NIB’s Advocates for Leadership and Employment program prepares high-potential employees who are blind to advocate for themselves, their agencies, and the greater community.
The brainchild of NIB President and CEO Kevin Lynch, the Advocates for Leadership and Employment program is celebrating ten years of representing NIB, its associated nonprofit agencies, and people who are blind.
The two-year training program is open to high-achieving employees who are blind working at NIB associated agencies who want to learn about and engage in the public policy advocacy process. Advocates in training and graduates of the program help NIB and its agencies fulfill their mission of providing meaningful employment for people who are blind.
NIB launched the program in 2012, Lynch says, because NIB and its associated agencies were “the world’s best kept secret.”
“Before the Advocates program, our agency CEOs would go out to promote NIB and their agencies,” he recalls. “But the story, and the importance of our mission, really needed to come from the people participating in the program. It’s so much more powerful when our Advocates communicate to legislators and their staff members about what having a career means to them.”
NIB maintains a small staff of public policy professionals to advocate on issues surrounding employment for people who are blind. The Advocates program was a force multiplier, Lynch says, “to amplify our voice and the voices of the people working in our program.”
The first class of Advocates had 13 people, three of whom are still active today, says NIB Public Policy Specialist Vivian Fridas, who manages the Advocates program. “We’re celebrating 10 years, but there have actually only been nine classes,” explains NIB Public Policy Vice President Rick Webster. “The program was initially planned to be held every other year, but after that first training, we realized it should be an annual event.”
Today, the training program consists of one class of “first years” and one class of “second years.” The second years and program graduates help mentor the first years. Of 84 NIB associated agency employees who have successfully completed Advocates training, 44 remain active Advocates, while others have moved on to new careers or new chapters in life. The program not only promotes the mission of NIB and its associated agencies, but it also helps employees who are blind develop self-confidence and leadership skills that can lead to career advancement and even employment outside NIB agencies and the AbilityOne® Program.
A Rigorous Process
Admission into the Advocates program is a competitive process that requires nomination by the employee’s supervisor or agency CEO and a letter of reference submitted to NIB with the application, explains Fridas. Agencies can have only one Advocate per location, but those with satellite locations or AbilityOne Base Supply Centers® (BSCs) can have an Advocate for each congressional district where they have a facility. So, for example, NIB associated agency The Lighthouse for the Blind, Inc., headquartered in Seattle, can have multiple Advocates representing its headquarters location; its Spokane, Washington, and Summerville, South Carolina, satellites; and the BSCs it operates in three states.
Traditionally, each Advocates class meets virtually through an introductory video call, then journeys to the Washington, D.C., area for in-person training during the public policy conference put on each spring by NIB and the National Association for the Employment of People Who Are Blind (NAEPB). The experience culminates in visits to legislators and their staff members on Capitol Hill. During the pandemic, the training and Capitol Hill visits became virtual, but as the country reopens, both new members of the program and seasoned Advocates are looking forward to meeting together in person.
The training program not only teaches Advocates about the public policy process, it helps them develop strategies to communicate about issues effectively throughout the year using a variety of tactics, Fridas says.
“A lot of time is focused on teaching Advocates the ins and outs of the public policy process,” says Webster, noting that having that level of detail helps Advocates know how to effectively work within the system. Equally important is the time focused on developing communication skills: one-on-one, in groups, and as a public speaker. In addition, Advocates learn to effectively communicate their personal stories.
William Quist, store manager of the Minot Air Force Base BSC in North Dakota, operated by NIB associated agency Envision, has held several positions during his 11 years with the agency. When the agency CEO approached him about the program, he felt unsure. “I didn’t know much about the Advocates program at the time, but I was very interested,” he recalls. “With our mission, it seemed like the right direction for me to go.”
Although all of Quist’s training was completed over Zoom, he was impressed with how in-depth the program is. “Learning how to tell my story was a great experience. I’ve also loved learning about public policy issues and how we Advocates can make a difference.”
“The Advocates training taught me how to craft my story and how to best convey it,” he says. “That’s been really valuable for me, not just in my advocacy work, but here at the store as well.”
It’s those personal stories, Webster says, that are so critical to the Advocates program’s success. “When our Advocates go to Capitol Hill, their personal stories resonate with legislators and their staff members. They own that story — no one is going to question it because it’s their story — and their stories make them memorable. It’s all about making that personal connection.”
The Advocates’ hard work in developing personal relationships paid off in August 2020 with the passage of H.R. 4920, the Department of Veterans Affairs Contracting Preference Consistency Act of 2020. Passage of the act saved hundreds of jobs for people who are blind at NIB associated agencies, including many veterans.
H.R. 4920 corrects court interpretations that the “Rule of Two” clause in the 2006 Veterans Benefit Act meant the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) was required to award contracts to service-disabled, veteran-owned small businesses only, thereby putting NIB associated agency jobs at risk. “The Advocates stories of how working on those VA contracts affected their own quality of life, and that of their coworkers, definitely played an important role in correcting this issue and preserving those jobs,” says Webster.
Coming up: Meet four Advocates for Leadership and Employment and learn how they have benefited from involvement in the program.