Citizen advocacy was made for times as these… by Scott Cleaveland, Board Chair
From Scott’s address at our first Leadership Lunch
My name is Scott Cleaveland, and I am an advocate for my good friend Rashawn. Over our 6-year relationship we have made it across the graduation stage, got in the ocean for the first time, were quick to get vaccinated, and after an illness this summer, we are focusing on what’s to come. At 25, he wants his ear pierced.
But I am before you today in my second year as Chair of the Chatham-Savannah Citizen Advocacy board. Between Tom Kohler’s retirement, George Seaborough’s transition to leadership, a threat to state funding (which past board chair Amy Hughes and Georgia Advocacy Office’s Katina Clay helped us avoid), and then the pandemic, it has been an interesting, challenging, and dynamic time to serve on the board. Now we have hindsight, but no one knew how badly things might unfold with the pandemic. We gather today to reconnect, share where we are and where we hope to go.
To say that Covid-19 was disruptive to the work and community of Chatham Savannah Citizen Advocacy would be an understatement.
- People with disabilities living in congregate housing were trapped by mandates and management.
- It was risky for proteges and advocates to meet.
- From March 2020 to July 2020 the office was closed and staff worked remotely.
- July 2020 to winter of 2021 staff worked staggered hours in office.
- For two years in a row, the mighty covered dish supper was cancelled.
- All the events, habits, traditions, and usual practices of the organization were challenged. Even this past leadership lunch has been postponed a few times.
Yet through this disruption, the key activities of protégé and advocate recruitment, relationship building, support, and training continued. The work of the staff and the work of the board did not slow.
We creatively kept on keeping on
One of the gifts of a well-thought-out and recruited board is diversity of thought. We have had a healthy tug-of-war over how to do the work in a pandemic. We got creative with meeting sites when Zoom got old – Gordonston Park and board member Kirsten Parent’s backyard. With the help of Wade Herring, we developed Covid-19 Health and Safety Guidelines to keep doing the work safely. At a board meeting mid-pandemic, Tawana Garrett pointed out that “We can’t just sit here when people with disabilities are trapped out there.” It was a constant balancing act between need for safety, health mandates, and the need for connection. But through it all, George made our goal for quality matches. If not quarantined, George was putting himself out there matching and connecting. He gave support to advocates who were creatively using social media, cards, signs held up to windows, knocking on hospital and group home doors, plus all manner of wrangling and leveraging connections. If the world ever needed Citizen Advocacy it was during these past two years of lock down and disconnection.
We stuck to the fundamentals
Of the many gifts and graces that Ashley O’Brien brings to the table is staying true to the fundamentals. And she does it so well. As Covid challenged all norms, the office and the board really focused on the fundamentals. From my perspective it was clear – make and support matches, keep telling the stories and fund the mission. Not only was George making and supporting the matches, but he was also in conversation with citizen advocacy offices across Georgia and the country to share ideas and best practices. The stories of people in relationships working through the pandemic gave connection, encouragement, and strategies for proteges and advocates alike. By print, digital, social media, zoom or socially distanced meetings, communications and training continued.
We clung to a well-built foundation
Thanks to Tom Kohler’s foundational leadership and the hard work over the years of many people in this room, we are on solid ground.
The blocks of this foundation include:
- The primacy of a relationship between a person facing exclusion and a well-connected citizen.
- The deep love and respect for the work.
- Fiercely sticking to key principles and values.
- The cultivation of long-term individual donors.
- The broadness of community support.
- The commitment to effective leadership development.
- Clear expectations and responsibilities for board members and committees.
These are the things that kept us whole through a pandemic. So, with a strong foundation as a base for keeping the work going, while always focused on the fundamentals, I can report that citizen advocacy is very much alive and well.
Because of this foundation, we can mindfully lean into the future. I conclude with three great things that are carrying our past forward.
The Story of Chatham Savannah Citizen Advocacy – A book being researched and written by experienced author, curator, 20-year advocate and twice board member Tania Sammons. Her interviews will be an amazing archive in themselves. We hope to have it completed and printed in 2022 late 2022. It will be a valuable resource on many levels.
We have secured placement of our founding documents and citizen advocacy portrait collection in the Georgia Disability History Archives at UGA’s Richard B. Russell Special Collections Library. The broader world can access our community, the work of citizen advocacy, and a record of powerful relationships through the archive.
Over lunch with protégé and former board member Billy Behrens, the idea of calling together our smart money folks – past treasurers, past ways and means chairs, and longtime donors – came to fruition. A finance committee has been created for deep thinking on funding and use of our reserves that supporters have built over the years. Our first meeting was this fall, aiming for bi-annual conversations.
We welcome you to join us as we look forward to the next 40 years. Let us know how you would like to be involved.
Scott Cleaveland, Board Chair