Sunday, June 01, 2008

Dorothy Dixon Memorial Day a Success!

First, to see some pics from our trip, click on this Flickr link: We hope to collect more soon.

The events of May 31, 2008, would not have been possible without the hard work of many FRIDAs and staff members at IMPACT Inc. Thank you so much Cathy Contarino and Missy Kichline and staff for working with us and taking your Saturday to help remember Dorothy. Everyone had a seriously great community day. The FRIDAs who attended were: Barb Bechdol, Larry Bechdol, Aerin Jung, Sharon Lamp, Veronica Martinez, Alva Rodriguez, Amber Smock, Jody Thomas and Christine Wilk. I gotta say, Christine was definitely the one who was pushing the little "We Gotta Do This!" button to make something happen. Anything. So Christine, thank you for motivating us!

So what, exactly, happened?

From the FRIDA end of things, it was a bear just getting to Alton on Friday, May 30. Two of us took Amtrak---and folks, we need to do something about Amtrak access. Not cool, some of the things going on with Amtrak. Because Alton is a smaller town, it also lacks a lot of sidewalks where we visited, so our two early birds actually had to have the police assist them when trying to get around in their power chairs! The other seven of us drove from around 2 pm till 11 pm (NINE HOURS!) from Chicago to Alton. A trip that should have taken half the time was delayed because we were driving through a giant storm system. As a result, the FRIDAs in my car named our rental wheels "Tornado Car," or TC for short.

The next morning, FRIDA went over to IMPACT and set up the community hall with memorial signs and created a memorial circle for folks to sit in. Christine helped emcee. We had scheduled remarks from Cathy, Barb Bechdol, Sharon Lamp, Cynthia Campbell (Marlin Thomas' mom), and Christine read some remarks from Ann Ford, Executive Director for the Illinois Network of Centers for Independent Living (INCIL). The 30 or so people gathered also had open time for anyone to share remarks.

Probably my favorite parts of the open period were from Michelle Steger of St. Louis ADAPT and from Marie, who is the director of OASIS, a battered women's shelter in Alton. Michelle read a poem submitted by someone she knows that lists the names of many people with disabilities who passed on. Then she asked us to go around the circle and name someone we were remembering today. People named everyone from family members to buddies who died in Vietnam. I appreciated Marie's remarks because her work is so close to Dorothy's situation, and also because her work is not disability-specific. We need as many allies as we can get.

After the memorial, we canvassed the group on the best way to proceed to the house where Dorothy died. We agreed that folks willing to walk would go first, and vans with otehr folks would follow. It was sweltering HOT and HUMID, and we knew the route was hilly, but we shot for the moon anyway. And it was....GREAT. We shouted and chanted our lungs out! We went through a residential neighborhood that had a mix of working class and poor homes. We saw a few other folks with disabilities. And a LOT of people watched us passed by...slowing down their bikes or trucks, coming out to the front of their homes. We were very loud and determined too.

When we finally arrived at 2957 Hillcrest, I'm not sure what others felt, but I had that ADAPT urge to go storm the building, that adrenalin rush of here we are!! and no one can stop us! We were very fortunate in that the family currently in the home sympathized with the situation and even stood with us for our moment of silence, once we had all caught up. Three of our group were Harley riders and had beaten us to the house and helped give the family a heads up. We took about half an hour to take a pic, take a look, and take a moment to remember Dorothy and all victims with disabilities.

What is it like looking at the house where someone was tortured to death? I know I felt pretty grim. It's just a small house and the basement level is pretty clearly visible. It doesn't look like the basement would be all that warm. It doesn't look like enough space for six people to live, but we know folks can live pretty much anywhere. The houses are definitely close enough that someone would have heard yelling and screaming---maybe. It also did seem like the kind of neighborhood where folks might just say, "Oh, those people in that house...they're kind of odd. Just stay away." And no one would think anything of it. I've lived in that kind of neighborhood myself.

In fact, the neighborhood where Dorothy lived in Alton reminded me a lot of the first house I lived in when I was growing up. People didn't have a lot of money, and I know for a fact that at school we had families living in the motels and shelters. If your neighbors gave you a funny vibe, you stayed away. People would have labeled a lot of folks as "lowlifes"---a lot of crystal meth, a lot of folks who don't do anything in the daytime. As FRIDA was marching, a woman who appeared to have a cognitive disability came out and yelled at us---growing up, my reaction would have been "stay away from that person because who knows what they'll do?" (These days, my reaction is more like "Is that person known to the local CIL? Are they getting community supports?") I could see how this might be a place where Michelle Riley felt she could stay unbothered and do what she liked with her household, including Dorothy.

Back to the house, however---it's just a house. And yet, it's not. The picture of the house is burned in my head---as I think of it, I think of Mother Jones: "Pray for the dead, and fight like hell for the living!"

FRIDA next regrouped and marched back to IMPACT, where Cathy treated us to pizza and we then loaded into cars to visit the grounds of the old state hospital, which is now the Alton Mental Health Center. At the back of the grounds is a field where they used to bury people who died there. The graves do have headstones with names and dates up till the 1970s. The older ones from the 1940s have serial numbers. IMPACT Board member Susan Shobe gave us a tour, with two guards from the Department of Human Services on hand with a grave map and answers for questions. We do not know where Dorothy's remains are, and so this was possibly the next best thing we could do.

At this point we were all sunburned and petrified with heat and humidity, so after saying goodbyes, some of us made their way home. My car, including Veronica, Aerin and Jody, made just one more pit stop---at the memorial for Mother Jones at the United Mine Workers Cemetery in Mt. Olive, Illinois. None of the three knew anything about Mother Jones, and they were very excited to learn about this famous woman organizer. On her memorial is the quote, "We count it death to falter, not to die," by Simonides of Ceos. I felt this is a quote appropriate of the disability rights movement, not just the labor movement. I know Mother Jones was myopic about women's rights, but she still poses an exciting and inspirational model for women leaders of all ages.

Atthis point, we drove back to Chicago and dropped off all our FRIDAs. At the end of the day, I was still enormously angry and sad, but I also felt incredibly empowered and powerful. We hurdled SO MANY barriers to get this done---and we made it. And believe it or not, we planted a seed. Cilla Sluga of Springfield said, "We should do this every year! We should have a Dorothy Dixon Memorial Parade right here in Alton." Absolutely!!! Perhaps such an event will get us thinking about systemic change as well...from tiny acorns grow mighty oak trees. What do you think?