St. Paul-based Advocating Change Together (ACT) is celebrating 30 years of community organizing, promoting self-advocacy and taking on challenges. More than 150 people enjoyed a rainy Mississippi River cruise Oct. 1 to commemorate the anniversary and look back at all ACT has accomplished. “We have a lot to celebrate and be proud of,” said ACT board member Manny Steinman. “We’re not going to let a little rain stop us.”Grease. I love ACT,” said Carla Tice of the Listen Center. “I’d go anywhere to celebrate these guys.”
ACT is a grassroots social change organization. For three decades, members have worked to build the self-advocacy movement in Minnesota. One of ACT’s founders, Mel Duncan, was on hand to put the years in perspective. “Back in the late 70s it was a radical idea for people with developmental disabilities to speak on their own behalf and organize. Today, it’s not radical anymore; it’s getting pretty mainstream.”
In 1979, there was no selfadvocacy movement to speak of in Minnesota. Many persons with developmental and other disabilities were unhappy with a lack of control in their lives. They did not want to be service by well-meaning experts and parents’ groups. They wanted to make their own decisions and be in charge of their own lives. They wanted to speak for themselves. So they broke away from Arc and organized themselves as ACT. The founders and those who have joined them over the past three decades been organizing and working on issues small and large ever since.
The celebration was a chance for some early ACT members—Minnesota’s selfadvocacy pioneers—to mix with today’s younger leaders. Gloria Steinbring, a key player in ACT’s fight to pass Rule 40 back in the early 1980s, was especially proud of ACT’s style of organizing. “When we work on an issue, or put on a conference, or do trainings, we involve as many people with disabilities as we can at each step. And I mean every step: planning the big decisions, making the money decisions and doing the daily details. It’s slow, but it’s worth it,” she said.
ACT’s many accomplishments include collaboratingwith disability rights groups around the world. A history exhibit developed by ACT was taken on a European tour last year. The group’s handbook, We Have Human Rights (2008), has been translated into several languages and is distributed worldwide through the Harvard Project on Disability. ACT helped build the coalition, “Remembering with Dignity,” which provides markers and important recognition for persons who died while in state institutions. People who were buried anonymously are now remembered, an effort which draws grateful thanks from families. Yet another highlight of ACT’s history is the documentary “Offense Taken,” which was released last year. The documentary focuses on disrespectful language directed toward the developmentally disabled.
Also on board for the river cruise was a big contingent from Self-Advocates Minnesota (SAM). ACT was a key player in launching that statewide self-advocacy coalition. “Look at all these self-advocates helping put on this program,” said Wilber Neuschwander-Frink, a SAM organizer from New Ulm. “Welcoming folks. Making toasts. Handing out certificates. That’s what I am most impressed with about ACT. They’re not just talking empowerment. They’re building leaders for the whole community.” The evening’s featured entertainment further testified to ACT’s wide-reaching influence. A self-advocacy group from the Listen Center of Grand Forks, North Dakota, came down to present a rendition of the musical Grease. I love ACT,” said Carla Tice of the Listen Center. “I’d go anywhere to celebrate these guys.”
Fellow Listen Center member Bev Kellor also said, “ACT has taught our group a lot. Last month I spent four days with ACT learning how to do disability rights training. ACT helped me see that I can do it.” Fellow Listen Center member Larry Kennedy said. “ACT has helped us build our organization, and see ourselves as part of a larger human rights movement.” Last spring Kennedy joined several ACT members to present at a human rights conference in Qatar, in the Middle East.
As the music drifted across the water and into the cold night air, the party closed with a dance. With hips shaking and bodies swaying, you got the clear impression that this evening was not just about the past. his is about a social change movement in full swing. Indeed, in the days immediately following the party, ACT hosted a week-long human rights retreat in Farmington, building on ACT’s work as an emerging leader in connecting disability rights and human rights.