On September 15, 2015, Commissioner Aaron Bishop and Administration on Disabilities staff Jamie Kendall, Jennifer Johnson, and Ophelia McLain attended a day-long workshop with Tennessee’s Independent Living and Developmental Disabilities Networks. We asked Council on Developmental Disabilities Executive Director Wanda Willis and Statewide Independent Living Council (SILC) Executive Director Ann Eubank about the workshop and the potential impact of the collaboration of the two networks.
Why did you decide to convene this group?
Wanda Willis: With the recent move of Independent Living programs to ACL following the reauthorization of the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act, this meeting provided an opportunity for the two networks, the Developmental Disabilities (DD) Network and the Independent Living (IL) Network, to explore ways to work together to increase our impact in Tennessee. We are fortunate to have an amazing network of Independent Living Centers and a new SILC Executive Director who brings a stellar reputation for collaboration and a creative work ethic.
What surprised you about the day?
Ann Eubank: It’s not every day that a group of well-established organizations come together, literally in the same room, and have the courage to collaborate. I use the word "courage” because, while collaboration is fundamental to far-reaching positive impact, it comes with a price. On September 15, 2015, I witnessed courage, as every person and organization was willing to listen and be heard.
Wanda Willis: What surprised me was the immediate connection of all the people in the room. There was definite synergy—I thought it would take more time for people to become relaxed and focused. We quickly found common areas to work on in Tennessee. Within just a few hours we landed on local implementation of the recently-signed state agency Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) on transition from school to work as a possible joint initiative of the DD and IL Networks. We realize that signing an MOU is an important first step, but the true success of an MOU is in local communities, where the rubber hits the road. The group wanted to take implementation of the MOU to local communities where CILs are located and work on local agency coordination of transition from high school to employment or into post-secondary programs. I also appreciated Jennifer Johnson’s comment—that it was good to see the collaboration, and also “good to see people laugh as they worked!” I agree with Jennifer—the camaraderie of the group made the work fun as well as productive.
Why is collaboration hard?
Ann Eubank: To collaborate, to be part of something bigger than oneself or one organization, people have to be willing to let go of things such as self-importance, judgment, and personal agendas, to name a few.
Wanda Willis: A consultant who works regularly with the Council recently explained to me that collaboration is hard because you have to give up some control and share credit. That can be challenging during times when we are all being pushed to justify our organizations’ existence. It takes courage but also commitment to a shared vision.
Ann Eubank: For some humans, change can bring uncertainty, uncertainty can bring fear and fear can make one constrict, but not this group of Tennesseans! Millions of dollars, resources and people have shifted under the new federal department, the Administration for Community Living, creating opportunities that were once inconceivable. We are grateful that the Tennessee Council on Developmental Disabilities had the forethought to convene this group of sister agencies during a visit from Commissioner Bishop and his staff.
The meeting seemed transformational. Talk about that.
Ann Eubank: Transformation is well underway at the federal level and instead of shrinking or blaming or distancing ourselves from it, we in Tennessee embraced the possibilities. We explored how our agencies’ missions paralleled and discussed the barriers to independence faced by Tennesseans with disabilities. Tennessee is committed to building partnerships and designing sustainable solutions. Being in that room, that day, was transformational.
Wanda Willis: I agree, Ann. The day itself was transformational. You know, over the years the Council has worked with each organization in the room on one initiative or another. Tennessee’s IL Network is a group that I personally admire—many individuals in that network have been mentors to me, shaping my vision and views that I draw on every day in my work. To see a group of organizations and individuals that I admire so greatly come together with a singular focus, mutual respect and a shared vision was truly a monumental day for me.
Ann Eubank: Another observation - it was extraordinary to see federal decision-makers, in that very same room, also be courageous. They were fully engaged and offered insight into processes at the federal level. Instead of possibly feeling overwhelmed with the recent changes at the Administration for Community Living, I was impressed by the work Commissioner Bishop and his staff have accomplished and empowered by their willingness to listen to our ideas and our challenges—to collaborate with us.
Where do you hope to go from here?
Wanda Willis: It was clear at the end of the day that everyone was committed to continuing the conversation. The Council will be sending out a survey to get additional feedback on suggested joint projects. We will be meeting again in January to plan the next steps.
Ann Eubank: With the shared priority of transition of youth from school to work we agreed that by combining IL and DD resources and efforts in a strategic way we will significantly increase our impact on employment. We will begin work on specific activities toward this goal in our January meeting. Also, with the SILC recently becoming a member of the Tennessee Disability Policy Alliance, we join the Council and the P&A in promoting better public policy for Tennesseans with disabilities.