Knowledge Versus Assumptions
by Mitch Pomerantz
I've made no secret of the fact that prior to joining the American Council of the Blind in 1984, I was a member for a few years of the NFB. Not surprisingly, my knowledge of ACB during those years amounted to what I was told: that the Council was a "coffee-and-cake organization" whose few members didn't do anything much except to support custodial rehabilitation programs and outmoded notions about blindness and blind people.
After a resolution I brought to the NFB of California Convention in 1972 received what I considered to be extremely short shrift, I ventured to the convention of the Associated Blind of California (as it was then known) later that year. I was greeted warmly and treated well by the attendees, but by that time I was sufficiently indoctrinated to feel very uncomfortable and disloyal to the Federation for having checked out "the other side." So the wayward child returned to the fold.
My other early personal experience with ACB involved meeting and interviewing George Fogarty, a longtime leader of the Council here in California. George was a guest on a disability-oriented radio show I produced during the mid-'70's on a non-commercial FM station. Fogarty was charming and witty and left me that evening with an observation which I've never forgotten. As we walked out of the studio he commented that while ACB was slower in taking positions on issues, it usually got to those same positions in time. In hindsight, that was probably my first positive, concrete lesson in the differences between the two organizations. As I've since learned in over 25 years in ACB, decision-making through the democratic process is typically slower than decision-making as practiced by a single leader or group of leaders.
I was reminded of all this in early October during a brief exchange of e-mails initiated by the NFB president, Marc Maurer. Before proceeding further, some background is in order. Newsline is a service managed, in most if not all states, by the Federation. An ACB state affiliate prevailed upon the governor to veto a bill which would have provided public funding for that state's Newsline program. (I'm not mentioning the affiliate by name because I didn't ask permission to do so and because the state itself isn't the issue at hand.) The reason our affiliate objected had nothing to do with the fact that Newsline is run by the NFB, but as the result of a clear lack of transparency by Newsline officials who refused to answer specific questions about how those public funds would be expended.
Additionally, although the organizations comprising the North American/Caribbean Region of the World Blind Union (including ACB and NFB) had at some time in the past discussed developing a policy whereby one member organization would be bound not to interfere with the fundraising efforts of another member organization, the policy was never drafted and hence, did not exist.
In response to an e-mail from the NFB president complaining that our state affiliate had sabotaged public funding for Newsline only because of its NFB connection, I decided to educate (or remind) him that ACB affiliates have autonomy in establishing and implementing policies and programs within their states. While I was fairly certain that Maurer was aware of the differences between how NFB and ACB affiliates relate to their respective parent organizations, I chose not to make assumptions on that score.
There was much more, including Maurer informing me (presumably based on my explanation) that I did not represent and could not speak for the members of the ACB affiliate in question and by extension, the entire ACB membership. He believed that our affiliate had violated the (non-existent) policy and that I'd done nothing to stop it. My conclusion following our exchange is that the NFB president was angry about the success of our affiliate's advocacy efforts and displeased over my apparent failure to act. Maurer erroneously assumed not only that a policy was in place which would shield the Federation from legitimate challenges to its fund-raising activities, but also that I could or would take action against one of our affiliates. Implicit in this correspondence is the notion that if I truly was the ACB president, I should have been able to keep our affiliate "in line."
In four and a half years as ACB president, my relations overall with the president of the National Federation of the Blind have been professional and business-like. My reason for mentioning this incident is not to begin a "war of words" between myself and Marc Maurer in the pages of our respective publications, although some response will likely be forthcoming. The point -- even if Maurer knew his assumptions were invalid, as is entirely possible -- is to illustrate that without direct and personal knowledge of the workings of our organization, along with some understanding of why ACB is structured as it is, it's very easy to make incorrect assumptions.
Prior to becoming a member of the American Council of the Blind, I had no direct knowledge of how the organization functioned and certainly no real understanding of why ACB was established as it was. I am truly thankful I was given the opportunity to obtain that knowledge and understanding.
On a personal note, as a follow-up to last month's column, I wanted everyone to know that my health continues to improve and no surgery is currently scheduled. Donna and I are still going to Spain in late April along with a number of folks from ACB in partnership with the Road Scholar organization. Perhaps I'll write about the trip on our return.