The Rooted in Advocacy Conference

Posted by The Arc of North Carolina
Author: Bryan Dooley
I’m getting excited, as one of my favorite disability advocacy events is making its annual appearance.  This will be my third time attending The Arc of North Carolina’s Rooted in Advocacy conference. This year, the conference will be held on March 29th at the Benton Convention Center in downtown Winston-Salem.  The first time I attended this event I was covering it for a local newspaper called The Camel City Dispatch.  I had a great time that year because as a journalist, I was able to interview many of the attendees and presenters.  It felt great to soak up some of their excitement towards self-advocacy.  Last year when I attended, I had the honor to address the group as a panelist representing a new initiative called the NC Empowerment Network (NCEN).  This year will a completely different experience because I won’t have any responsibility other than to enjoy and learn.  
I reached out to Melinda Plue, Director of Advocacy and Chapter Development at The Arc of North Carolina, to talk about this year’s event and how it’s different from what they’ve done in the past.   Melinda starts by talking about the history of The Arc’s conference.
For many years, The Arc hosted a statewide conference that brought together the fabric of The Arc- the families from across the state who needed a unified voice for issues that mattered to the people they loved the most.  Our rich chapter network came out in droves, and it was like a big family reunion.  This was a different time in our history, and we were really the only disability organization with a statewide presence; that simply isn’t true any longer and we don’t have to fight alone.   We have partners in the Autism Society of North Carolina, the various Down Syndrome Associations, various mental health organizations and other larger providers, and groups who are doing more disability-specific programming that speaks to one segment of the I/DD population.  At the same time, we knew there was a gap in programming for self-advocates, who for a long time had held their own event, planned for and by self-advocates.  The organized structure for that statewide event dissolved and a few of our cherished local chapters of The Arc took on that role for a while.  
We got our own annual conference down to a one-day event and helped self-advocates have their own one-day event on consecutive days in 2018.  While we all felt it was a success, I think what we were lacking was the final piece- why shouldn’t this event be inclusive of both audiences?  After all, isn’t this part of our work at The Arc?  Besides that, we want to invite our chapter network and the families we know and love, but we also want to bring in new folks to this family, and separating people based on interest level wasn’t appropriate. So, we include programming for teachers, law enforcement officers, and honestly anyone who is encountering people with I/DD in their professional or personal lives- there is something for everyone, essentially.  
So, what’s happening at this year’s event?  Melinda tells me that the pre-conference event on Thursday is a film screening of a newly-released documentary, Deej.  DJ Savarese has an incredible story of resilience and self-determination.  He hasn’t let his autism (or the fact that he is non-verbal) stop him from pursuing his higher education dreams.  The documentary chronicles his life, starting from the time he entered high school all the way through college, and is a must-see film.  
Melinda told me that DJ will join The Arc for the screening and be available for questions at the conclusion of the film- a terrific opportunity for self-advocates, family members, and professionals to get to engage with him.  
Friday is the one-day conference for both self-advocates and the greater community of The Arc, to include our staff, our chapters, and families across the state.  As mentioned before, The Arc is extending that invitation to teachers, attorneys, law enforcement officers, or anyone who is encountering the people we support at The Arc.  There’s something for everyone.  DJ Savarese will deliver our keynote address in the morning, which I’m so excited to hear.  
Breakout sessions are set up to be inclusive, Plue explained, but she says there are a couple exclusively reserved for self-advocates (at their request!) so that they have a private forum to discuss sensitive topics. 
The day will close out with a tremendous parent advocate as our closing speaker:  Natalie Weaver, who has emerged as a warrior after taking on the State of North Carolina in fighting for her daughter’s services, plus an arena this mom never thought she’d have to enter:  internet bullies who used her daughter’s image to promote hate and vitriol.  Natalie had no idea that she’d become the advocate she is today, and her message will resonate with everyone who is there.
All are welcome to attend our Friday evening dinner and dance, an element of the former self-advocate conference that we promised to include this year.  
Check out the webpage for the full conference schedule.  There are some really cool topics this year, and there truly is something for everyone.  This is an event you do not want to miss.  Hotel rooms sell out fast and we will reach maximum capacity at this conference- do not wait until the last minute!
Register today at  Early bird rates end on Friday, February 1st.