Friday, June 12, 2009

The Blurred Line Between Advocacy and Legislation

I’m an advocate. It’s as simple as that. I am an outspoken, opinionated advocate dedicating a good portion of my life to fighting for the rights of disabled people. I have made calls into legislative offices pushing for the Community Choice Act, I have bombarded Governor Patterson’s office and through much chanting I have learned how to spell “Power” (A!D!A!P!T!).

All this time I have been fighting the system, and now I’m working for it? WHAT!? Don’t get me wrong, I’m definitely used to sitting in the offices of Congressmen, but usually I’m in their waiting room refusing to leave until we get a meeting, not sitting cozy at the computer writing up reports! What a huge role change for me!

Coming into this internship, I thought I would be able to handle this role change pretty easily. I figured I would just leave my advocate hat back in New York and wear my new legislative hat in D.C. My plan seemed pretty solid and I never expected any challenges.

To my surprise, within my first two weeks of working in Senator Harkin’s office my allegiance was tested. My New York boss from the Center for Disability Rights and my D.C. boss from Senator Harkin’s office came together to have a meeting. There I was, sitting in this meeting watching each side give their points. My New York boss was passionate in his talking points. My D.C. boss was calm and collective. And me? I was the nervous wreck in the middle praying to God neither of them would ask me my opinion! The only thing that I could take solace in was knowing that of all the legislators in the United States, Senator Harkin is by far the favorite among disability advocates as he is the champion on disability rights issues. So, knowing that at least the Center for Disability Rights would never protest Senator Harkin’s office made the meeting slightly less nerve-wracking for me.

After this meeting, I ran into another predicament involving N.Y. job vs. D.C. job at the NCIL rally in from of the Capital building on Monday, June 8th. I went to the rally with two motives: to support Senator Harkin who was speaking at the rally and to support my co-workers from CDR and the rest of the disability community in their efforts to push for the Community Choice Act.

As soon as I arrived, I saw all of my CDR co-workers wearing their bright orange “Community Choice Act Now!” t-shirts and I told them that I had left my t-shirt back in New York. Within seconds, one of my co-workers pulled out a spare bright orange t-shirt for me to wear. At that moment I had to make a choice: Do I stay professionally dressed representing Senator Harkin or do I put on the t-shirt to show my sincere support for the CCA? Unable to let go of the advocate inside of me, I put on the shirt. I began chanting with the masses, “What do we want? FREEDOM! When do we want it? NOW!

Soon our chanting died down as our champion (and my boss), Senator Harkin, took the stage to give an enthusiastic speech about his dedication to our cause, the Community Choice Act. Hearing Senator Harkin speak so genuinely about the CCA and the efforts he has contributed towards it made me very proud to be his intern. I was even more proud when Senator Harkin finished his speech, stepped off the stage and saw me in my bright orange t-shirt.

“So you’re an ADAPTer?” Senator Harkin smiled, “Good.”

That was all I needed. I suddenly felt very comfortable wearing both hats and realized that I can be effective with either of them on.

It is an invigorating feeling to know that I can make a difference in the disability community, whether I’m quietly working in a legislative office or I’m being an outspoken, opinionated advocate bombarding a legislative office.

To me, at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter how things get done, only that they get done and that people with disabilities are one step closer to true equality.

Stephanie Woodward

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