Disability Pride Month Q&A with New Disabled South Rising!

This Disability Pride Month, we’re honoring and learning from disability justice advocates who are building a movement on ActBlue.

We sat down with Dom Kelly, e.k. hoffman, and Kehsi Iman, leaders at New Disabled South Rising, to talk about their mission to secure resources and policy solutions for people with disabilities in 14 southern states. They research and advocate for the needs of physically disabled people and neurodiverse folks, with an intersectional lens toward racism, poverty, and other injustices that disproportionately impact those with disabilities. We discussed how grassroots fundraising on ActBlue both fuels their work and helps them build buy-in and support in their community. Watch the video of our conversation or read the full transcript below!

Disability Pride Month Q&A Transcript

[0:12] Ebony Bagley: Hello everyone, my name is Ebony Bagley and I am Senior Communications Strategist here at ActBlue. July is Disability Pride Month, and here at ActBlue, we are working to shine a light and share resources on organizations that are supporting and advocating for the rights of individuals with disabilities. Today, we are excited to share with you one of those nonprofits working to make a difference.

New Disabled South Rising is a nonprofit working to improve the lives of disabled people by advocating for policies that address issues around poverty, criminalization, health care, and more throughout the southern region of the United States. I am excited to have with me today the leadership of New Disabled South Rising: Dom Kelly, e.k. hoffman, and Kehsi Iman. Let’s just jump right in. Are we ready?

Awesome. I am so excited to have you all here today. At ActBlue, it’s crucial to our work that people know that we are more than just politics; that we truly care about the individuals across the country, across the world, and especially groups that are making a difference right on our platform. We want you all to have a voice, and we’re so excited to have all of you here today to learn more about the organization. So let’s jump right in. My first question is, how did New Disabled South Rising come to be, and what are the overall mission and goals of the organization? I’m going to go right to Dom.

[1:42] Dom Kelly: Absolutely. Dom Kelly, I use he/him pronouns, and I’m based here in Atlanta, Georgia. New Disabled South Rising is the 501(c)(4) arm of New Disabled South, our 501(c)(3). New Disabled South Rising was formed at the beginning of 2023. We are fighting for policy change and narrative change around disability in the southern United States, so 14 states in the South. We’re a fully disabled-led and -staffed organization with roots and connections in the South. We all live in different parts of the South. I think our overall mission is to one, create a political home for disabled people in the South. And two, to help lift our community out of poverty, to help end the criminalization of disabled people, and to increase access to voting rights, accessible and affordable housing, economic opportunities, and job opportunities for our people here in the South. People who face poverty at twice the rate of non-disabled people. People who are multiply-marginalized disabled people who face the ramifications of police violence and the carceral system. Our 501(c)(4) arm is fighting for that change at the state and local level and trying to mobilize disabled people on the ground in our states. And we’re the first and only regional disability organization in the United States.

[3:31] Ebony: Wow, incredible. What amazing work you all are doing. I was reading a lot about your organization. Because the South specifically is even more disproportionately impacted than the rest of the United States in terms of lack of access to all those things that you just mentioned. So I appreciate the work you’re doing and I’m excited to learn more about some of those resources. You said you all are in different regions of the South. Can you share with us where you’re from before we go on? 

[4:08] Dom: Absolutely. I’m here in Atlanta, Georgia.

[4:12] Kehsi Iman: I live in Tampa Bay, Florida.

[4:15] Ebony: And e.k.?

[4:16] e.k. hoffman: I live in Columbia, South Carolina.

[4:19] Ebony: Awesome. I want you all to share a little bit about what led you all to this organization, to become a part, to make a difference in this space, and what from your own personal journey impacted the work that you do. I would like to hear from everyone, so maybe we can start with Kehsi Iman and go from there.

[4:40] Kehsi Iman: My entire career has been focused on social justice and working at the intersections of different social justice issues. I have a focus on Operations and HR, Organizational Design. So I come to this work from that lens and from that place. Dom and I met working together in politics and we shared so many similar focuses and passions, and we knew that the time was right now to advance this mission of disability justice. Even within the progressive space, disability is something that is often overlooked or ignored. So we are here to change that. That’s the short version of how I arrived here.

[5:20] Ebony: Wonderful. What about you, e.k?

[5:36] e.k.: I had primarily worked in queer liberation and gender justice spaces previously. But I recognized how low of a priority accessibility and intersectionality were. And as Kehsi Iman touched on, disability is oftentimes very overlooked in those kinds of spaces. And as someone who is both trans and disabled, I knew I could bring these perspectives together and recognize my own wholeness. So I became involved with disability justice work several years ago as I came more into my identity as a disabled person, having ADHD and autism and PTSD. I feel like that really fuels my work, not only being a disabled person myself but also having that desire for disabled representation to be intersectionally inclusive.

[6:33] Ebony: Awesome. Thank you for sharing. And Dom?

[6:37] Dom: I’ve been in disability advocacy since I was four years old. I’m a triplet and we have cerebral palsy, and my mom kind of threw us into this world. And that started a lifelong journey of different twists and turns in my career, but always having this disability advocacy platform to talk about disability and my disability as part of that work. Then Kehsi Iman and I met working together and we both had this shared identity and this shared passion for this work. And I told her, “I have this idea that I’ve been working on. How do we have a regional strategy?” So together, we’ve been able to build this organization. It really came from my realizing that the issues that we face here in Georgia are the same issues that folks in Mississippi and Texas and Louisiana and North Carolina, throughout our region, are facing. And that the people in power are not prioritizing our community and investing in our community. And that if we were going to create real systemic change, we needed to be able to break out of our silos and come together and work together and look at this work from that regional lens.

[8:07] Ebony: Wow, incredible. Incredible hearing about all of your backgrounds, and how the passion is for each of you rooted in personal experiences, but also the work that you all have done, and seeing the importance and the need. I love when everything is centered around, “There’s a need for it. There’s a need for this important work.” I now would like to learn about some of the projects or areas that New Disabled South Rising is focused on right now, any resources or services that you all provide, and just go into detail. If someone’s interested in seeking your assistance or learning more, what are some of those services that you provide? I’m going to go to e.k. for this.

[8:52] e.k.: So we’re not a direct service organization but serve as, rather, a tool for advocacy for the disabled community in the South. But some of our current projects that we’re super excited about… One of them is a plain-language policy dashboard. That will be a dashboard that tracks bills but also makes understanding them far more accessible. Plain language is something that doesn’t have any jargon or any undefined technical terms, and it takes off the cognitive load of processing and understanding complex language, like a lot of these bills and laws that we see, making it easier for people within our community to be able to understand the bills that are going to be impacting their lives. That’s one of our projects. And then we just recently launched our SPARC Fellowship, which is Southern Policymakers Advancing Representative Community. This is a fellowship that will support policymakers across the South in collaborative learning about disability justice. It’ll teach best practices for serving disabled constituents and the broader disability community and it’ll also bring together policymakers across the South to be able to share strategies for disability justice and inclusion. We just recently opened that up for applications, so we’re very excited about the launch of SPARC.

We’ve also done some collaborations with other organizations, including an initiative in South Carolina called Meet Me at the Statehouse, where we connect constituents to their lawmakers for direct conversations about those bills that affect their lives. We’ve had conversations about abortion bans, censorship bills, trans healthcare bans, parental leave, and all of the ways that those intersect with the disability community as well. 

[11:08] Ebony: Awesome. Providing that advocacy and connecting individuals with disabilities, helping them have more of a voice in politics, is one of the major goals of your organization. Am I right? 

[11:23] e.k.: Absolutely.

[11:25] Kehsi Iman: I’d also like to add another primary focus of our work. People often assume that we are direct service providers. Many wonderful necessary nonprofits in this space are. But as e.k. has elaborated, we are focused on advocacy policy. But also, research is the other major piece of what we are doing. We’re really excited to be applying for some grants now on the (c)(4) side looking at the applications, uses, and impact of AI and technology on democracy. And of course, with a disability lens, making sure that as these technologies are being advanced and developed, our community has a say in their applications and uses and impacts. So research is really the other huge portion of what our focus is, across both the (c)(3) and the (c)(4). We know that most research has come from a medical model and there is a lack of research that centers the voices and experiences of disabled people. For that reason, we’re also always collecting stories from disabled people across the South, that we leverage when it comes to advocating for these changes in laws and policies, and also advancing research priorities that will improve the lived experiences of disabled people.

[12:44] Ebony: Great and important work. Thank you so much too for adding to that. Obviously, you all are called New Disabled South Rising. We keep hearing “the South.” I’m up here in Michigan, so I’m like, “Okay.” Dom, could you tell me a little bit about why this work is so crucial to the southern region of the United States? And how individuals with disabilities are disproportionately impacted by poverty, criminalization, and all of those things? Can you speak to that?

[13:13] Dom: I previously mentioned that disabled people live in poverty at twice the rate of non-disabled people. We don’t have a lot of data on what that specifically looks like in the South, which is one of the gaps we’re trying to fill. But what we know is that southern states have the highest rates of poverty in the country. We also know that seven out of 10 states that have failed to expand Medicaid are here in the South. That disproportionately impacts disabled people. Often you hear that disabled people are the people who benefit from Medicaid, but there are plenty of disabled people who are in the coverage gap. In those states that don’t expand Medicaid, if they, for some reason, don’t qualify for Medicaid, they’re left without healthcare access. Sometimes they live in rural parts of the South. Here in Georgia, where hospitals close, if you don’t have access to accessible transportation that’s going to get you to the next county to get to a doctor, you can’t get to a doctor, let alone get a diagnosis for your disability, which is required in order to get Medicaid. There are so many barriers in place that our folks in the South face when they’re trying to access healthcare or when they’re trying to access employment issues. 

When it comes to criminalization, again, we don’t have a lot of data on what it looks like here in the South. But we know that Black and brown disabled men face police violence at extremely high rates in this country. We know that two-thirds of the state and federal prison population are people with disabilities. So that’s an issue that impacts our people in the South. Some of the highest rates of incarceration are also here in the South.

The other issue that we’re really focused on is democracy. We talk about voter suppression, we talk about, in the last few years since the 2020 election, what’s happened with this slew of anti-voting bills which impact young people, poor people, and Black and brown people. But disabled people are at all of those intersections. Polling places are still not fully accessible. Attacks on absentee voting, those are issues we’re seeing across the South, trying to ban absentee voting, which is accessible for many disabled people. So we’re seeing that so many of these issues which we know impact our community as a whole across this country really disproportionately impact people in this region, particularly those who are multiply marginalized.

[16:02] Ebony: Thank you, Dom. One thing that you mentioned that I just want to point out is the lack of data. That’s why the research arm of your organization is so important, especially as it relates to, of course, individuals with disabilities. But I appreciate you saying that because a lot of times people overlook that. There are a lot of things people overlook in general as it relates to the community and people with disabilities. So I want you all to share, and I guess I can go to e.k. for this, what misconceptions or stereotypes do you see that people still, even to this day–it’s 2023, and although we’ve made a lot of strides, so much more work to do–what are some of the misconceptions or stereotypes that you all notice through your work that society often holds about disabled individuals?

[16:54] e.k.: As an organization, we operate with a Disability Justice framework that we use to educate and challenge these ideas. But some of those misconceptions include that disabled people are too expensive, and therefore are disposable to society: that we’re only worth our productivity under capitalism. One that I see very often as well is that the ADA already gave us everything. Some of those misconceptions, like being disposable or being too expensive, Disability Justice teaches us to value our whole selves and to practice collective care and liberation through accessibility. If we don’t view anyone in our society as disposable, if we actually practice that collective community care, then we can make room for all of us. When we talk about being only worth our productivity, Disability Justice iterates that we’re worth more than capitalist standards of productivity, that we’re worth more than what we produce in society. And when it comes to the ADA, we know that the ADA is the floor, not the ceiling. It’s a place to start. But so few spaces are inclusive and accessible to our community. We advocate for greater protections for disabled people, and that includes some of what Dom mentioned about explicit protections for disabled people’s right to vote, for example.

[18:31] Ebony: Thank you so much. I think a lot of times people center “individuals with disabilities” around certain disabilities. But there’s such a wide spectrum. I think that too plays into the lack of education that you all spoke to. That’s why that’s so important to have organizations like yours, advocating for a voice in politics in these areas where oftentimes, individuals have been ignored. So I just really appreciate the work.

One thing I noticed doing research on your organization is, you all are advocating for not just empowerment but for self-advocacy of disabled people. I want to go to Kehsi Iman for this. Do you have any stories or anything that you can share on your work as it relates to the empowerment and self-advocacy part of your work?

[19:23] Kehsi Iman: Yes, thank you, Ebony. I think this piece is really important because so often disabled people throughout history have been and continue to be silenced. Often, depending on the nature of an individual’s disability, folks are forced to speak through a second or third party or a proxy. And of course, the message, your personhood, all of the things that make us who we are, we have to be able to be a voice and be an advocate for ourselves. Even with the best of intentions–and this is no slight, of course, to caregivers and the parents and the amazing people who support people with disabilities and make life possible–we know that the ability to speak up and to voice our own concerns and to state our own needs and to participate fully and actively in society is crucial to our personhood and our advancement.

So while there are many individual stories–I won’t get into any right in this moment, there are so many wonderful ones out there, and we, as I mentioned, do collect individual stories–I can speak to my experience here at New Disabled south, and having conversations with disabled people daily and weekly. And just standing in solidarity and in agreement with how important it is, these aspects of the work that we’re doing to emphasize narrative change. That’s a huge part of our work, changing narratives about what disability is, what it means to be disabled, eliminating the stigma. We know the statistics that exist often cite one in four Americans as having a disability. But we know it’s much more than that. I believe most people have some form of disability, based on the definition that is used. But it’s too dangerous, there’s too high of a cost to acknowledge that. There’s not enough safety, security. You face not only stigma but real economic, financial, and social consequences when you stand up in your identity as a disabled person.

So the piece around self-advocacy, self-awareness, education, and educating others–to a lot of the points that e.k. made about minimizing these untruths and misconceptions–is crucial to advancing disability justice and rights in the South and everywhere. 

[22:01] Ebony: Thank you. Kehsi Iman, I love that, because you all are really hitting on all areas. You’re addressing it on a political level but you all are also about the individual. I think all of those pieces are so important, and we really appreciate your work and impact in this area.

Obviously, your organization is a nonprofit, and you’re working, and you really do rely on small-dollar donors, as well as people in the community, to know that this is an issue and to support issues like this in the community. So why is that important? Why is it important that people know that, “This is an area where I can make a difference?” And how has the ActBlue platform in general supported the work that you’re doing? I’ll go to Dom for this.

[22:52] Dom: Absolutely. I’ve been for a while working in the fundraising space and have a lot of experience in building grassroots donor communities. So I know, especially for folks in the (c)(4) space like we are, especially for issue advocacy organizations, it is really critical to have those small-dollar–I don’t even want to call them small-dollar. Because for so many people $25, $10, is a lot of money. So it’s about the financial infrastructure of our organization, but it’s also about building up support and buy-in from people on these issues. So someone giving us $10 a month, while to the average person that may not seem like a lot, that’s benefiting our organization, but it’s also bringing someone into our cause. It’s also giving us an opportunity for us to engage with them, hear their story, get them involved in our work, and get them mobilized on the ground. So it’s the financial piece, but even more so, it shows that there’s support behind the movement. It shows that there’s support behind the issues.

I’ve used ActBlue for a long time now, so for me, it made perfect sense for us to utilize ActBlue as a platform to bring in that community. For us, it really is about building a movement. There are really fantastic institutional funders, really fantastic larger-dollar donors. But for us, in building this new movement in the South, it is critical that we get people engaged. And that doesn’t just mean we send some emails and ask them for money. That means we talk to them about why this work is important. We educate them on the issue. We get that buy-in so that once we get them in on the cause, then we can circle back around and say, “How can we get your support? Whatever you can give, if it’s a recurring donation, if it’s a one-time donation, helps us advance this work.” So it’s critical for us to be able to build that community and that grassroots support.

[25:26] Ebony: Love it. Here at ActBlue, we’re all about grassroots support in uplifting these organizations. Because oftentimes people don’t know all of the work that’s going on. That there’s not just one thing, or the thing that’s leading the news headlines; that there’s so much work to be done. I think oftentimes too, people are looking for a way to make a difference and an impact. And I think your organization is an amazing one to support.

Looking ahead, I want to hear about the future. What are the goals and aspirations of New Disabled South Rising? Obviously, you all have been doing this for a minute, but I know that the journey is probably a little long. So how can individuals, listeners, and communities support and get involved with your organization? I’ll go to Kehsi Iman for that.

[26:14] Kehsi Iman: Oh, wow. So many things. We are a new organization. New Disabled South Rising started this year. So we are just getting started. I encourage folks to engage with us through our website and get in touch with e.k or any of us directly. We maintain an open invitation on our New Disabled South website for folks to schedule meetings with us so we can talk through how we advance the issues that are so important to us. It’s labor intensive, having those one-on-one conversations, but it’s so worth it, and we feel like it’s the cornerstone of our work. Because as we spoke to, the importance of self-advocacy– and for us to know the work that people have been doing on the ground for decades. We are not the only experts in this work by any means. Our strength and our ability to make progress rely on our ability to link arms with folks across the South, in individual communities, who have been working, advocating– Everything looks very different from state to state, and the powers that be don’t make it easy for us to organize. But that’s what we’re here to change.

I also just want to say, in as strong of terms as possible, when it comes to, specifically, the progressive movement, or social justice, other organizations and movements: our impact has been limited by silos. So often, because we are pitted in this fight against each other for resources, and pitted in this fight against each other for momentum, we adopt this lack- and scarcity-based mindset that says, “I have to stay focused on my issue over here.” But one of the core principles of disability justice and social justice, really, is intersectionality. Disabled people are a part of every community. There’s no social justice issue–from environmental justice to food insecurity to the housing crisis–that does not impact disabled people at the same or, usually, higher rates than everyone else. We are among every community that you can name and therefore need to be a part of the solution for every progressive cause that exists.

So I encourage us as a progressive movement, as people in social justice, who are focused on advancing the shared goals that we all share, to look inward. As an ops person, I’m all about strategy and saying, “How can we be more intersectional? How can we look at the work that we’re already doing and not reinvent the wheel, but perhaps tap into an organization like New Disabled South Rising or New Disabled South or others who are on the ground in my community, who’ve been advancing this work, and utilize our collective power and leverage that strength to see real wins happen?” So that’s what I’d say.

[29:11] Ebony: Love it. That is a great way to almost wrap up this interview. I know you said we can reach out to any one of you all right here that I’m talking to, but what are the best ways to connect? Is it on social media or your website? Can you share that as well?

[29:27] Dom: Absolutely. If you want to email you can email info@newdisabledsouthrising.org. You can go to newdisabledsouthrising.org to look at our website. On social media we are on Instagram, we are on Twitter. We don’t have a Facebook for New Disabled South Rising, but we do for our (c)(3). You can connect on Twitter and Instagram. On Instagram, it’s @newdisabledsouthrising. On Twitter, it’s @DisSouthRising. So you can find us on there. Follow us, reach out anytime. We love meeting people and we want to meet with as many people as possible. Like Kehsi Iman said, go on our website, schedule a time to chat with us, and we’ll have a Zoom or something. We just want to bring in as many people as we can to this work.

[30:16] Ebony: Awesome, thanks so much, Dom. Anything else that any of you all–e.k, Dom, Kehsi Iman–want to add before we go today? Anything that I didn’t ask that you just have to share? Please do at this time.

[30:31] Kehsi Iman: I’d like to say thank you for having us, and you and the entire ActBlue team for uplifting our organization and other organizations who are doing this work. There’s more than enough work to go around. It takes all of us coming together, breaking those silos, and looking ahead. We’re about to go into an election year. There are so many real-life situations impacting us every single day. So I just want to thank you for allowing us to talk more about how we’re approaching the work.

[30:59] Ebony: Thank you so much, and thank you all for your time. It is such important work, and it’s my goal with all of these YouTube series videos that we’re uplifting these organizations because people need to know that they exist. They need to know that one, there are people doing work in this area, and two, that they exist, and this is where you too can put your energy at. “There’s a lot to do and we all can do something” is what I always like to say.

Thank you so much to each and every one of you for joining us today. Again, to stay up-to-date on the work that ActBlue is doing as well as New Disabled South Rising, you can connect with all of us on social media, and I hope that you’re following us as well as New Disabled South Rising. Thank you so much and have a great day.

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