Bill & Matthew Sampson

Political activist

Washington, D.C. has 296 persons serving as Advisory Neighborhood Commissioners. This is an unpaid position, but an entry-level way to get involved in local politics. In November 2018, Matthew Sampson was elected as ANC (2B01) for the Dupont Circle neighborhood in Northwest Washington. He ran, unopposed, on the Democratic Socialist ticket, as did several other ANCs.

Background: I was born into a Deaf family in San Diego. My parents are both Deaf and my younger sister is Deaf. I am hard of hearing and my first language was ASL. I am fourth-generation Deaf on my mother’s side. I learned to speak from a hearing nanny that my parents hired. I was mainstreamed when I went to school. I got my first interpreter in fifth grade and used interpreters all throughout my education experience.

Getting involved: I was 17 years old when Obama first ran in 2008. His campaign inspired me, but I was still too young to vote for him. I felt so strongly that he had to win for the good of our future that I would ask almost anyone I met who they were voting for president. I must have broken so many etiquette rules by talking politics with strangers, but I didn’t care. Some people would tell me they were leaning one way or another, and, with their permission, we would discuss the political issues surrounding the race. Others would tell me they hadn’t yet decided, to which I would ask if they would like to hear my opinion. I shared my perspective as a young adult and I urged them to take my future into consideration when they went to vote. A lot of people told me they weren’t planning to vote, to which I would plead with them to reconsider. It was my first glimpse into politics, and it really taught me how politics is essentially just people talking and urging other people into action. I joined my high school Democrats club. I was thankful that in surfer-cool San Diego, there were at least a few other people in my school who were interested in politics. We would go to campaign rallies together, No on 8 rallies [against the discriminatory Proposition 8, which was ultimately defeated], and talk about political issues. When I applied to colleges, I was drawn to DC because it was the epicenter of American politics. Obama lived there! Matthew Sampson at George Washington UniversityAt the George Washington University, I joined the College Democrats, where we actively attended protests in DC. The Defense of Marriage Act was repealed and I remember going to the Supreme Court to protest in support of repeal. I’m obsessed with protests. Anytime there is a protest, I’m inclined to go and find out what’s going on.

In the last year or so, my activism has pivoted to thinking about climate change. I am convinced that I must spend the rest of my life in fighting for real solutions to the climate crisis. Lately, I have taken aim at cars and am trying to get Americans to think about transitioning off of cars and into more carbon-neutral forms of transportation, like buses, trains, bicycling, and walking. I am involved with the local BikeDC community here in Washington DC. My friend and I host memorial rides for any bicyclists who die to demand action toward safer streets. I dream of a car-free society, where our streets are community spaces, like plazas and gardens.

Mentors & inspirations: Dave Salovesh is one of my heroes. He [was] hearing, and we met through the BikeDC community. He was someone who was unsatisfied with the glacial pace of our city government in regards to making streets safer for people who walk, bike, or drive. He was the one who inspired me to start the DC Department of Transformation (@DCDOTRA on Twitter) and to do tactical urbanist projects. When I hosted the memorial rides last year, there were differing opinions as to whether or not these rides were respectful of the people who died, but Dave was the one who told us to push through the criticism. He died on April 19, 2019.

[Editor's note: David Salovesh, a respected and popular bicycle activist, was killed by a man driving a stolen van and trying to flee police on April 19, 2019. This happened near the intersection of 12th Street and Florida Avenue. Matthew Sampson attended the memorial service on April 21. A "ghost bike," a white-painted bicycle commemmorating a cyclist killed by the driver of a car, was set up at the place where Salovesh was killed.]

His death is sparking a political revolution in DC to demand safer streets. I wish he were still around to be at rallies with us.

Being politically involved in Washington, which has a large Deaf community but insufficient Deaf representation: It has been a fascinating experience. It is hard for any Deaf person to get involved with local government for a variety of reasons. One obvious reason is accessibility—it’s not always feasible to get an interpreter for every meeting. Sometimes you missthe deadline to request an interpreter before you find out about a meeting. Another, but more subtle reason, is that because the Deaf community has been so marginalized from the hearing world, they don’t understand the nuance and intricacies of the political world. To a Deaf person, it’s obvious that every single meeting and video should be interpreted and subtitled, but the political path to get hearing society to arrive at that point is embedded in the hearing world. I remember one time when the District Department of Transportation hosted a meeting about renovating New York Avenue at Gallaudet University. They did it in a good-faith effort to reach out to the Deaf community. A deaf person met one of the DDOT planners and immediately began ranting about the lack of communication accessibility on the Metro, which is not under the purview of DDOT. While the person’s feelings were completely valid, it wasn’t the appropriate political authority to pester.

It is my goal to use some of my hearing privilege to carve out a space for Deaf people in local politics. By taking up space and demanding communication access, people can become attuned to Deaf cultural needs. And by learning about the pulse of local politics and how to affect positive change, I hope to share these valuable skills to any and all Deaf people in their fight for a less audist world.

I am also fearful that when climate catastrophe begins to take hold that Deaf people will quickly lose their place at the table. The next 10 years are the most critical for the Deaf community, because what we do during those 10 years will set us up for success or failure in the climate catastrophe era. Should we assimilate and demand a place at the table with all the other hearing people? Or should we think radically and begin to explore how we can be self-sufficient by growing our own food, developing our own equitable and democratic community, and protecting one another? I believe we should start exploring ways that Deaf people can establish their own communes in locations that are at low risk for climate impacts.

Enjoyable pursuits: I love to bike on the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal trail here in Washington, DC. It’s a calm, peaceful, and idyllic ride with no cars. It takes you through some of the most beautiful scenery along the Potomac River. The trail is so infused with history and the drama of the political fights contained within its construction and maintenance. When I need to get away from the hustle and bustle of the city, this is where I go.

Short-term and long-term ambitions: My short-term and long-term ambitions are both to contribute my life to fighting climate change. Climate change is the biggest issue of our time and I think a lot about how the Deaf community should begin to find ways to protect ourselves in the long term. I worry that it will be easy for mainstream society to forget about Deaf rights, like communication access, in the face of worsening climate shocks. I hope to see the Deaf community across North America collaborate, envision and create a better world in which we are prepared to help one another in a moment’s heartbeat.


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