Article 4- September 20

Real Examples: Leaders of Color in the Disability Community of Kansas

by Elizabeth Wright, KSYLF Alumna '18 and Faces Alumna '20, 20 years old

Ranita Wilks
Ranita was born and raised in Kansas City. When she was four years old, a train hit her mother’s car. The accident injured her spinal cord and left her a paraplegic. As a result, she uses a manual wheelchair in order to do daily living activities. She has lived in Lawrence since 1995 when she first came here as a student at the University of Kansas. For more than 20 years, Ranita has worked as an advocate for people with disabilities. In the past, she has worked to create mentoring and career development programs for youth with disabilities in Douglas County. Her current job is as a case manager and advocate for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities in Douglas, Jefferson, and Johnson counties. Ranita also serves on the Kansas Commission on Disability Concerns, the Transition Council of Douglas and Jefferson Counties, and the Douglas County Equity Coalition. When asked if and how her disability has an effect on how she leads Ranita said “I think having a disability has taught me how to be more inclusive of other people, to see the value in people’s abilities, to understand the various barriers society sometimes places on people, and how to be resilient and creative when facing challenges in life.” I also asked her how she leads, and her response was “I don’t think of myself as a leader, per say, but I do believe that, for me, leadership is about giving of yourself in some way that helps others.” Ranita’s mentors taught her a lot about the history of people with disabilities and the importance of our civil rights. It was those mentors who inspired her to become an advocate for people with disabilities. She also strongly believes in mentoring young people with disabilities “so that they can find their passion and become future leaders” Someone else who inspired her was her grandmother. She taught her “about strength, to be curious about life, and to value all people no matter where they are from as long as they treat you with respect. And, most importantly, you must learn how to laugh in life.” When asked for her final thoughts Ranita said, “In the disability rights community, it’s common to hear the expression, ‘Nothing about us, without us!’ For true equality and equity, all voices must be represented and included. There are certain disparities that Black and Latinx people with disabilities face that need to be a part of the larger ‘Nothing about us, without us’ discussion. Access to healthcare, transportation, and employment are all issues that face people with disabilities, but the barriers are even greater for people of color with a disability.”

Julia Connellis

Julia Connellis was born in New York and has lived in Topeka since 1998. Julia was born with juvenile rheumatoid arthritis, which resulted in her going blind. Her other disabilities include: depression, anxiety, ADD, chronic pain, chronic fatigue, and she is immune compromised. Julia is the Executive Director of KYEA. As director, she works with youth with disabilities, helping to empower them to be the best person and leader they can be. Julia sees her job as only a mechanism of her leadership, not what makes her a leader. When I asked her what makes her a leader, Julia said, "what makes me a leader in the disability community is my willingness to listen... my openness, transparency, and my willingness to make change, to do something about injustice, to take action…” When I asked her how this makes her a leader, she said, “We can’t be a leader without followers.” Julia is very active in the disability community, and is an advocate for disability rights. Her disability has given her a unique perspective, as well as unique experiences and stories to talk about as a leader. She also feels that her disabilities have made her "more creative and adaptable." She has her moments of negativity in relation to her disability and how it affects her leadership, but she says that, overall, her disability has more of a positive effect on her leadership. The fact that others tend to see her disability before her leadership is something she sees as more of a way for her to grab their attention; to be able to lead them, rather than be a hindrance to her leadership. Some people that inspired Julia to be the leader she is today are her father, a retired NYC police detective who taught her honesty, integrity, and to stand up for what is right, as well as her college advisor who told her that she was a leader when she was a junior in college. This made her question whether or not she was a leader and made her want to live up to his words. When asked for her final thoughts, Julia said, "Being a leader is really hard. It's not a label that should be taken lightly. But, at the same time, making change in people's lives, I wouldn’t ask for anything else. I love the opportunities that I’m given, and I really feel that it is my purpose to make change in other people’s lives.”

Alice Zhang
Alice Zhang was born in China, but came here in 2012 for graduate school where she obtained a degree in Applied Behavior Analysis. She lives in Lawrence and works at the KU Medical Center as an Assistant Professor in the occupational therapy department. Before that, Alice was a postdoctoral fellow at UMKC. Alice works with kids with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) and other developmental disabilities. I asked Alice the question “What things do you do that make you a leader?” Her response was “I don't think I consider myself a leader, but I do think there are things that are really important, for example, accessibility, disability rights, and things like that. I like to be involved in those things, and I like to be part of the change. Maybe it's not that I'm not leading anything, maybe I am, but I think the most important thing that keeps me involved is that I really care about equal rights and creating an environment that provides equal opportunities for people with disabilities. Just having real-life experience as a person with disabilities- it really gives me perspectives in terms of understanding what the barriers are and what can be done and how can we do it. I learned a lot after I came to the US just to understand the laws and also how to empower myself as a person with a disability as well. I think that is true with both the US and China, but I think, growing up in China, where there is more stigma around disability, I feel like I internalized a lot of the stigma. Although, things still need to be changed to improve the US. I do think I was lucky that I was around a lot of really good mentors.”

Someone who inspires Alice is her former colleague, mentor, and friend, Dr. Dot Nary, who was involved in the early disability rights movement and has done a lot to advocate for changes at KU. Dot is also an advisor for a student group called The AbleHawks and Allies. “I was involved in some of those activities with her and got to see her really being a strong voice and advocate, not only on campus, but out in the community as well,” Alice said.

Alice feels that it is really important to recognize that a person might have a disability, but they also have other important identities.

“You know, a person with a disability can have many identities, disability can be part of it. And, in addition to that, a person with a disability can be a woman, can be a woman of color, or can be a member of the LGBTQ community. So, I think sometimes we tend to focus on one aspect of it, which is important when we are fighting for a particular issue, such as disability related to inequality or gender related equality. Seeing a person with a disability really as multidimensional and really looking at that intersectionality piece of disability with gender, race, and ethnicity, and understanding, even within the disability community, there is diversity and there might be also inequality as well because of other factors in addition to disability. It is totally okay to acknowledge that disability itself can potentially put people in a disadvantaged position when compared to people without disabilities. But, at the same time, a person with a disability, plus a person who might be a person of color… they might experience even more barriers because of the additional characteristics and identities. That is a really important piece that we need to discuss, and especially in this current environment. We are also really embracing diversity and different identities within the disability community and really trying to push for equal opportunities for people with disabilities who are also people of color or who are part of LGBTQ community,” Alice said.

Delano Thomas
Delano Thomas lives in Topeka and has Obsessive Compulsive Disability (OCD) and Anxiety. He currently works as a Vocational Rehabilitation Counselor with the Kansas Department of Children and Families. Delano has had various positions over the years. He was an Adjunct Professor for 10 years at Washburn University. He also served as the Site Coordinator for Before and After School Programs at the YMCA and the Director for the Kids’ Quest Program for the YWCA. Delano has also worked for, and/or volunteered for, both the Oakland and Garfield Community Centers, the Resource Center for Independent Living, and KYEA. Delano is very involved in his community. He is the Chairman and Vice-President of the Heavenly Vision Foundation Youth Photography Program, a member of the Shawnee County Democratic Party, and a member of the NAACP.

Delano did not become a leader overnight. He has spent over 20 years learning and observing various leaders in his community and around the world. From this, he has created his own definition of what a leader should be and now wants to help the next generation become leaders as well. He has learned a valuable lesson and wants to share it with younger leaders. “A good leader is willing to lead and willing to be led,” Delano said.

Delano is very proud to be a leader of color within our state. He feels that diversity is so important. “I see these honors as a beacon of change and a new way to see the world through the eyes of people who are unique and have the abilities to bring change to the forefront of life. I want the youth of tomorrow to be able to create a new world of education and tolerance for all people of color and abilities,” Delano said.

Sandra Shopteese
Sandra Shopteese lives in Mayetta on the Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation Reservation. She has multiple disabilities, including: Thyroid Disease/Graves Disease, obesity, depression, anxiety, and hypertension. Sandra currently works for the State of Kansas in child welfare as the Tribal Specialist. She works specifically with the four Tribes in Kansas. Sandra has worked for the Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation for the last seven years and has held several positions, including: Tiny-K Specialist, Foster Care Supervisor, and Social Services Director. Prior to that, she worked for the State of Kansas with the Department for Children and Families for nineteen years. Sandra says that she is very proud of her work with the State of Kansas. “I believe being vested in my family and community to support and promote healthy education for the families and community members,” Sandra said.

In addition to her job, Sandra is also a Peace Maker (mediation) for the Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation courts. She is a board member for the Prairie Band Social Services Advisory Board and a committee member for Kansas Serves Native Families. Sandra also serves as a Legal Guardian for her sister with a disability and as a caregiver to her mother who is blind. Her work doesn’t stop there, though. She has also been a foster parent for emergency and protective custody children, serving as an Indian Child Welfare (ICW) home- there are less than ten throughout the state.

Sandra has many other things to be proud of in her life. She is the first in her family to have a college degree, and actually has two of them: a Bachelor of Business Administration and a Master of Business Administration. Sandra tries each day to be the best leader that she can be. “I believe being a good listener, modeling actions, communicator, and following through are important leadership skills that I practice daily,” Sandra said.

Sandra says that her racial background gives her a unique, diverse perspective. She is half Native and half white. “It allows me to learn and understand the languages of both worlds. As a good communicator, this allows me to gain trust in either world and yet be an expert in the other. Sometimes, it is a challenge to fit in either world because I am too white and not Native enough OR too Native and not white enough. But, I am all these things at once, and it makes me who I am- a strong, educated Native women,” Sandra said.

Erica Rivera
Erica Rivera lives in Hutchinson. Her disabilities include anxiety, self-diagnosed ADHD, and she's a cancer survivor. Erica’s anxiety has made her more conscious and reflective in how she chooses to lead. Erika has worked at Prairie Independent Living Resource Center for 13 years. She is currently the Executive Director, but she started out as an Independent Living Specialist and then an Independent Living Coordinator before getting her current position. Erika says she got her current position by “going for it.” A former co-worker, Roger Frischenmeyer, and the former Executive Director, Chris Owens, both saw her as a leader before she saw it in herself and were always there to push her, encourage her, and let her confide in them. Erica is definitely someone whose strength is leading with others, and she feels that inclusion and how we present ourselves is very important to how she leads. She also feels that she is a leader because she encourages others to lead, and she tries to teach her kids how to treat everyone equally. Erica says leadership is “not just about me; it's about everyone.” When asked for her final thoughts, Erica said, "Leadership is not a position. Anybody can lead, any time anywhere. Getting out of your comfort zone is when you begin to grow and change.”

Jessica Moss
Jessica Moss lives in Parsons. She was born with Osteogenesis Imperfecta or brittle bones. Jessica considers herself a “knitter extraordinaire.” She owns her own business. With this business, she makes kitchen and household items, such as laundry soap. Jessica has also served on various boards and councils over the years. She is a frequent attendee of the Kansas Disability Caucus and other state disability community gatherings. She describes herself as “very assertive, someone who speaks her mind, and who does not let people walk all over her.” She also says that “people don't expect someone as small as me, or with a voice as high pitched as me, to be quite so forceful.” As a leader, Jessica isn't limited by her disability, but she prefers to be conscious of places where she can get hurt and, instead, do things like serve as a representative by being “the face of” a company or organization. She even recently did a voice over.  Jessica believes that you have to take care of yourself before you take care of others. She started learning about advocacy and leadership from a very young age from her mother. She says that her mom is a bad*** because she provided for her and her sister without any state assistance because they didn’t qualify. When asked for her final thoughts, Jessica told me that her mom has done advocacy work for many years as her job and, while in school, it was written in Jessica’s IEP that she be allowed to go with her. She noticed that usually her and her mom were the only people of color in the room. She says this is because “If you aren't reaching out, then you aren't going to find the disability community. Disability doesn't care who you are or what you are. It affects everybody. It should be welcoming [to everybody].”