Blue Hens, Kitchen Tables and the Grooming of Future Leaders Sep 3, 2014


"If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more and become more, you are a leader." --John Quincy Adams

Sixty plus years ago, when the disability rights movement started to get traction, there was a common landmark for most of the pioneering advocacy organizations. The Formica kitchen table with chrome legs served as the epicenter for most of the "mom and pop" groups popping up across the country. These grass root groups started by parents of children with special needs were formed out of frustration, desperation and the realization that it was up to them to generate both the friction and thermal combustion needed to create acceptance and inclusion for their children. The requisite skill sets were simple: drive, determination and perseverance. They were leaders by the seat of their pants. The fact that they succeeded by planting the seeds of a changing climate was and is a testimony to their being able to rise to the occasion. The Formica kitchen table, cleared after dinner, was the place where lists were made, envelopes stuffed, posters designed, and leaders groomed.

The opportunity to succeed was made possible by the relative simplicity of "systems change" at that time. There was limited legislation, almost no power brokers or competing entities and complex pathways. The time was ripe for organizations to emerge, conduct skirmishes, claim some victories and stir the pot. The chances of succeeding in today's matrix of interfolding systems, legislation, financial interests and political alignment with the skills of that time would be limited at best.

So the big enchilada question has been, "How do you identify, recruit and groom the next generation of leaders to continue the legacy of the disability rights movement, now that the 'Formica and chrome kitchen table has been relegated to the shabby chic outlets?" In addition, "How do you field a single A-team of disability leaders that will be called up to the big leagues? What are the skills that have to be instilled combined and field-tested to insure that the best practices are both embraced and challenged in equal doses?"

For years the question was asked but there were no takers for the challenge. All those who had demonstrated the requisite leadership skills were using them to navigate agencies, organizations, associations and groups and were dedicated to keeping the growing number of moving parts from colliding with each other. Leadership grooming was done informally by the apprenticeship model, which has been the historical way in which leaders and practitioners have learned their craft in all developing professions.

Dr. Charlie Lakin, the former Director of the National Institute for Disability and Rehabilitation Research summed it up, "The opportunities people with disabilities experience today are the result of leadership in the disability community yesterday; the opportunities of the future will be the result of leadership that emerges today. To not invest in future leadership is at best to leave the future of persons with disabilities in doubt, at worst it is to not care about that future."

The notion of "leadership that emerges today" was the impetus for the creation of a novel and unique program at the University of Delaware that addresses the earlier enchilada question, "How do you identify, recruit and groom the next generation of leaders to continue the legacy of the disability rights movement?"

The University of Delaware's National Leadership Consortium on Developmental Disabilities was the brainchild of Steve Eidelman and Nancy Weiss, both seasoned, case hardened veterans of the disability rights movement. Both Steve and Nancy are highly respected, life- long committed and battle-scarred leaders with decades of trench-fighting, climate-changing and needle-moving skills and qualities. They have both led national advocacy organizations, stood their ground in the arenas of deinstitutionalization, community inclusion and legislative positivity. Nancy and Steve have taken the best partnership axioms from Batman and Robin, Starsky and Hutch, Rodgers and Hammerstein and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. They complement each other in providing a complementary, seamless scaffold for building a cadre of national future leaders in the disability field.

The mainstay of the Institute is their offering of a intensive weeklong "boot camp" where handpicked candidates are selected from a diverse body of developmental disability organizations, agencies and service providers. The investment made by the sponsoring organizations (both nationally and internationally) is both a testimony to the "need" and the "solution." In addition to student selection, Steve and Nancy have identified a faculty of national experts on progressive supports for people with disabilities. "The Institute supports the development of skilled leaders who are passionate about quality, have the leadership, management and financial skills needed to run solid not-for-profit businesses and government agencies, are capable of assembling top-notch teams of caring staff, and have a solid commitment to progressive values that assured lives of meaning and impact for the individuals receiving support. The course emphasizes participation and collaboration. Extensive reading and structured assignments are required in advance. Written assignments and individual and group participation during the week are essential. A highlight of the course for past participants has been the relationships that are built over the week-long experience. Participants leave with a network of colleagues and enduring relationships with some of the most influential leaders in the field."

I recently had both the privilege and opportunity to be invited to participate in the Leadership Institute as a faculty member presenting on the state of healthcare for individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities. I, along with Melissa DiSipio, the Assistant Director of Philadelphia Coordinated Health Care (a Boris and Nathasha partnership in the making) provided an introductory workshop in the emerging and ever-changing landscape in healthcare promotion, along with delivery models and their impact on community inclusion. Both Melissa and I were amazed at the dedication, sophistication, engagement and creativity that the students displayed. Each and every one of them appreciated the expectations that have been placed upon them and the opportunity that attending the Institute provided. They had diverse backgrounds, including social work, direct support, provider agency management, academia, public administration and community advocacy. Cementing those diverse orientations was the shared realization that the disability rights movement was not some distant historic footnote, but an ongoing, challenging and dynamic firestorm.

Of note is that the state bird of Delaware is the Blue Hen, and while it is not a currently recognized chicken breed, it has a reputation for ferocity and fighting success. Perhaps it's fitting that the mascot of the University of Delaware is the Delaware Blue Hen, for both Steve and Nancy have a similar reputation for ferocity and fighting success. They are ferocious in their drive to insure that the future of the expanding disability landscape is in the hands of seasoned and capable leaders.

I'm confident it will be.

To learn more about the Leadership Institute email Leadership Institute Director Nancy Weiss at

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