Taking Pride in Our Identity


Gathering together on tablets from the comfort of their own homes, a group of MOKA Leadership Development Opportunities (LDO) Fellows found friendship, fellowship, and fun.

Through a unique partnership with the Michigan Disability Rights Coalition, six people in MOKA’s residential homes participated in the year-long Leadership Development Opportunities Fellowship program. The group met virtually throughout 2021 to discuss issues around disability pride, advocacy, and inclusion. They also came together for art classes, self-care sessions, and presentations on resources to support their independence.

Kurt took to heart lessons on self-advocacy, self-efficacy, and self-awareness. He also now speaks up to encourage his peers and housemates. Melissa discovered she is capable of doing things on her own, along with the importance of doing what is right.

All of the Fellows improved their technology skills. Alisha learned how to color and cook using her iPad. Marie enjoyed the art classes and pajama parties offered through the fellowship program. And Stacey and Deontae applied what they learned from LDO on the job and in real life.

Simply put: “LDO teaches us about who we are and what we are capable of doing,” Kurt says.

The Leadership Development Opportunities Fellowship Program is a program of the Michigan Disability Rights Coalition with funding from the Michigan Developmental Disabilities Council. Aimee Sterk, Program Director at MDRC, developed the statewide program about five years ago.

LDO Fellows participate in a series of retreats and learning opportunities to build skills and abilities in leadership. Fellows normally gather online and in person, but MOKA’s Fellows met online due to the coronavirus pandemic.

The program explores disability history, culture, and pride and how identities are often intersectional. Fellows gain the tools and resources to “take pride in our identity as people with disabilities and look for opportunities to build inclusion and to have our voices heard on issues that are important to us,” Sterk says.

Sterk met MOKA’s Executive Director Tracey Hamlet through a mutual friend and thought it would be a good opportunity to work together.

“We have some really key shared values,” Sterk says. “I think both of us have been looking all along for opportunities to partner and to grow the inclusion and knowledge at MOKA and to increase access to our programming for MOKA participants.”

 The Lansing-based Michigan Disability Rights Coalition cultivates disability pride and strengthens the disability movement “by recognizing disability as a natural and beautiful part of human diversity while collaborating to dismantle all forms of oppression.”

In previous LDO cohorts, Fellows lived in the community, in different parts of the state, with varying levels of support. Sterk would make home visits to set them up with an iPad and internet service. The pandemic changed all that, so Sterk thought it was a good opportunity to reach people in group homes.

“We indicated to the council that we really felt like we were missing a huge number of people with developmental disabilities because we hadn’t served many people before that lived in group homes,” Sterk says. “And with COVID and knowing we couldn’t come together in person for a retreat, we thought that partnering with MOKA would really help us reach people that lived in group homes.”

The LDO program serving people at MOKA kicked off in November 2020 and concluded in September 2021 with the graduation ceremony. Fellows are typically recommended through their case manager or home manager but still go through an application and interview process. MDRC provides Fellows with an iPad, but it helped having MOKA’s home employees available to assist participants with technology issues.

“I appreciate the support of MOKA and the staff to keep people connected at a time where all of us were really experiencing deep social isolation,” Sterk says. “I am really proud of the community that we built and the support that we created for each other.”

The LDO Fellows explored their individual strengths and uniqueness and gained new skills while building relationships with peers, housemates, and disability advocates. Session topics included art and music, disability history and heroes, ableism and equal access, leadership strengths, self-determination, identity mapping, goal setting, and independent living.

Fellows learned about the history of oppression and resistance from the disability community. In particular, that people with disabilities were among the first exterminated during the Holocaust. But they also heard inspiring stories about history-making acts of resistance, including how people with disabilities were responsible for the longest successful sit-in in American history.

Various speakers and conversations evolved around the individual interests of participants. “This year, we had a couple of folks that were really interested in inclusive arts and music, and we had many people that were interested in employment,” Sterk says.

Sterk arranged for presentations on accessing employment services and other issues related to homelessness, housing, and health care. The Fellows completed the Clifton Strengths Assessment by Gallup to discover their strengths related to leadership and teamwork.

The group also came together for two more intensive “retreats” and pajama parties.

“I think something that really got injected this last year is that passion for music by several participants,” Sterk says. “So, we ended up having like dance parties and music.”

Each Fellow also worked on an issue or goal that is important to them. Some wanted to find jobs or live independently. Kurt focused on shedding labels, fighting stigmas, and inspiring his peers. “I learned to advocate for myself and my needs and my housemates,” Kurt says.

Kurt lives in the Lilly Home in Grand Rapids and participates in drumming and art programs through Artists Creating Together (ACT). Kurt learned how to download drumming apps so he could practice when his group, Action Drummers, couldn’t meet. He also found a job since participating in LDO.

Kurt also shared that he learned new relational skills. He applied preparation, collaboration, and active listening to other interests and hobbies, including his drumming group. “We get along and respect each other’s wishes and wait our turn,” he says of his drumming group. “We share ideas. We don’t put people down. We don’t say ‘your idea is dumb.’”

Ousman Fofana, Lilly Home Supervisor, told Kurt about the Fellows program and encouraged him to apply.

“During that interview, I remember him talking a lot about disability pride, like he’s trying to explain now he tries to tell a lot of people that, you know, it doesn’t matter what your disability is you can do anything that any other person can do,” Ousman says. “That also plays in his mind about him wanting to get back to work, getting back to earning his own money, planning things he wants to do. He doesn’t want any of his disabilities to stop his goals. He wants to come in front of it.”

During LDO, Kurt would share information about what he was learning with his housemates. Kurt really enjoyed the ableism part of the training and now encourages others to go after their goals, Ousman says.

Ousman also noticed Kurt’s commitment to the program and his growth and independence with technology. He started preparing for sessions in advance and would log on early with his books out and ready to go.

Kurt likes finding new apps on the iPad, particularly for music and drumming. The apps allow him to explore and be creative.

“He can use it to create his own drumming music and he also teaches some of the guys here how to use the different drums,” Ousman says. “He learned how to search the internet, how to download the apps. He knows how to find a link and connect.”

Melissa, a resident of the Amanda Home in Kent County, became employed by the end of the program. Participating in LDO taught her more about independence and integrity, adding “if you know you’re going to do something wrong, then you know how to fix that problem.”

Melissa made sure to show up for the LDO sessions because she wanted to learn what she was capable of doing and complete the program. She enjoyed the classes on mindfulness and art. And she grew more comfortable using an iPad to talk with her mom and friends, listen to music, and connect on Facebook. “I think it’s a very good experience for me and it helps me learn different things,” Melissa says.

Melissa missed the evening pajama parties but enjoyed the camaraderie at the graduation ceremony. “We were dancing together, we were singing together, we were playing music together,” Melissa says. “It was a wonderful time. I enjoyed that.”

Marie and Alisha live in the Greenboro Home in Grand Rapids and enjoyed the connection with the other LDO Fellows. They graduated as tech-savvy Fellows who could download apps, send emails, and use social media and Siri. They also used their iPads to connect with friends and family.

Alisha learned to cook from YouTube as well as color on her tablet. Marie loves dancing and used her iPad to look up music so she can dance in her room as well as watch movies. Alisha has a goal of getting her own apartment. Marie wants to resume volunteering in the community.

Besides discussing serious issues around disability, the group joined together virtually for festive pajama parties and a spirited graduation ceremony. Marie and Alisha celebrated with caps and gowns and a party at Greenboro. All the Fellows received “feisty and noncompliant T-shirts.” The LDO Fellows say they are grateful for the opportunity and miss seeing others in the program.

“In general, they really had a blessed time with LDO,” says Aimee Bamwanya, Residential Support Staff at the Greenboro Home. “You would see them dressed up, always excited, and so happy.”

Story by Marla Miller. Photos by Lara Parent.