This interview is a Q&A with Dessa Cosma, Executive Director at Detroit Disability Power.
As the alarming impact of COVID-19 on people with disabilities (particularly disabled people of color) quickly became clear, the Disability Inclusion Fund (DIF) launched a $200,000 rapid response funding opportunity. The funding provided support for organizations on the front lines serving people with disabilities during this crisis, including mutual aid and support for organizing, policy, and systems-change advocacy. Detroit Disability Power was among the recipients of this grant. In the following Q&A, which has been lightly edited for clarity, Dessa Cosma, the executive director of Detroit Disability Power, shines a spotlight on what the DIF rapid response grant enabled the organization to accomplish and why disability-inclusive funding is more crucial than ever.
Can you share a bit about your work/the work of your organization?
Detroit Disability Power works to dismantle ableism at the individual, interpersonal, institutional, and cultural levels through organizing, policy change, reflection, and teaching. We organize around issues impacting people with disabilities in Detroit (and beyond) and we work in coalition to bring disability perspectives/wisdom/priorities to social justice movements (as well as to bring new insights back to our community/work). We advocate for policy change at the city and state level to ensure that people with disabilities have access to what we need to thrive. We host Community Care Circles and accessible dance classes to have fun, build relationships with each other, and untangle ourselves from internalized ableism. And we offer anti-ableism trainings for organizations, businesses, educational institutions, etc. to help shepherd the journey of un/re-learning.
Can you share a bit about the work your organization has been able to accomplish with the DIF RR grant?
This grant was used to leverage $100,000 additional dollars. The overall program is a public awareness and 501(c)(3) permissible Get Out The Vote campaign that connects disability experience to policies and to voting. We are reaching out to more than 100,000 voters in Detroit and Highland Park (a small, very low-income municipality within the city of Detroit) by phone, text, mail, and digital ads. We’re asking people to pledge to vote and to let us know which issues are the most pressing for them (COVID, housing, transit, policing, etc.). In addition to increasing voter turnout and starting to politicize voters’ perception of disability, we are also identifying our base, which we will continue to build relationships with and organize after the election. For this endeavor, we have a field team of 10 amazing women, a majority of whom are women with disabilities and women of color.
Why is it so important for grant makers to center disability inclusion in their work?
By doing so, grant makers are highlighting the importance of disability inclusion for grantees and potential grantees. Priority shows value. This, in turn, makes grantees stop and think, plan to do better, and then take steps towards inclusion. These steps will sometimes be mistakes or not work out, but they provide learning and growth opportunities that, with intention, can become institutional change.
Also, people with disabilities are extremely marginalized and as such, not specifically, intentionally including us inevitably just further marginalizes us.
What can funders do to ensure their grant application process is accessible?
Giving applicants adequate time to pull together proposals is huge. So many things take us longer or include more hurdles for us, so flexibility is key to success.
Having a straightforward, accessible process to ask questions and request information is also essential. Providing opportunities to check in and ask for clarification beyond what’s provided in the written instructions for proposal requests is important.
What do you most want funders to know about the overall impact funding has on disability-focused work?
There’s not a lot of dedicated funding for our community when it comes to things beyond charity or service provision, so the impact of additional funding is substantial (well, the more funding, the more substantial!) We need resources to work with others to dismantle ableism in ourselves, our organizations, our governments, etc. Most people don’t even know what ableism is! There are a lot of people we need to reach and educate if we are going to achieve self-determination and freedom. We’ve got centuries of interlocking oppression to unlearn and many more humane systems to build together. This takes resources and time. And without resources, it’s really impossible to have the time.
Being able to apply for disability specific funds has been amazing. Unlike with other funders, I don’t feel like I have to explain why disability community inherently matters or that we are part of the entire world around us. Being understood as a constituency (furthermore, a group with a target identity) is incredibly helpful.