March 19, 2018
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As a Deaf child, he struggled, so he founded a nonprofit to ensure everyone in his community can flourish

Renewal Awards finalist Deaf Planet Soul empowers individuals who are Deaf or Hard of Hearing in Chicago, and beyond

The Chicago nonprofit Deaf Planet Soul offers several programs that educate and empower Deaf individuals of all ages. Photo courtesy of Deaf Planet Soul

EDITOR'S NOTE

Meet the finalists for The Renewal Awards, a project of The Atlantic and Allstate. These individuals are the forces behind the 25 nonprofits competing for $150,000 in grant money. Ten winners will be announced March 27 at The Renewal Summit in New Orleans, on TheAtlantic.com, and here, on The Renewal Project.

We often write about the importance of building strong communities, whether it’s highlighting how a group of neighbors can come together and help fight food insecurity, to how local nonprofits serve members who are most in need.

For Gregory Perez, his community helped build him into the man he is today. Growing up as a Deaf child in the Bronx, Perez faced many obstacles, but it was the Deaf community at Gallaudet University, the world’s only university for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing, that created a sense of belonging and inspired him to serve. As an adult, he’s now helping to empower his community through his Chicago nonprofit Deaf Planet Soul (DPS). Perez and his DPS colleagues work to bring down the many barriers that Deaf and Hard of Hearing individuals face: barriers to employment, education, and socialization. We asked Perez to tell us about DPS’s work, and the spark that led him to dedicate himself to serving his community. The following is an edited and condensed version of our Q&A. Follow Deaf Planet Soul on Facebook, Instagram, and on Twitter at @deafplanetsoul.

How did you start your community work?

When I was 14-years-old, I started my first summer volunteer job at Gallaudet University, the world’s only university for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing. I volunteered at the field house, working to manage equipment and spaces for different sports, all played by entirely Deaf and Hard of Hearing athletes. This was an important point of personal growth for me. It gave me both work experience and experience being a part of something bigger: the Deaf world. Deaf people are often scattered across different communities, unable to to get together simply for lack of geographic convenience. Working in the field house that summer, I saw strength in the community of Deaf folks who came together to play and compete. It was absolutely life-changing for me and I credit that experience for inspiring my determination to unite and empower the broader Deaf community.

What inspired you to do this work?

Growing up as a Deaf boy in the 1970s and 1980s, I faced countless obstacles in every facet of life. There’s a certain feeling of helplessness that comes about with this sort of upbringing. It took a great deal of personal growth to come to the place I am today. As an adult, I embrace my Deaf identity and I’m determined to break down barriers while building something great for every Deaf person on Earth. I want to ensure that every other little Deaf boy and Deaf girl out there gets the support they need to thrive. I want them to be proud of who they are. I want them to find role models that resemble them. I want them to develop goals and dreams and then I want them to achieve it all. My upbringing, my childhood, and my challenges have inspired the work the do today.

Tell us about some of the community projects Deaf Planet Soul is working on right now.

We’re working on so many community projects right now! Our main ones are:

Unbreakable Self Defense: This program began as a weekly self-defense class for Deaf women, but in November 2016, a video we posted went viral, accruing nearly 4 million views in the first few days. We faced incredible demand for self-defense seminars and so now we travel to different community centers, schools, and houses of worship where we run Unbreakable: Self Defense, or Unbreakable: Hate Crime Survival.

Signs of Hope: This is our international component. We provide the world’s first Deaf-led humanitarian aid missions, bringing audiological care, hearing aids, and sign language counseling to the refugee camps of Lebanon. We work primarily with Syrian refugee children. This population is facing uniquely high rates of war-induced deafness and have no other way to access hearing health care or language support.

ASL Chicago Loop: ASL weekly classes that take place in Albany Park (Chicago’s north side) and Oak Lawn (a southwest suburb).

Hands Up: Books Open: Through this literacy program, we collect used children’s books and adapt them to ASL by printing images of sign language and adhering them directly to book pages. This is designed to improve Deaf childhood literacy while increasing parental use of ASL.

DEAFinitely Can: This combined program involves life skills support for Deaf adults with additional disabilities and job training for Deaf adults struggling to enter the workforce.

Deaf Hoops: We also have a Deaf adult basketball team and regularly compete in tournaments around the Midwest. This is my favorite program because I began playing when I was 9 years old to stay out of trouble. It still has that effect on me today!

What do you love about your community?

In my community, I feel like I belong. I’m not alone in the world. I feel amazing that there are other people like me. We understand what it’s like to face barriers so we, as one, can bring about the change that is so desperately needed.

What’s one thing you want outsiders to know about your community?

Deafness is not a disability. Do not treat us as any less just because we are different. We can do everything except hear. We are not ashamed of our deafness. We are proud.

What leaders inspire you?

At the impressionable age of 11, I was exposed to the the Deaf President Now March to the Capitol at Gallaudet University. The world’s only Deaf University had been run by non-Deaf people for more than a century and our community was fed up. Four powerful leaders, Bridgetta Bourne, Jerry Covell, Greg Hlibok, and Tim Rarus, organized this march and brought together more than 2,500 Deaf people and allies to demand a change. To demand the ability to govern ourselves. We marched to the Capitol, fighting for our rights. I look up to those four leaders for teaching me the importance of self-advocacy and community unity. They inspired me and instilled within me the knowledge that it is our responsibility to constantly fight for the next generation.

Margaret Myers

Margaret Myers is the editor of The Renewal Project.