Blindskills, Inc. - Publisher of DIALOGUE Magazine
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by B. T. Kimbrough
As the year 2006 drew to a close, big changes were afoot for both DIALOGUE and its sponsoring organization, Blindskills. Some DIALOGUE readers were busy locking in the then-current subscription rate of $28 for their renewals, before the rate went up to $42 on January 1, 2007. Plans were well under way for a vigorous campaign to increase the number of subscribers. The year-old search for Carol McCarl's successor as Executive Director of Blindskills was continuing, with no end in sight.
Finally, in May of 2007, my wife Paula parked our little green Toyota on the campus of the Oregon School for the Blind, and I began carrying boxes up the stairs to the Blindskills office on the second floor of the administration building. I had thought long and hard before accepting the Executive Director position. I saw that much of Blindskills' support came from the community, and a hometown candidate might well be more likely to succeed, especially in the short term. In the end, I realized that the mission--especially the continuation of DIALOGUE--mattered enough to trump all other concerns.
During the next few months, Carol McCarl turned fundraising and administrative duties over to me, while continuing to supervise the work of DIALOGUE editor Karen Lynn Thomas. Since Thomas lived in Austin, Texas, they used electronic media to collaborate, a process which had evolved since Thomas became editor in 2005. Publication decisions and joint copyediting were expedited by a combination of phone calls, emails, and thick printouts from a Juliet braille embosser. By this time, most submissions were arriving in electronic form, which allowed support staff to spend more time on reader and donor correspondence and less time on keyboarding and formatting copy for DIALOGUE.
Across the hall in the Executive Director's office, work to build up the DIALOGUE subscriber list was running into a snag. In order to provide a salary for what had been a volunteer position during McCarl's tenure, a three-year grant had been secured from the Gibney Family Foundation. Under the terms of the grant, the new Executive Director would have to produce specific numbers of new subscribers and new funding in order to maintain eligibility for the Gibney grant. But as grants were secured to pay for new subscriptions earmarked for residents of retirement communities within roughly 75 miles of Salem, we began noticing that the number of existing subscribers was falling. Since the content of the magazine had not changed, it seemed evident that the problem was the sudden 50% increase in the subscription rate from $28 to $42 per year. At the end of 2007, the board agreed to lower the price to $35. Within a few months, subscriber numbers stopped shrinking and moved back into modest growth.
Early 2008 brought promising grant returns, yielding money to place DIALOGUE in the offices of optometrists and to begin converting early issues of DIALOGUE into electronic files which could eventually be shared in accessible formats.
Then came the Great Recession of 2008, which put a sudden damper on investment income and general donations. Within a few months, many foundations and donors began cutting back on gifts and grants. This not only created the necessity of finding ways to reduce expenses, but also put an early end to the Gibney Family Foundation grant on which the Executive Director position was based. As a result, the board accepted my recommendation to return the Executive Director position to voluntary status; and I reluctantly accepted their decision to end bimonthly publication of DIALOGUE and return to the traditional quarterly schedule.
In the summer of 2009, the Oregon legislature closed the 137-year-old Oregon School for the Blind. As a result, blind K-12 Oregon students and their families lost a priceless educational alternative, and Blindskills lost its offices. With our lease abruptly terminated and less than 90 days till eviction, we began a frantic scramble to find suitable quarters in Salem for 50 years of archives, subscriber files, and several pieces of office equipment--including one not-so-quiet braille embosser.
The best space we could find was being advertised for over 50% more than the rent we had been paying. We shared our plight with trustees of the Salem First United Methodist Church, which owns the building we now occupy, and the trustees voted to lease the space to Blindskills at the figure we had budgeted.
As we started the seemingly endless process of shredding old records and assembling packing boxes for the move, we were saddened to have to terminate a five-year staff member for a serious breach of trust. At the same time, we began to receive some much-needed encouragement from unexpected sources. Two former staff members of the school, Lorna Rogers Fry and Melanie Lindquist, volunteered their services to help with the huge moving project. Paula Kimbrough offered to expand her role as volunteer bookkeeper and take charge of planning and organizing the move. All three would become major contributors of time to Blindskills over the next three years. On a rainy Friday in mid-October, a small crew of movers and volunteers transported the nuts and bolts of Blindskills down the stairs and out the doors of the Oregon School for the Blind and into the Micah Building at 680 State Street, a few blocks away in downtown Salem.
In November 2009, less than a month after the move was completed, Carol McCarl experienced a health emergency which would keep her away from publishing activities for several months. In January 2010, Karen Lynn Thomas resigned as Editor of DIALOGUE. The editorial responsibilities were transferred to the Executive Director as of the Spring 2010 issue of DIALOGUE. McCarl was then able to resume a portion of the publishing responsibilities under the title of Publisher Emeritus.
In June 2010, a timely $25,000 grant from the Oregon Community Foundation helped to restore the fund-raising momentum lost during the move and the mayhem which surrounded the school closing. This grant was part of a project designed to cushion the blow for nonprofit organizations hurt during the Great Recession, and it certainly accomplished that for DIALOGUE. In its way, it was every bit as important to the positive ending of this unique 50-year love story as that first thousand-dollar phone call which began Founder Don Nold's improbable journey way back in 1961.
Long-time DIALOGUE readers likely recall that, for over ten years (1962 to Fall 72), the magazine's table of contents always opened with this quote from Allen Eaton: "The greatest need of those who cannot see is, and always will be, communication on all levels of human interests with those who can see."
Some internet research on Eaton turned up an odd coincidence. Allen Hendershott Eaton (1878-1962) was an artist, craftsman, and 1902 graduate of the University of Oregon. After college, Eaton opened an art store and, in 1906, won election to the Oregon Legislature, where he served for five terms. Salem happens to be Oregon's capital, and the capitol building itself, where the legislature meets, is less than a block down State Street from our current office. When Don Nold chose the Eaton quote for the masthead, he could have never imagined that Oregon connection, still decades in the future.
Eaton had a lifelong passion for rural handicrafts, the everyday arts so rapidly disappearing amid 20th century industrial progress. He eventually left Oregon for New York to join the Russell Sage Foundation, where he became the nation's foremost advocate for American folk art. Eaton wrote several well-regarded books, one of which was BEAUTY FOR THE SIGHTED AND THE BLIND, with a forward by Helen Keller, published in 1959. That book, reviewed in DIALOGUE's first issue, is the source of the quote on DIALOGUE's early masthead. Today's equivalent would be to start a cooking blog and head it with a quote from a celebrity chef.
Eaton's books are still in print and widely available through used bookstores and online. Unfortunately, BEAUTY FOR THE SIGHTED AND THE BLIND does not appear--even now--to be available in any accessible online format, although NLS has two braille copies (BRA01751). The Talking Book version, read by Alexander Scourby, was evidently withdrawn from library circulation some years ago.
In that first issue of THE TALKING LION, the quarterly magazine that became DIALOGUE, Don O. Nold wrote, in the very first paragraph, that the project was "dedicated to providing the blind with all the information concerning them ... by offering them appropriate suggestions for better living, serving as a liaison between the seeing and the blind for more thorough understanding, giving consideration to their individual problems whenever possible, and materially [contributing] to their entertainment." Fulfillment of Don's dream would eventually come to life for everyone as the World Wide Web, so he was actually about 30 years ahead of his time.
One thing he couldn't have foreseen was the transparency--sometimes exciting and sometimes alarming--that "all the information" in a form like today's Internet would bring to everyone. For example, in the 70s and 80s, a long-standing office mystery at DIALOGUE was what the "O" stood for in Don O. Nold's name. Don occasionally remarked that he really liked how his initials, D-O-N, were also his first name, but he kept his middle name a deliberate mystery.
Now, nearly 20 years after his death, it took a DIALOGUE staffer under five minutes to find Don's birth certificate on the Internet. Given his dream of accessible information, Don probably wouldn't mind that the secret is finally out: The "O" stood for "Oswald."
This is the first time that the actual story of DIALOGUE's founding and evolution has been brought together in one place. What was so compelling about its initial impulses that founder Don O. Nold would not rest, and would not let anyone else do so, until he had secured resources to start the project? What was so compelling about the enterprise that people moved across the country--some of them more than once--to be part of it?
I believe the simple answer is that DIALOGUE is a free and independent voice, speaking openly and honestly on a subject which matters deeply to us all. Like many early American newspapers, it began with a print shop owner who insisted on having his say and let others have theirs as well. Whatever thoughts of being a high-flying opinion maker Don may have entertained at the start, he, and everyone else who has guided DIALOGUE, eventually came to understand that it belongs, not to any board, organization, or section of the country, but to the whole community.
It took some time for this reality to assert itself. At first, editors assigned to specific subjects selected most of the material by looking through other publications. Over time, as more and more blind people learned about DIALOGUE, the content came more and more from within the community. Nowadays, well over half of each DIALOGUE issue comes directly from readers or blind freelance writers. DIALOGUE truly grew into the name a prize-winning reader gave it in 1964.
Just as it has generally remained free of excessive editorial control over its philosophy, DIALOGUE has also been fortunate enough to remain free of institutional control. As it came to life, evolved, prospered, struggled and experimented, it somehow avoided lasting financial and political connections which might have tied it to one of the existing organizations within the blindness field.
Like all magazines these days, DIALOGUE has plenty of challenges. The magazine has never accepted advertising, so long-term funding, as well as the need to recruit more readers, top the list. DIALOGUE will also need to find ways to work in media that younger readers prefer, such as podcasts or internet blogs. Podcasts are brief internet audio programs, and blogs are a series of internet postings on a range of subjects under one general category. If, say, DIALOGUE recruited a few well-read, thoughtful contributors with a youthful point of view on such topics as careers and technology, an electronic creation with a strong family resemblance to DIALOGUE would still be the result--regardless of medium.
DIALOGUE's topic for 50 years has been "life on planet earth as a blind person." Regardless of changing times, we know that people with visual restrictions will never stop trying to make the most of their lives. We hope to keep helping them do exactly that.
Back to THE FIRST 50 YEARS (Part Three)
Back to THE FIRST 50 YEARS (Part Two)
Back to THE FIRST 50 YEARS (Part One)
Read sample articles from recent DIALOGUE issues
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