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Stanford and Joan Alexander Foundation Gives Major Gift to RespectAbility: National Leadership Program Announced

Washington, D.C. – RespectAbility, a nonprofit organization working to empower people with disabilities (PwDs) to achieve the American dream, is delighted to announce that the Stanford and Joan Alexander Foundation awarded a lead gift to create a new National Leadership Program.

“We are thrilled to have this new transformative support,” Jennifer Mizrahi, president of RespectAbility, said. “Thanks to Stanford and Joan Alexander, we will be able to launch the National Leadership program for young leaders with and without disabilities who are going into public policy, advocacy, journalism, public relations, and other leadership roles.”

Joan Alexander added, “We are pleased to help launch a program that will not only support and train young leaders, but will also raise awareness and make a significant impact on how our country views, respects, and includes people with disabilities.”

RespectAbility’s new National Leadership Program will attract college and graduate students as well as graduates with or without disabilities who wish to enter the disability advocacy field. The program will offer hands-on work experiences and coaching over a period of at least nine weeks in a supportive environment. Fellows participating in the National Leadership Program will learn public policy, advocacy, and strategic communications techniques from top professionals through hands-on work. In addition, they will gain leadership skills and develop a portfolio of contacts to help secure permanent employment.

“As Leadership Fellows gain skills and confidence via working on projects that enable RespectAbility to achieve our mission, we will help them evolve into stronger and even more articulate self-advocates and leaders – qualities that they will take with them into the workplace,” Mizrahi said. “It also is especially meaningful to me that this program support comes from the Alexanders as I was first inspired to work in this field professionally when I heard Joan Alexander and Linda Burger speak about their transformative work to establish disability support services and programs in Texas. This work blazed a trail for inclusion and acceptance of people living with disabilities. It seems like perfect symmetry that the Alexanders are now supporting a program that will seed the field with talented leaders who will have a positive impact on people with disabilities for decades to come.”

The National Leadership Program will be structured to ensure that each participant receives opportunities to learn new skills, network, and gain direct experience. In addition to hands-on work experiences, all fellows will participate in special presentations by guest speakers and intensive strategic communications workshops. While the fellowship is unpaid, fellows will receive a transportation stipend, lunch, training, and personal mentoring. They will be supervised by a training/fellows director – a newly created position that will be funded by the project. This staff member will work with our president, Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi; as well as our policy team, led by Philip Pauli; our communications team, led by Lauren Appelbaum; our Jewish inclusion team, led by Shelley Cohen; and our development team, led by Hillary Steen. Mizrahi has led numerous high level training programs in the past for White House and Congressional staff, media, campaign, and non profit leaders.

National Leadership Program Director Sought

A new full-time professional training/fellows director for the National Leadership Program will focus on giving the fellows the professional work experiences and coaching they need to advance in their careers. They will be responsible for intensively supporting and mentoring fellows to teach them skills needed to succeed. As needed in a case-by-case basis, the director also will teach or organize trainings in writing skills and business language, Microsoft Office, workplace etiquette, resume building, networking, project and time management skills, and basic social media. Plus, the director will schedule events and meetings, and arrange guest speakers, tours, and other special events that have been a very successful element of RespectAbility’s Fellow Program to date. To learn about the position and apply, see HERE.

Moving to a New Facility

RespectAbility is delighted that this grant has enabled us to move to fantastic new office space on the first floor of a modern building that is near the metro in Rockville, Md., a suburb of Washington, D.C. The National Leadership Program will have space for two employment-related fellows, two Jewish inclusion fellows, two stigma-busting fellows, two development/grassroots fellows, and the manager of the program (nine team members in all), plus a conference room for training sessions.

Applications for National Leadership Fellows Sought

RespectAbility is looking for college-educated individuals who want to go into leadership positions in public policy, media, communications, and nonprofit management and service delivery. The program is designed for individuals who self-identify as having disabilities and/or people who may not have a disability themselves but plan to go into disability advocacy or services as a career. Each fellow must commit to a minimum of nine weeks in an intensive and structured program. A career plan will be developed by each participant that will enable him or her to gain appropriate workplace experience while contributing directly and measurably to RespectAbility’s impact.

We plan to serve at least 24 fellows over the course of each year. All participants will be trained in advocacy, media and leadership; they will learn how to communicate successfully with people who hold leadership positions in government, commerce, or the disability advocacy field. With the training/fellows director’s assistance, fellows will work with the other professional staff members on various projects throughout the organization, including in employment advocacy, Jewish inclusion, stigma reduction, and development. Fellows must apply for the area(s) that interest them and meet their career objectives. Our key areas are:

Public Policy/Inclusive Employment Advocacy: The new Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA) is transformational for all those working to increase employment opportunities for people with disabilities (PwDs). Billions of dollars are going to the states to fund “unified plans” to expand employment, but these plans must be finalized by March 2016. Governors and the workforce system need to know the best practices so that work opportunities are maximized. The effective implementation of WIOA is a top priority for RespectAbility.

We are working with governors and/or their staff in all 50 states. We are focusing in particular on the promotion of best practices. Fellows working in this area will assume responsibility for assisting our policy team with our employment work.

Communications/Outreach to Presidential Candidates and RespectAbility, working with a newly created coalition of disability organizations, is working to put disability issues on the national campaign agenda. We are hosting Town Hall Meetings with the candidates on disability issues and have formed an online publication focused on the intersection between politics and PwDs. Fellows working in this area will gain direct experience in working with the campaigns and the media. Excellent writing and social media skills are a key part of this area.

Public Opinion Research and Communications/Stigma Reduction/Empowerment and Equality: All of RespectAbility’s work is supported by our core efforts to reduce stigmas and misinformation, both of which are huge barriers to the inclusion of PwDs in many sectors of society. The positive images, stories, and best practices we identify, test, and shape through public opinion research will be leveraged in our proactive outreach to employers, the media, thought leaders, and decision-makers.

Fellows working in these areas will do so primarily through social media outreach and analytics, materials development, media pitching, database development and maintenance, and event planning. We reach out to members of the media, Hollywood, elite schools, employers, and top political candidates and policy makers. RespectAbility recently hired a communications director, Lauren Appelbaum, who has experience mentoring fellows and specializes in social media outreach and web development. Lauren will supervise the fellows on this work and on the expansion of our social media campaign: #RespectTheAbility – a project that highlights the benefits of inclusive employment.

Jewish Inclusion: These fellows will work closely with RespectAbility board member Shelley Cohen on inclusion of Jews with disabilities in Jewish institutions and life. Shelley is the founder and director of The Jewish Inclusion Project and leads our groundbreaking work with the UJA-Federation of New York and other institutions.

Development and Administration: Sustaining and expanding advocacy takes fundraising and administrative skills. Development fellows will learn necessary skills to become leaders within non-profit organizations.

Selection Process

RespectAbility will advertise extensively for program candidates through college and university career counselors, online,vocational rehabilitation and at local job fairs. The selection process will include a written application, an in-person or Skype interview with the training/fellows director, references, and a brief written overview of each candidate’s career goals and what they hope to achieve via participation in The National Leadership Program. Preference will be given to candidates with disabilities who are self-advocates.

Funding for the program is covered in full for the first year. In subsequent years, we are looking for matching grants from other funders.

For more information, check out our Frequently Asked Questions.

Frequently Asked Questions:

Why do an in-house youth leadership program and not simply web-based advocacy training or national seminars?

Authentic leaders with disabilities must be more fully prepared and mentored to be leaders in the disability community. Young college graduates with disabilities also need actual onsite practice of their skills. They are learning things in classrooms but can benefit significantly from ongoing coaching and real-world practice.

“Nothing About Us Without Us” is now a common mantra of the disability community because policies and programs for PwDs have been done FOR us, and not WITH us, for generations. All too often, the well-intentioned work that is done for PwDs stems from a pity framework rather than a partnership/empowerment framework that recognizes all people should be welcomed, respected, and valued for their abilities. It’s time for that to change.

To be truly effective, particularly from a strategic communications point of view, the leadership of the disability movement needs to include not only caring community leaders without disabilities and family members of PwDs, but also PwDs themselves. But before this can happen, talented young adults with and without disabilities must develop solid work skills and the perception that they have leadership potential.

There are currently two small public policy training programs for young people who self-identify as having disabilities: the AAPD program and the Kennedy Fellows program. Thanks to the Alexander’s, The National Leadership Program now will enable many more talented young leaders to experience a hands-on experiential leadership program. Moreover, our program will provide training in strategic communications, advocacy and job skills to participants. The National Leadership Program will provide these vital skills while empowering young leaders with and without disabilities to become self-advocates and role models within our sector of disability leadership and advocacy.

Why is RespectAbility making mentoring young leaders such a priority?

Ongoing diverse talent pipelines are required since there will always be problems to solve. RespectAbility has a very strong business plan to meet the challenges of today. But what will the challenges be tomorrow? Who will meet those challenges in the decades to come? It is vital to seed talent pools with highly trained strategic thinkers who will continue the RespectAbility tradition of best practices to solve problems for PwDs. Moreover, the historic breakthroughs of the Americans with Disabilities Act were achieved by only a fraction of the potential disability community. We will fully embrace diversity in this program.

At the same time, just like Jackie Robinson was a superstar who made team owners and baseball fans WANT integration in major league sports, the disability community needs superstars as well. Developing effective leaders with disabilities who can become role models is a strategic communications imperative for changing public opinion for the future.

How will this program have a broader impact?

A significant part of the fellows’ work will be creating online training programs and materials that can spread progress on disability issues. We plan to expand our reach via webinars, social media, and media relations. Already hundreds of leaders are using our webinars, and we will continue to find, refine, and spread best practices as broadly as possible.

What do we plan to achieve overall with this program?

There are severe systemic challenges faced by young professionals with disabilities who want to work in advocacy and could shine given the right training. This program will offer a truly impactful and supportive training program for talented young professionals to develop their confidence, skills, and knowledge to not only get impactful jobs, but to assume leadership positions within their chosen profession.

While there is a growing awareness of the need to accommodate, support, and include PwDs, there will be little true “stickiness” unless the leadership comes from within the community itself. There are many talented young adults with disabilities who are ambitious and have high expectations.

The program will have four impactful and measurable outcomes:

1) It will provide real work experience and training in public policy, advocacy and strategic communications for at least 24 college students and graduates each year, as well as online training for thousands of others;

2) Fellows will directly expand RespectAbility’s work on employment for people with disabilities, stigma reduction, Jewish inclusion and development;

3) It will develop a successful and replicable model to enable college graduates with disabilities to successfully enter the professional career ladder; and

4) It will develop confident leaders and self-advocates trained to solve issues in the future.

Funding for the program is covered in full for the first year. In subsequent years we are looking for matching grants from other funders.

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