Coming out of class last week I was asked by a colleague how exactly I started in disability rights activism. If there’s one thing people know me for, it’s disability rights advocacy. She didn’t see the connection immediately and was curious to find out. I have been asked before and the story boils down to being by chance rather than by design. The journey that led me to my passion for disability rights was unexpected and wonderful, and it started at The City University of New York (CUNY).
I have a great passion for service, and began getting involved in student leadership through the Student World Assembly (SWA) campus chapter at CUNY-Kingsborough Community College (KCC). At my first meeting I remember there being on the agenda a special election for the Secretary executive board position. I found myself unsuspectingly placing a bid to run against more “seasoned” members. Much to my surprise, I emerged out of that meeting the with an e-board position, and so began my leadership journey at in human rights activism. It was through SWA that I came to realize how much inequality and injustice exists in the world today, and the need to do something about it.
The next step in my activist evolution was student rights, becoming a student representative. Student government was definitely a hard and mostly unappreciated journey. It pushed me into the frying pan of student politics; it was the center of a three-way tug-of-war with students, faculty and administration over finances, polices and procedures. It was through a series of fortunate events that I went on to become involved with the University Student Senate (USS). This was now me jumping into the proverbial fire of student politics, witnessing a degree of finance manipulation, election and policy tactics, and all sorts of debatable practices. I recall a former mentor once advising me that student politics was a microcosm of what goes on in the real world. I came to understand and love the game of politics, but I was also awakened to the dark side of what it could be used for. I had almost lost hope in politics for good had it not been for an unexpected meeting.
I remember heading towards what I believed to have been a USS meeting and instead walked into a meeting for the CUNY Coalition for Students with Disabilities (CCSD). That was my start in disability rights. I kept returning to the meetings and getting more involved until I became Executive Chair. I have had so many great moments, and even some not-so-great moments. But it was all worth it. What I took from CCSD initially was that the best form of leadership was service to the community and society; it was a community that taught me the value of inclusion, and reinforced the ethos of my inspiration Frances Hesselbein, “to serve is to live.” CCSD renewed my view of what good politics can do for society, with proper vision and a strong moral compass pointing north. I was very lucky with work we accomplished, including playing a central role in the historic reform of the University’s general education requirements.
The journey in disability rights started with CCSD and it continues to this day. The internship opportunities at the U.S. International Council with Disabilities (USICD) and the National Disability Rights Network (NDRN) helped educate me about the history of the disability rights movement and the issues we face today. There is still a lot of work to do, and I’m glad to be a part of it.