Penny Forward Transcript: Diving into Development, Dialogue with Kolby Garrison

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Date and Time

12/12/2023

Length

24 hours

Description

 

Photo of Kolby speaking.

In this episode of the Penny Forward podcast, hosts Liz Bottner, Chris Peterson, and MOe Carpenter interview Kolby Garrison, the development officer of the American Council of the Blind (ACB). Garrison shares her journey as a blind person, from her mainstream education to her struggles with job applications due to societal prejudices. She discusses her role at ACB, her advocacy for improved accessibility, and her daily responsibilities, which include fundraising and donor relations. Garrison emphasizes the importance of membership organizations like ACB for personal growth and support.

 

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    Transcript

    Pre-episode Intro

     

    Kolby: I think a theme, (Chuckle.) Throughout my life, and definitely in this role, is, you know, stay the course. Trust the process. And, just, keep going. You know, stay persistent.

     

    Liz: This is the Penny Forward podcast, a podcast about blind people building bright futures one penny at a time. I’m Liz Bottner, …

     

    Chris: I’m Chris Peterson, …

     

    MOe: I’m MOe Carpenter, …

     

    Liz: And today, we have Kolby Garrison, development officer of the American Council of the Blind, to share with us her journey about what led her to her current career. Hello, Kolby. Thanks for being here.

     

    Kolby: Hi, Liz. Hi, Chris, hi, MOe. I’m so excited to be here with you guys.

     

    Liz: Tell us about yourself and your blindness.

     

    Kolby: Oh my goodness. Well, I was born, uh, three months premature, so I’m a retinopathy of prematurity baby, if you will, and grew up totally blind, have never had any usable vision. Remember having light perception as a child, and then that went away, but have never had any functional vision so to speak. But I grew up in public school, was mainstreamed, my parents never treated me any differently. Um, I have a younger sister who is sighted, and remember, you know, doing all of the things, uh, that she did. Some of them anyway. Dance and gymnastics, and riding a bike, and roller blading, and those kinds of things growing up, um, and, you know, just have made my way through life as we all do, and find myself, you know, now where I’m at, with the ACB. It’s certainly been full of twists and turns, but whose life isn’t, um, but I’ve grown up around, I guess I’d say around other blind people. Um, all of the kids went to the same elementary school if you had any sort of visual impairment. Um, we were all together, um, and had a VI resource room, and, so, did that through elementary school, and had an itinerant teacher middle through high school, um, who was wonderful. Then went to college, and got my bachelor of arts in communications studies, and then after college, pursued a degree in court reporting, and that, I earned the degree, but did not end up keeping that as my career because I couldn’t get the accommodations I needed to pass the national certification exam, so had to find a new direction, and figure out, what was I gonna do? And applied for several different jobs, utilizing skill sets that, you know, I knew I had, and I knew I would be qualified for, and again, experienced that very frustrating aspect of life of society not being willing to look past the blindness. But, you know, was persistent, um, kept at it, and applied for a different position at the time with ACB in 2021, and went through several rounds of interviews, and was selected for that position, and then transitioned to my new role that I’m in now in February of this year. So it’s still very new for me, but I’m enjoying it, and definitely learning and growing from it.

     

    Chris: Tell us now, if you would, a little bit about the American Council of the Blind, and its mission.

     

    Kolby: Absolutely. So we are a national, membership driven organization, and our mission is to improve the quality of life for people who are blind or have low vision, through advocacy, and all of our other programs and services that we offer. So there are, I would say ten maybe key program areas. Highlights of which are, audio description, we’ve got our ACB media network, which you can listen to, it’s ten internet radio stations that are available, um, with all kinds of content, and, then of course, advocacy is a huge area for us in ACB, um, and it’s a very strong area, that is continuously on going, of course. And then the ACB community, and membership, uh, that was the department I started with, actually, in 2021. I was the, hired as the membership services administrative assistant. And so, for almost two years, I helped coordinate and schedule all of the ACB Community events that are out there, and we are now over fifteen thousand events since March seventeenth of 2020, and uh, still going. They average about, I’d say a hundred plus events per week, so, there’s always something going on virtually in the ACB Community. And uh, it’s a great way to get instantly connected, you know, previously, with, if you were in, involved in ACB, you had the national convention, and you had special interest affiliates and state affiliates, but that was, National convention, in particular, was just a once a year meeting. Or if you came to the DC leadership conference, in, you know, every March, that was another opportunity to get together and network with other people who are blind, but now, with the ACB Community, it’s instantaneous. And you have access to a support network, and a variety of events that are all run, and facilitated and hosted by people who are blind, and for people who are blind. So, the ACB Community is, it’s where I got my start, and it will always, always have a special place in my heart. Um, and is uh, one of our largest programs as of today, and uh, is just continuing to balloon, and grow and expand.

     

    MOe: How did you find your way to ACB originally?

     

    Kolby: Woo, good question. (Laugh.) Uh, so, I grew up following the blindness consumer organizations, never really aligned myself with any of them in particular, but followed the goings on. I  remember actually writing a college entrance essay in 2006 on how ACB was working to make accessible currency, and how I thought that would be really, really cool. And attended my first ACB convention in person in, actually, in 2006 as well, and it was in Jacksonville Florida, and at the time, I remember back then, I was in high school, and I just wanted to go to the exhibit hall. And, so I remember going through the exhibit hall and there was all this technology, and I wanted all of it, and uh, then also got to, uh, meet with one of the guide dog schools. And actually got to walk with a dog. And that was a life changing moment for me. So I will, I’ll probably never forget that convention. (Chuckle.) For that experience alone. But then, I went to college, and, still, again, casually kept up with all of the consumer organizations, and what they were doing, and their approaches, and different things like that. And when I saw the job posting for my former position, I thought, “Well,” you know, I had just decided in January of 2021, to stop pursuing court reporting. And that was a decision that was very difficult for me, because I had spent the past eight years in school, and had graduated, had earned the degree, and thought that was what I was gonna do for the rest of my life. Um, that was gonna be my career. And so, um, after having to take a new direction, and drop back and punt, so to speak, and figure out, you know, what, “What do I do now?” And, like I said, I applied for different jobs I thought I could do well, and experienced, uh, the very frustrating aspect, I’m sure we all have, of, when, people find out you’re blind, or when entities find out you’re blind. It’s an immediate, “No, this isn’t gonna be possible.” Without a second thought, or, um, without keeping that open mind, and letting me, as the person who is blind and has that lived experience, you know, help you, and tell you how things would work best. Just having those doors kind of slammed in your face, so to speak. And so, um, I applied for the position with ACB, and I, I didn’t really think anything of it. I mean I thought, “This would be cool. It would be nice to work for ACB, I think I could do that.” And um, remember you know, having my mom, actually, help me create my cover letter. ’cause I had, I’d kept my resume up-to-date, and so that was all ready to go, but I was like, “Wait. I’ve never done a cover letter before.” So we, we put that together, and submitted the application, and just said, “Okay, I’ve done what I can.” You know, after you, you go through over a year of applying for everything that you can possibly think you might be able to do well, and experiencing rejection after rejection after rejection, it’s wearing on you mentally. But I am, (Laughed.) Wired by nature to never give up, persist, uh, stay the course, and so, thankfully, uh, you know, had all of the different rounds of interviews, um, and then, was selected for the job, and was hugely relieved when I got that phone call saying, you know, “Yes, we want you. You’re the person, you know, we want for this position,” and definitely remember just feeling a weight having been lifted off my shoulders to say, “Okay. I’ve found where I’m gonna start. And, don’t know what’s gonna happen from here,” but I was ready for the ride, and, (Chuckle.) What a ride it’s been, and I’m sure will continue to be.

     

    Liz: Speaking of, you know, not really knowing what would happen next. What made you decide to switch into your current role? Was there a certain thought that you had, or spark that you felt that kind of pushed you into, “You know what? Let’s try this.”

     

    Kolby: No, I was actually approached, From within the organization, and I remember that conversation. When it started, it was, you know, “We think you’d be really good for development.” And I said, “What’s that?” (Laugh. So I had no idea what, you know, resource development was, and I, I remember thinking, “You want me to do what? I don’t have a background in fund raising. I’ve never had any experience with this. How do you think, or know,” (Chuckle.) “That I have what it takes, uh, to, you know, to make this leap?” And, and so, conversations continued, and I just decided that, the more I heard from different people that they believed in me, and they really thought that I could do this, and, you know, had faith, and would be there to support me. That was very influential in my decision to finally say yes, and take that leap of faith, if you will, And you know, I’ve been in my position now for almost nine months. Uh, which is crazy to say. Um, it feels like just yesterday that I’ve started, and it also feels like it’s been a very long, (laugh,) Journey, in some respects. But I, I just, you know, I said “Okay, I …” I think I would have regretted it for the rest of my life if I had stayed where I was comfortable. Um, and my boss at the time, Cindy Hollis, was very influential in telling me to take this leap of faith. “Take this risk. Step out of your comfort zone, because that’s how you grow.” And she was so right. You know, I’m still learning so much about the field of development, and how inaccessible. So, how little resources there are for development professionals who are blind, and how inaccessible everything else that is related to development is for people who are blind. And so, a lot of what I’ve been doing is advocating. And I’ve seen positive results with, you know, some of the companies that you write to when you attend a webinar and you have no idea what’s going on because they don’t verbally describe any of their material that’s visual in nature. Advocacy is, is built into me I think. It is something that is ingrained in me. And it’s become ingrained in me from personal experiences that I’ve had, um, you know, where I’ve experienced disability discrimination in college, um, and, just other times throughout life, and, I remember VI teacher in high school saying, “Kolby, you know, I’m here to, not just to teach the blind student, I’m here to educate you as the whole person. And you are a blind woman who is living in a sighted world,” and that didn’t really become apparent to me until college. And I remember her saying, “Nobody is gonna advocate for you, but you.” And she was so right. And I remember, you know, in high school, she pushed me really hard. And I remember thinking, “Oh my goodness.” You know, “She’s such a tough teacher. So,” you know. “So hard, and, and, fast rules, and, you know, this has to be this way because that’s the way it is,” and now, I look back and, and I am so grateful. Um, because she, she pushed me to become who I am. And, and, I always just smile and tear up when I get to talk to her now, and she just says, “I’m so proud of you.” And I said “Well, you know, I have you. You’re one of those influential people in my life whose had that indelible impact, and who has helped me become, um, who I am.” So, yeah.

     

    Chris: You started to talk about this, but I wonder if you could expand on it. What are some of the challenges that you have encountered in this development role? How have you overcome them, and then what have you learned about yourself after taking all this on?

     

    Kolby: Whoo. Good question. One of the things that I remember being very nervous about initially was, I kept encountering situations where, you know, materials weren’t accessible. Webinars weren’t accessible. And, that’s still an ongoing process, as we all know. But, I remember asking my boss at one point, I said, “You know, I, I feel like a broken record when you give me something to do, and I come back to you and I say, ‘I can’t do this because it’s not accessible,’ Or, ‘I attended this webinar and I didn’t get anything out of it because they didn’t describe any of the content that was presented visually, you know, in a form that I could use.’” And, that was a big deal to me in the beginning, and I remember thinking, “Oh my gosh, I don’t want to get fired because,” (Chuckle.) “I can’t do my job.” And, thankfully, working for ACB, my concerns of that happening were assuaged very, very quickly, and so, the lack of accessibility is no longer something that I worry about, but it is still something that frustrates me endlessly. Because there are so many resources, and I think resource development is one of those careers where blindness is not a barrier, and it’s taken me a while to fully realize that, and to, you know, believe that, um, but I truly do now feel that, I remember on my first day, in my new role, our interim director of development, Bill Reader, said to me, “You can do this, and your blindness is not going to hold you back.” Sometimes it feels like it does because of the lack of accessible materials, but again, I tirelessly champion and tirelessly advocate, and so, I send E-mails probably several times a week to companies or entities, or make phone calls, one of the two, or both, letting them know when I encounter something that they offer that is not accessible. And, you know, accessibility is also just a huge passion of mine. And I don’t really know how that came to be or why that came to be, but it is something that I just absolutely love doing, is helping to improve accessibility in whatever way, uh, that I can. And so, I think a theme, (Chuckle.) Throughout my life, and definitely in this role, is, you know, stay the course. Trust the process. And, just, keep going. You know, stay persistent.

     

    Chris: Would you mind talking a little bit about what a day, or maybe a week, in the life of Kolby is like, for those who don’t know what a fund raising or a development officer does?

     

    (Kolby laughs.)

     

    Kolby: Sure. Um, there are so many meetings. And, sometimes it can feel like there’s not a purpose for some of them, and then, weeks later, or months later, you see the result, and the fruit, of, you know, what you’ve been trying to plan, or execute. And so, um, lots of meetings. My primary responsibility is with our individual giving initiatives. So, everything from our auctions that are held, our national conference and convention, our DC leadership conference, our monthly giving, our MMS program, so, any sort of event fund raisers, and also just having relationships and cultivating relationships with donors. So, that’s one of my favorite parts of the job, is getting to talk to people. And tell them, if they already know about ACB, then, you know, we have way more in common to talk about, and the conversation just sort of flows from there. But I love also sharing what ACB is about, and what we do, with people who are outside of the organization, and really getting people who may not have thought about what life is like as a blind person to stop and really think. And that’s everybody from, you know, individuals that we encounter, and then also, corporations. I just, I really enjoy painting that picture for people, and bringing them into our world, and pointing out to it, you know, “Have you ever thought about, when you walk in the grocery store, and you don’t know where anything is, and you can’t read the labels on any of the packages. How would you navigate that?” Or, you know, something as simple as crossing the street. So, I, I just really love the relationship aspect of development, and how you build relationships with people, and it’s known as “stewarding,” or continuing to have those relationships, and build them over time. And uh, engage with donors, and, that’s just, that’s one of the things I find that’s really, really fun. So that’s probably my favorite part of my job. I also, I think I enjoy, (Laugh.) Uh, some of the grants writing that I’ve done. Where I get to tell people, again, about ACB. Our associate director of development, that’s her primary responsibility, but I’ve gotten to assist with some grants that we’ve applied for, and, or written proposals for. And that’s really fun. Um, and I just, again, enjoy like bringing people into a day in the life of someone like us who is blind. What would that be like for someone who’s never really thought about it? So, I, I think that’s really fun.

     

    MOe: I just want to take a moment to circle back, and you talked a little bit about those on the outside and looking in, and do you have any advice for them? In joining a membership organization like ACB, or any other membership driven organization?

     

    Kolby: I think my advice would be, if you find an aspect of a membership organization that interests you, whether it be their entire focus, or maybe just, you know, one of multiple areas that they focus on, is to just try. And, not every organization will be for everyone, but you also might find a home, or a place where you feel that you belong, and I know for me, the most important thing that I have gained from ACB is the friendships. And the people that I have met. And, just the pier support, and, because I’ve seen other people’s examples of cooking, or trying something new, I have been able to do that myself. And it has inspired me to have more confidence in those types of situations, and so, I would say just try. You know, not every organization is gonna be for everyone, but you might find a place where you belong. And might find that network of support, and some of those life long, uh, friendships that can be formed as well.

     

    Liz: What advice would you give to listeners who may be interested in either starting their career, and/or in making their next career move?

     

    Kolby: Oh, good question. You know, I feel like I can try to answer this now. (Chuckle.) I think if you had asked me this a couple years ago, I probably wouldn’t have had too much to say. But, I would say really assess yourself, and figure out what skills you have that you bring to the table, and, or what skills you want to learn, that would help you to be more versatile, and to maybe excel at something you haven’t tried before, and seek those avenues. And make sure that when you say you’re competent at something, that you are, but also be willing to admit when you’re not competent in a certain area, and be, you know, willing to put in that work, to affect that growth that could, you know, make that become a strength later on, where when you started, you thought it might be a weakness. Or an area that you were less confident in.

     

    Chris: Is there anything else that we should know about, that you think we forgot to ask?

     

    (Kolby laughs.)

     

    Kolby: I don’t know if there’s anything you forgot to ask. I guess I will say work does take up a lot of my life, but outside of work, uh, I very much enjoy NASCAR, and uh, I’m a, just, avid enthusiast of the sport. Also I’m a big reader, and then, love engaging with companies about digital accessibility. That’s something that I just, very much enjoy doing, and showing them how, when you improve your web site, or your app, or your product, or your service, professionally and personally, this is the impact that it has. And, you know, you can have an untapped market in people who are blind or have low vision, and when you fix your web site, or your product, your service, your app, whatever it may be, and let us be able to access it, and make it truly accessible, that’s another group. Um, that you didn’t have access to before that you now do. And also just sharing with people that advocacy can be very tiresome, and sometimes, again, it seems like you’re not making strides, but then when you see the work that you’ve put in come to fruition, or how you persistently have sent this company an E-mail for eight years telling them that their app is not accessible, and then someone finally listens, and they make it accessible, that just, I love that.

     

    MOe: How can we reach you?

     

    Kolby: You can certainly contact me through ACB. My E-mail address is K garrison, and that is spelled G A R R I s as in Sunshine, O N as in Nancy, at ACB DOT org.

     

    Liz: And, since you did mention previously the community, if someone wanted to find out more about that, how might they do that?

     

    Kolby: Absolutely. I should have included that when I was talking about it. We have a daily schedule of community events that is sent out, and it contains all of the Zoom information, so the only way to get that information is through an E-mail. And you can send an email to

    community at acb.org

    and ask to be subscribed to the daily schedule, and Cindy and Natalie there will get you subscribed, and then you’ll start receiving all of the schedule of events. If you know of someone, or if you yourself are not as comfortable using E-mail, we do offer a pre-recorded schedule via a phone system, and the number to call for that is 1800-424-8666, and you’ll follow those prompts. Um, it just says, you know, “Press 1 for Sunday, 2 for Monday, 3 for Tuesday,” etc. and that will give you a pre-recorded version of the schedule. And uh, if you do take that route, I always recommend that you have something to take down information with, because they rattle off meeting ID’S and pass codes at a very fast rate. (Chuckle.) Just to get everything in. It’s funny. I did that, that was one of my duties for almost two years, and I’d get feedback and they’d say, “You talk so fast!” And I’m like, “I have to. Because I have to get all this information in for you in, you know, the time allotted.” But yes. Those are ways that you can get hooked up, and have access to the ACB community. Um, and it’s definitely, it’s fun, you know, there are fun events, there’s educational events, there are a lot of pier support events, where you can go and ask questions of people who might be going through similar lived experiences, um, as yourself, and so it’s really just an invaluable resource of support.

     

    Liz: Speaking of support, if you’re not sure yet that you might want to subscribe to the E-mail schedule, or maybe you, you might want to, but you just want to talk to a human before you do that, is, does ACB have a main number that you could call and find more information about it?

     

    Kolby: Yes. So that number, that 1800 number, I’ll give it again, but um, so it’s just 1800-424-8666, and you can again follow those prompts and get connected with someone either in our Alexandria office, or in our financial office, or the Minnesota office. Any of our lovely people there can, uh, help, and answer any questions, or they’ll direct you to, you know, whomever the appropriate person is.

     

    Liz: Well, thank you, Kolby, for being here, and sharing your story, we really appreciate it.

     

    Kolby: I thank you guys so much. I’ve definitely enjoyed, uh, spending some time with you, and uh, love Penny Forward, and everything that you’re doing. It’s something that is very much needed, and appreciated.

     

    Liz: Penny Forward is a non profit organization founded and led by blind people. Through education, mentoring, and mutual support, we help each other learn to confidently navigate the complicated landscape of personal finance. We do this through our web site,

    pennyforward.com

    through members only group chats, through our accessible online courses, and one to one financial counseling and coaching. The Penny Forward podcast is produced by Chris Peterson and Liz Bottner, with assistance from MOe Carpenter. Podcast post production is produced by Brynn Lee at

    superblink.org

    transcription is provided by Anne Verduin, and music is both composed and performed by Andre Louis. For all of us this week at Penny Forward, I’m Liz Bottner, …

     

    Chris: I’m Chris Peterson, …

     

    MOe: I’m MOe Carpenter, …

     

    Liz: Thanks for listening, and have a great week.

     

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