Spokesmanship, Persuasion and Change by Tom Kohler

It’s ten o’clock on a brilliant autumn day in the Little Five Point neighborhood in Atlanta, Georgia. We are just blocks away from the Flying Biscuit Restaurant, home of the Indigo Girls, an Atlanta duo who mix music and politics all across the country. Ten people have been invited by the Atlanta Citizen Advocacy office to come to a workshop about spokesmanship. I have been asked to lead it. It’s a little ironic that I would be here from sleepy Savannah, to try to think about spokesmanship, persuasion and change. There are more activists in Atlanta than almost anywhere else in the state.


So, here we are: Stephen, a handsome, thirty year old man, married with two children, who moved to Atlanta from San Diego. He’s a systems analyst for Bell South; Grover Hogan, recently retired from Emory University after a long career as a medical illustrator; Nick, a retired school teacher from the Atlanta area; and the Reverend Doctor Josephine Jackson Smith, a striking seventy year old woman who describes herself as a planetary minister. An interesting mix of people by any measure.


Although I don’t know these people individually, I do know their common bond. It is the same bond that we have been encouraging others to share for more than twenty years in Savannah. Each of these people have been asked to meet, to get to know and take up the interests of one other person, a person who has been devalued and pushed to the margin of community because of disability. Each of these people when asked, “Why are you here today?”, will begin their answer with, “Well, I’m a citizen advocate for …” A couple of the folks have just gotten involved with someone and are surprised at what they see and don’t see in the person’s life. Other people, in relationships for several years, are all too familiar with what people’s lives often look like.


As the “tell me about yourself and why you are here today” comes around to the last person, everyone looks at me… They want answers. I see “lecture” in their eyes.  Instead, I have only one sheet of paper with three paragraphs about three Savannahians who are citizen advocates. I’ve come today to the 30307 zip code, a hot-bed of activism in Georgia, with three paragraphs, three stories of six people in “useful union” with one another in Savannah during the past thirty years.


Before the first story is read, I ask the group, “Let’s see what each story teaches us about spokesmanship, persuasion and change.”


  • Stephen begins: Linda Davis tried to protect twenty year old Cathy Doss from neglect while she lived in a Savannah nursing home. One day, Linda “lost it” out of frustration and yelled at the staff at the nurse’s station. Months, and many negotiations later, after Cathy had finally moved home with her mother, she told Linda in her soft, soft voice, “You remember that day you yelled at them? They broke my finger that night.”


  • The second paper is passed to Grover and he reads the second story: After seeing the love and attentive care that Wendy received from her mother, Jennifer Stoner came to realize that admitting ten year old Wendy to a nursing home or other institution would be the first step to speeding her death. Her mother needed to get nursing attendant care to continue at home so she could keep her job. Public policy would have to change. With lots of letters, telephone calls and getting the right people to call the right people, public policy was changed. Wendy continued to live at home.


  • Nick reads the third story: Ted Morris called Adult Protective Services because he suspected that his protégé was being abused in the personal care home where he lived. The Adult Protective Services workers visited twice but took no action. Ted then called the Pooler Police Department who sent an officer, then several officers. Kenneth left the personal care home, headed to the hospital, to be checked over and have his bruises tended to.


The room is quiet as I ask, “What do these three stories teach us about spokesmanship, persuasion and change?”


“From hearing what happened to Cathy when Linda lost her temper with the staff, spokesmanship can have retribution. Cathy paid the price for Linda’s outburst.” said Rev. Smith. Be conscious, be controlled, and be strategic. Be extra watchful during times of tension between you and the staff of an agency to make sure the person is not bearing the brunt of things.


“Jennifer Stoner looked for and found people who were well-positioned outside the system to call upon people who were inside the system, people who could make the needed change”, said Nick. Being persistent and getting other people involved seems to help.


“Jennifer Stoner’s story reminded me that so much we are advocating for is very basic–a child should be with her loving mother. What can be more fundamental?” said Grover. When the politics and policies get complicated, go back to the basics to refocus and re-energize.


“When Ted Morris realized that the Department of Family and Children Services worker was not going to act, he called the police. If you cannot persuade the official ‘right people’ to act, reach out to the same methods and systems that other citizens use. Instead of protective service workers, the advocate called the police.” said Stephen. Use the protective systems that protect all citizens – not just the systems that are set up to protect people with disabilities.


“Stick with people even after a big accomplishment or change has been made, or maybe I should say; stick with the person because a big change has been made.” said Rev. Smith. Linda being with Cathy at her mom’s house after she moved out of the nursing home shows that sticking with the person, not just solving the person’s problem, is the gift.


The discussion was, of course, more winding than this and the noon hour was upon us. Nick agreed to take the notes from our chart paper and transform it into training material. I told folks that I would write up my time with them and share it in a newsletter in Savannah. This idea of people, decade by decade, standing with and sticking up for one another, makes good sense. This idea of Georgians, decade by decade, learning about spokesmanship, persuasion and change from other Georgia citizens makes good sense too.


Becoming part of this story of solidarity, of protecting people and questioning public policy, is a good idea as well. How about you?


Sleepy Savannah – Spokesmanship? Persuasion? and Change?

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