In October of 2014, advocates learned after considerable effort that Disability Network West Michigan had begun the search for a new Executive Director. We approached DNWM (the Muskegon Center for Independent Living) with educational materials and offered to help them revise the position description to include experience with Independent Living or the disability rights movement. They revised the position description, but then we received several responses letting us know that we are unwelcome to voice our opinion on the matter further, including the following response from John Wahlberg (President at that time):
“Please do not misunderstand my position in your quest for who knows what. No invitation for dialogue was extended beyond the allotted 5 minutes of public comment time at the start of our monthly board meetings.” – John Wahlberg
We prepared to speak at the next Board meeting. The November meeting was closed to the public after we RSVPed, so our first chance to speak came in December 2015. When we finished speaking, the departing Executive Director asked us to leave so that they could hold the meeting privately. We refused and the meeting continued. Our hearts sank when they introduced their new Executive Director.
Centers for Independent Living are required by law to be community-based, cross-disability, and consumer controlled. Tamera Collier is not from Muskegon. She is not a person with a disability. And she has no experience in the Independent Living Movement. She has no business speaking for the Muskegon disability community.
After ten years of waiting for an opportunity to bring in a person with a significant disability to lead our CIL, the Board hired an non-disabled person from Grand Rapids with a background in “behavioral health”.
Over the course of the next two months, we tried to work with the Board and staff to develop a plan to implement consumer control at the staff and board levels incrementally. In January of 2015, immediately following the appointment of Michael Hamm as President of Disability Network West Michigan, we received a cease and desist letter from the new President and Executive Director, which told us in no uncertain terms that they no longer intended to work with us.
That was six months ago. Since that time, the staff and Board have moved their Board meeting to a secret time and location. Communication has been completely cut off. The organization continues to pursue the goals of a typical charity and is working in direct contradiction to the interests of the disability community.
Representatives of my “Center for Independent Living” have told us point blank that there is no such thing as a disability community and that we do not have the ability to create change. When I told Board member John Wahlberg that Independent Living belongs to the people, he scoffed, “Yeah, well we the people”. This is not Independent Living – anyone using common sense can see that.
These are all symptoms of a larger problem – the lack of consumer control in Michigan’s Independent Living Program. As a person with a significant disability and a resident of Muskegon, I have a right to Independent Living services. Because the staff and Board of Disability Network West Michigan is not consumer controlled, the organization cannot provide those services, despite the fact that they happily appropriate CIL funding.
We’re not going to settle for this any longer. I respectfully request your assistance in urging them to work with the local disability community to become a fully functioning Center for Independent Living that operates under the law and is consumer controlled, community-based, and cross-disability.