2019 AAPD Leadership Awards Gala Speech [Video + Text]

As a 2019 recipient of the AAPD Paul G. Hearne Emerging Leader Award, I will be working with young people who are formerly or currently incarcerated to build power by critically analyzing systems and building disability consciousness. On March 13, I attended the AAPD Leadership Awards Gala and gave a speech to provide an overview of the reasons I chose to engage with this project. Below is the text of the written speech, which is slightly different from the spoken version in the video. The speech was also prefaced with an acknowledgement of Milton Henderson and the role that he played in my life. Rest in Power.

Content Warning: Mention of murder, police violence, and sexual assault.

First, I would like to acknowledge that we are gathering on the traditional land of Indigenous people and pay my respect to elders both past and present, who have stewarded this land for generations, the land that many of you may call home. I stand here, not alone, but on the shoulders of people who came before me, some of whom were enslaved just a short distance south of here on the Pamunkey River. I pessimistically search for their names and faces and stories, knowing that I may never find any of it, but with an understanding that I have always known who they were. Who they were is evident in who we are. No matter how they were counted, if they were counted at all, they were born free, lived free, and died free… and it is because of them, that I am, and I am because we are. That is a truth that lives in my work, my name, and my bones. It colors the sky of a world we have yet to imagine… one that I am privileged to paint every day. Engaging in this he[art]work has provided me refuge from the trauma and violence that has been inflicted upon my community, my people, and my family.

My aunt Eddie Mae was murdered in the middle of the night. She was stabbed over a dozen times in her own home. The person that killed her, has lived with a diagnosis of schizophrenia for most of his life. With treatment and support, he enjoyed Sunday poker games at his family’s house and looked after his niece and nephews. Without it and compounded by other social determinants, his behavior manifested differently and for that, he was often criminalized, jailed or institutionalized - all of which, exacerbated his disabilities. That person is my cousin Danny. He was my father’s best man at my parents wedding. He is now serving life without parole in a state prison, where he will die. The same state prison where my uncle from the other side of my family is serving 12 years. They both went through the same jail that my best friend, his two brothers, three of my little cousins, four of my older cousins, one of my aunts, three of my uncles and almost every friend that I grew up with has been in at least once. I’m here receiving this award tonight, not because I’ve done something extraordinary, but because of the extraordinary love that has been given to me by those same people and the other people that I belong to.

I’ve done nothing alone. All of my work has been collaborative. I’m grateful for the people that came before me and have been with me in developing language to articulate my experiences. People who would never identify as advocates or activists. People like my brother Terry… a Mortal Kombat loving, Dallas Cowboys reppin’, Lupe Fiasco enthusiast; whose most important contribution to the eight-year-old version of me was his willingness to eat my portion of my mother’s infamous shepherd's pie. I love my mother, but I don’t wish that on anyone. Terry nurtured my thoughts that would later grow into a critical analysis of the questions that animate almost all of what I do. Unlike me, he was given jail time instead of support. His experiences ultimately led to him taking his own life. Although, he’s not here in the physical, I continue to learn lessons from Terry. Among those lessons are; to never bet on the Dallas Cowboys to win in the playoffs, dogs love my mother’s shepherd's pie, and if we don’t tell our stories, they will, or as Zora Neale Hurston wrote, “if you are silent about your pain, they will kill you and say you enjoyed it.”

We live in a nation that uses prisons and police to dislocate and attempt to silence entire communities. As discourse on what some would refer to as the ‘school-to-prison pipeline’ has entered the mainstream, my understanding of this trajectory has shifted. After spending time in schools, kid jails and adult prisons, it is clear to me that our schools are functioning as carceral spaces; and students, particularly black and disabled students are criminalized for existing as they are. The police in schools are being used as a mechanism to control the environment and behavior of students, along with the bells, lines, uniforms, assault, lack of access to medical treatment, and so on, which are also method used in prisons.

We imprison more people than any other country in the world. In fact, most states, individually imprison more people than any other country. As Angela Davis put it, “prisons do not disappear social problems, they disappear human beings.” Of those millions of human beings that are disappeared, most of them are black and brown, low or no income, and have disabilities. There are also thousands of kids in these cages. Up until a recent Supreme Court ruling, over 500 people were serving time after being sentenced to death by incarceration as juveniles in the state of Pennsylvania. Seven out of ten of the women in those prisons have a documented mental illness, with the overwhelming majority of them having experienced sexual assault prior to or during their incarceration. It is because of my awareness of human rights violations like these, coupled with my personal experience that I’ve come to understand disability as something that does not exist within a vacuum and is shaped by our experiences and positions within social structures. The absence of this truth is how Ricardo Hayes, Natasha Mckenna, Bruce Kelley Jr, Deborah Danner, Freddie Gray and thousands of others can be killed by police for being both black and disabled, then experience the erasure of ableism and the justification of racism in the aftermath of their deaths. To honor them, it is imperative that we acknowledge every facet of their identity to recognize their full humanity.

In order to do that, our work must center the experiences of those within the margins of the margins. This is precisely why my project will be led by young people who have been incarcerated and young people who are currently incarcerated. To be clear, it is not intended to be an intervention of behavior. It will be a collective effort towards creating the conditions necessary to ensure that we have a future in which no one will be put in a cage. Together, we will work to obtain a complex understanding of the function of carceral systems; and examine the deep connections that exist between oppressed people globally in order to render interdependent movements that are in solidarity with one another. In the completion of this project, my hope is that we will look to the Rohingya people who are being violently forced to flee their homes, the imprisoned Kurdish women in Turkey, the Palestinians, namely the disabled Palestinians who have been targeted, the protesters from Ferguson, the Black people of Brazil, the families fleeing Honduras and Guatemala and Mexico, the women punished for surviving in the United States and understand that our liberation is bound up with theirs. It is with this understanding that I believe they can see themselves as an authority on matters of advocacy and develop a mandate for the change they want.

I would like to thank AAPD for awarding me the funds that will not only support me in continuing the engagement of the next generation, but an opportunity to center disability and do so through the brick walls and barbed wires of the prisons.

Dustin pictured standing at a podium looking down as he reads his speech.

Dustin pictured standing at a podium looking down as he reads his speech.

Dustin Gibson