Jean Bender Honored with AuSM’s Inaugural Changemaker Award

Jean Bender’s profound impact on the autism community was heralded by many of her colleagues at AuSM’s annual meeting of its Board of Directors, staff, and community on February 22, 2023. Jean is stepping away from AuSM’s Board after a decade of compassionate service during which she held nearly every board-officer position and grew into a fierce-but-friendly force in advocating among legislators for disability rights as human rights. We surprised Jean by presenting her with AuSM’s first-ever Changemaker Award, which will from here forward be an award dedicated to Jean’s extraordinary legacy of service. Here are tributes from a few of Jean’s friends and admirers.

Ellie Wilson, AuSM’s Executive Director:

“You have incredible knowledge of our state’s many systems, their budding leaves, and their deep roots. Your fingerprints are all over every blossoming example of our evolution as a community, and I am profoundly grateful that you have worked so hard on this landscape before us, creating the very context in which we currently advocate for change. So many people stand on your strong and sturdy shoulders.

“You also need to be acknowledged, Jean, for your heart. I can only imagine all the experiences that have made you who you are. Some of them, I know, have been marked by frustration, and others marked by joy. But, we should all be thankful for everything that made you who you are today. You are deeply thoughtful, trustworthy, and genuinely kind. You put such effort towards making others feel seen, heard, included, and regarded. And, it should not go unrecognized that your energy for this kindness and this inclusion is powered by your love of David, and Paul, the family that I know you cherish, along with your chosen family, your chosen work. We see your love for them in everything you do for AuSM. What a privilege it is to bear witness to that kind of love, and to feel it reach endlessly out to others as well. You are a true servant, Jean.

“And, it is with distinct pride that we will honor you for years to come with a new community acknowledgement, the AuSM Changemaker Award, in honor of Jean Bender and Family. You certainly deserve to be its first recipient, but for years to come, we will be celebrating AuSM’s best advocates and deepest supporters in honor of you.”

Sonya Emerick, AuSM Board Member:

“What a pleasure and honor to be present for the inaugural presentation of this award to esteemed and beloved Jean Bender at The Autism Society of Minnesota Annual Meeting tonight. Jean, I don’t know how to express what you’ve meant to me as a friend, mentor, parenting coach, advocate, community connector, opportunity manifester, and thought partner, but I can tell you that you are family.  

“You have answered every call I have put out for assistance and support in my attempts to help Foxy obtain equitable access across life domains. You have sat through four hour long IEP meetings with us (more than once!), attended county and Medicaid assessments, gone over documents dozens of pages long, researched policy and case law with me, and helped me help educators and administrators see my child’s unique strengths and needs. There is no way to adequately thank the person who shows up tirelessly on behalf of your vulnerable child, and yet I know it’s just a tiny piece of what you give to the Minnesota Disability Community.

“You walk through this world and leave a trail of open doors behind you. It’s a legacy that drives and inspires me. I am so grateful to know you and to have been touched by your work. Thank you, Changemaker Jean Bender.”

Jillian Nelson, AuSM’s Community Resource and Policy Advocate:

“As someone who is used to writing speeches frequently that say an absurd amount of things in a very short time, I thought I would be prepared when I set out to write my remarks to Jean, but they turned out to be harder than legislative testimony. I knew there was no way to capture the magnitude of the work she has gifted to this organization. 

“Jean, you have been a figure of intense energy for as long as I have been a part of AuSM. I will never forget one of our earliest conversations and the excitement on your face when you found out I was a Partners In Policymaking graduate. I should have known then as a fellow graduate that we were in for one hell of a ride. That ride took us straight to the Hill, both here and in DC. You have worked on legislation that impacted law enforcement, Teffra, employment, education, safety, vaccine access, disability rights, waivers, EIDBI, rate reimbursement, guardianship, housing, higher ed, transition services, sub-minimum wage, organ transplant access, and more. 

“Somewhere along that path you also became my mentor, and my colleague, my co-chair, my co-conspirator, and my friend. You have led in the autism and disability community on Capitol Hill, with grace and compassion, and with your hand always extended – not to take but to guide and teach anyone willing to learn, be it self-advocates, other parents, or legislators. 

“We have spoken several times throughout this session, about how strange it is you aren’t on the hill with us physically – but you are there, and you will always be there. In the footsteps of every person you’ve connected with over the course of your amazing public policy journey, in the commitment to person-centered legislation, in the voices that we lift up to testify, and in the history of the work you have done for decades that has paved the path to the work we do today. The impact you have left is immeasurable. 

“You once told me that a sign of a good leader is knowing when to step back and make space for others in the room, and that when everyone in the room knows what you would say is a good time to gracefully move on. Jean, your voice – and your heart – is woven into the history of AuSM. In the autism-affirming culture we hold, in the vision for the future, in the commitment to families. In every bill we will ever take to the hill. You are the definition of Changemaker.

I know this isn’t goodbye. I know you will always be an advocacy volunteer, and my friend.  But your time as our board member, as my unpaid predecessor and as my co-chair will be remembered for always. So as small and insignificant as the words seem, thank you from the bottom of my heart and congratulations to you as the first recipient of AuSM’s Changemaker Award.”

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