Last fall, I learned about the historic 504 sit-in for the first time, and this amazing example of organizing and protest invigorated my heart. At Detroit Disability Power, we have chosen the month of April to spread word about this disability rights victory. We’re also using it as a blueprint to recruit 150 people -- including you, I hope! -- to join DDP this month. James, please become a member today, and let’s push for justice together as our forebears did.
Image description: A large numeral 150, with photos inside each digit of disability activists at protests. The 1 is shaded with yellow, the 5 with pinkish red, and the 0 with blue.
Become one of our first 150 members! So many aspects of the 1977 sit-in action resonate with me in DDP’s work. Last week, DDP’s Teddy Dorsette III shared how the 504 organizers drew on an extremely wide network of activists including the Black Panther Party, LGBT community, unions, and churches, among others. DDP’s core philosophy reflects this model, stating, “Our power building efforts will always be with an intersectional lens and with attention to race, class, gender, sexual orientation, citizenship status, religion, and other identities that affect disabled people’s lives.” Today, I want to focus on one particular strategy DDP shares with the 504 organizers who helped shape the trail for our journey toward freedom. Like them, DDP simultaneously exerts pressure for change from both outside and inside the established power structures.
Image description: A black and white photo shows several people protesting in front of the White House in Washington, DC. Judy Heumann, one of the organizers of the 504 sit-in, and another white woman are in wheelchairs, and Heumann displays a sign reading “SIGN 504 REGS NOW.” Other people in the picture include four white men dressed in business attire and two other white women in the background. Photo reproduced with permission from HolLynn D'Lil's book "Becoming Real in 24 Days: One Participant's Story of the 1977 504 Demonstrations."
For example, the 504 protesters were willing to work with people inside the government. They persuaded two Congressmen to hold hearings in the federal building they were occupying. These politicians understood that supporting the demonstrators would serve their own electoral interests. Meanwhile, other 504 protesters continued to apply pressure as outsiders by going to Washington, DC. They demonstrated outside the White House and crashed a private reception. They dared to be disruptive and difficult at this fancy event, where they embarrassed the U.S. Secretary for Health, Education and Welfare with challenging questions about why he wasn’t signing the regulations needed to enforce disability rights. Both the hearings in San Francisco and the direct action in DC earned lots of press coverage and contributed to the ultimate victory.
DDP has learned many lessons from great organizers in the past. In coalition with other disability rights organizations in Southeast Michigan, one of our first campaigns was to push for Detroit to create an Office of Disability Affairs. Now that the office exists, we continually look for ways to work with its staff to improve conditions for people with disabilities in Detroit -- and we will also be ready to challenge its policies and practices when they aren’t enough. It’s no exaggeration to say that becoming a part of the DDP team as an intern has changed my life. I’ve been a caregiver for disabled family members since I was a child and experience mental health struggles myself. I often feel the weight of not being able to access basic resources and accommodations. Originally, I chose a career in social work to connect people to resources they need, but I quickly learned that direct service roles are ineffective in challenging the root causes of injustice. Being part of the DDP team has shown me that broad power-building and strategic action can enable all of us to be a part of real root-level change. My internship ends this summer, but as one of DDP’s first 100 members, I know my work with DDP has only begun. Not only can I express my values of radical inclusion and community through this organization, I can take part as it mobilizes people in effective and meaningful ways to advance those values.
DDP’s April membership drive has already met the initial goal of 100 new members. Will you join now to help us get to the extended goal of 150 members? Let’s organize together. The more of us there are, the more powerfully we show policy-makers that the disability community is a force to be reckoned with -- and they disregard our needs at their peril.
I’m excited to work together!
Kaci Messeder (she/her) DDP MSW Intern
Image description: A headshot photo of Kaci,
a young white woman with shoulder-length,
dark, wavy hair. She is wearing a red blouse
and dangly earrings and is smiling.
Below, a handwritten "Kaci" first-name signature.