submitted by James Houck, marketing assistant
Influencing change in the world starts with using your own voice. On a sunny September morning, Lifeworks self-advocates and staff from seven different program locations- Bloomington, Brooklyn Park, Burnsville, Eagan, Hastings, Minneapolis and Mankato, began to arrive at Mayflower Community Church in Minneapolis to learn about and rally around self-empowerment and creating positive change in the community.
Individuals with disabilities are greatly impacted by decisions made though our political system. This year’s Lifeworks Self Advocacy Summit, “Influencing Change,” focused on how people with disabilities can use their own voices and personal stories to help politicians understand what kinds of support they need from the government.
The keynote speaker, Anni Simons, inspired the group with her message of self-empowerment and call to political action. Anni is a senior policy and program manager for the Minnesota Consortium for Citizens with Disabilities, an organization that supports access to needed services, empowerment and choice, and quality of care for people with disabilities. She graduated from the University of Wisconsin- Madison with her B.A. in Social Work, and from the Columbia University School of Social Work in New York City with her M.A. in Social Policy.
Anni’s prominent message was that people with disabilities have the most power to advocate on their own behalf to politicians. She shared that during legislative sessions where voting occurs around issues that impact people with disabilities, politicians are strongly influenced by the personal stories that people share when considering how to vote. Stories of struggle, success, and positive life changes carry the most heartfelt impact and give ammo to convince others in the political arena to support them. Anni articulated this point by saying, “It will be hard for people to involve us in change if we’re not being clear about what we want to see.”
Anni passionately urged everyone in the room to make appointments, write letters, send emails, and make phone calls to their representatives. She asserted that we all have power to make change, but that we must also act on our own behalf to realize that power,
“If we want to make sure that changes happen in a way that we would like, we’re going to have to be involved.”
Aside from sharing personal stories, another way that Anni suggests to get involved is to join work groups. Work groups are formed by the state whenever changes to legislation are proposed. The work groups are mostly populated with citizens whom the proposed changes would affect. During meetings, each member gets to weigh in on the issues in question and share their opinion of how the proposed legislation should or shouldn’t be enacted.
Anni also shared that a big way we can enact change is to vote for politicians who we believe will listen to us and work to pass legislation in our benefit. This involves being educated on the issues and making the effort to get out and vote.
When Anni finished speaking, the room erupted with eager cheers and clapping. Lori Horstman, client from Lifeworks Bloomington excitedly proclaimed, “Oh, I liked her! She was a very good speaker!” Lori’s enthusiasm mirrored the collective positivity that was mounting throughout the room. I later had the chance to speak with David Spragg, Lifeworks Brooklyn Park self-advocate, about why being a self-advocate is important to him. He commented, “I would like to see people with disabilities get out of their homes and be a part of their community and see what they can do- be a part of the change rather than just having other people make the changes.” David also proclaimed his own dedication for self-advocating by saying,
“I want to be a part of the change, so it’s not just their voice- it’s my voice too.”
The group then took a break to enjoy a delicious lunch from Jimmy John’s served by warm and friendly Lifeworks staff, Kath Pengelly, volunteer and advocate coordinator, Annie Smith, client services coordinator, and Vicki Gerrits, vice president of service development and family and government relations.
When finished eating their lunches, clients had the opportunity to participate in an art project. Every client was asked to pick up a pens and markers and draw or write about what’s important to them on a fabric square. The squares will then be sewn together into a giant flag which will be displayed during trips to the capitol by Lifeworks self-advocates when the legislative session starts this January.
After lunch and designing art squares, several Lifeworks self-advocate groups took to the stage to share PowerPoint presentations on their favorite and most inspiring advocates and leaders of change. Lifeworks Brooklyn Park clients educated the group on Nobel Peace Prize Winner, Mother Teresa. Lifeworks Hastings clients shared their interest in Abraham Lincoln and his part in the abolition of slavery. Lifeworks Mankato clients brought to life the story of Temple Grandin by including several posters and even a life-sized model of the deep-pressure device invented by Grandin to help calm hyper-sensitive persons, especially those with Autism.
Following the PowerPoint presentations, there was a rally led by Vicki Gerrits, Anni Simons, and Nathan Voltz, program supervisor at Lifeworks St. Paul. Through motivational words and expressive gestures, including call and response chanting, each speaker enthused the eager group of Lifeworks self-advocates to engage with the political system by voting and sharing their stories of struggle and triumph with their representatives.
As a further point of rallying the group and unifying the conviction to advocate, clients were encouraged to sign a poster board that says, “I commit to influencing change.” By signing the poster board, Lifeworks self-advocates solidified their resolve to advocate on their own behalf and influencing change.
At the end of the summit, I spoke briefly with Anni. She commented that she really enjoys getting out into the community to share her passion for self-advocacy with others. Part of her job is to attend legislative sessions and stay current with relevant politics, but she is also fueled to make personal connections with the individuals she advocates for. She said that at the end of the day, all of this advocating and political influence boils down to transformation. Decisions made by our legislation directly affect all of us. Anni believes that advocating for yourself and others has a positive, powerful effect on your community,
“It’s all about changing people’s lives.”