Alli Strong-Martin, ’17, shares story in part three of ‘Your Story and Impact’ eight-part series highlighting program graduates
MURRAY, Ky. — Murray State University’s Nonprofit Leadership Studies (NLS) graduates were recently asked to reflect on their career journeys, the impact of their work and their aspirations for the future.
This is the third of an eight-part series by Visiting Distinguished Professor of Nonprofit Leadership Dr. Bob Long, with an additional five stories to be published in the months to come. Each piece will feature a Q&A with a program graduate and tell the story of their commitment to making the world a better place for us all.
Part three tells the story of alumna Alli Strong-Martin, who graduated in May 2017 with dual majors in nonprofit leadership and international studies. After graduating from Murray State, Alli went on to earn her master’s degree in human rights — with a focus on gender, disability and international development — at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs.
She currently lives in Minneapolis, Minnesota, where she is actively working to engage with power, privilege, difference and diversity to advocate for more inclusive and equitable communities in the U.S. and around the world. She is dedicated to educating herself and others about the intersectionality of disability rights issues while simultaneously increasing access and inclusion, therefore ensuring every person’s right to participate fully in their community.
Long: How did the NLS program at Murray State help guide, inspire and support you?
Strong-Martin: Seven years ago when I entered the NLS program, I had an abundance of seemingly mutually-exclusive passions and ideas about how to make the world better. The interdisciplinary nature of the NLS program enabled me to combine my passions of community development and international studies, and the flexibility of the NLS program enabled me to embark on a semester abroad during my sophomore year studying human rights and international development in Port Elizabeth, South Africa. To this day, I know that my experience in South Africa changed the trajectory of my life.
I am so grateful that the NLS program is structured in such a way that I was able to gain hands-on experience working with local nonprofit organizations in Murray and in surrounding counties. For me, this active participation directly contributed to skills that I use every day in my current work. This includes writing and researching fund development strategies for a local youth nonprofit, working with a group of NLS students to refine communication and advocacy strategies for the local humane society, working on program development with local elementary schools and many other projects and real-world experience related to social entrepreneurship and innovation. I am indebted to the mentors, friends, leaders and world-changers who I met through the NLS program.
Long: Tell us about the work you’re doing today. How has your degree helped advance your career?
Strong-Martin: I work in the Innovation & Business Development department for Lifeworks Services Inc., a nonprofit serving our community and people with disabilities as we live and work together. We are based in the Twin Cities Metro in Eagan, Minnesota.
In the three short years since graduating from Murray State, I have gained experience working in disability services in diverse settings across the nonprofit sector — ranging from direct support roles in outdoor recreational programs for children and teens to conducting advocacy through international disability rights projects. Prior to beginning my first full-time nonprofit role with Lifeworks, two particular organizations that have given me invaluable nonprofit leadership experience in promoting and protecting disability rights have been Stepping Stones, Inc. (Ohio) and Mobility International USA (Oregon).
I worked at Stepping Stones as a program specialist during the summer between graduating from Murray State and moving to Minnesota to begin my graduate program. In this role, I designed and led educational programming for diverse groups of children and teens during the organization’s annual outdoor summer camp. Stepping Stones is a United Way partner agency providing year-round services for children, teens and adults with a wide range of disabilities including autism spectrum disorders, cerebral palsy, Down syndrome, intellectual disabilities, seizure disorders and physical disabilities. They provide programs for people ages five to 65-plus years of age throughout southwestern Ohio. You can read more about their work at their website, steppingstonesohio.org.
Mobility International USA (MIUSA) is a disability-led nonprofit organization headquartered in Eugene, Oregon. MIUSA advances disability rights and leadership globally. By implementing innovative programs, MIUSA builds bridges to create a new era where people with disabilities will take their rightful place in the world community. MIUSA is a cross-disability organization serving people with a broad range of disabilities, and has specific leadership programs for disabled women activists around the globe to gather together and learn from one another.
In 2018, I was fortunate enough to intern full-time with MIUSA in Eugene, conducting program evaluation and supporting advocacy work on their Global Disability RightsNow! campaign in Armenia, Guatemala, Kenya, Mexico, Peru and Vietnam. I also helped coordinate learning and orientation programming for international exchange programs for 28 high school students with disabilities from Sub-Saharan Africa and the former Soviet Union. You can read more about MIUSA’s mission and advocacy work at their website, miusa.org.
In my current role on the Lifeworks new business development team, I help lead internal innovation efforts and I get to create new products (right now, that means diversifying our revenue by developing and offering fee-based training and workshops) to advance disability rights and inclusion in private, public and nonprofit sectors. My team and I are developing equity-based training for disability and human service professionals utilizing the understanding that having an active knowledge of disability history and culture is integral to becoming active allies and advocates alongside the people we support, as well as avoiding ableism in disability services. I also work closely with our organization’s executive leadership team to implement what our chief operating officer has championed as a “stage-gate” process for internal program and service innovation. But most importantly, my work at Lifeworks is grounded in promoting the civil and human rights of people with disabilities — found in domestic and international law — to full community inclusion and equal opportunity.
Long: Describe some of your biggest accomplishments in nonprofit leadership since graduation.
Strong-Martin: Since graduating from Murray State, I would say that one of my biggest accomplishments was working with an organization called Etta Projects, while doing graduate field research with women and girls in Buena Vista, Santa Cruz, Bolivia to inform the development of a sexual health and reproductive rights curriculum for my master’s capstone project. Etta Projects, a U.S. and Bolivia-based nonprofit, works with local communities in eastern Bolivia to partner for greater access to clean water, sanitation,and overall community healthcare. Etta Projects works with women from local villages to become certified health promoters. In a country where three in 10 births in rural areas occur without access to trained healthcare professionals, this education ensures that healthcare becomes local and available, and these promotoras de salud become vocal advocates for the overall health of their communities. The Etta Projects website is ettaprojects.org.
I have also been fortunate in the last year to be on a professional advisory working group for Disability Support International (DSI), developing disability training curricula for a training-of-trainers model for DSI’s community partners in Cambodia. DSI works closely with people and organizations in low and middle-income countries, and they are currently partnering in Cambodia to provide training and support that works toward sustainable community development. DSI’s work is grounded in the beliefs that equal human rights and a high quality of life should be a reality for everyone, that cross-cultural collaboration benefits us all and that we can and should work to reduce the cycle of disability and poverty. Read more about their work on their website at ds-international.org.
Long: What sort of impact has your work had on the community?
Strong-Martin: I strive to influence the communities in which I live and work to be more inclusive of all people, not in spite of our differences, but because of our differences. I have continued to advocate and elevate the fact that disability is a normal part of life, and is a natural reflection of the diversity of the human experience, through media, presentations and speaking engagements and through conversations with the people I occupy space next to. If I could summarize my greatest hopes for my work in one sentence, it would be that I seek to learn from disabled advocates and activists and lift up the humanity of people with disabilities, while continuing to confront my own undeserved social privileges and biases so that I can more effectively and equitably empower others to be allies and advocates alongside the most marginalized.
Long: What do you aspire to do in the future?
Strong-Martin: In the future, I will join and lead organizations that are committed to promoting and protecting human rights using an intersectional path forward to a more inclusive, equitable and just world. For me, the way I believe I will do that is to continue working alongside women and girls to stand for women’s rights and gender equity, and to learn from and take lead from people with disabilities to push forward advocacy for community inclusion and disability rights both domestically and globally.
“The NLS program is honored by the critical work that Alli is doing on the important social issues of equity and access to empower others to be able to advocate for their own lives and the communities in which they live,” Long said. “She is a role model for everyone committed to helping people help themselves through education and creative development of new programs and services.”
“She has become an important advocate and champion for the most vulnerable. Alli’s work shows us that the nonprofit sector is more effective when it attracts passionate and dedicated servant leaders. We look forward to sharing additional alumni stories going forward.”
The NLS program at Murray State University is committed to building a coordinated response to growing educational, research, and service needs of organizations dedicated to improving the quality of life in communities around the world. The program offers a broad-based approach to the development of the future leaders of the nonprofit sector through undergraduate and graduate degrees, as well as leadership, networking, funding, and promotion of quality practice. For more information, please visit murraystate.edu/NLS.