Below is an interview with Victoria Rodríguez-Roldán regarding a recent open letter by a group of lawyers, law students, and advocates to the Jacobus tenBroek Disability Law Symposium Steering Committee. You can also learn more about Victoria by checking out episode 12 of the Disability Visibility podcast.
Tell me a little bit about the tenBroek Disability Law Symposium for those who are unfamiliar with it. Is it a big deal with the disability community and if so, why?
The tenBroek Disability Law Symposium is a conference that is put together primarily by the National Federation of the Blind. It’s held every year in their building in Baltimore. As the name implies, it is focused on legal issues around disability law and it is primarily made by and for lawyers working and/or practicing in the disability rights field. It is currently one of the largest, if not the largest conference specifically focused on disability rights lawyers. Given this, it’s often the gathering spot where lawyers in the disability field who don’t get to see each other often meet up and socialize. It’s to such an extent that the Disability Rights Bar Association (DRBA) piggybacks on the conference by holding its annual meeting immediately after the conference, since so many of the members are already in town.
Can you tell me about your participation and attendance of this event in the past and recently on March 28-29, 2019?
I’ve attended and spoken at every tenBroek symposium since 2016, when I started working at the National LGBTQ Task Force. Between 2016 and 2018 I presented in break-out workshops on topics mainly impacting LGBTQ people with disabilities. In 2019, I was approached to be part of the plenary on bullying and harassment against people with disabilities.
What led you, and other lawyers, law students, and disability rights advocates to publish an open letter to the the tenBroek Disability Law Symposium Steering Committee?
Every year, ever since my first time at tenBroek, we’ve seen the same pattern of exclusionary practices. Every year, the composition of the panels and plenary speakers is nearly all lily-white, there’s often racist or sexist jokes made both from the audience as well as the panel, comments about “not seeing race”, and for that matter, transphobic jokes. Every year we’ve seen things such as all-white panels on the school to prison pipeline, on immigration, policing, and other issues that predominantly impact disabled people of color. People with lived experience (such as folks who have experienced homelessness or incarceration are almost unheard of as speakers. In the process, we have the same old, same old content, panels, and pattern of exclusion. As far as conferences go, tenBroek is basically stuck in 20-30 years ago. There is also a serious generational gap – most of the younger lawyers see the need for change, but the older generation that controls it pretty much refuses to change.
We’ve brought up this issue multiple times in the past, in formal and informal conversation, but we end up getting nowhere.
Almost every year, I inevitably find myself in some Baltimore restaurant griping with other young lawyers about how all the racism in the conference and how much it sucks that such a space is so exclusionary. This year, once again, I found myself in such a setting, over sushi, complaining about how bad the situation is with friends, till I had a bit of a “f-ck it” moment and came up with the idea of a public letter. The second day of the conference was spent by quietly recruiting people I trusted to sign onto the letter. The following week that just ended went into my drafting the letter with the help of others and our collecting the signatures. The rest is history.
One thing to understand is that this is a long time coming. I didn’t do anything new beyond the letter. I simply tapped on the discontent and anger that had been building up for years among disability lawyers and opened the pot to reveal it. Nothing here is new, other than the fact that now it’s public and in the open – as it should.
How does an organization or event’s systemic pattern of exclusion, lack of diversity, and over reliance of multiply-marginalized members’ labor harm individuals and entire communities? What are some examples where you felt unwelcome and unheard at this event?
I think an example that comes to mind a lot is one year at tenBroek, that I was approached by a white male attorney, because he wanted me to be in a board of an organization he was trying to start. He pitched it to me and so forth, but then he said “you check off so many boxes diversity wise.”
That form of tokenizing is very common in tenBroek and in the broader disability rights community. It has a very real effect, in this case in the legal side of the community, because these are the lawyers that claim to represent the community before the courts and the government. If the lawyers that are supposed to defend our rights don’t really represent our communities, who will? We need to lead by example.
There are a number of recommended changes in this open letter. Which ones do you think are essential for the organizers to take action on?
I think all of them were essential. We debated a lot around what should be the demands, and they changed a little bit over the days it was in drafting mode, but the centerpiece remains the same: A disability law symposium that actually represents the community it talks about.
Is there anything else you’d like to share with me about your hopes for an improved symposium in the future?
I hope that future symposia follow a model of social justice that center the fact that we lead intersectional lives and does not further white supremacy. I look forward to a conference that does not do all-white panels, and where people of color can feel safe and welcome as the integral part of the activist community that they are.
Victoria Rodríguez-Roldán is the Trans/Gender Non-Conforming Justice Project Director at the National LGBTQ Task Force. Particular areas of expertise and focus are the intersections of issues affecting transgender people with disabilities and mental illness, anti-trans workplace discrimination, and gun violence prevention from a social justice lens. She has been in trans advocacy the entirety of her adult life, including advocacy in Puerto Rico and in Maine. She is the author of Valuing Transgender Applicants and Employees, a gold-standard best practices guide for employers, and frequently speaks on discrimination issues impacting the trans community. She was named the Autistic Self Advocacy Network’s 2016 Ally of the Year Award, and has been profiled in NBC News and Latina Magazine, among other outlets. Prior to joining the Task Force, she worked as an Equal Opportunity Specialist for the U.S. Department of Labor’s Civil Rights Center. Victoria holds a B.A. in Psychology with Honors from the University of Puerto Rico, and a J.D. from the University of Maine School of Law.
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