So Peter Cahan and I sat in the office of Beata Karpinska, ARISE’s director of advocacy, and had this conference call with attorney David Knight in the Federal Transit Administration’s Office of Civil Rights. I told David story after story of the hurtful things Centro’s Call-a-Bus was doing to people with disabilities and David told us what was supposed to be happening. There was a big difference. The FTA was operating under the Americans with Disabilities Act—federal law—and it said that riders had rights. Centro was wrong.
Well, imagine that! For years, Centro’s Call-a-Bus (CAB) call-takers had been ordering us around. Their position was that riders had to do what they were told to do, period, no discussion. Manager Linda McKeown, a petty malcontent, had been bossing us around for years. Now I knew: I was right; she was wrong: the feds said so.
I ended the phone conversation with David by reviewing what we had discussed, what action he would take, what action I would take, and when our next phone appointment would be. We hung up, I turned to my colleagues to high-five them with exultation—and Beata Karpinska said, “You can’t talk to him like that!” Wha-a-a WTF? Why not?
I had spoken to the attorney with absolute respect. I had my facts organized, I spoke concisely and to the point, and I thought a lot had been accomplished in the phone call. What had I done wrong? Apparently what I had done wrong, in Beata’s eyes, was speak to a federal employee as if I was his equal. In fact, I am his equal: government of the people, by the people and for the people. Attorney David Knight and I both were people.
Peter later would explain to me his theory of Beata’s problem. Beata was born and raised in Poland, which is a small country and in the last four hundred years has been invaded by the Russians, Prussians, Habsburgs, Nazis and Soviets. Unable to fight back and win, the Polish people have maintained their national identity by appeasing the current batch of invaders. Apparently Beata deeply believed that you had to kiss the ass of the government because they were not your government.
Well, Beata, you’re in the United States now and it’s okay to speak up to those who govern. The only power they have is the power we’ve given them and we have in place a legal process whereby we can take back the power. So I wrote up a list for the Public Transportation Advisory Committee (PTAC) of all the things that David Knight had said, and I gave all the credit to Beata. In terms of citizenship, I was still a young thing and had not fully grasped the power that was available to me.
The PTAC meetings continued on—and on and on. Month after month, CAB riders would come with their list of complaints and Linda McKeown would come and stonewall us. Beata was, in fact, the head of the group even though it was not official. The meetings did not begin until Beata entered the room and chose someone to facilitate for that meeting. Everyone looked to her when there was any question about what to do next. She, alone, controlled all the paperwork and filed all the complaints, when and if she got around to it, which wasn’t often.
After one of the meetings a visitor pointed out to me that a baseball team cannot expect to win if it goes on the field with a new coach every game. Beata’s claim was that by rotating the facilitator position she was helping to develop new leadership. Bullshit. She was appointing a new facilitator for one hour every month: that is not developing leadership; it is puppetry. So I started thinking about becoming chairman of the group.
This is what citizenship is all about, folks: are you going to stand up and lead, or are you going to sit in the back and be frustrated every month? Government of the people, by the people and for the people: you are people. Are you going to accept the responsibility of acting like a citizen, or are you going to keep complaining?
All people share the right and the responsibility to make the decisions that affect their lives together.
I decided to become chairman of PTAC. I was totally scared of it. I had never in my life been president of anything. I was a middle-aged woman coming from a place of zero self-esteem and I actually thought I should be in the front of the room? C’mon, you’re kidding me aren’t you? No, I wasn’t kidding but I was praying about it. Over and over, in my morning prayers, I would ask God “Should I do this? Do you want me to? Are you with me?” But I got no answer. None, so I decided I better just step up and do the job.