate; someone who guards passage through a gate. It is the registrar and deputies that stand between a would-be voter and the voting machine.

For much of our country's history registrars were used to keep classes and races of people from voting. Those outside, that had no voice, were: people of color, women, poor whites, native people, people considered "simple" or "feeble", people who could not control their body movements; people who could not see or hear... us... people with disabilities. It was the registrar's job to keep people like you and me from exercising our right to vote.

The ruling class developed hurdles that a would-be voter had to pass to show himself worthy of the vote. There were: literacy tests, rules that a voter must be a property owner, grandfather or exemption clauses, character tests and criminal disenfranchisement.

These implements were the registrar's toolkit; what he used to deny the vote to black and native people, but also undesirable whites (people with disabilities and others). If the laws would not keep certain undesirables away, intimidation would. Law enforcement was not shy about keeping people from voting.

And now I, a woman with a disability, are one; a registrar, the gatekeeper. Ain't that a kick in their collective backsides!

How did it change?

If there is no struggle, there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom, and deprecate agitation, are men who want crops without plowing up the ground, they want rain without thunder and lightning. ~Frederick Douglass

It changed because people fought and struggled against those rich white land owners and merchants. They agitated and plowed; the seeds of change grew. Grassroots movements by African Americans and women, and even some forward thinking white men fought to get it changed. I witnessed people being jailed, beaten, and murdered for their right to get past the gatekeeper for the opportunity to vote. And, after years of struggle, constitutional amendments and civil rights legislation changed the law of the land; it became every person's birthright to be able to vote.

Now, I am not so naive to know that voting fraud, voting manipulation and voter intimidation has happened to voters in every election since reconstruction. But, I have a hope; the pendulum in swinging.

As people with disabilities we still face barriers; which means we will still need to agitate and plow. Accessible voting places, booths, machines and access to print are some of the obstacles we still face in some polling places. Besides that, we have personal barriers we must struggle against.

We are the last of the disenfranchised to take advantage of the power to the vote. The percentage of people with disabilities who vote is abysmal compared to other oppressed people's voting percentages. We must believe that our voices and votes count.

In a 2002 article in the Civil Rights Journal, a journalist noted that people with disabilities were the sleeping giant of American politics. We've yet to awaken the giant. But it's not too late.

The New Gate Keepers

Now registrars across the nation, north, south, east and west have a new job description. Now their (my) job is to throw the gates open as widely possible ... Hell, let's just take the gate off the hinges and tear down the fence while we are at it. We now welcome all would-be voters to the democratic process. All of them; all of us.

Instead of keeping people from voting, our job is to aggressively find people who are not yet registered; help them through the process; make sure their simple paperwork is in order; get their signature and, that's really about it.

When I think about the fact that it's been in my lifetime that most of these changes have occurred, I get chills. Voting is a privilege given to me by generations of people who knew the ruling class was wrong and faced them down. I am honored to be a registrar and voter in their memory. If that sounds a little sappy, or bourgeois, so be it; I feel connectioned to them.

Register to Vote.

If you are already registered, consider becoming a registrar. It takes about 15 minutes at your county clerk's office. Or, volunteer for a political campaign; work on accessible transportation for your brothers and sisters on Election Day. Make sure you know about early voting and tell your friends. Make phone calls. Send emails and letters.

And for sure, head to the polls on Election Day. Let politicians see the giant is awake, bright-eyed and voting.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Grassroots: Reseeded*

Over the summer I've been working with others to reorganize a local chapter of the Coalition of Citizens with Disabilities into a grassroots Action Team; I feel invigorated. I've decided that grassroots work is just what one needs to recharge your advocacy batteries.

When I was a young activist, I was unsure about what I was doing and if I was doing it right. All I knew was that I was the mother of a child with a disability; I had no choice but to fight for her future. I had a cause. I met a small number of moms and others, who were ready to fight too.

We met a lot of success. It does not take a whole lot of angry moms to scare city fathers. It felt good bringing the struggle to the Board of Education and to City Hall; or wherever we had to go to level the obstacles in my child's way. Like many of you, I learned a lot in these early struggles and we made improvements for all people with disabilities.

Those experiences changed my life. I became a professional advocate. I got a job with an advocacy organization. I was appointed to boards and committees. I sat on advisory groups, planning committees, accountability teams, and more.

I got "a seat at the table" and became a bit more "respectable." There is not a thing wrong with having a place at the table. We need good people at the table negotiating and looking out for our interests. But for me, it is boring. My boss jokingly told me I had "poor meeting behavior."

She is right. At meetings, people sound a bit like Charlie Brown's Mom. I interrupt. I get frustrated with the process. Restless leg syndrome takes over my lower quadrants; I have to get up and walk around; I take too many trips to the bathroom longing for graffiti filled stalls to stimulate my brain.

I know this is supposed to be an honor. Someone thinks your work is good and you get invited to participate at a higher level. However, I have decided that, it's not me.

The realization took seed when I attended the ADAPT action in Chicago this year. We took over the entrances to the American Medical Association (AMA). My job, along with a couple dozen others was to block the entrance to the underground parking ramp. We sat there for hours while the organizers negotiated with the AMA. No words can express the utter joy I felt sitting there, blocking that parking garage entrance. There was a camaraderie I hadn't felt in years and didn't realize I was missing.

Later, I went to Alton IL with F.R.I.D.A. to participate in a memorial service & march for Dorothy Dixon. Dorothy, who had a developmental disability, was tortured for months by her caregivers until her body could no longer take the abuse and she died. We marched from IMPACT CIL to her home, raising our voices and fists, vowing to let no more Dorothys die inhumanely.

The Action Team has been the icing on the cake. We've been very successful on several initiatives we started. My plan is to write about them soon and publish them here on my blog.

So for me (and maybe you?) it's back to basics, back to the grassroots where we struggle because we have too. Back to the grassroots where we look forward to meetings instead of dread them. Back to the grassroots where the struggle for change takes seed and the impetus for change originates. I've found my niche again.

I'd like to thank my husband, Michael, for helping me organize and edit this piece.

The title of this piece, Grassroots: Reseeded, is a shortened version of the title of an article that appeared in The Nation, Grassroots Reseeded: Suites vs Streets. I loved it so much, I could not think of anything better. So, I give them the credit here.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

White Skin Privilege Survey

Readers, While I am enjoying every minute of my summer hiatus, I thought this research was important enough to take a break from Pina Coladas and bon-bons to put it on my blog and encourage you to participate. I hope you do.

Have a great rest of summer. I'll be back soon. ~ Cilla

Dear sir or madam,

Hello, my name is Shawn Dimpfl, I work at the Center for Capacity Building for Minorities with Disabilities Research (CCBMDR) at the University of Illinois at Chicago. I am currently conducting a study with Dr. Fabricio Balcazar and the CCBMDR about perceptions of white privilege and discrimination. For the study, you are asked to fill out a five to ten minute long survey with questions about yourself and your perceptions and experiences with racial privilege and discrimination. If you would like to participate in the study you can click HERE. It would also be greatly appreciated if you could forward this email to any friends or family members over the age of 18. If you have and questions, comments, or concerns please feel free to contact me. Thank you for your time.

Sincerely,

Shawn Dimpfl
ccbmdr.uic@gmail.com
312-413-1806 (phone)
312-413-1804 (fax)