MRAC Evolve: Disability in Power

Image description: The header image is by Kristen Stoeckeler from 20% Theatre Company. Two people are sitting on stools in a conversation – the person on the left has grey hair and a blue smock and is speaking with her hands in mid-air. The person on the right has long brown hair and a blue button-down shirt and jeans. Their hands are in their lap, looking intently at the other person who is speaking.

MRAC Evolve

As MRAC strives to be an accessible grant making organization, we continually push ourselves to work in a Disability Justice framework to uplift the work and art of folks with disabilities. While we have funded numerous projects that serve folks with disabilities, we are still lacking in funding artistic projects that are led by folks with disabilities. Read on to learn what MRAC staff are thinking, doing, and learning to advance this work, and ensure folks with disabilities are in positions of power.

Interested in learning more? Join us on May 24th for our second Arts and Disability Forum: Disability in Power.


Image description: The image is of Kathy, an Asian woman with black hair pulled back, wearing a black turtle neck and gold sweater. Behind her is a white wall filled with all sorts of 2D art.

Kathy Mouacheupao, Executive Director

What does it mean to be an accessible organization? I remember asking myself this when I first joined the MRAC team in 2018. I was reviewing a final report from VSA Minnesota – the state organization on arts and disability – and I felt both proud and inadequate at the same time. I felt proud that, for 10 years, MRAC and VSA partnered on the ADA Access Improvement grant program to ensure that resources were going directly to improving programs, projects, equipment and/or facilities so that disabled/people with disabilities could participate in or attend art programs. I felt inadequate, because this partnership didn’t actually make MRAC an accessible organization, and I didn’t know what it would take to get us there.

Since then, VSA has sunsetted, and we don’t have them to rely on anymore. We hired Scott Artley to serve as MRAC’s first Accessibility Program Director, and began our own internal learning and awareness of how ableism shows up in our systems and daily practices. Having someone on the team to lead our accessibility work was a game changer for our collective accountability. We are learning as a team to recognize when the “norm” is actually the problem. And, we are committed to adapting and changing the way we design and do things from the get go.

Image description: The image is of Masami, an Asian woman with shoulder-length black hair, wearing a fuschia v-neck shirt. Behind her is a couch and wooden curio cabinet.

Masami Kawazato, Program Director

When I think of Disability in Power, I’m awed by the inclusivity and diversity of the disability community. All gender identities, nationalities, and ethnicities are included. People who identify as LGBTQIA2+ are included. It’s a community that one could join at any point during their life.

At MRAC we are striving to make our grant processes accessible to everyone. So it seems that strategies and pathways that center the diverse experiences of people with disabilities have the power to remove barriers for everyone. Similarly, the disability community has long-established practices that benefit us all. There was a huge difference in what I learned about people – and what people shared with me – when I asked folks to provide verbal descriptions of themselves (asking people to describe themselves using words), as compared to MRAC’s historical practice of sharing names, pronouns, the county in which they reside, and their connection to the arts.

Image description: The image is of Becky, a white person with brown hair pulled back, wearing dark rimmed glasses and a blue and white cowl. Behind her is a brown couch and a white wall with a colorful painting.

Becky Franklin, Director of Administration

If these past few years of living in multiple pandemics have shown us anything, it is that leadership by people with disabilities is necessary. They demonstrated how to work and live remotely, prioritize self-care, provide and receive mutual aid, care for our friends and neighbors, and demand accountability from decision-makers. Their leadership has undeniably helped us all to adapt in ways we could not have imagined. At MRAC, all of our grant-making processes have changed to be more accessible, and as a result, our participants are more diverse and greater in number than ever before. It’s clear that we all must work to dismantle our ableist beliefs and advocate for a world led by people with disabilities. Our survival and quality of life depend on it.

Image description: The image is of Jovan, a Black woman wearing a brown shirt and her hair in a bun. Behind her are a couple of green leafy plants.

Jovan C. Rebollar, Program Director

Our work to provide equitable opportunities to people with disabilities/disabled people has felt like an uphill battle. Though our efforts to provide alternative points of entry that feel good to applicants have been well received, there are so many factors that we still need to consider and find solutions for — from our panel process to the limited accessibility of our grant management software. I am excited to partner with Cow Tipping Press to see how that impacts our panel process. A highlight in this work has been engaging directly artists with disabilities to discuss how they would like to be able to share their work and tell their stories. I’ve learned a lot from them and look forward to continuing this engagement to find ways to integrate their solutions into our grant making process.

Image description: The image is of Scott, a white man in his 30s with an orange beard and dark rimmed glasses. Behind him are books, green file boxes, and a framed piece of artwork.

Scott Artley, Program Director

What does it mean for an individual to identify as “disabled”? What does it mean for a group to be “disability-led”? In MRAC’s first Arts & Disability Forum event last fall, the late (and sorely missed) Teighlor McGee, a Black disabled artist, offered an expansive welcome to disability identity: “I genuinely believe most people are disabled, and a lot of folks just aren’t in a place where they realize that yet.” Answering who “counts” as disabled isn’t the point. Maybe the act of asking those questions is actually the first step forward, because it leads us to our next questions: How can we honor the ways disability already exists in ourselves, and in each other? What could it mean to lead with, not despite, disability?

Image description: The image is of Mirella, a Latina woman with black hair pulled back, wearing red lipstick and a black shirt. Behind her is a white wall with colorful 2D artwork.

Mirella Espino, Program Director

[ESP] Siendo una persona sin discapacidades, nunca tuve que ser consciente de cómo el mundo me beneficia y marginaliza a otros con diferentes modos de vivir e interactuar. Pero gracias al trabajo increíble de parte de Scott (Director de Programas de Accesibilidad en MRAC), les colaboradores de Oleb Media, y conversaciones por parte de personas con discapacidades, he tenido que evaluar lo poco que sabía y todavía sé sobre accesibilidad y la comunidad con discapacidades. Para empezar, tuve que reconstruir a quién incluía y reconoció como discapacitados (como Sonia Sotomayor, Frida Kahlo, y muches más). Luego, reconociendo cómo nos afecta a todes “el capacitismo” tanto como nos deshumaniza cuando solo valoramos a las personas dependiendo de lo que pueden [re]producir. Por eso, cuando aseguramos que haya representación de las personas con discapacidades, y centramos su sabiduría, creamos un mundo más accesible para todos. Específicamente para nosotros en MRAC, es importante tener conversaciones como esta para ser y hacer mejor dentro de nuestra comunidad, cambiar nuestros procesos y apoyar el crecimiento de poder entre la comunidad discapacitada.

[ENG] Being a non-disabled person, I never had to be conscious of how the world benefits my able body and marginalizes those with different ways of being and experiencing the world. But because of the incredible work led by Scott (MRAC’s Accessibility Program Director), staff at Oleb Media, and disabled-led conversations, I have had to reckon with how little I knew and still know about accessibility and the disability community. For starters, mentally reconstructing and realizing all those who are considered disabled (like Sonia Sotomayor, Frida Kahlo, and so many others). Then, how ableism impacts us all such as dehumanizing us by tying our worth to what we [re]produce. This is why, when we ensure that folks with disabilities are represented in all spaces and center their wisdom, we create a more accessible world. Specifically for us at MRAC, it’s so important to hold space for these conversations to be and do better for our community, change processes, and, especially, support power building within the disabled community.

Image description: The image is of Sam, a white woman with a short blonde choppy bob haircut, wearing gold hoop earrings and a gray turtleneck shirt. Behind her is a desk, instruments, and framed artwork.

Sam Stahlmann, Panel and Events Manager

A major part of my role as Panel & Events Manager at MRAC is to recruit folks to serve as panelists for our grant programs. Our panelists have immense power in deciding what artistic projects receive funding in our region. So, in our panel recruitment efforts, we work hard to ensure our panelists represent our grantees, our grantee’s constituents, and our region. It is imperative that folks with disabilities are included in this decision making process. I’m super excited to be partnering with Cow Tipping Press over the next few months, to learn how to make our panel process more accessible for folks with disabilities, particularly folks with intellectual/developmental disabilities.

Image description: The image is of Yong, an Asian woman with shoulder-length black hair wearing a gold and purple scarf and gray shirt. Behind her is a couch and green plants.

Yong Her, Organizational Support Staff

I have had the wonderful privilege to volunteer at MRAC. During my time here, I had a chance to learn more about their work within accessibility resources for organizations and how that translates to what they provide the communities they serve. I was part of a webinar where they had ASL interpreters doing live translations. Inclusivity and designing for all participants should always be on the forefront, especially when serving a diverse community. Coming from a background where I have worked at many non-profit organizations, I see how these services MRAC provides can provide broader outreach and provide equity, and recognize those who haven’t been well served in the past.

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