Mission Control: Tameka Citchen Spruce – Michigan Disability Rights Coalition
Welcome to Mission Control!
Hello, everybody. Welcome back to Mission Control, a podcast focusing on executive directors and nonprofit leaders and how they strive to make positive impacts in their community. I’m your host, Paul Schmidt, the owner and creative video strategist for Introduce Multimedia. Today, I am thrilled to welcome our guest, Tameka Citchen Spruce from the Michigan Disability Rights Coalition (MDRC).

Getting to Know Tameka
Tameka, how are you doing today?
Tameka: I’m doing good. How are you, Paul?
Paul: I’m good, thank you! To kick things off, let’s dive into the mission of your organization, seeing as our podcast is named Mission Control.
Tameka: Absolutely. The mission of the Michigan Disability Rights Coalition is to advocate for people with disabilities, particularly focusing on reducing the multiple oppressions that individuals with disabilities and marginalized communities face. We see disability not as a deficit but just a natural, beautiful part of being human.

A Journey in Advocacy
Paul: Tameka, it’s funny because we’ve worked together for a few years now, but we’ve never met face to face.
Tameka: I know, right? That’s one of the weird outcomes of the pandemic; you end up working with many people you’ve never met in person.
Paul: Let’s dive into your background. How did you get started on this path to where you are now?
Tameka: My journey started when I was just twelve years old. I have a physical disability due to a spinal cord injury, and at that age, I advocated for myself to be mainstreamed into regular classes all day. That was my first taste of advocacy for myself.

From Advocacy to Leadership
The pivotal moment for me was after being crowned Miss Wheelchair Michigan in 2006. This role opened my eyes to a broader community of women with physical disabilities like myself. My platform was to end abuse toward women with disabilities because data shows they are at a higher risk of domestic and sexual abuse.
Paul: That’s incredible. So, you went on to start your own nonprofit?
Tameka: Yes, I did. I formed an organization dedicated to supporting women with disabilities. It was an empowering time as I became a face for a cause I passionately believed in. Community support was a huge factor in our success.

“I saw this whole community, people like myself, and it really empowered me to advocate even more.”

The Art of Storytelling
Paul: Another fascinating aspect of your career is your role as a storyteller. That’s something that really speaks to me. Talk to us about your visual storytelling journey.
Tameka: As a kid, I was naturally drawn to film, theater, and the arts. Growing up, I never saw media representations I could relate to as a Black young woman with a disability. I wanted to change that.
When Michigan had film incentives, I jumped headfirst into film production. I worked as a production assistant and later wrote and produced the short film Justifiable Homicide and executive produced the documentary My Girl Story.

“I love producing, gathering crews, setting up locations, and being on set – it’s exhilarating.”

Paul: What’s your favorite part of producing these stories?
Tameka: I enjoy the whole production process. I love being on set, directing actors, and conducting interviews. It’s fulfilling to see a project come together.

Role at Michigan Disability Rights Coalition
Paul: You’ve now pivoted to working with the Michigan Disability Rights Coalition. What’s your role there?
Tameka: At MDRC, I work with nonprofit leaders, particularly in the Detroit area, on disability inclusion. We educate them on various aspects like disability awareness, accessibility, and creating an inclusive environment for people with disabilities, especially from communities of color.
Paul: How did you find MDRC or how did they find you?
Tameka: I got involved through their fellowship program in 2018, which focused on BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) disabled people. This program led to facilitation opportunities and eventually, a full-time role.

Striving for Impact
Paul: When you stepped into your leadership role, what were your first goals?
Tameka: I aimed to create a program where people felt included and heard. Communities of color, particularly Black disabled people, are often ignored. I wanted to change that by building a strong community and providing essential resources.
Paul: From your experience, do you feel like you’re making headway with your initiatives?
Tameka: Yes, the feedback has been largely positive. I believe we’re making an impact, though sometimes it’s hard to measure progress in real-time.
Paul: Where do you feel there’s still room to grow?
Tameka: I hope to create more awareness around the experiences of people with disabilities, particularly through media. My dream is to work with networks like PBS to tell diverse stories from our community.

The Bigger Picture
Paul: If you could change one policy sooner rather than later, what would it be?
Tameka: Disability is often left out of conversations about the African American community, despite high rates of disability. Policies, especially in education, need to more adequately support Black children with disabilities to help them flourish.

“Black children with disabilities are more likely to be imprisoned, driving the school-to-prison pipeline. We need to include disability in these policy conversations.”

Working with W. Kamau Bell
Paul: On another note, I saw that you were involved with W. Kamau Bell. How did that come about?
Tameka: I applied for the Unlock Her Potential program and was selected as his mentee. We met monthly throughout 2023, and he provided incredible guidance on my projects outside of MDRC.
Paul: That’s amazing. What projects are you working on?
Tameka: One is a reality show called Divas of the City, which features unapologetic African American women with physical disabilities. We’re still in the process of finding sponsors and networks.

Key Takeaways from Mentorship
Paul: What was the key thing you learned from W. Kamau Bell?
Tameka: He advised me to start by telling people’s stories on platforms like YouTube. Starting small can lead to bigger opportunities.

“Don’t be afraid to start small and put your work out there. Many successful shows began on platforms like YouTube.”

Decompression Strategies
Paul: With your packed schedule, how do you decompress?
Tameka: I love to watch movies with my husband on the weekends and spend quality time with my family, going to the mall or catching a film.

Stay Connected with Tameka
For more information and to connect with Tameka, you can visit her website at tamekacitchenspruce.com, find her on LinkedIn, or check out her work with MDRC at mymdrc.org.

Paul: Thank you so much for joining us, Tameka. This has been a wonderful conversation.
Tameka: Thank you for having me, Paul.
Paul: And thank you, everyone, for tuning in. Don’t miss our next episode, and if you enjoyed this, please share, subscribe on YouTube, or your favorite podcast platform, and leave us a review. See you next time at the Control Center!