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100 Years: We Have Made A Difference

May 27, 2020

To the founding Members of the Minnesota State Organization of the Blind:

Minnesota Federationists send you greetings and congratulations on this, the 100th anniversary of your first convention on May 27th, 1920. When you began laying the groundwork in December 1919, then elected the officers and filed the paperwork that following May, did you imagine it would last 100 years and counting? You intended to make a difference then, and you certainly have. In 2020, we’re here to tell you your dream is still going strong. We know you got right to work trying to deal with those first basic problems of housing and poverty. We salute you and thank you for being people of action and dedication to making life better for blind people throughout the state. You’ll be happy to know we’re still working hard today to help blind Minnesotans live the lives we want.

There are things about this organization 100 years later that you would not recognize at all. The portable smartphones and the internet that we use for communication were more than half a century in the future. Television was yet to come, and even radio would not see its first commercial broadcast until November 1920. You weren't using guide dogs or even canes very much when traveling, and you weren't yet flying in airplanes around the country on a regular basis like many of us do now. Even the issues we work on now might seem foreign: insisting on accessible voting? In May 1920, the women of Minnesota weren't even yet permitted to vote in most elections.[1] Access to digital content in education? What would that even mean in a world where talking books hardly existed yet and braille was a brand new standard? To us, a special home just for blind people would be treating us like children, but to you, it was a ticket to independence.

However, we the blind of Minnesota feel sure that you would know us by our belief in the capacity of blind people, and by the determination and the persistence of members throughout the generations—to speak for ourselves, to help each other, and to be the drivers of our own destiny. We took your brand of activism nationwide and joined with other blind activists to become the National Federation of the Blind, and now Minnesotans are helping to make a difference across the country.

In 1920, a terrifying global pandemic was less than two years in your past. In 2020, another pandemic has altered our lives. We had visions of getting together in a big crowd to celebrate this anniversary, and we will do that as soon as we can. For now, though, we have called upon your organizing spirit and the marvels of modern technology to record this letter for you—even while socially distancing—and found another way to bring our voices together to celebrate 100 of the many ways this organization has made a difference. May you be proud of what you started. We certainly are.

With Love, Hope and Determination,

Members of the National Federation of the Blind of Minnesota, 2020

  1. (Ryan Strunk):[2] 100 years ago, we started the first statewide advocacy organization of blind people in Minnesota; the Minnesota State Organization of the Blind was conceived at a meeting in December 1919 and officially formed at its first convention on May 27th, 1920.[3]
  2. (Jim Sarbacker): Membership dues were set to $1 in 1920 and not increased until 1996, when they were raised to $5 as they remain today.
  3. (Emily Zitek): In 1929, to address the problems blind people were having being accepted into housing, we established the Home and Industrial Center for the Blind so that blind adults could live independently and set up their own businesses.
  4. (Russell Anderson):[4] Over the next 50 years, our efforts helped make it common and accepted for blind people to live independently in regular housing like everyone else, so we closed the home for the blind in 1980.
  5. (Kathy McGillivray):[5] In 1935 we started the Minnesota Bulletin, a statewide newsletter with several issues each year; it is still published today.
  6. (Tim Aune):[6] Because of the extreme economic hardship faced by blind people, our first legislative goal was establishment of a pension for the blind;[7] throughout the setbacks and victories in our efforts around public assistance, we pushed for our right to self-determination about where we would live and what jobs we would hold.
  7. (Dan Ashman): In 1941, we convinced the state legislature to designate funds for rehabilitation in the biennial budget for the Department for the Blind.
  8. (Michele Gittens): In 1940, Minnesota joined forces with leaders from six other states to form the National Federation of the Blind, which is celebrating 80 years of community and activism this year!
  9. (Charlie Rush-Reese):[8] Minnesota has been present at the national convention every year since that first one in 1940; now we usually bring more than 80 Minnesotans.
  10. (Steve Jacobson): Until 1977, there were two Minnesota affiliates of the national Federation of the Blind; the two organizations worked together on legislative matters to present a unified front.
  11. (Charlene Guggisberg): We dropped the word "State" from our name in 1954, and in 1972, we completely changed our name from Minnesota Organization of Blind to National Federation of the Blind of Minnesota to better show a national voice.
  12. (Yadiel Sotomayor): In 1947, 1970, 1980 and 1982, we hosted the National Federation of the Blind convention right here in Minnesota.
  13. (Nadine Jacobson): Members of the National Federation of the Blind of Minnesota have been active all across our national movement, holding leadership roles and elected offices.
  14. (Jennifer Wenzel): Our longest-serving state president, Joyce Scanlan, was elected to the national board of directors for more than 30 years, serving as secretary and then as vice president.
  15. (Rocky Hart): Since 1920, we have held well over 150 statewide conventions.
  16. (Alex Loch):[9] Our chapter in Duluth was first organized in the late 1940s and early 1950s; its most recent iteration is called the Twin Ports Chapter.
  17. (Steve Decker): In the 1940s and beyond, we fought for the right of blind people to travel on public transportation without being required to have a sighted person with us.
  18. (Quinn Haberl): Throughout our existence we have advocated for robust funding for public transportation and for better public transit service around the state.
  19. (Matt Langland): We have maintained a steady presence in the Minnesota Legislature, building relationships and educating about our issues through our annual organized Day at the Capitol and other activities.
  20. (Justin McDevitt): In 1969, we achieved passage of the White Cane Law, guaranteeing access to public accommodations by blind persons using canes or dogs.
  21. ( Scott Tokunaga): For many years, we have put on campaigns to educate the public about the White Cane Law, and about how blind people can safely cross streets.
  22. (Mary Hartle):[10] We launched the student division in 1971, to help build positive attitudes toward blindness, so we could excel in higher education and employment.
  23. (Matt Gip): In the 1970s, our student division worked to convince St. Cloud State to abolish a policy requiring that anyone seeking to enter the teaching profession through their program be fully sighted.
  24. (Ron Poire): Also in the 1970s, our student division led our successful advocacy for live readers paid by State Services for the Blind to get a better wage.
  25. (Samantha Flax):[11] Throughout its existence, the Minnesota Association of Blind Students has hosted and participated in statewide and regional student seminars to give information and help students develop advocacy skills.
  26. (Alycia Howard):[12] Since the beginning of the Washington Seminar in the early 1970s, we have sent a delegation of Minnesotans each year to advocate in the Congress on issues affecting all blind Americans.
  27. (Tim Aune):[13] Beginning in the 1940s, we operated a sales-service program to make sure that blind Minnesotans could get canes, braille slates, and other such products conveniently from a local source and at a reasonable price; we still sell canes today.
  28. (Beth Moline): In 1971 we formed the Central Minnesota Chapter, organizing blind people in the St. Cloud area and beyond.
  29. (Sheila Koenig):[14] We have awarded dozens of scholarships to blind college students in Minnesota to enhance their education and employment opportunities.
  30. (Joyce Scanlan):[15] In 1973, Minnesota Federationists were successful in passing amendments to the state's  human rights law, prohibiting discrimination against blind people in employment, education, housing, and other public services.
  31. (Dale Heltzer):[16] In 1974, we formed a chapter in Rochester, Minnesota.
  32. (Eric Smith): In 1975, we got legislation passed making it illegal to charge blind persons higher insurance rates without actuarial evidence.
  33. (Lorraine Rovig): For many years, we marched to protest the low standards set by the National Accreditation Council for Agencies Serving the Blind, (NAC).
  34. (Jennifer Wenzel): We fought alongside Lawrence Kettner, who in 1974 was told by Minneapolis Society for the Blind that he only work well enough to earn subminimum wages, but in 2001 won a regional award for his excellent work at a job in competitive employment; his story helped discontinue federal funding of NAC.
  35. (Jack Rupert): In 1977, we organized our Riverbend chapter, with members in the Mankato and New Ulm area.
  36. (Sharon Grostephan):[17] From 1973-1975, we employed a teacher to provide rehabilitation teaching to blind people in their homes, to fill the gaps caused by inconsistency in instruction from at State Services for the Blind; among others, she worked with Larry Kettner who soon got a job with a competitive wage.
  37. (Tom Scanlan):[18] In the 1970s, we won a discrimination lawsuit against the Minneapolis Society for the Blind, now known as Vision Loss Resources, with the resultant publicity greatly diminishing its stature and gaining us recognition as the real authority on blindness.
  38. (Curtis Chong):[19] After the lawsuit, we successfully fought to elect eight of our members to the board of directors of the Minneapolis Society for the Blind, but when our input continued to be dismissed, we found a better way to make changes.
  39. (Joyce Scanlan):[20] In the mid 1980s, continuing our efforts to improve adjustment-to-blindness training in Minnesota, we started Blindness, Learning in New Dimensions (BLIND), Incorporated, an adjustment-to-blindness training center now recognized across the nation and around the world.[21]
  40. (Dan Wenzel):[22] In 1993, when BLIND Incorporated needed a bigger space for its classes, we assisted with the purchase of the Charles S. Pillsbury Mansion, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places; in 2009, we helped celebrate complete ownership of the property with a mortgage burning party.
  41. (Jennifer Kennedy):[23] Through BLIND Incorporated, we have taught thousands of blind people to advocate for themselves, travel with a white cane, read Braille, use computers, and the other skills they need to live independently and obtain successful employment.
  42. (James Gagnier): In the 1980s, most of the speeches printed in the Braille Monitor from the NFB national convention were transcribed from the audio by Minnesotans, using our brand new IBM computer.
  43. (Laura Aune):[24] In the mid 1980s, we bought a braille embosser called a Thiel; among other things, it was used to make braille copies of the Minnesota Bulletin for almost 20 years.
  44. (Curtis Chong):[25] In the early 1980s, we were instrumental in the establishment of a rehabilitation advisory council for State Services for the Blind, long before such councils were required in federal law.
  45. (Scott LaBarre):[26] In the mid 1980s, we helped create and implement an administrative rule for Minnesota State Services for the Blind, to promote consistency and quality of rehabilitation services across the state.
  46. (Corbb O'Connor): Although we continue to battle a high unemployment rate among blind people, our members have not been limited to jobs society believe best suited for blind people; we have held all kinds of jobs, like investment broker, Teacher, Lawyer, Computer programmer, Language interpreter, Professional performer, Office worker, Court reporter, Counselor, cane travel instructor, Manager, Nanny, Cabinetmaker, Administrator, truck loader, Hospital attendant, Switchboard operator, Bee keeper, software developer, and many more.
  47. (Sharon Monthei): In 1984 and 1985 we actively supported some our members who experienced discrimination in seating on airlines.
  48. (Brook Sexton): In 1987, we got the first state law in the nation passed establishing the right of every blind child to learn braille in school.
  49. (Jonathan Ice): In 1987, we held a large protest against the combining of services for the Blind with the general rehabilitation organization; this set in motion a series of events that got the blindness agency moved to a more identifiable place within the department so it could focus on education and rehabilitation rather than welfare.
  50. (Chelsey Duranleau): In 1990, we protested and publicized discriminatory policies toward the blind on rides at ValleyFair amusement park and actively negotiated more fair policies.
  51. (Mike Colbrunn): In the late 80s and early 90s, we worked with our national organization on a landmark case for a blind vendor in St. Cloud, which set legal precedent giving blind vendors priority under the Randolph Sheppard Act to operate vending stands in veterans' medical facilities.
  52. (Tom Scanlan): In 1995, we brought NFB-Newsline to Minnesota at our own expense, giving blind Minnesotans access to hundreds of newspapers and magazines, and later secured funding through a telephone tax.
  53. (Mike Sahyun): In 1998, we brought forward legislation that became the first version of the current statutory requirements for Minnesota state government to implement nonvisual access in its technology procurements; the requirements were further strengthened in 2009.
  54. (Cody Beardslee): In 2002, we put up our first web site, to share information about blindness and our activities with our members and the public.
  55. (Charlotte Czarnecki): Also in 2002, we held a large rally successfully bringing public attention to the fact that State Services for the Blind, which made up only 5% of the budget of its larger government department, had sustained 45% of a major budget cut to that department, causing some services to be dismantled.
  56. (Kayde Rieken): Throughout the 2000s, we continued the fight for State Services for the Blind, ultimately helping to bring on and work with new leadership who focused on real solutions for blindness rehabilitation rather than quick-fixes and saving dollars.
  57. (Judy Sanders):[27] In 2006, as part of the Help America Vote act, we helped pass and implement state legislation guaranteeing the right of every blind person in Minnesota to a secret ballot.
  58. (Randi Strunk): We have hosted Saturday Schools to teach children independent living skills and give them access to blind role models.
  59. (Theresa Gfroerer): In 2009, we established a Seniors' Division to focus on bringing in people losing sight later in life and connecting all blind seniors with what they need to retain their independence.
  60. (Jennifer Dunnam): In 2010, we achieved passage of legislation requiring counselors hired by State Services for the Blind to undergo at least six weeks of adjustment-to-blindness training; this had never before been required in state law.
  61. (David Andrews): In 2014, we formed our at-large chapter, so that members who live far from existing chapters can work together and support each other.
  62. (Ken Trebelhorn): At different times, we have had a Runestone Chapter, an Iron Range Chapter, Austin and Faribault chapters, and a Parents of blind children division of the National Federation of the Blind of Minnesota.
  63. (Judy Sanders): Over the years we have held seminars and other programs for parents of blind children; one seminar included a "compete-a-thon" where children played games to compete on how well they could use their senses other than vision .
  64. (Jan Bailey): In 2016, we secured ongoing funding, through the Minnesota state legislature, for State Services for the blind to provide seniors with the adjustment-to-blindness training they need to live independently in their homes and communities.
  65. (Edwina Franchild): We have participated actively in the national effort to prevent discrimination against riders with guide dogs who use rideshare services.
  66. (Alyssa Gourley): We have played a large part in our nationwide efforts to ensure nonvisual access to software and the internet.
  67. (Tom Tebockhorst): For years we have participated in "Meet the Blind Month" in october, along with White Cane Awareness Day, holding events in our communities throughout the state.
  68. (Briley O'Connor): We have hosted summer Braille Enrichment for Literacy and Learning—NFB-BELL—programs to teach blind children the value of Braille.
  69. (Jan Bailey): We have worked to ensure fair representation of blind people on the governance board of the Minnesota State Academies for the Blind and the Deaf.
  70. (Curt Johnson): During all this time we have actively supported maintaining the Minnesota State Academy for the blind as a separate school.
  71. (Steve Jacobson): We protested at GoodWill and also in front of a Senator's state office against the provision from the fair labor standards act allowing the payment of subminimum wages to people with disabilities.
  72. (Kallie Decker) We have participated in many national protests and rallies, including against misrepresentation of blindness in TV and the movies, and against policies detrimental to the education of blind children.
  73. (Becca Erickson): We have hosted multi-state conferences for teachers.
  74. (Ruth Jamison): We hosted a multi-state conference on rehabilitation.
  75. (Tara Coyne): Our members have participated in many volunteer activities to serve the wider community.
  76. (Lorraine Rovig): We have worked to build our financial support through grants and from individual donors who share our view that blindness need not hold us back.
  77. (Various): We've baked cookies, worn funny hats, had pies thrown in our faces, eaten hot peppers, held talent shows, sold candy, sweatshirts, t-shirts, mugs, keychains, raffle tickets, bracelets, soap cozies, coffee, Corkscrews, flashlights, potato chips, coasters, home-baked goods, spaghetti dinners, ... all to make sure we had the funds to do our work.
  78. (Deanna Langton): For almost 40 years now we've held an annual fund-raising walk; the collective route is now more than 250 miles, and the collective income is more than 150 thousand dollars.
  79. (Mike Sahyun): We have contributed close to half a million dollars to our national organization, through the PAC program, through generous bequests from individuals, and many other ways.
  80. (Peggy Chong):[28] More than 40 years ago, we helped found a workplace giving network, which is now called Community Shares of Minnesota and is made up of more than 50 nonprofits whose missions address hard issues at their core instead of just dealing with symptoms.
  81. (Kotumu Kamara): We have worked to grow our membership by making phone calls, writing letters and emails, meeting people out in the public, sharing information and experiences on social media, and more.
  82. (Edward Cohen): We have sent Minnesotans to help organize and build affiliates in other states.
  83. (Michell Gip): We have advocated in Individual Education Plan meetings, helping parents insist on quality education for their blind children.
  84. (Kevin Fjelsted): Our members and activities have appeared on local radio and television, raising public awareness about blindness and the issues on which we work.
  85. (Shane Wegner): In countless articles in newspapers around the state, our members have worked to focus the media on our true priorities and issues rather than on fears and misconceptions about blindness.
  86. (Susan Leiker): We have created brochures and other publications to educate the public, such as "The Blind Side," a seniors' brochure, a pedestrian safety brochure, and more.
  87. (Emily Zitek): We have written articles for and helped distribute national publications like the Braille Monitor, Future Reflections, the Kernel Books, Walking Alone and Marching Together, and Building The Lives We Want.
  88. (Carey Scouler): We maintain an active presence on social media, which is kind of like letters to the editor, but you write them to everyone, and they often have pictures of cats or food in them.
  89. (Steve Sawczyn): Our members have changed perceptions of blindness by participating in leisure activities like competing in iron man triathlons; playing in national scrabble tournaments; acting in theater productions; doing woodwork, leatherwork, and needlework; ptraveling throughout the world, cooking fancy creations, articipating in archery, building computer games, and anything else you can imagine.
  90. (Dick Davis):[29] We have assisted many individuals to fight against employment discrimination.
  91. (Charles Vanek): Many times, we have protected the specialized rehabilitation services that blind people need by preventing State Services for the Blind from being combined with other government agencies.
  92. (Amy Baron): We have helped many people find their way through government bureaucracy to get the training and services they need.
  93. (Joyce Scanlan): We have requested, demanded, and sometimes forced OUR elected and appointed government officials to do what is right.
  94. (Peggy Chong): We have placed a high value on carefully documenting and preserving the records of our activities.
  95. (Stewart Prost):[30] We have discussed and debated our internal and external organizational policies, adapting to a changing world while holding true to our philosophy and principles.
  96. (Jennifer Dunnam): We've had memorable parties to celebrate our successes. We have built on the hard lessons we learned from times we did not succeed.
  97. (Charlene Guggisberg): We have celebrated each other's graduations, weddings, new jobs, and new babies; we have grieved those whom we have lost.
  98. (Kyra Decker): We have been mentored by leaders who came before us, and we have mentored those who took up the torch after us.
  99. (Rachel Kuntz): We have learned from each other, taught each other, disagreed with each other, persuaded each other, gotten to know each other, and built on our knowledge and community all through the generations.
  100. (Silas O'Connor): We have changed what it means to be blind ... but we're not done yet!


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[1] The Minnesota legislature granted women the right to vote in presidential elections in 1919. The 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, granting American women the right to vote in any election, passed Congress in June 1919 and was sent to the states for ratification. Minnesota became the fifteenth state to ratify, and on August 18, 1920, the amendment achieved the two-thirds majority of state ratification necessary to make it the law of the land.

[2] Ryan Strunk is the current president of the National Federation of the Blind of Minnesota.

[3] The Minnesota Secretary of Sate's Web site also shows the filing date as 05/27/1920.

[4] Russell Anderson recently moved to Louisiana, but he lived in Minnesota for more than 30 years and was a long-time cane travel instructor at BLIND, Inc.

[5] Kathy McGillivray is the current editor of the Minnesota Bulletin.

[6] Tim Aune's parents were active in the organization beginning in the 1940s, and his father served on the board and was president for a while in the 1960s.

[7] Early evidence of this effort is found in the Minneapolis Star from Monday, January 10, 1921, on page 3:

[8] Charlie Rush-Reese attended his first national convention in 2019.

[9] Alex Loch is the current president of the Twin Ports chapter.

[10] Mary Hartle lives in Arizona now, but she was an early president of the student division, now called Minnesota Association of Blind Students (MNABS).

[11] Samantha Flax is the current president of MNABS.

[12] Alycia Howard attended her first Washington Seminar this year.

[13] In the 1970s, Tim Aune ran the sales/service program.

[14] Sheila Koenig chaired the scholarship committee for many years.

[15] Joyce Scanlan served as president of the NFB of Minnesota from 1973-2007.

[16] Dale Heltzer is a past president of the Rochester Chapter, and his father servid on the state board during the 1950s.

[17] Sharon Grostephan was the teacher mentioned in this sentence.

[18] Tom Scanlan was a long-time editor of the Minnesota Bulletin, and he also served as affiliate treasurer for 40 years.

[19] Curtis Chong was one of the so-called "NFB 8."

[20] Joyce Scanlan is the founding director of BLIND, Inc.

[21] After Joyce Scanlan retired in 2003, Shawn Mayo was the next executive director of BLIND, Inc. and led with distinction for ten years. Although we were not able to work out including her voice on the audio, her contributions to our history are enormously appreciated. She wrote this piece which gives a sence of her inspiring way of thinking:

[22] Dan Wenzel Ably served as executive director of BLIND, Inc., from 2013-2019.

[23] Jennifer Kennedy is continuing the excellent work as the current executive director of BLIND, Inc.

[24] Laura Aune was the office manager for the NFB of Minnesota in the mid 80s when the new technology was purchased.

[25] Curtis Chong was the first chair of the State Rehabilitation Council for the Blind, serving until his employment took him out of state in 1997.

[26] Scott LaBarre is currently the president of the NFB of Colorado, but he grew up in Minnesota and was a leader in the affiliate until leaving Minnesota for a new job in the early 1990s.

[27] Judy Sanders has played a key role in coordinating the affiliate's legislative activities for many years.

[28] Peggy Chong was extremely active in the affiliate before moving to another state in the late 1990s; she was a president of the Metro chapter and was the first president of the board of BLIND, Inc.

[29] Dick Davis's long and illustrious career working to improve opportunities for blind people includes serving as the chair of the NFB's employment committee.

[30] Stewart Prost lives in Virginia now, but he was one of the presidents of our Metro chapter in the mid 1980s.

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