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Elevate Blog: Interview with Representative Jessica Benham

Elevate Logo - Campaign Training for People with Disabilities. Graphic features the US Capitol Rotunda.

Representative Jessica Benham is a freshman legislator in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives, representing the 36th District. She is queer, autistic and has Ehlers Danlos Syndrome, a rare genetic connective tissue disorder. Representative Benham is both the first openly LGBTQ woman and openly autistic legislator in the Pennsylvania State House.

Before Representative Benham ran for office, she was one of the cofounders of the Pittsburgh Center for Autistic Advocacy, a nonprofit run by and for autistic people. Her work focused on ensuring that public policy reflected the participation of autistic people. The shift from fighting for autistic people to be heard to being a decision maker was a big change for Representative Benham: “being in a place where people have to listen to me is a change, but the ability to lift up the concerns of disabled people and provide people a platform from which to speak is a real honor.”

I sat down with Representative Benham to ask her some questions about why she decided to run for office, what her campaign was like, and advice she would give to other disabled folks who are considering running for office. Her answers have been edited for length and clarity.

Why did you decide to run for office?

Honestly, running for office was not something I ever thought I would do. The first time someone suggested that I should run, I laughed at them. As more and more folks from my community asked me to step up and serve, they helped me imagine a world in which people could accept me for who I was. While of course I would face discrimination, stigma, and people’s bigotry and biases, the vast majority of people would see someone who would fight for them.

Why do you think it’s important for disabled people to run for elected office, especially those who are LGBTQ?

I think it’s important for our elected bodies to represent and reflect the population at large, so that means that those bodies like the Pennsylvania General Assembly should be diverse. That means that they should include disabled folks, queer folks, and Black and brown folks. It’s important because we legislate from our lived experience. Like a lot of folks from my community, I’m a working class kid. That background has helped a lot of folks in my community understand that I know what they’re going through. I’ve experienced hardship, and certainly, I also experienced ableism and homophobia, sexism, all those things. All those experiences give me a thick skin and also give me a determination to fight for folks who have been left out of the political process.

What was your campaign like? Were there any campaign practices that you had to adapt or do differently?

I think that it’s hard to tell, because campaigning this year was so much different from typical campaigning anyways [due to the pandemic]. So I think a lot of disabled folks with mobility disabilities have found that door knocking doesn’t necessarily work for them, but we weren’t door knocking anyways post-February. While I love knocking doors and that’s enjoyable for me, in many ways, all of my campaign activities became accessible to folks with mobility disabilities simply because we were doing everything from home. So I think it’s hard to tell.

I think that the perspective with which I approached campaigning is different. I don’t think that people should compromise their mental and physical health on campaign: candidates, staff, or volunteers. In the broader culture of campaigning, there’s the sense of you don’t care about your job unless you sacrifice all those things for it. I tried to make it clear to my staff that I wanted people to have work-life balance.

How would you like to see campaigns adopt some of these changes in the future?

In many ways, campaigning is a science of what typically works. It is unfortunately true that due to the time-compressed nature of campaigns that it would be difficult for all campaign activities [to change]. The playing field wouldn’t be level if one campaign chose to not door knock, for example, because we know face-to-face conversations are just so effective. And yet on the other hand, there is this troubling thing that campaigns do where they devalue certain kinds of voter contact. While broadly speaking, door knocking reaches the most amount of voters, it is not the most effective way to reach every voter, and that’s important. For some voters, calling or texting is most effective. In the future, campaigns should use every tool at their disposal for voter contact. I had some of the best times at virtual fundraisers, because we did fun things like Labor History Bingo. We wouldn’t have done that at an in-person event. It’s hanging onto some of those creative and clever things, recognizing that there is still a lot of power in virtual campaign activities, and not losing sight of that.

Do you have any advice for people with disabilities who are considering running for office? 

On the accessibility of campaigning, I think it’s helpful to find somebody who has the same kinds of access needs as you who ran for office to find out what worked for them. The other thing is to find folks locally who are able to take you under their wing. You cannot run for office just by yourself, so to have folks who hold elected office or who are union leaders, or who hold other positions of leadership in their community taking you under their wing is useful.

One of the things that is useful for being seen as a legitimate candidate is “being seen,” and being seen can be expensive. Finding folks who can facilitate that networking is critical, because it can be difficult to find the financial resources to attend events where you can meet other campaign donors. I think identifying groups of people who will volunteer for you is really important, and that means being an organizer in other areas, [such as] helping out on another grassroots campaign and meeting folks who were really good volunteers for that campaign. I was somebody who organized neighborhood projects. Folks who were willing to pull weeds with me at the neighborhood park would collect signatures [to get on the ballot]. Money is unfortunately important in politics right now, but it’s not everything. I would say it’s more important to have a broad base of volunteers than it is to have a lot of money.

Representative Jessica Benham, a young woman with brown hair wearing a blue face mask and blue coat, stands at a desk and raises her right hand as she takes the oath of office.

Jessica Benham is the State Representative in PA House District 36. Prior to her election, she was co-founder of the Pittsburgh Center for Autistic Advocacy (PCAA), where she had worked to ensure that individuals with disabilities are treated fairly in the legislative process. Previously, while a graduate student at the University of Pittsburgh, she was involved in the effort to organize a union of graduate student workers.  Jessica is the first openly Autistic state legislator in PA and the first out LGBTQ+ woman in the state house. As a state representative, she has focused on fighting for fixes to our unemployment system, better access to COVID testing and vaccines, access to healthcare, a clean and healthy environment, fair funding for education, and LGBTQ and disability rights. 

Elevate Blog: Want to Run for Office? Think Local

Did you know that there are 519,682 elected positions in the United States? When we think of elected officials, we often think about the President and members of Congress. However, there are only 542 federal offices. Our state governments make up only 3.6% of the elected positions in the country. Local elected officials are 96% the elected officials in the country. There are over 500,000 local elected positions in the country.

If you are considering running for office for the first time, think local. There are many different positions in local government, such as:

  • City council
  • Mayor
  • School board
  • County commissioner
  • Positions requiring specific knowledge, like auditor or coroner

Each local government has a different structure, and different elected offices. You should research what positions are available in your community. Think about how you want to be involved in your community. Do you want to change laws? Are you interested in education? Do you have specific skills in an area like finance or engineering? Some offices require specific knowledge and training, while others are open to everyone.

Holding a local office allows you to serve your community directly. Big, sweeping legislation at the national level is important. But the fact is that local government has a large influence on our lives. School board members make decisions on education for children in their community. Mayors and city councils make many small and large decisions to run a city. Local government influences law, finances, education, community programs, and more.

Running for local office makes practical sense for a first-time candidate. It costs money to get on the ballot and to run a campaign. A local campaign usually requires a smaller budget than state or federal races. A local campaign may require a smaller time commitment, and you may be able to keep your current job. Keeping your job is important if the position you’re running for doesn’t have a salary or has a low salary.

Local campaigns make strategic sense as well. If you want to run for a larger office someday, you need to build name recognition. Having name recognition means that voters know who you are and what you represent. If you are active in your local community, you may have name recognition. You may be known as a community member, a volunteer, or an advocate, for example. In a campaign, you build more name recognition through campaigning. This lets voters know who you are and why they should vote for you. Running for and serving in local office can help build name recognition for future state and federal races. It will also help you gain experience that will make you a better candidate in future races.

Have we convinced you to consider running for local office? Here are some resources to learn more:

2020 Annual Conference on Independent Living Wrap-Up

Conference Logo: Evolution of our Revolution - 2020 Annual Conference on Independent Living. Graphic features a speech bubble and heart icon.

NCIL’s 2020 Annual Conference on Independent Living Wrap-Up is now available online.

NCIL’s 2020 Annual Conference on Independent Living was truly unprecedented – an accessible virtual conference on disability rights and independent living. Despite having just weeks to overhaul our entire conference and transform it into a virtual experience, we were able to put together a 3 week conference packed with a plethora of content affecting CILs, SILCs, and people with disabilities: advocacy and public policy, the COVID-19 pandemic, racism and racial justice, voting rights and access, and so much more. Yes, three weeks was a very long time, but all conference content was recorded and offered online so that people did not have to attend live. Part of the reason for the long conference is that we had already accepted all of our workshops for the original, in-person conference, but we needed to add content on COVID-19 and racial justice and police violence to address everything that was happening in 2020. 

While we all missed our iconic NCIL March through the streets of Washington, we were thrilled to see everyone’s photos for the virtual March, and our virtual Rally was a really exciting and moving event. Holding a virtual conference came with some silver linings, too. We had our largest conference in NCIL history, with well over 1,000 participants. Without the need to travel, more people than ever were able to afford and access the conference. Thank you, from the bottom of our hearts, to all of our 2020 Annual Conference attendees, sponsors, and exhibitors, who stuck with us during this unexpected upheaval. You are the ones who make the NCIL conference special, no matter if it’s virtual or in person. We could not have gotten through this year without the support of our members, conference attendees, and donors. 

While there’s no question that this has been a very difficult year – devastating at times – the NCIL conference was transformed by the realities of COVID-19 pandemic. Some of that has resulted in positive changes that will stay with us in the future. We are so glad to be a part of this evolution and we are excited for what the future holds. 

CILs and SILCs: Sign-On Opportunity to Oppose Amy Coney Barrett’s Nomination – DUE TODAY!

Yesterday, the Senate Judiciary Committee voted to approve Judge Amy Coney Barrett’s nomination. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has said he expects the final confirmation vote as early as Monday.

As we explained in a previous alert, Judge Barrett’s opinions on a number of issues are damaging to disability rights, and her appointment to the U.S. Supreme Court would threaten the rights and lives of Americans with disabilities. NCIL strongly opposes her nomination, and we have signed on to a letter urging the Senate to oppose her nomination, and we hope you will join us in signing your organization on as well. (Note: this is similar to a previous letter that was sent to the Senate Judiciary Committee.)

To sign on:

Please send your name, the name of your organization exactly as you would like it listed on the letter, and the state your organization is located in to Jennifer Mathis at JenniferM@bazelon.org.

The deadline to add your organization as a signatory is 4:00pm Eastern TODAY, Friday, October 23, 2020.

Background:

As outlined in the letter, Judge Barrett has a history of decisions that have harmed the disability community. From siding against disabled students who were being discriminated against, to her opinion that the public charge rule does not discriminate against disabled people, to being a vocal opponent of the Affordable Care Act, Judge Barrett’s appointment to the US Supreme Court would bring immeasurable harm to our community.

Further, in the midst of a pandemic that has killed over 220,000 Americans, it is shameful that the Senate is prioritizing rushing through this highly politicized Supreme Court appointment, rather than focusing on much-needed additional COVID-19 relief. The situation for their constituents around the country is increasingly dire, and filling a vacant seat is absolutely not more important than our lives and livelihoods. 

For these reasons, and for others outlined in the letter, NCIL strongly opposes the nomination of Judge Amy Coney Barrett. We urge you to sign your CIL, SILC, or organization on to the letter urging the Senate to oppose the nomination and to not act on any nomination until they have passed and the President has signed a COVID-19 relief bill.

Please sign your organization on to the letter today!

Urgent Call for Stories: How Do Changes to the USPS Impact You?

The United States Postal Service (USPS) has been experiencing drastic changes that have led to major delays in mail service. People around the country are experiencing weeks of delays in receiving mail-order prescriptions, medical equipment, benefits checks, bills, notices, and other necessities they receive via mail. Delays in these critical items and information could result in utility shutoffs, homelessness, food insecurity, sickness, and other dire consequences for disabled people. USPS has also told 46 states and the District of Columbia that it may not be able to deliver mail-in ballots in time for the General Election in November.  

Before the coronavirus pandemic, the USPS was instrumental in delivering necessities and information. As the country continues to struggle with the Coronavirus pandemic, many more people rely on the USPS to receive medications through mail-order pharmacies. Millions of Americans plan on voting by mail to exercise their right to vote while maintaining social distance.  

The National Council on Independent Living (NCIL) and the American Association of People with Disabilities (AAPD) are asking for your help in collecting stories that we can use to illustrate how the changes to the USPS are impacting people with disabilities. We are looking for: 

1. Stories from people who have experienced delays in receiving the following: 

  • Medications 
  • Medical supplies, including durable medical equipment 
  • Basic Necessities 
  • Paychecks or benefit checks 
  • Bills and notices 

2. Stories from people who plan to vote by mail in the November election. How do you feel about the changes to the USPS so far, and how have these changes impacted your plans to vote in November? 

Our goal is to collect these stories and send them to the House of Representatives prior to the House Oversight Committee’s emergency hearing on mail delays taking place on August 24, 2020.  

Please submit stories through the online form or by sending them to sarah@ncil.org by Saturday, August 22 at Midnight. Please include your first name (or initials), your city and state, and two to three paragraphs concisely telling your story.   

NCIL Mourns the Loss of Representative John Lewis

We are greatly saddened by the loss of Representative John Lewis, who died after a battle with cancer at the age of 80. Representative Lewis was a hero of the civil rights movement who dedicated his life to fighting for justice, including during his over three decades in Congress. There he was seen as a sort of moral authority, becoming known as “the conscience of the Congress.”

Representative Lewis spent his whole life fighting to make America a country that truly belonged to everyone. Well-known for his activism around voting rights, he was a staunch advocate for many important issues ranging from healthcare to immigration to disability rights. He was a lifelong activist, having been arrested over 40 times throughout his life, and frequently encouraging people to make “good trouble” in the pursuit of justice.

Representative Lewis leaves behind a legacy of justice-seeking, of love, and of honor. NCIL joins the broader civil and human rights community, and the entire nation, in mourning the loss of this true hero. We commit to continuing the work for justice and equity. And we commit to working to make this country, and our community, one that truly belongs to everyone.

Final Update on NCIL’s Virtual Hill Day: Virtual March, Rally and Advocacy Priorities & Talking Points Guide

We hope you are getting excited for this year’s Virtual Hill Day, which is coming up quickly! As a reminder, the Virtual Hill Day will be on Tuesday, July 21, 2020.

Earlier this week, the Co-Chairs of several key NCIL Legislative and Advocacy Subcommittees hosted NCIL’s annual Policy Briefing to provide everyone with key information in preparation for next week’s Virtual Hill visits.

We want to provide you with some additional key information heading into next week!

Virtual March

Our Virtual Hill Day includes a fun, new virtual format for our Annual March! To participate, make a homemade sign with your message on it and send us a picture. You can use anything from poster board to a regular sheet of paper. Just make sure your text is BOLD so we can read your message. You can use any medium. Send your photo to eleanor@ncil.org and include a short description of your photo (30 words or less). We’ll post the photos we receive on the NCIL Virtual March page.

Virtual Rally

Our Virtual Hill Day also includes a fun, new virtual format for our Annual Rally! We have an incredible line-up of members of Congress and advocates who will be providing remarks to inform and energize you before you head into your Hill meetings. You can tune in to the Rally at 11:00 a.m. Eastern at the NCIL Virtual Rally page. To allow for the greatest amount of flexibility around your meeting schedules, the Rally video will be archived and available throughout the conference. ASL interpretation and CART will be provided.

Advocacy Priorities & Talking Points

Each of NCIL’s Legislative & Advocacy Subcommittees have written up summaries of their key priorities and talking points to help prepare you for your Virtual Hill Visits!

Advocacy Priorities & Talking Points:

As a reminder, the Virtual Day on the Hill is open to the public. We encourage everyone to join us for the Virtual March, Rally, and Hill Visits! This year’s Virtual Hill Visits have the potential to make a huge impact. Congress returns from recess on Monday, July 20, and our Virtual Hill Day will be a critical time to urge our members of Congress to take action and to prioritize the needs of their disabled constituents. We hope you will join us!

Conference Logo: Evolution of our Revolution - 2020 Annual Conference on Independent Living. Graphic features a speech bubble and heart icon.

More Information about NCIL’s Virtual Hill Day!

This year, NCIL’s Virtual Hill Day will be on Tuesday, July 21, 2020. We hope you have already been scheduling meetings with your Members of Congress and are planning to attend our 2020 Policy Briefing on Tuesday, July 14.

Our Virtual Hill Day also includes a fun, new virtual format for our Annual Rally! We have a fantastic line-up of people who will be providing remarks to inform and energize you before you head into your Hill meetings. You can tune in to the Rally at 11:00 am Eastern at the NCIL Conference website or our YouTube page. To allow for the greatest amount of flexibility around your meeting schedules, the Rally video will be archived and available at both websites all day. ASL interpretation and CART will be provided.

This year’s Virtual Hill Visits have the potential to make a huge impact. Congress returns from recess on Monday, July 20. While the House has already passed the HEROES Act, the Senate has not taken any action on the next COVID-19 relief package. Our Virtual Hill Day will be a critical time to urge our Senators to take action and to prioritize the needs of their disabled constituents. This is an important time, and we hope you will all join us!

We will be providing the links to the Virtual Rally (which is open to the public!) and additional information to help prepare you for your meetings soon. Stay tuned!

Conference Logo: Evolution of our Revolution - 2020 Annual Conference on Independent Living. Graphic features a speech bubble and heart icon.

Announcing: The 2020 NCIL Policy Briefing

Tuesday, July 14, 2020; 3:00 – 4:30 p.m. Eastern

Register online

NCIL is happy to announce our 15th Annual Policy Briefing.

This important presentation will to bring advocates up-to-date on national issues and federal policies that affect people with disabilities and provide participants with question and answer sessions with national leaders to ensure you have in-depth information on the issues you care about most.

The Policy Briefing will ensure that we are fired up and prepared for NCIL’s 2020 Virtual Day on the Hill!

This teleconference is free for NCIL Members and conference registrants. There is a $25.00 registration fee for Non-Members / non-conference registrants, per call-in site. Fee does not apply per participant in group, provided the group uses the same conference line.

The Policy Briefing will be available via webinar / teleconference and CART captioning will be provided.  You must register by 12:00 Noon Eastern on July 14 to participate in the call.

Please contact Tim Fuchs at tim@ncil.org with any questions.

DATE CORRECTION: The 2020 NCIL Policy Briefing will be Tuesday, July 14th from 3:00 – 4:30 p.m. EDT.  The call will be recorded and available online if you are not available at this new time. 

Information About NCIL’s Virtual Hill Day: Start Scheduling Your Meetings!

This year, NCIL’s Annual Hill Day will be on Tuesday, July 21, 2020. Like the rest of the Annual Conference, it will be completely virtual!

Part of each Annual Hill Day is the Hill Visits. These are meetings with the Senators and Representatives in Congress who represent you. A key part of successful Hill Visits is planning ahead – and this is just as important for a Virtual Hill Day!

We will be announcing the date for our annual Legislative and Advocacy (L&A) briefing soon. At this briefing, the Chairs of key NCIL L&A Subcommittees will discuss NCIL’s legislative priorities. They will also provide talking points to prepare you for your meetings. This briefing will be archived and available afterwards.

NCIL will be providing additional details about the Virtual Hill Day as they become available. This also includes a fun, new, virtual format for our Annual Rally!

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