San Francisco State University’s AVP for Student Affairs Gene Chelberg has held a variety of leadership positions in higher education over the past 24 years and is proud to have counted Paul K. Longmore among his mentors and friends. Blind since the age of 13, Gene cofounded the Disabled Student Cultural Center (DSCC) while an undergraduate at the University of Minnesota. He first met Paul Longmore when he keynoted the Center’s grand opening in 1992.
Gene’s personal journey to embrace his disability is inseparable from his identity as a gay man. “The full coming out process really informed my experience as a disabled man, and even though I’ve been … aware of my disability more than my sexuality and was defined more externally by my disability than my sexuality, when I had the opportunity to define myself as gay, I then was able to later look at that experience and take the opportunity to redefine for myself what it means to be disabled and come out as disabled in a way that was about pride and culture and community.”
After Gene started the DSCC, Paul Longmore became an ongoing presence in Gene’s life as a mentor and his “disabled uncle” in his disabled family of choice.
When Paul Longmore died without a will and without any family in town, Gene and fellow advisory council member and SF State history professor Trevor Getz got together to "defend and protect" Paul’s intellectual legacy. After finding a safe space on campus to store his papers and books, they then started talking to folks who Paul was very close to on campus, like then President Robert Corrigan and Provost Sue Rosser. With the support of Paul Longmore's sister, they decided to donate and archive his papers to SFSU and rename the Institute he had initiated in 1996 in his honor. Gene says, “Those conversations all happened pretty rapidly, and there was just such good will because of the relationships that Paul had on campus.” After participating in the search to hire a new director, which brought Catherine Kudlick to SF State, Gene agreed to serve on the Institute’s advisory council. He shares, “I just love the way in which we’re taking disability and the work of the institute to the next level. Before, the Institute was really a mechanism for Paul to focus on his latest project … to be that igniter, that fire starter… but … other than his personal vision, it didn’t really have a broader intentional mission, vision and goals. I really think that the leadership of the Longmore Institute has embraced Paul’s personal vision and now made it more of a community vision [that] continues to honor Paul’s mix of academia and activism but is really taking it to a new and unanticipated level.” When Gene calls Paul a "fire starter," he means it both literally and figuratively! He articulates what makes the Institute unique: “The thing that’s really great about working with an institute that’s housed within higher education is there are opportunities to leverage the academic profile of the university to develop partnerships that you might have a greater difficulty doing otherwise.” Gene particularly enjoyed working with the Longmore Institute when he decided to host a fundraiser that invoked and inverted the Telethons, an event which he called “Loot for Longmore.” For 20 years, Paul had been writing a history of disability telethons, which did more harm for disabled people than good (this work was published posthumously by Oxford University Press this January). From a giant “March of Dimes” donation tin to the oversized dimes with a superimposed image of Paul Longmore’s face to the oversized checks from “Disability Activists” and “Academic colleagues of Paul,” the whole event playfully critiqued the telethon. Being led by a disabled person and having disabled people as the donors, rather than cast as the pitiful as telethons did, Gene felt, “It really was empowering, sort of reclaiming negative symbols, not reclaiming but CLAIMING them, that was a lot of fun.” He encourages more people to get involved:
If you want to make a difference in redefining what it means to be disabled, and tapping into the creative energy of disability, then the Longmore Institute is where it’s at.