This interview is a Q&A with Cindy Bentley, Executive Director at People First Wisconsin.
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. People First Wisconsin was among the recipients of this grant. In the following Q&A, which has been lightly edited for clarity, Cindy Bentley, executive director of People First Wisconsin, 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?
People First Wisconsin (PFW) is a statewide advocacy organization run by and for people with disabilities. We help people to speak up for themselves and support them in starting and running local self-advocacy groups to work together with self-advocates all across Wisconsin. We also work with other advocacy groups in Wisconsin to change things that need to be changed and ensure that people with disabilities are a part of the decision-making process for issues that affect them. Some of the issues we currently are working on include voting rights, long-term care, community integrated employment, combating social isolation, and transportation—which is especially salient in serving rural populations, of which Wisconsin has many.
Can you share a bit about the work your organization has been able to accomplish with the DIF RR grant?
PFW is thankful to have been a recipient of the DIF Rapid Response Grant. As a result, we were able to recruit and hire a new Outreach Self-Advocate named Julie. Julie hosts weekly Self-Advocate Meet-Ups via Zoom for our membership. Many of the members who join her each week are benefiting from the virtual social interactions that are taking place especially because of the isolation resulting from COVID-19.
PFW obtained an additional Zoom license for the Outreach Self-Advocate position, which allows Julie the flexibility to schedule and host virtual platforms that provide self-advocates opportunities to gain information on important topic. We’re also joined by partners for presentations, including Disability Vote Coalition WI, which led our inaugural partner presentation for our self-advocates.
Peer-to-peer and one-to-one virtual meetings are also occurring. We are building relationships and offering assistance to our self-advocates as needed. We know that the grant we received from the Disability Inclusion Fund will make an even greater positive impact on the disability community of Wisconsin!
Why is it so important for grant makers to center disability inclusion in their work?
People with disabilities (PWD) are often underserved or marginalized, leaving them on the sidelines or without a voice. Disabled people are also a very diverse group. PWD need to be empowered to have their voices/concerns heard by those people making decisions that will ultimately impact their lives. The self-advocates we support are passionate about reaching people and making positive changes. Grant makers can provide the resources that can assist in making those changes.
What can funders do to ensure their grant application process is accessible?
Funders need to continue to implement and provide creative ways for PWD to access grant application processes. Additionally, announcements of new grant opportunities need to be shared widely.
What do you most want funders to know about the overall impact funding has on disability-focused work?
Funding disability-focused work can be pivotal, a game changer. Funding can empower organizations to reach their goals.