Braille Monitor                                                 August/September 2007

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Become the Change

by Mark A. Riccobono

Mark RiccobonoFrom the Editor: When Betsy Zaborowski finished her remarks on Tuesday, July 3, she introduced Mark Riccobono, who has just become the executive director of the NFB Jernigan Institute. This is what he said:

Mahatma Gandhi once said, "We must become the change we want to see." This quote identifies the critical element that makes our Jernigan Institute uniquely effective. Our institute is the dreams of the blind turned into actions for change. Gandhi's quote also touches a deeper level—the effect the Federation has on each of us. I want to discuss the institute, our education initiative, and my own experience, in the context of becoming the change.

I first came to an NFB national convention in 1996. I came to the convention with a great deal of uncertainty about my future. The experience of the convention and the successful blind people I encountered caused me to consider new possibilities for my future. Earlier that spring I had completed my sophomore year at the University of Wisconsin. That summer I was living in a tiny apartment while working at the university. I knew few people outside of work, which meant my evenings were mostly free. I found myself using that time to read the large pile of NFB literature I had brought home from the convention. The literature resonated with me in ways I had not expected. I already had a drive to help change society, but for the first time I began to understand that change in myself needed to occur.

In my final years at the university, I underwent a significant period of change. I learned Braille and began using it; I started using the long white cane; I thought about and discussed my attitudes toward blindness; and I learned nonvisual techniques for many daily tasks from my Federation friends. I was changing my outlook and beginning to dream of new possibilities.

Upon my graduation I was fortunate to secure a job with Sears in their national executive trainee program. I had it all figured out. At least that was my thinking until a friend suggested that I attend the Colorado Center for the Blind in the months between my graduation and the start of my job in the fall. I did, and I took advantage of every moment of training I had at the CCB. Through my empowering experience at the center, I learned the importance of continually challenging myself to go beyond my comfort zone. I also began to realize that one more step was necessary for me to become the change I wanted to see.

While working for Sears, I was spending much of my free time doing activities for the Federation. I became particularly interested in educational issues and concerned about the lack of educational innovation that existed. My own educational experience had been difficult, and I wanted to ensure that higher expectations, better training, expanded opportunities, and access to role models were more available to the next generation. My experience in the Federation taught me that changing opportunities required becoming a more significant part of creating them—so I did.

In June of 2000 I began this pursuit full-time when I accepted a position directing services for blind youth in Wisconsin. In that position I learned a number of firsthand lessons about the educational system, but I was troubled by patterns that frequently emerged—truths that are still in evidence today. First, there is a great lack of innovation in the education system, and, when it emerges, it tends to be short lived and is rarely replicated. The education system does not embrace change. Second, this is true in all parts of the country although everybody believes that their effort is better than that found elsewhere.

The perfect opportunity for me to become the change came when I was asked to work on educational programs for the NFB, shortly before we opened the Jernigan Institute. I remember walking through the Institute building with Dr. Maurer after we discussed my coming to Baltimore. The building was still very much under construction. At that time I thought of the Institute as a place—another part of our National Center. Working at the Institute, I have learned that the change we want to see in society, in education, in the next generation, is not a place, a technology, or a program. Our Institute represents those things, but, more important, it represents a different perspective—an adventurous, imaginative approach to empowering ourselves in a way that only we could engineer. In essence, through the Jernigan Institute we have become the change we want to see.

This can be observed throughout the programs of our Institute. Let me offer one powerful example to make the point. From the Institute's beginning we resolved that greater opportunities for the blind in science, technology, engineering, and math were needed. We became the source for opportunities and innovation in those areas by creating our Science Academy and a series of projects under our National Center for Blind Youth in Science initiative.

But the objective has always been broader than creating a program that, if done in isolation, would be just another brief moment of innovation. Our intention is to raise a whole generation of blind youth who have the advantage of our collective experience from the past, the opportunities we have created in the present, and the power of their own dreams for the future. We are becoming the change we want to see by challenging our previous assumptions and empowering the next generation of the blind to expand what we have started.

In order to advance this end specifically, we envisioned the NFB Youth Slam, which we first announced at this convention last year. The Youth Slam is an example of the way we become the change through our Institute. We began by identifying a Youth Slam coordinator in each of our affiliates in order to establish a strong link between local communities and the NFB Youth Slam event. Then we went out and found partners who understood the significance of our plan and who would become the change with us. Johns Hopkins University, NASA, and others have contributed to thinking up new ways of infusing innovation into the system through the Youth Slam. Yet some believed we could never get two hundred students to come, that we would never find enough positive blind mentors, and that we could not manage the logistics of such an endeavor. I am here to tell you that we have done all of those things and we are just beginning a new era of innovation.

In the past six months I have spoken with dozens of parents and educators who have expressed what a tremendous void the NFB Youth Slam is filling—parents who say their children face low expectations in the education system, parents who want to encourage their child's dreams but are unsure about the possibilities, educators and rehabilitation professionals who are desperate for something innovative and empowering as opposed to the typical summer programs available in some communities. Furthermore, I have spoken with blind people from all parts of the country. They all express the same sentiment--the Federation has done so much for them and their generation that they absolutely have to be part of the Youth Slam to give back. Blind role models from energetic college students to experienced baby-boomers have joined in the effort to empower the next generation with the gift of becoming the change.

At the end of this month blind youth will come together to launch rockets and weather balloons, engineer new inventions, program robots and chatbots, investigate distant astronomic marvels, and learn how to apply structured discovery to the dissection of sharks. Moreover, they will be making history and reporting on it through Web updates and podcasts. They will make friends and gain a network of role models through the Federation. They will celebrate their achievements and their future by following in your footsteps with the first ever Youth March for Independence, taking them through South Baltimore to the Institute that we have built and they will lead in the future. They will become the change. Only our Institute, the Institute of the Blind, is imaginative enough, believes in blind people enough, and is willing to change enough, to build such a program from the ground up.

In the coming year we will innovate opportunities to expand the circle of empowerment and change. We are planning new outreach models for our chapters to empower youth, new programs to engage blind youth in employment experiences, new research efforts to provide meaningful data in areas where change is most needed, and new partnerships that will deepen the impact of the work we are doing. And it is important that each of us become that change and participate actively in the mission of the Jernigan Institute.
Becoming the change is the same element that we have always applied to the work of our organization. From Dr. tenBroek articulating a new philosophy on blindness and Dr. Jernigan engineering innovative rehabilitation methods, to Dr. Maurer leading us through the visionary undertaking of constructing and implementing a research and training institute, we have always worked on being the change that we want to see in the world. That is the foundation of our Jernigan Institute, and change will continue to drive our success in the future. By changing ourselves, we will change the world.

In closing, I wish to say that I am deeply humbled and honored to have the opportunity to serve as the next executive director of our Jernigan Institute. I have been blessed with a great mentor in Dr. Zaborowski. The effect of her work will be reflected in the innovation of the Jernigan Institute and throughout the Federation long into the future. More important, her work is not done, and I, for one, look forward to many more opportunities to carry out new endeavors with her. I also want to express my deep appreciation for the faith and leadership of our president, Dr. Maurer. It is truly a privilege to serve under his watch and to share in the joy of the work we do at the National Center for all of us each day. Finally, I deeply appreciate the honor of being charged with the task of turning our collective dreams into reality. Your dreams, your willingness to act when called upon, your belief in the Institute, your passion to be the change—these make the Jernigan Institute a dynamic source of inspiration and innovation.

Today we have completed our first March for Independence. An early civil rights leader, Howard Thurman, once said, "Don't ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive, and then go do it, because what the world needs is people who have come alive." Thank you because you, the members of the Federation, helped me change my direction and come alive in ways I had never imagined. Let us continue our march together; let us expand our Institute; let us become the change.

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