Disabled in Development Project Storyteller #10: Catherine Hyde Townsend

“Linking ableism to other forms of oppression is also critical.”

Color headshot of Catherine Hyde Townsend, a white woman who is smiling

Photo courtesy of Catherine Hyde Townsend


Multi-colored hexagons“Developing relationships between community leaders and philanthropic staff is essential. These social networks not only inform grant-making decisions, but also help reinforce learning and understanding of the disability community. It’s also one of the hardest things to do.”


Name or Anonymous:
Catherine Hyde Townsend
Please share how you prefer to introduce yourself:
I’ve worked in philanthropy on human rights issues since 2002 and became disabled 16 years ago.
Like lots of people, I was pretty clueless about disability before I experienced it myself.  But I quickly realized what internalized ableism looked like as well as the social model of disability. I had/have access to incredible support from my family, work and friends, as well as significant privilege within the healthcare system. I haven’t always self-identified for a variety of reasons, but do so now for both political and personal reasons, finding significant community with others in the disability community.
For most of my time within philanthropy, I’ve been trying to educate and advocate to colleagues about how they can better include people with disabilities. One of the things I’m most proud of is helping to launch the Disability Rights Fund, a global donor that uses a participatory decision-making structure.
Most of my past work was at Wellspring Advisors, which works anonymously and takes a very low profile. For obvious reasons that was challenging, but I was able to launch and expand a grant-making portfolio focused on the [UN] Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities with a very intersectional lens. That grant-making was/is really important, but it was also important for donors of women’s rights, HIV, AIDS, immigration, etc., to understand the ways different forms of oppression link and reinforce one another, but also how our advocacy can do the same.
My current work seeks to advance the inclusion of people with disabilities within philanthropy – mostly focusing on the grant-making, but a lot on learning and culture change, as you cannot have one without the other. 

Your pronouns are:
she/her/hers
Current Job Title(s) and Organization(s) (if applicable):
Independent consultant
Years in philanthropy on both the fund-seeking and fund-giving sides:
16-20
Number of years in the workforce prior to 2007, when there was a surge into social media?
12
Number of years in the workforce prior to 1990, when the ADA was passed?
0
Number of years in the workforce prior to 1977, when the federal Section 504 regulations were signed?
0

Multi-colored hexagons“There is no checklist to go through and then make a determination that an organization is disability inclusive…It’s also critical not to expect perfect practice right away.”


Have you held any positions that make funding decisions and/or sets funding priorities?
Yes
Are you currently opening identifying as disabled, managing a chronic illness, and/or dealing with aging issues in your workplace or with contracting companies, or in volunteer roles? 
Yes
Do you have any colleagues on your team or in your organization who identify as disabled/chronically ill/aging?
Yes
Do any of the funding decision-makers who are your peers, or who you report to, identify as disabled/chronically ill/aging?
Peers at other organizations yes, report to no
Have you had any ongoing connections with other disabled/chronically ill/aging philanthropy professionals where you can support each other?
Yes
Have you felt it was difficult to build strong relationships with peer colleagues, superiors, donors because of communication barriers?
No

Multi-colored hexagonsThe commitment to disability inclusion is only just starting in the philanthropic community. There is still so much work to do get funding institutions to prioritize this work. Once we do that, it’s critical to see this work as a journey and not a destination.”


Have you ever been provided with professional development, mentorship, and/or leadership training programs where you didn’t have to provide informal programmatic and/or physical access advising? 
Yes
Have you ever experienced what you consider significant secondary stress, anxiety, and/or fear about meeting professional expectations because of disability/chronic illness/aging-related barriers and/or stigma?
Yes
Have you ever left a position because of disability/chronic illness/aging-related barriers and/or policies made continuing in the position untenable?
No
Have you ever been told in a work performance-related conversation with a superior that your presence is an inspiration to others, and/or that your presence in the workplace is itself remarkable?
No
Have you ever been physically touched, grabbed, patted on the head, had your assistive equipment handled without your consent by a peer, superior, or donor in a work environment?
No
Have you ever struggled to participate in team-building exercises, workplace wellness programs, or other initiatives that were optional but not understood as presenting access barriers? 
 No

Multi-colored hexagons“Philanthropy has embraced DEI [Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion], but rarely considers disability within this frame. We must increase the demand/appetite for disability-specific expertise in DEI work.”


Have you belonged to any other employee resource groups (ERGs), affinity groups for disabled/chronically ill/aging people? Any for other groups (parents, LGBT, etc.) where you found support?
No
What type of system changes or workplace policy in philanthropic spaces have/would you recommend, based on your experience of disability/chronic illness/aging?
There are so many places to start, but learning and employment are key.
Many people have had very little experience with the disability community and how disability is interlinked with a myriad of social justice issues.  A basic understanding of disability and ableism is critical. Developing relationships between community leaders and philanthropic staff is essential. These social networks not only inform grant-making decisions, but also help reinforce learning and understanding of the disability community. It’s also one of the hardest things to do.

Multi-colored hexagons“It’s quite easy to pledge commitment to disability inclusion values without the resources and leadership to ensure implementation.”


It’s often best not to do this relationship-building work within a grant-maker-grantee relationship given the inherent power dynamics. Creating these opportunities can come in the form of convenings and events, providing technical assistance and even following others on Twitter.
On the employment side, there is much work to do. Philanthropy has embraced DEI [Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion], but rarely considers disability within this frame.
We must increase the demand/appetite for disability-specific expertise in DEI work. We must also collaborate and influence the larger community leading DEI efforts. These efforts are often focused on race and gender and don’t yet have the expertise to see the ways disability is intimately connected to this work (and not an add-on). This work applies both to the ways philanthropy implements DEI internally and the ways it supports grantees to advance DEI efforts.
Can you describe any gaps you’ve seen between commitments to disability inclusion in principle versus practice?
This is where the rubber hits the road. Oftentimes, so little attention has been paid to disability, that I’m just ecstatic that people are paying attention. Yet, it’s quite easy to pledge commitment to disability inclusion values without the resources and leadership to ensure implementation. 
Though frankly, the commitment to disability inclusion is only just starting in the philanthropic community. There is still so much work to do get funding institutions to prioritize this work. Once we do that, it’s critical to see this work as a journey and not a destination.
There is no checklist to go through and then make a determination that an organization is disability inclusive (though many would like such a thing).
It’s also critical not to expect perfect practice right away. I’ve seen so many times how this discourages organizations from even trying because they know they can’t “get it right.” In my own work, I encourage foundations to think as much about the process as the practice.  For example, engaging disabled people and the disability community is critical if you’re committed to disability inclusion.
It doesn’t always mean you get it “right” but it can help prioritize where to start and how to get there, centering disability experience. It also helps differentiate between effort and impact. Trying is not enough – we must see real change. If our efforts fail, than we need to apply different strategies and approaches until the outcome is strong disability inclusive practices. 
How would you describe the understanding of ableism within philanthropy, both as a workplace itself and in terms of seeking/giving funding?
Philanthropy is really just beginning to grapple with what ableism is and the implications within philanthropy and how it works with communities.
I think people tend to equate accessibility and disability first, so it’s important to acknowledge the importance of accessibility and to expand people’s understanding from there. Relatedly, disability is still mostly thought of as an individual issue rather than a collective and systematic form of oppression.
One of the strongest strategies to combat this thinking is to hire more disabled people within philanthropy, and to shift internal cultures so that more people can openly self-identify. Linking ableism to other forms of oppression is also critical. 

THANK YOU, CATHERINE!


Multi-colored hexagons

Each Monday the Disabled in Development Project (DiD) features one disabled, chronically ill and/or aging Storyteller who shares their experience in advancing disability equity in philanthropy and fundraising.

DiD’s community development goal is to make philanthropy more effective and thus more powerful by centering more disabled people from multiply-marginalized communities. DiD Storytellers educate funders about ableism, celebrate advances in disability inclusion, and testify to the ableist structural barriers they’ve encountered, and that may have halted their career advancement or forced them out.

All Storytellers self-select questions to answer from an extensive list. All Storytellers are modestly compensated for providing their expertise on how to move disability inclusion from principle to practice in philanthropy and fundraising.

If you’d like to become a Storyteller or Field Ally, contact DiD Founder and Director Ingrid Tischer at ingrid@talesfromthecrip.org. Tell your truth about our disabled labor to transform philanthropy!

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