An Open Letter to the Members of the National Federation of the Blind
I write this message to you as the elected President of the National Federation of the Blind. I also write it to you as an American who is struggling this week. I call upon members of our organization to recognize the solidarity we share as blind people and that the value we place on love within our movement is needed more today than at any other time in our history.
I watched the horrific video shot by a brave seventeen year-old of the killing of George Floyd, a citizen of our great nation. Before I watched the video, I wondered what I could do and how I could contribute to healing the pain. I had no answers. After I watched the video, I realized I still did not have the answers and I was sad, angry, scared, frustrated, and without hope. Then I realized that we share tools in the National Federation of the Blind that can help. We can not look away and we need to share what we know from our experience in this people’s movement.
Our movement has been sustained for the purpose of serving as a vehicle for collective action by the blind of the nation to promote the vocational, cultural, and social advancement of the blind; to achieve the integration of the blind into society on a basis of equality with the sighted; and to take any other action which will improve the overall condition and standard of living of the blind. While racial equality in our nation is not within our mission, we also recognize that blindness affects all races and that the society we live within has an impact on our membership.
The Federation’s Code of Conduct<https://eur03.safelinks.protection.outlook.com/?url=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.nfb.org%2Flibraries%2Fcivicrm%2Fextern%2Furl.php%3Fu%3D17129%26qid%3D3715466&data=02%7C01%7C%7C86209d5b769d471e718608d805917435%7C84df9e7fe9f640afb435aaaaaaaaaaaa%7C1%7C0%7C637265469567219829&sdata=2Ath9mUpKvFYL%2BMDmzmUAwdta3T%2B21RQ6I7xUtzM8JI%3D&reserved=0> specifically emphasizes our commitments to diversity. In short “We respect differences of opinion, beliefs, identities, and other characteristics that demonstrate that blind people are a diverse cross section of society…In promoting a diverse and growing organization, we expect integrity and honesty in our relationships with each other and openness to learning about and experiencing cultural diversity. We believe that these qualities are crucial to fostering social and intellectual maturity. Intellectual maturity also requires individual struggle with unfamiliar ideas.” This week, I have been struggling to comprehend the fear and anger that black members of my Federation family are experiencing. I do not, and never can, have the authentic lived experience that you have, but yet I am also completely outraged by the hate and injustice that fell upon George Floyd on Monday. I recognize there are many centuries of painful layers wrapped up in that moment. I recognize that George is neither the first nor the last in a chain of injustices that need to be addressed. I want you to know I stand with you in facing the injustice that persists against you because of the color of your skin. I want you to know that I love you and I struggle with not being able to fully know your pain and fear. I want you to know I am prepared to be guided by you as to how I can make a difference. I cannot say that I have not become desensitized in times past, but I can tell you I will never turn away again.
While our organization is dedicated to advancing the rights of blind people, we should not act as though race does not exist. As our chapters attempt to do business, as we urge our members to take up our priorities, we should recognize that thousands of our members are impacted by the painful realizations of this week. As a people’s movement, we cannot pretend that our people only have one characteristic. Now is the time to let each member know we love them and we recognize their hurt. Now is also the time for us to recognize, as individuals, that we carry implicit bias learned from the society around us, and to seek the training that will enhance our awareness. Now is the time to give love to our black members so that we might learn how we can do better in building the understanding that powers the organized blind movement.
Now is not the time for us to use our organizational communication tools to offer position statements about the activities playing out on the streets of our nation. it is easy to write messages and posts of solidarity without having a true understanding of the issues. It is easy to suggest that we share the concerns of our black members. The harder thing for us to do is to consciously listen and seek understanding while supporting others in their pain and frustration. The Federation has never been known for merely doing what is easy. The priority today is to ensure all of our black members know they are welcomed and loved in this movement. In fact, we should extend that same truth to any others who feel the real pain sweeping our nation. Please do not use organizational assets to enter the dialogue around race. That is not our purpose as an organization and we may unintentionally make it worse. We need to continue to coordinate messaging and to be guided by the wisdom of our diversity and inclusion committee. As leaders of our movement, we should also be conscious that our public posts may be misunderstood as representing the Federation. Our personal feelings and misunderstanding around the death of George Floyd, the protests sweeping our nation, and the underlying systemic discrimination may hurt and divide members of the organization. We cannot let that happen and we must be careful as leaders not to add to the pain our members are experiencing. As it relates to our public messaging, let us stay focused on the priorities of the organized blind movement. As it comes to our cherished friends, let our priority be to reach out personally to listen and offer our hands in support.
I have had the opportunity to gather virtually with some of our top black leaders—a group who will continue to guide my actions related to these issues. I asked them for wisdom and love in finding ways that I could guide our membership during this trying time in our nation. Their message was clear. Our movement is built on love and love always conquers hate. The Federation family needs to shine a light for the rest of the nation by continuing to demonstrate that the love, and solidarity, that we share with each other in this movement makes all the difference. They also noted that our organization has always valued civil disobedience and persistent pursuit of equality. They urged that we continue to pray for peace, justice, and equality. I could not agree more with these friends I have been blessed to learn from in our movement. Furthermore, I am thankful that we have a movement that provides us a meaningful opportunity to know people whose lived experience is so different from our own while sharing a common bond as blind people.
In the National Federation of the Blind we know that blindness is not the characteristic that defines us or our future. Blindness is the thing that brings us together but it is not the thing that makes us want to stay together. That, in a word, is love. We have love in our movement and we strengthen it by giving it. We have some wisdom and we strengthen it by continuing to seek greater understanding. We need more of both love and wisdom at every opportunity. Let’s continue to share love, hope, and determination with each other so that together we transform our dreams into reality. One of those dreams still left to be transformed is that of a nation where we can join together regardless of our unique characteristics. That is a dream I am struggling to help my own children understand so they may do better than I in making it come true. I speak for all of our national board members when I say we sincerely believe that the love and togetherness demonstrated in our movement can go a long way in contributing to that dream. It can be hard to remember that in this moment when so many of us are hurting, angry, frustrated, and scared. Let us continue to support each other in the Federation family. Let us avoid the harmful language that will only serve to divide us in this time. Let us go forward together, love one another, and change the world for the better.
Mark A. Riccobono, President
National Federation of the Blind