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Independent Living News & Policy from the National Council on Independent Living

Personal Perspective on CILs Post-Ferguson: Getting Back to Our Roots

By Derek Wetherell, Community Organizer, Paraquad, St. Louis, MO

Derek WetherellRecently in my home town, St. Louis Missouri, there has been an uprising by people living in our black and brown communities, sparking a national debate about race in our country. We are now having an unprecedented discussion about police brutality and police utilization of military grade weapons. I’m very grateful that I’ve been able, through my work at Paraquad, grassroots community organizations, and the leaders who we support, to be part of this national dialogue. I’ve recognized the wonderful work that we are doing at Paraquad, using the community advocacy model, as well as areas we can, as a national movement, improve.

I’ll start with the positive. We at Paraquad use a model of community advocacy – or organizing – that is true to IL values and opens us up to work on a number of issues that we wouldn’t have focused on before. Over a year ago we reorganized the way we engage people in advocacy and decided to put the power back in the hands of community members who come to our CIL. Instead of bringing people to us to do defined advocacy, we came to them and they led the charge, set the agenda, and organized initiatives that most impacted them.

So far, we’ve grown 8 dynamic and powerful community organizations built on pursuing disability rights in their area. We facilitate the development of community leaders who head these community organizations. We support and grow new leaders through our own leadership workshops. Instead of dictating to folks “these are your issues,” we partner with community members. We ask them to partner with us on matters of concern that they themselves have identified. This powerful shift has expanded the effectiveness of our local movement. It has also pushed us as an organization to work in new local issue areas.

We are supporting community leaders and their groups in doing disability work, but also gender and race-based work. This includes, as mentioned above, work around Ferguson and police misconduct. For instance, we’ve had a number of community leaders speak at St. Louis County Council meetings, turn out other community members, and talk to city alderpersons about civilian review boards. They’ve talked to the police about more inclusive Crisis Intervention Team trainings – pushing for inclusion of disability information and awareness. Doing more intersectional work makes sense on the heels of major wins for people with disabilities to be in our communities. Doing this work around other forms of oppression is a natural extension of our ‘disability work’ – as people with disabilities are they, themselves, a diverse group. There is more opportunity here. 

Now, I will address some opportunities for a more inclusive movement, hoping that we can move it to a positive, as we doing in St. Louis and, in particular, at Paraquad. CILs have been seen by some as insular organizations that are not diverse. By not engaging with other oppressed groups, black and brown communities in particular, we position ourselves to be left out of the larger civil rights discussion. What we need to understand, and push other organizations to embrace, is what Ed Roberts said in the 60’s: “you and me, we are fighting for the same thing…”. Both black and brown communities and the disability community have a long history of oppression and stigmatization. We have both been treated as less than human. We need to get back to what the founder of our movement was working to instill: a sense of unity. As a movement we need to be confronting all forms of oppression. Diversity is not only something that we value, but lack of it is also a barrier to working with people as a whole. As we work to gain our freedom we cannot ignore other oppressed groups’ struggles – and they cannot ignore ours. We need to stand by each other and work together to break down all systems of oppression. You can do this on any kind of budget by simply putting the power back in the community’s hands.

So this is a call to action for all CILs. Reach out to black and brown focused organizations and work to build a reciprocal relationship with them. Boldly confront racism within our own communities. Show solidarity with other oppressed groups and stand with people with disabilities in these organizations – and ask them to stand with us. CILs post-Ferguson cannot be silent partners. We must take an active stance against all oppression and support community leaders within our organizations who are joining together to take on this fight.


  1. Christopher RJ Worth says

    It seems to me that the next phase of “disability rights” is aimed at, approaching “full inclusion,” to me this means looking at the whole person, I am not just my cerebral palsy, I am male, queer, lived in foster care until the age of 11, and I am white. Each one of these qualifiers has an impact on how I moved to the world with my disability.

    For my black and brown sisters and brothers their experience with the race is a lens in which they approached disability. And/or, “the system” approaches them… In order to practice what we preach still my take on the whole person! We are in fact bringing our whole self to the cultural table!

    I concur with Derek Wetherell here and argue that the next post that we make as a community of people with disabilities must look at our whole experience.

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