From Writing Hip-Hop Lyrics to Activism to Motherhood, Heather Waltkins Shares Common Experiences & More
I’ve been in San Francisco, CA since 1991 but I’m originally from New York//CT. People call the Bay area the bubble and I agree with the nice weather, what used to be liberalism, all year around vegetables and fruits you can get spoiled or think that this is the only place to live.
However before I moved out to the Bay, my life on the east coast was also filled with first experiences like I got to see the birth of Hip-Hop in NY, walked through campuses from UCONN to Boston University to Yale to Southern CT State University to chillin’ with my mother at free Jazz concerts in the park. My writing and activism started on the east coast with my first publication in the all Black newspaper, Amsterdam Newspaper, in NY to getting arrested protesting disability budget cuts. So it is nice to go down memory lane with what is happening today for disabled people in Boston with disability advocate, author, mother, graduate of Emerson College with a B.S. in Mass Communications, and lifelong resident of Boston, Massachusetts, Heather Watkins.
Last time I was in Boston was for the 2004 Democratic National Convention and in a nut shell that wasn’t the real Boston that I was used to. I met Heather Waltkins on Facebook and throughout our conversations among many years, I realized that we have many things in common not only being an activist and author but we both have deep interest in Black disability history, art, music, politics and she told me a secret that I will tell you is that she used to write rap lyrics and still write poetry. So yes we have much in common and at the same time of course we have our differences, such as Watkins is a parent, she is of course a woman; she still lives on the east coast while I moved to San Francisco, CA. Yes sometimes I miss the east coast so let’s see what’s happening now in Boston, MA, and what is up with Watkins by walking or better yet limping down memory lane.
Leroy Moore: Heather Watkins take me down memory lane of the Boston that is still there from the 80’s and what is new.
Heather Watkins: I grew up in the 80’s in Dorchester, in a predominately Black working class neighborhood where everyone was friendly and familiar with one another. And get this, many 2 parent households, quite the contrary of what was painted in local papers and newsmedia when crafting stories involving communities of color, as you know. The only person in my family and extended fam, and neighborhood that I recall with a disability affecting mobility that was mostly “hidden” until many years later when I began using a cane in my 30’s. Being the only person with that description means there were no disabled role models in community nor in any teen magazines or tv channels I might’ve been flipping through at the time. So no support that I or my family may have benefitted from within community. I received care and participated in MDA clinics, camps, and sponsored events outside of the community often without seeing other people of color included. That’s why orgs that now exist like Multicultural Independent Living Center of Boston are valuable resources to people with disabilities and located within the community. I didn’t learn about disability identity and culture until much later and being in advocacy circles.
I think having leadership like Mayor Menino (RIP) who became a great ally and who himself became multiply disabled and a cane-user was a critical piece of changes in Boston. The work of many passionate advocates who came before me and worked with officials and community folks makes the difference. Dialogue with actionable steps and full accountability were the aim then and now as we have a new mayor who I believe will help continue that legacy. Boston is pretty vocal. I will say I don’t always see the trickle down to the inner city communities as I’d like I mean I would love to see all the businesses accessible to people with disabilities. I’m still seeing many storefronts with steps, narrow doorways, inaccessible aisles/restrooms/parking, etc. If I can’t access your business than we can’t partake of the resources and since many disabled folks socialize, shop, dine with non-disabled friends and fam we all then would have to take our business elsewhere to a more accommodating venue, big-box store, etc. The loss of potential business, cost-benefit analysis, funds circulating out of community I wonder about.
Of course there are many areas of focus and needs for improvement, just something I’ve given consideration since we have tax incentives for accessibility upgrades and matching grants for façade improvements.
Leroy Moore: Another common history we share is being on many boards and non-profits. Heather is a member of the board of directors for the Multi-cultural Independent Living Center of Boston, Disability Policy Consortium, and a founding board member of the National Association for Non-Profit Professionals. She is also a Co-founder of “Divas with Disabilities Project,” a supportive sisterhood network representing women of color with disabilities. To continue this walk down my east coast memory lane, I know my years at non-profits in my youth of people with disabilities I was the only Black person in many cases until I saw the first Black disabled executive director, Bev Jackson in the 1980’s in Hartford, CT at United Cerebral Palsy Association. Back then in CT there was no Multi-cultural Independent Living Center. Matter of fact when I met Keith Jones, another Black disabled man who was living in Boston at that time, early 2000 he told me about the Multi-cultural Independent Living Center.
Heather brings my 1980’s disability non-profits experiences on the east coast up to date by sharing what she has done and continue today especially with Multi-cultural Independent Living Center of Boston that I wish I had in Hartford, CT in the 80’s.
Heather Waltkins: My board membership with all three orgs mentioned has been within the last 3 years so I don’t have an extensive experience as it‘s growing in the sector. They differ slightly in focus and that’s a benefit since I gain new skills and exercise advocacy muscles in different ways. Disability Policy Consortium‘s concentration is more legislative, MILCB where I serve as clerk on the board is an independent living center provides core services like Information & referral, peer support, job readiness skills, and nursing home transition serving cross disabilities in the community. National Association of Non-Profit Professionals is the newest initiative which got started last August that I was asked to join. It serves nonprofit professionals through networking, training, mentoring and professional growth.
Leroy Moore: Wow Heather and I hold a story of Hip-Hop & disability. This wonderful newly history of disability and Hip-Hop that Heather and I share is amazing of two time periods one in New York at the birth of Hip-Hop when I sat outside of ciphers embarrass of my body and my only job was to look out for the cops. Compared to Heather, a Black disabled woman in 2005-06 in an online room of yahoo aka Yahoo 360, it was an online Hip-Hop cipher. So interesting and wonder if I had the internet back in the late 70’s and 80’s with the reality that nobody would see me, my walker and my turn in feet would I perform online? Heather explain how the Yahoo Hip-Hop cipher at 2005-06 worked back then and shares a verse or more.
Heather Watkins: Sure, it was a shortlived social medium site similar to Facebook. So we would have personal pages but basic features and then someone would create a forum and alert others by a tag or something that a rhyme battle was starting and someone would start it off with a rhyme and it would go from there, you'd pick it where last person leftover, cracking on one another, the way rappers used to do...lots of bravado, overhyped rhymes, it was hot...the energy was unbelievable, magnetic but the better the knowledge and wordplay the more creative and live it was, you know, of course.
I remember trying to type faster than my rhymes were channeling through my brain..lol...the creative spark channeled from that kind of mind meld so to speak is infectious almost, otherworldly...for real. So much fun and a bit of an adrenaline rush. I want to be clear, I never rapped the rhymes and can’t freestyle at all..lol..but I can definitely write a ill verse if given an opportunity.
I wish I’d save something from then but I’ll share something new since I’m thinking about this subject:
Hell, the revolution might not be televised but rhymed, egos crushed and bruised, brains fried from processing too many lies plied from saccharin smiles. Benefits denied, we tried..we cried. Babies still dying, can’t grow up, won’t let us, food and water poisoned, stomachs growling, said they already fed us. Public services cut, rewrote tax codes to save a few corporate bucks.
Leroy Moore: We both served on commission of Mayors around disability. Me, back in the 90’s in San Francisco and of course Heather right now in Boston. I know for me it was a tug of war being a hard-core activist and going into City Hall especially at that time when the Mayor was giving everything to the dot-comers aka the tech industry. As I sat in city Hall I saw the city change and not for the good. I wonder what have Heather seen so far as a commissioner in Boston and has Boston change for the good or like many cities just for the new era of gentrification?
Heather Watkins: Been serving on advisory board of city disability commission since 2009 after it was newly convened. I became chairperson in 2014 and was the first person of color and woman to lead the board. Initially, I was very green to the process and how it all worked so I was quiet and observant and analyzed more than I spoke at first. But I love learning, networking and really being part of learning exchanges. Slowly I began catching on becoming more comfortable. The new commissioner was appointed in 2010 and really got to work and also has made an effort to diversify the board in terms of disabilities, culture, and experience. The partnerships that commission has with advocacy orgs in the city which helps us stay informed and plugged in. There is no shortage of work, and as you know any gains must be maintained. From support letters for various bills that impact pwd’s, holding community forums and ADA day events, work on WAV taxis, affordable housing, structural access, are just some of the initiatives worked on during the time I’ve been aboard. Meetings since January 2015 are now broadcast live, captioned, and available online.
In terms of gentrification, it’s happening I’m seeing parts of the city slowly transforming especially where I live in Roslindale. Recently, housing complexes have gone up and restaurant influx and I wonder about displacement. So far, I’ve been spared but that doesn’t mean others in similar positions are or have the choice to stay due to economics. When you move you’d rather do so on your own accord not being forced because it’s beyond your budget. Ideally, having access means having it across the board. I’m thinking of equalizer graph, those fluctuations are eye-catching when the music is thumping but may not translate well in real life especially for pwd’s basic needs and quality of life.
Leroy Moore: This Memory lane stops right here because I will never know what is like to be a Black disabled mother. I still can’t believe that even today I have a lack of models of Black disabled mothers in my life. When Black History & Women History Months come along every year I still see a lack of stories of Black/Brown disabled mothers. As I witness in the disability field that women make up the majority but even today White disabled women make up a large amount of workers in the disability field. Although I call myself a feminist, as a Black, straight disabled man, my male privilege has much negative affect of my Black disabled sisters. So tell us Heather your experiences as a mother and also oppression you felt by men in the disability field. Lastly what White & Black disabled/nondisabled males need to do to be better allies?
Heather Watkins: Well, as you know disability permeates every aspect of one’s life experience and it certainly had an impact on my parenting and I give insight about it in one of my blog posts. I talk about the internalized ableism, the fear of failing, and not feeling good enough. The upside was I did have a small support system however it didn’t include any other disabled mothers which may have helped immensely in terms of relatability and swapping tips, resources, info.
As far as the oppression I’ve experience I note that especially being in a leadership position is that they sometimes speak over you or may disregard your experience or might downplay what you‘re saying. My leadership style is a bit more laidback and more soft spoken which doesn’t always translate into preconceived ideas of strong leadership and what that might “look” like. As a mass comm major my communication is often strategic and analytical I’m coming from a place of offering something I believe to be meaningful to the conversation otherwise I’m blowing hot air and exhausting time and energy. Many women like myself are coming in with heightened sensitivity, adaptive skills, appreciate back stories that have increased our patience and compassion levels and bring wealth of experience that could be transferable to leadership positions. This is why it’s so important when we talk about disability as part of the diversity conversation beyond color spectrum and optics I’m envisioning talent pool and range of voices at the table. Learning exchanges from atop the table instead of finger-wags across soap boxes makes for a more valued conversation.
Also, assuming when you join boards and councils that you already have the same level of experience. White disability advocates may not realize pwd’s of color may take longer to self-identify and seek assistance for many reasons, including but not limited to culture, family, religion, poverty, etc and making false assumptions that all of our needs are similar. You can’t even compare ILC’s in one part of town to one in another and use the same metrics. The one serving more POC’s more than likely is playing catch up.
Leroy Moore: I hope our futures continue to be intertwined with common experiences and opportunities for me to learn from you and your work/art. With that what is in your future and what advice would you give to a little Heather Watkins out there growing up today as a Black girl with a disability who has the same interest like Hip-Hop and being an advocate, a mother and so on?
Heather Watkins: I will continue to work on my brand of activism which includes board service, writing, and being part of dialogues that further the disability rights conversation where it intersects at race and gender and be open to how that organically takes place and meeting/networking/ creating partnerships. I’d like to see more sisters with disabilities across the media landscape so it becomes less newsworthy and more normalized. I’m a proud Black disabled woman and wouldn’t change anything about that since my biology has contributed to my biography in ways I never dreamed.
I would tell a young Heather Watkins to keep being her authentic self which is a revolutionary act in itself and to connect with other sisters with disabilities. Other sisters, with a range of age and experience can help empower and illuminate aspects of your personal journey that don’t often see the light. Never doubt that your voice has value and your perspective has worth. I am excited about meeting more and more sisters who challenge ableist ideas and antiquated beliefs. That brilliance is motivating and fuels the spirit!
Leroy, thanks for the honor of being interviewed...really enjoy all I’ve learned from you, your artistry, and activism. Proud to know you and call you my brother in the struggle.
Kiss the east coast for me!