Everyone has a story and was born with a purpose. While people are not born as leaders, advocates or teachers, they may take on those roles as life unfolds. They may find their purpose in life after experiencing struggles of their own, or becoming involved in the struggles of others.
Those were themes of the speech 2015 Access Press Charlie Smith Award winner Jessalyn Akerman-Frank gave at the newspaper’s annual banquet November 6 in Bloomington. A low roar of conversation was dominant during social hour, along with music and the other events of the evening. The overflow crowd went silent to enjoy, watching and listening to the American Sign Language presentation of the award winner’s speech and the nominating speech by Darlene Zangara. At the end of each speech everyone in the crowd shook their hands in the air in the sign language of applause. It made for a very inclusive spirit, having everyone with hands in the air.
Akerman-Frank is a longtime deaf community advocate, and is committed to helping those who deal with domestic violence issues. She is also deeply involved in Minnesota’s deaf LGBTQI community and founded an award event to promote pride among its members. She has amassed a long resume of community service since moving to Minnesota in 2001.
Akerman-Frank’s family and many friends attended the banquet, as did many supporters of Access Press. This is the newspaper’s 25th year, so the banquet was also a celebration of its history and anniversary.
Akerman-Frank was chosen from a large field of nominees for the award, which is given in honor of Access Press founding editor Charlie Smith. “It was another great event, and we very much appreciated all who came out to honor a very deserving Charlie Smith Award winner,” said Access Press Executive Director Tim Benjamin. “Jessalyn Akerman-Smith exemplifies the spirit of service and community activism that defined Charlie Smith’s life. We’ve very proud that she is our 2015 award winner. We wish her much success as she continues her advocacy work.”
Akerman-Frank drew on her own life story and her work to make her points. “We become who we are because of what we experience,” said Akerman-Frank. She used examples ranging from a client’s job loss due to miscommunication to a story of a domestic abuse survivor.
Akerman-Frank’s understanding of what life as a deaf person would mean initially came during her years at Gallaudet University, the historic deaf university in Washington, D.C. She went there for college after growing up in Wisconsin, in a large and supportive family.
“That is when I learned that the world has more barriers than access, that there were more walls to tear down than doors to walk through, more teaching moments (which is okay) than common or shared knowledge. I learned from the best,” she said.
Akerman-Frank shared her experiences and of those of others, to explain the isolation and lack of respect people feel when they cannot communicate with others. Life as a deaf person and with those who don’t understand American Sign Language brings unique challenges.
“I know we may look different on the outside, but on the inside we all want the same basic things — to contribute to society, to feel good about our jobs, to live a life with choices, not limitations and to be seen as valued citizens of this society. It’s important that we try on other shoes or hats, if you will, for it’s important that we hear others and their stories too,” she said.
“I make it my personal responsibility to practice community accountability,” said Akerman-Frank. “I need to contribute to our community that I want to improve, to live in, to make better, because I also live in that community, too.”
Akerman-Frank thanked many community members, friends and family members for their support. “This award will be a reminder of the work accomplished, the work needed to still be done and the ultimate goal that we are all working to achieve and that is that everyone has an enhanced quality of life.”
This year’s banquet at the Minneapolis Airport Marriott featured a social hour, silent auction and pick-a-prize raffle, music and displays. Banquet attendees especially enjoyed vying for the many prizes offered.
The banquet space was packed full, with many of the past award winners and nominees on hand to honor Akerman-Frank. The banquet has become a tradition for many in Minnesota’s disability community.
Benjamin said that the newspaper’s board and staff plan an even bigger and better event for 2016, and that planning is already underway.
The banquet would not be possible without its many volunteers, silent auction and pick-a-prize raffle donors, and sponsors. Without them, the banquet would not be possible. Their efforts are appreciated.
The 2015 Editor-in-Chief sponsors are UCare Minnesota, People Enhancing People, NHHI, Medica, In Home Personal Care, IMed Mobility, AXIS Healthcare and AccraCare. Proofreader sponsors are Vinland National Center and Allina Health/Courage Kenny Rehabilitation Institute. Tamarack Rehabilitation Technologies, Inc and Handi Medical Supply are Keyliner Sponsors. Newspaper production terms denote the level of sponsorship.