President's Message: Change Versus Tradition in ACB

by Mitch Pomerantz

Welcome to 2011, a new year and, for many of us, the belief that it is also a new decade. Let me begin this first president's column of 2011 by wishing everyone in the ACB family a healthy, prosperous and successful new year. 2010 was both extremely successful and especially challenging: successful in terms of our overall advocacy efforts, but challenging insofar as our revenue-generating activities. 

I want to muse in this month's column on the topic of change within the American Council of the Blind and its impact on the future of our organization. As we approach ACB's 50th anniversary, it seems most appropriate in view of a proposal from the voting task force which will be considered at this summer's conference and convention to implement a secret ballot in place of the traditional standing vote. This proposal will, in no way, affect the roll call vote of affiliate delegates. That will not change. 

The task force, which is chaired by Jeff Thom, has also begun looking into the feasibility of some sort of remote voting -- telephonic, electronic, or both -- in order to enfranchise the thousands of members unable to attend conventions. These initiatives are likely to be controversial, particularly among longtime ACB'ers. Nonetheless, we need to explore these and other 21st century approaches to strengthening and growing ACB, while at the same time maintaining the culture and traditions of our organization. After all, over the past 10 or so years we've already introduced two very modern initiatives which have made ACB a far more dynamic and effective organization: operating an Internet radio station and conducting convention registration online. 

Before commenting further on change versus tradition within ACB itself, I'll suggest what may be fairly obvious: most of us do not embrace change very readily. Change involves some degree of risk, and human beings tend to be risk-averse. While this phenomenon becomes increasingly evident as we age, children often do not handle changing circumstances very well either. In general, people tend to be creatures of habit. We prefer doing things the way we've always done them; we like our routines. Yes, there are certainly exceptions. We all know someone who chafes at routine, who looks forward to change not just occasionally, but on a daily basis. My experience tells me, however, that such folks are the exception and not the rule. 

If you require proof, consider the reaction in this country to the national trend away from traditional paper ballots and the adoption of electronic voting systems. While a few anomalies have been noted in the national implementation of these systems, the extent of such irregularities has been pretty insignificant -- given the number of precincts and counties involved in the election process -- when compared to the use of paper ballots: from those notorious "hanging chads" in the 2000 presidential election to the well-documented graveyard voters going back to at least the mid-19th century. The strident outcries which arose following those few documented instances of problems with electronic voting grabbed headlines and, at least in my opinion, symbolized the public's undue fear of change. 

As I've said on numerous occasions, ACB members are a microcosm of the society in which we live. Most of us are uncomfortable with change, just as are our sighted peers. My first lesson regarding this truism came more than a decade ago when the notion of establishing the Monthly Monetary Support (MMS) Program was first proposed. More than one veteran ACB member argued that we shouldn't undertake the program because the NFB was already doing something similar. To me, however, at the heart of this opposition was the fact that it meant a fundamental shift in ACB's approach to fundraising. We would begin asking our members to be more directly involved in raising money for the organization. Fortunately, in due time the membership did vote to implement the MMS Program and it is increasingly providing ACB with much-needed revenue. 

Regardless of whether you choose to support the secret ballot proposal later this year and/or some form of remote voting initiative at a future convention, I believe everyone must begin to recognize that some changes within ACB are inevitable if we are to attract new and younger members. Most of us over the age of 50 are part of the last generation that has had to adapt to the age of technology. Certainly, many of us have taken to computers and the Internet pretty easily. Many others (myself included) have come to the world of instant information and communication somewhat more grudgingly. Ironically, as one who reads a fair amount of science fiction, I'm not necessarily averse to change as much as I was comfortable with my own routine. 

I've come to recognize, however, that if the American Council of the Blind is to continue as a viable entity, we must accept new ways of doing things while respecting the traditions that have made our organization so great. Whether it's remote voting to include more members in participatory democracy, regional conventions involving several state affiliates, use of Facebook and Twitter to facilitate communication with younger members, or something else entirely, the hard truth is that ACB will either change and grow or stagnate and wither away. I trust that the overwhelming majority of us will embrace the former and reject the latter. As is the tradition within ACB, it will ultimately be our choice to make.