This guest Q&A is with Sharon Levine who serves as the Director of Governmental Affairs & Communications at The Arc of New Jersey. In this capacity, Sharon tracks, monitors and responds to state and federal legislation, regulations, budgets and policies and coordinates grassroots advocacy with Self-Advocates and families across the state.

Hi Sharon. How did you first get your start at The Arc of New Jersey?

When I first started my career out of college, I was a reporter covering local government and from there I served as a legislative aide for a State Senator. In time, I transitioned to communications work at the Department of Banking and Insurance and so when I discovered the open position of Governmental Affairs Director at The Arc of New Jersey in 2012, it felt like the right move for me as I had a lot of previous experience in and with government from a variety of perspectives.

One of your programs that blew me away was The New Jersey Self-Advocacy Project. How important is it to you that self-advocates play a part in our grassroot efforts?

Self-Advocates play a tremendous role in our grassroots efforts and our mission at The Arc of New Jersey. They are truly the inspiration and motivation for the work that we all do. They are a really impressive group of individuals who are not afraid to speak up for what they need and want. They have no fear going up to a legislator at the State House and relaying their personal story. Before we take on any advocacy campaign, we always talk with members of the Self-Advocacy Project to make sure our efforts are in line with their needs and priorities.

Can you identify some self-advocates that you look up too today from our community? 

Out of fear of accidentally forgetting or excluding someone, I’m not going to single people out, but I will say that I’ve been very fortunate to be joined by outstanding Self-Advocates on a number of occasions. I am continuously awestruck by the individuals who join us for Developmental Disability Awareness Month at the State House in March, the Advocates who testify at the Senate and Assembly Budget Committee every spring and those who speak up for themselves with the Department of Human Services when they need more or different types of supports in the community.

Community living is such a critical issue facing our community today. What is your team doing to help support these efforts?

We are very strong supporters of life in the community for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities (I/DD) and correspondingly, we are constantly advocating for the services that make community integration successful. A lot of this revolves around the State Budget and educating legislators about how funding impacts people with I/DD and their families. Our big focus at the moment is our chairmanship of The Coalition for a DSP Living Wage because we must recognize and pay our Direct Support Professionals (DSPs) appropriately for the work that they do. DSPs are the backbone of community living. DSPs help individuals with I/DD learn independent living skills and they make it possible for such individuals to participate in employment and social activities, to name a few. These dedicated professionals facilitate connections to people, resources, and experiences that foster a full life in the community. You can learn more about our efforts on this important issue by visiting njdspcoalition.org.

How can our readers learn more about your team’s exceptional work in the community?

The Arc of New Jersey offers a number of broad range and one-one-on services to individuals with I/DD and their families. Whether it’s through The Arc of New Jersey Family Institute, our Planning for Adult Life Program, or as previously mentioned, the New Jersey Self-Advocacy Project, we are happy to navigate individuals and families through the system and direct them to the services and resources they made need. You can learn more by visiting our web site: arcnj.org or visit our Facebook page: www.facebook.com/thearcofnj/.

Anything else you’d like to share with our readers?

As the Governmental Affairs Director at The Arc of New Jersey, I value the feedback I receive from Self-Advocates and families on the issues that matter the most to them. We’re always looking for more people to join our grassroots movement and if anyone has questions, I’m happy to serve as a resource to them.