President's Message: A Turn of the Page

by Mitch Pomerantz

At the close of the 52nd annual national conference and convention of the American Council of the Blind following the banquet on July 11th, I will conclude six years as your president.  Consequently, this will be my final President's Column, although likely not my last contribution to the "ACB Braille Forum."  So, I want to offer some thoughts about my three terms in office for whatever such musings are worth.
It is amazing just how quickly this past six years has come and gone.  For the first 18 months of my presidency, I was still employed with the City of Los Angeles and thanks to a very understanding department head, I was able to perform (juggle?) what amounted to two jobs at the same time.  There weren't many lunch hours that didn't include some sort of conference call, or discussion with ACB staff.  When I retired at the end of 2008, I had used every hour of vacation time and taken advantage of six mandatory furlough days to attend several affiliate conventions.  Thankfully since the beginning of 2009, I've been able to work out of the home office that Donna and I share.  There are numerous advantages to working from home, foremost of which is that the coffee is far better than anything I could get at my old office.
I have had the good fortune to attend more than 25 state conventions and the chance to meet hundreds of members who seldom, if ever, get the opportunity to attend our national gatherings.  ACB members truly are a microcosm of American society: liberal and conservative; African-American, Hispanic, Asian-American, Native American and Caucasian; religious and not religious; and people at all levels of the economic strata.  I've played bingo in North Carolina, trivia in Illinois, gone to a Broadway show with members of our ACB New York affiliate, and ridden a train with members of our Colorado affiliate to and from their convention.  I will cherish those experiences and so many others for a lifetime.
I will also remember the early morning and late-night telephone calls from leaders and rank-and-file members with questions or concerns; some of a serious nature, others not so urgent.  Since so much business is conducted in the Eastern time zone and I reside in the West, I've participated in more than a few 7 a.m. teleconference calls.  Luckily for me, my old working years habit of waking up before 6:00 has served me in good stead when such calls were on the agenda.
Overall I believe that ACB is a more democratic and politically active organization today than it was upon my taking office.  Regarding the former point, ACB's founders were committed to the principle of grassroots democracy but until 2011 - when a vote of those in attendance at the convention was required - that vote was taken by everyone standing.  This meant that one's vote could be known to others, not a particularly democratic concept.  In my opinion, for ACB to truly be the democratic organization envisioned by our founders, everyone should have the right to vote secretly, just as we do as American citizens when we go to the polls.  The vast majority of you supported this idea and we now have the secret ballot.  This is one of the two initiatives I championed that occurred during my presidency which I consider to be significant accomplishments.
Regarding the latter point, ACB has become far more visible on the national and international blindness stage than ever before.  Three major pieces of legislation were championed by ACB and enacted into law since 2010: the Communications and Video Accessibility Act, the Pedestrian Safety Enhancement Act, and the Food and Drug Administration Safety and Innovation Act.  As a result of our efforts, blind and visually impaired people will have greater access to live theater, movies and television; run less of a risk of being injured or killed by quiet vehicles; and be more certain to take the proper prescription medicine when they reach into their medicine cabinet.
We have responded to several Notices of Proposed Rulemaking on a variety of subjects of specific interest to people who are blind or visually impaired.  And while the effort to have the Bureau of Engraving and Printing has met with serious resistance despite ACB's court victory, legal tender that we will be able to identify will ultimately be a reality, whether the Treasury Department likes it or not.  Materials sent by the Social Security Administration to blind and visually impaired recipients and representative payees are now provided in accessible formats, again thanks to our willingness to advocate in the courts for our right to such access.
On the international scene, ACB continues to play a key role in crafting a treaty to permit open access to copyrighted material across international borders for blind and visually impaired individuals.  This work is being done under the auspices of the World Intellectual Property Organization, an entity which rivals the United Nations in terms of the diplomatic complexities inherent in developing a treaty of this kind.
We are heavily involved in the work of the World Blind Union and recognized by its leadership as a strong and authoritative voice on behalf of blind and visually impaired persons in the United States.  ACB has been honored to host the current and most recent WBU presidents: Arnt Holte and Marianne Diamond, during my time in office.  As a result of being elected Vice President of the North American/Caribbean Region, I now serve on the WBU Executive Committee.  I participated in that body's first two meetings, which took place during WBU's 8th Quadrennial meeting in Bangkok, Thailand, last November.
I would be remiss if I did not mention the area where I believe I failed to meet my own expectations as president.  It was my goal to triple ACB's revenues in order to expand our advocacy and other endeavors.  That did not happen!  These remain difficult economic times for not-for-profit organizations such as ACB; most are feeling the pinch with layoffs of staff and cutbacks in programs.  I championed the expansion of our office staff to include the position of development director with, to be frank, mixed results to date.  Nonetheless, I firmly believe that for ACB to be a serious player in the increasingly competitive fundraising arena, we must have a trained professional to direct the work of the volunteers who do so much to bring income to ACB.
The second initiative of which I am proud is the establishment of the ACB Advisory Board, an entity comprised of individuals who can open doors to, and make contact with, people with the financial resources to put ACB on a firm financial footing for years to come.  Presently, we have two individuals on the Advisory Board with expectations of increasing that number significantly over the next year.
It is not for me to judge my performance over the past six years.  Some time back I was asked about my legacy as ACB president.  I responded to the effect that the membership will decide what sort of president I was; all I could do as president was to be the best leader possible, consulting with the organization's leaders, our board and staff, but ultimately making decisions based on my experience and judgment.  Serving as ACB president has been a tremendous challenge, but one which was made far easier thanks to the scores of active and committed leaders with whom I had the honor to work.  The job was also much less burdensome thanks to our tremendous staff in our two offices.  A very special "thank-you" to Melanie, Eric, Lane, Sharon and everyone else who works so hard to further the cause of equality for all blind and visually impaired people, whether they are ACB members or not.
I now move on to the next phase of my life.  A consulting business venture looks likely in partnership with an old friend and colleague who is about to retire from the City of Los Angeles.  One of our country's founding fathers, John Adams, talked about the citizen politician who goes to Washington to serve for a time in elective office, and then returns home to his family and farm.  While I don't have a farm to return to, my role as a leader will be much diminished.  It is time for new blood and fresh ideas.  We will elect new leaders at our conference and convention.  For now, it is time for me to turn the page.