2017 Convention Report
Convention-goers came from near and far to the Minneapolis Marriott Northwest for the 2017 annual convention of the National Federation of the Blind of Minnesota. Most had preregistered online or by mail and were able to pick up their registration materials quickly and move on to other exciting convention activities. They perused the exhibits which were available throughout the afternoon and evening, including Vanda Pharmaceuticals, Aira, Gilbert Law PLLC, EZ2See Calendar from Ed Cohen, and BLIND, Inc.
Everything You Always Wanted to Know about Getting and Keeping a Job was a workshop led by nationally recognized experts Dick Davis and Brian Dulude. It featured dynamic presentations on all aspects of employment. The resolutions committee, chaired by Ryan Strunk and also consisting of Dan Wenzel, Steve Jacobson, Jan Bailey, and Corbb O'Connor, met to consider resolutions that had been sent in advance from various Federationists, to determine if they should be recommended for passage by the convention; a large audience was also in attendance.
The action-packed Friday evening consisted of a meeting of the Minnesota Association to Promote the Use of Braille, a meeting of the Minnesota Association of Blind Students, and a hospitality gathering hosted by the metro chapter. After the completion of the business meetings, Federationists gathered to join teams and test their knowledge of trivia in a session led by a professional trivia company.
Bright and early Saturday morning, the seniors' division held its breakfast and annual meeting. They discussed the happenings of the previous year and heard from various speakers on topics of particular interest to blind seniors.
The convention was called to order at 9:00 sharp with a welcome from the president of the host chapter, Ryan Strunk. After drawings for door prizes and an explanation of the rules of the bake auction (both of which occurred all during the convention), convention attendees were treated to a lovely performance of several pieces by members of the choir from the Minnesota State Academy for the Blind.
Next, National Representative Amy Buresh delivered her report, bringing greetings from President Riccobono. She thanked chapters and individuals for all their assistance to Federationists in other parts of the country whose lives have been turned upside down by the devastation of the hurricanes. Education, she said, is one of the most pressing civil rights issues facing children and young adults today. Some have the good fortune to be given skills, tools, and mentors from a young age, even when they may not understand that they need these things, but far too many do not. We in the NFB are always looking for creative opportunities to improve education for the next generation.
Amy next discussed the NFB's activities to protect the rights of blind parents. We work to ensure that we have the tools and techniques to mentor and teach new blind parents, as well as legislative protections. Every state in the country is encouraged to adopt parents' rights legislation.
Do You Dream In Color is an excellent documentary detailing the struggles of four blind teenagers to achieve their education despite the low expectations of the system. The creators of this documentary are recent recipients of a Jacob Bolotin Award. The film is available on all streaming services, and chapters and affiliates are encouraged to host screenings.
Activity is underway on many fronts on the national level, and it takes the help of Federationists all over the country to accomplish our goals.
Next we heard an update, which is printed elsewhere in this issue, from Jon Davis, director of the Minnesota State Academy for the Blind. After that, Tarik Williams, the national student representative, who hails from Pennsylvania, brought greetings from Kathryn Webster, President of the National Association of Blind Students, and gave updates on activities of the division. Students are encouraged to attend the Washington Seminar to help advocate for accessible content in higher education and the other issues we face. The division also hosts membership calls each month, with different themes such as networking and other topics of interest to students. There is also a monthly blog post with stories, information, and advice from various students around the country. The NABS Web site is frequently updated, and there is also a NABS YouTube channel. Tarik commended the Minnesota Association of Blind Students and the state affiliate for the energy, the hard work, and the welcoming spirit.
Kevin Phelan, vice president of sales and Marketing at Aira, gave a presentation about the service, which provides a way for blind people to access information using remote humans combined with wearable technology. He gave a demonstration, donning the Aira glasses, connecting them to his smart phone, and through an app contacting a remote agent (in Jacksonville, Florida) who described the view of the convention hall, including people waving, canes lying across the floor, people standing in the doorway in the back, the chandelier on the ceiling, and some people wearing sleepshades. Kevin discussed a program in which college freshmen can have Aira costs covered for a year. He then asked Jennifer Dunnam, who is an Aira user, to discuss her experiences and thoughts. She began using the service in May, and as someone who has worked for many years to help people understand the usefulness of nonvisual techniques, she started out fairly conflicted about the role that Aira should play but wanted to be part of shaping this new technology that may affect our lives in different ways. She first described using a brochure for a self-guided walking tour to take a solitary walk around the large Lakewood Cemetery in Minneapolis, finding the locations where numerous famous people are interred and where events are memorialized. Preparation (locating the brochure and determining the various destinations), good cane travel skills (to navigate around the tombstones and other obstacles), and confidence (that she could still get back if the technology failed) were key ingredients in the successful and interesting adventure. She also described using Aira to find and check off a single checkbox in a PDF form that was otherwise accessible but could not be completed because of the one checkbox. Her conclusion is that the stronger a person's basic skills of blindness, the more that a person can gain from Aira as an enhancement. Kevin then explained that there is a monthly fee, for which the user gets all the needed equipment and a certain number of minutes per month; there is no annual contract. All convention attendees who signed up during the convention received a free month of Aira. They are seeking to build a network of airports and other places to cover Aira minutes for those who use those sites; the Memphis airport is the first to sign on.
The remainder of Saturday morning was taken up with the report from Catherine Durivage, Director of the Minnesota Braille and Talking Book Library, and with the state president's report, both of which are printed elsewhere in this issue of the Bulletin.
After the recess of the morning session, many Federationists attended a lunch with a program from BLIND, Inc., where attendees had the opportunity to hear from new staff at our training center and to ask questions. RoseAnn Faber, who served as chair of BLIND, Inc.'s board of directors for many years before her resignation this summer for health reasons, was presented with a Freedom Bell in appreciation of her dedicated service; in her remarks she indicated her ongoing support for the work of BLIND, Inc.
The afternoon began with a panel of students, led by Cody Beardslee, who presented their stories of what draws them to the Federation and then took questions from the floor. It was quite apparent that these students (Kia Yang, Matthew Gip, and Tarik Williams) are dedicated to opportunities for blind people and keeping our work strong for the generations to come.
A presentation from Lisa Larges, coordinator of Outreach for Minnesota State Services for the Blind, followed the student panel and is printed in this issue.
Dancing Through Life was the title of the next delightful presentation. Alex Loch explained his journey as a dancer, starting out with it as a hobby that he was embarrassed about and hid from others even while pursuing it, to finding a community of other dance enthusiasts who helped him grow and become proud of his passion for dance, so that it became an integral part of his life. He pointed out that his journey with dance ran in tandem with his journey with blindness, which is familiar to many of us. At first he hid blindness, but then, becoming part of the community of the National Federation of the Blind has now embraced it and become an advocate.
A short discussion occurred about membership recruiting. Some of our chapters are particularly focusing on this just now, and the convention was asked to think about how they got involved and be prepared to answer a few questions about that on Sunday morning.
Shane Buresh talked about the role of high expectations in his own life and in the work he does with youth at the Nebraska Commission for the Blind. Shane's father ran a cement business, and when he was twelve his father took him out on a job and asked him to use a sledge hammer to break up a sidewalk while the father worked on other parts of the job. Shane didn't get much instruction but figured out how to use the sledge hammer and loaded up the cement into a wheel barrow. He was afraid to do it, but he tried because his father expected that he would. At age fifteen his dad took him to a job site again and asked him to saw off some boards to put along the railing. Shane had never operated a radial arm saw before, but his father nailed down a jig so that Shane could pull the saw. The father did not have credentials in blindness but was practical and had high expectations. Sometimes the things we don't say when working with children and youth are more important than what we do say. This background stood Shane in good stead when, as an adult, he received a smoker as a present. After trying several ways of getting others to help him put it together, each of which fell through, he decided not to wait, using his own mechanical skills and resourcefulness to assemble and then cook on the smoker.
Dan Wenzel and several staff and students presented about the latest happenings at BLIND, Inc. Chase Holladay began as the industrial arts instructor. David Starnes, who worked as the maintenance man for ten years in addition to working with youth and many other needed jobs, has moved on to be a Business Enterprises Program operator. Dr. Brian Dulude started as the assistant director last November and also teaches the careers class. He works to establish relationships with companies like FedEx and others where graduates may potentially work. Kyle Hanneman now handles the building maintenance as well as exercise classes. Michell Gip began this year as the coordinator of youth services. There are numerous activities for blind school-age children during evenings and weekends so that they can add skills that they may not be getting in school. The summer programs are also going well. The Prep program now involves a work experience component. Jamison Christopher talked about things that he learned in the prep program, including getting more experience working as part of a team. Lamar Hodges Jr., one of the adult students, told his story. AT the age of 16 he was a three-sport athlete, varsity everything, when a terrible allergic reaction took much of sight. He could not play basketball anymore as a result. His sight deteriorated further, so he was encouraged to tour the training centers. He detailed his tour at BLIND, Inc. and how he started out not really wanting to interact with his classmates, but began to warm up to people and get more out of the program with encouragement from the staff and students. His presentation included some humorous impersonations of staff members. Lamar is clearly on a path to be able to live the life he wants.
The final presentation of the afternoon was from Ryan Strunk, entitled "The Well-Diggers' Wisdom". Ryan expressed his respect for the Federationists that have worked to provide opportunities for blind people of today, discussed his own journey in the Federation, and made clear his commitment to carry forward the life-changing work and spirit of the Federation. This thought-provoking presentation will no doubt appear in a future edition of the Bulletin.
The Saturday evening banquet, led by Master of Ceremonies Sheila Koenig, was lively and full of Federation spirit. Scholarship chair Lori Anderson presented checks to this year's scholarship winners, Hannah Harriman and Wesley Sisson. Rocky Hart and Judy Sanders were this year's winners of the Metro Chapter Essay contest and their stories appear elsewhere in this issue. Amy Buresh inspired us all with her banquet address, and Federationists stayed after the banquet for more time to socialize and get to know one another.
The Sunday morning session began with a moment of silence to pay respects to Minnesota Federationists who had passed away during the previous year. Megan Bening was remembered.
Next, several people who had joined the organization at the convention were voted into membership, including Scott Tokunaga, Pauline Betley, Chloe Wu, Mark Groves, Rachel Kuntz, Susan Burris, Wesley Sisson, and James Smith. The motion to accept these new members passed unanimously.
Then, Ryan Strunk, chair of the resolutions committee, came to the podium to give the committee report. Four resolutions were presented to the convention for adoption. Topics included transportation, education for blind children, access to medical assistance programs administered by the counties, and requests for some of our congressional representatives to withdraw their support of legislation that would weaken the Americans with Disabilities Act. All four of the resolutions were discussed and then passed unanimously; they are printed elsewhere in this issue.
Next, the treasurer's report was presented by Alice Hebert. The report was accepted by the convention and is on file. Alice was again commended and thanked for her dedicated work as treasurer for the past three years. She will be missed when she moves away from Minnesota.
A thought-provoking and humorous play written by Jennifer Wenzel was presented by the NFB of Minnesota Players. Entitled "To Train or Not to Train," it detailed the dilemma of a newly-blinded young man wanting to get a job and deciding whether or not to go to adjustment-to-blindness training. Cast members included Chelsey Duranleau as the narrator, Cody Beardslee as the young man, Kebby Young as a student in training, Samantha Flack as a counselor, and Matt Langland as the grandfather. Cody Beardslee presented some fanciful and witty cast introductions. Everyone enjoyed the play, and there were calls for another one to be performed next year.
After the play, elections were held. Ryan Strunk was elected as the new president of the National Federation of the Blind of Minnesota; Jennifer Wenzel was elected for a second term as secretary; Sheila Koenig and Rob Hobson were re-elected to the board positions they currently hold; Alex Loch was elected as a new board member; and Jennifer Dunnam was elected to the position of treasurer, to complete the second half of Alice Hebert's term.
There followed updates from chapters and divisions of the National Federation of the Blind of Minnesota, as well as from other organizations where we have representation. Jan Bailey, president of the Rochester Chapter, reported that the chapter again spent time arranging for the Walk for Opportunity this year; she commended Michaela Moritz for her work gathering door prizes for the walk. They usually have guest speakers at their meetings, and they will be hearing from OrCam soon. Since Jan wears many hats, she then gave a report on our seniors' division on behalf of Joyce Scanlan who was not able to be at the Sunday morning session. At their meeting they heard from Ed Lecher, Charlene Guggisberg, and others. They are still selling their "Seniors In Charge" pins, and they helped with the Possibilities Fair in Mankato this year. Jan also serves on the governance board of the Minnesota State Academies; she had previously served as chair of the board for three years. The meetings are somewhat less frequent now. The previous superintendent of the academies, Brad Harper, died recently from a very aggressive form of cancer. Things are stabilizing at the academies, and the enrollment is increasing; there are around 62 students at the academy for the blind, and 105 at the academy for the deaf. The academies are looking to acquire some property in the metro area and potentially attract more students that way. The new superintendent seems to be doing a good job; he has been working through the process of obtaining a superintendent's license and will have that very soon. Things seem to be running more smoothly, and enrollment is projected to continue increasing.
Alex Loch, president of the Twin Ports chapter, reported that for Meet the Blind Month, NFB materials will be distributed on Duluth-Superior Street. In November they will be holding elections. They have been doing work to build bridges with the Duluth Lighthouse for the Blind. Ryan Strunk reported that the Metro Chapter reported on the Amazing Race coordinated by Debbie Hobson. Participants are given a set of addresses all around the city and asked to get to all those addresses as quickly as possible and get a business card or other item to show that they were there; whoever gets back first wins a prize. The event raises awareness about blindness among the business owners and also among the people we encounter out on the streets. The first weekend in November will be the second annual craft show, where local crafters in the area display their wares along with blind crafters from throughout the state. Next spring will be a wine, chocolate, and cheese tasting fund raising event.
Amy Baron, president of Minnesota Association to Promote the Use of Braille, reported on their meeting on Friday night, with excellent speakers, and a UEB Bee in which participants determined the correct way to write words in braille. The positions of president and secretary-treasurer were not up for election this year; vice president is now Bob Raisbeck, and two new board members are Judy Sanders and John teBockhorst. Amy thanked all who participated in the raffle for an iTunes card.
Bev Stavrum, the newly elected president of the Central Minnesota Chapter, said that their focus for the next while will be on membership. They will hold their spaghetti dinner this year on the 4th Friday in January rather than the usual 3rd Friday. They look forward to seeing everyone on January 26th.
President Dunnam asked the convention if they had done the assigned homework from yesterday. The first question was "Did you find the Federation, or did the Federation find you?" Significantly more of the members indicated that the Federation found them rather than them finding the Federation. Members were then asked to offer new ideas about how to connect people with the National Federation of the Blind. Ideas included putting announcements in bulletins from insurance companies, local hospitals, and senior centers; Putting out the word to ophthalmologists; finding people on the public lists for the homestead tax exemptions from the counties; setting up tables at community activities. Chapter presidents are encouraged to reach out to people from other parts of the state and use the resources of this statewide organization.
Tim Aune represents the National Federation of the Blind on the Site Council for the state academy for the Blind. In addition to the items covered by Jan Bailey, Tim indicated that an additional member is being sought for the academies' governance board. This superintendent is doing a good job of seeking input from the site council. Tim explained the structure: the governance board is basically the school board for both of the academies, in charge of hiring and the like; each school has an advisory council which is called the site council.
Tim also mentioned Speaking for Ourselves, the NFB of Minnesota's show on the radio talking book, which airs on the last Sunday of the month at 8:00 PM and also at 3:00 AM the following Thursday.
Jennifer Dunnam serves as our representative on the State Rehabilitation Council for the Blind; she is about to begin the last year of her second three-year term in this position. Since Steve Jacobson currently serves as chair of the council, Jennifer deferred to him to give the presentation. The SRC-B is something that the Federation was instrumental in starting about 30 years ago; since then it has evolved and is now a state- and federally-mandated advisory council. The council includes members from various segments of the community. The council works with State Services for the Blind to set goals and priorities for the agency each year, and also participates in the development of a state plan: business, industry and labor; independent living council, parent training center; community rehabilitation programs; consumer groups etc. The council works with SSB to establish goals, priorities and strategies for the agency, conduct a needs assessment, evaluate the effectiveness of its programs, and provide other advice and recommendation pertinent to State Services for the Blind. This year, the council reviewed SSB's Blueprint for Pre-ETS services, which has to do with the services to transition-age youth under WIOA. Steve was elected as chair in 2016, and as part of that job he is occasionally called upon to write letters on behalf of the council. For example, he wrote a letter questioning certain of RSA's regulations in response to a request from the White House for all agencies to give feedback on existing regulations. A letter was also written regarding barriers to blind venders working in the veterans' administration (in collaboration with SSB because of its administration of the Business Enterprise Program). Steve indicates he has worked to maintain the expectation that the SRC-B does not function in the role of a consumer group; that is what the actual consumer groups are for. Rather, the council generally confines itself to its advisory role with the agency and expressing positions that affect SSB's policies directly. Steve will be chair until February 2018. The next meeting is December 7, and Federationists are encouraged to attend these council meetings which are public.
Cody Beardslee, president of the Minnesota Association of Blind Students, reported that at the meeting on Friday, he was elected for a third term; vice president is Lisan Hasnain; Second vice president is Chloe Wu; secretary is Kia Yang, and Treasurer is Robbie Binns. Cody thanked all who helped with the students' coffee fund raiser this weekend. There will be another student membership call in December. This spring the students hope to be involved in another student seminar.
Jennifer also noted the at-large chapter and the Riverbend chapters, both of which are going strong. The Riverbend chapter sometimes meets in person and sometimes by conference call. We can be very proud of the fact that Federationists all over the state are working to spread the truth about blindness.
Treasurer Alice Hebert reported that $1,802.00 was raised from the bake auction this weekend.
National Representative Amy Buresh offered some final words to the convention, indicating that the convention felt like a little bit of home for her and Shane. She challenged those present to ignite the propellant—to take the love and hope from the convention home, and spread it to the chapters and all across the state. On behalf of the convention, Secretary Jennifer Wenzel presented Amy with a gift.
National Student representative Tarik Williams also offered words of thanks to the convention, and also displayed his tremendous talents as a rapper, giving a very intricate and inspiring rap about dealing with blindness that he composed himself after he lost his sight at age 16.
Jennifer thanked the convention for the opportunity to serve as president for the preceding ten years. This organization has a long history of making things happen and of finding or making its own solutions to the problems of the day. No doubt, that will continue to be the case as the needs change but the organization remains a constant strong presence. Jennifer encouraged the members to work with and support the new president as he learns the ropes and leads the organization into the future.
After the awarding of the final door prize, Jennifer handed Ryan the gavel that she was given at the time of her election as president. A motion to adjourn the convention was approved, and before using the gavel to adjourn the convention, Ryan asked all the members to clap at the same time as the gavel was dropped, to symbolize the shared effort required for the activities of the National Federation of the Blind.
Another convention therefore drew to a close, with renewed spirits and enthusiasm for building the Federation and living its positive message in our daily liv