Brittanie is a passionate disability justice advocate who loves MSP’s diversity and access, and is working to empower the most marginalized in her community.
Photo: Raspberry Island Regional Park, Saint Paul, MN
Photo credit: Asha Belk
Tell us a little bit about yourself.
I’ve been in Minnesota since I was seven. I grew up in St. Cloud and moved to Saint Paul after graduating from St. Cloud State University with a degree in Communications Studies in 2012. I didn’t really know what I wanted to be. I was just looking for something bigger, better, with more diversity. At the time, I was dating someone who lived in St. Paul, so I decided to move. I’ve been here ever since and I love it!
I love the amount of access I have living downtown. I love the diversity. I also like that St. Paul’s a bit more relaxed as a city, especially after 6pm or when there are no big events going on. I like the feeling of a quiet small town in the evening hours, but at the same time – I’m in the city!
I was born with a disability called arthrogryposis. It’s a muscle and joint condition that affects me in all four limbs. This means that I use an electric wheelchair to navigate the world. ‘Having access’ for me takes on a special meaning – the skyways, the cutouts in the curbs, the automatic door openers on the buildings around the city all offer me greater access.
About two years ago, I was looking for more in life. I came across a program called Partners in Policymaking, which helps educate and empower people with disabilities and parents who have children with intellectual or developmental disabilities. This program transformed my life and empowered me to speak up for my community and to get involved with policy. I now consider myself a disability justice advocate. Right now, I am split between two worlds: corporate and advocacy. I work for U.S. Bank, but I also wear a lot of hats as a volunteer for the disability community.
What does being a disability justice advocate mean to you?
It’s first important to define what is disability justice versus disability rights. As we awaken to all the systems of oppression that are at work in our country and in our world, we are transitioning from disability rights to a focus on disability justice. “Disability rights” is a single-issue framework that requires a lot of litigation, access to money and other systems of power. A disability rights framework is mostly led by white men.
A disability justice framework emphasizes that this movement should be led by those who are the most marginalized – Black and Brown disabled people with other marginalized identities. As a queer woman of color with a disability, I have a lot of intersecting identities (as well as areas of privilege) which put me in a unique position to be a leader in this movement.
My goal is to make sure we’ve got a seat at the table. So, I’ve been testifying at the legislature, asking what are we doing for the most marginalized in the disability community and how are we reaching them. I also serve on several boards. I’m on the board of the Governor’s Council for Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities. I am co-chair for the grant review committee, helping decide who in the community gets money and what areas does our research focus on. I’m also a board member on The Arc of Minnesota, and chair the Equity and Justice Committee as The Arc is currently shifting their focus to a Disability Justice lens to ensure they are reaching the most marginalized in our community. At the Arc, we also work to bring more members of color with disabilities to the table. The Arc is focused on showing that people with intellectual and developmental disabilities are whole beings that matter, and we deserve to make decisions in our lives, and we deserve to have the same kind of access to basics like health care, home care and jobs, as everyone else in our community. I also work with SEIU Homecare Union and this year, as long as our contract gets fully funded by the Senate, we got the minimum wage raised from $13.25 to $15.25.
It really boils down to systemic issues like our laws and the ways that people with disabilities can be put into a system that oppresses them and limits the amount of money they can make in a job, or whether they can get married without losing their benefits, for example. Disability justice to me is dismantling “ableism,” which is at the root of disability oppression, and using my communication skills, my intersectionality as a human being, and the privilege that I have to bring a voice to my community.
Could you name one thing that you’re working on that, if passed, would make a huge difference for the disability community?
Right now, the COVID-19 pandemic is foremost on my mind. We need to make sure that people of color with disabilities who want vaccines are able to get them. Whether it’s getting services to go to people’s homes directly or just spreading the right information and countering misinformation. People with disabilities have already been more isolated, and the pandemic just exacerbated that. Since the start of COVID, so many people had to move into a more institutionalized setting, which means they lost a lot of their rights and the ability to navigate in the world in the way they want. Since the disability community was one of the hardest hit during this pandemic, it’s all about getting those people vaccinated and offering access to health care and home care services, especially during this pandemic.
What do you love the most about living in MSP?
Having grown up in an area without much diversity, I was typically one of the only people with a visible disability or woman of color who identified as queer. One of the things I love about living in MSP is all the diversity. I love being a small fish in a big pond. There’s always something going on, with many opportunities to get involved, volunteer and just be part of a community in a way that I didn’t have before I moved here.
Another important thing for me is physical accessibility, being able to take the bus or the Light Rail. For those of us who do not or cannot drive, the ability to access public spaces and public transportation to get to different parts of the state is critical.
I also love all the nature in MSP and so many of the trails in and around the cities are accessible to persons with disabilities, with really nice paved paths, beautiful scenery and accessible parking. The Raspberry Island National Park in St. Paul even has accessible canoes for rent!
What about MSP could improve from your perspective?
Right now, is a time of a great awakening and hopefully reckoning with the systems of oppression that are at play here. Minnesota is a beautiful state and we are a very wealthy state. But this wealth is disproportionately distributed. Black and Brown people don’t have the same access to the services and opportunities that white people do. I would like to see us really be “One Minnesota” in equal access to exceptional education, healthcare, accessible and affordable housing. We need to take a look at the way wealth of all kinds has been distributed and we need to focus on getting those resources and that access to people that have been left behind.
What or whom do you credit for your success as a professional, a community advocate and an empowered Black woman with a disability?
The biggest thing I credit for my growth is the realization that the best thing I can do is love myself and be radicalwith that self-love. As a person with so many intersections of identity, I face many systems of oppression that can make me feel bad about being disabled or not having a specific body type or my race or sexual orientation. These systems leave me without certain points of access, because I didn’t come from a wealthy family. These systems, from the day I was born, made it okay for a doctor to tell my mom that I would do nothing, that I would be nothing, to expect nothing.
What has helped me the most is self-acceptance. I may have all these characteristics that someone would consider a strike against me, but I am a source of light in this world, I can be an example of what creating your own destiny can look like. I can help empower other people to do the same and to imagine a world where we all can thrive.
Where do you find community in MSP?
I find community in things like Home Care Services. Having someone help me live an independent life gives me the tools to get out of the house, volunteer, be part of the Home Care Union, etc. Having a disability tends to be a more isolating experience, so another place I find community is online. The pandemic showed us how technology can bring people together all over the world. My online disability community has been a place where we can share our experiences and frustrations, where we can give each other tips and tricks on how to get the vaccine, for example. Organizing crowdsourcing campaigns to fund people’s journeys is another way that I’ve been able to find community.
One online platform I am part of is for women with disabilities. Another online community is specifically for people with my condition. But, in general, I found that Instagram has a really big disability community. I follow different hashtags like #disabilityjustice, #disabilitylife, #disabilitypride, etc. With that being said, online access and ability to have adaptive equipment like screen readers, captions or even reliable internet is a privilege and not yet fully accessible to everyone.
What would your advice be to somebody considering a move to MSP?
I would advise newcomers to explore the different neighborhoods, restaurants, parks – all the diversity this region has to offer. Step outside your comfort zone. By exploring different areas, you will see that everyone has something to offer. There is also this political part of me that wants to say, if there is something you want to change, speak to your County Commissioner, get involved with your legislators, help be a part of that change. Bring recognition or acknowledgement to things that aren’t going well.
What is your ambition for your future?
I don’t know what specific role or title I’d have, but I do know the feeling that I want. That is a feeling of hope and most importantly – of love. I want to work in disability services or within the disability community as a career. I want to be in a position where I am able to empower other people with disabilities to live their best lives, to dream their best dreams, while helping improve access to resources for our community.
And, of course, yes, to be involved in policy as well. So many of the decisions that are made about our communities are not made by people actually living those lives. So, I definitely want to be in the thick of it!