A Deaf woman, Melissa Malzkuhn, was selected to be one of 20 people, out of 20,000 applicants, to be on the inaugural Obama Foundation Fellowship program.
The program aims to connect people around the world to work together to improve their communities with civic innovation.
Malzkuhn is the founder and Creative Director of the Motion Light Lab (ML2) at Gallaudet University, which develops bilingual storybook apps in ASL and English. She also co-founded a creative company, Ink & Salt, and co-founded The ASL App.
She has been and still is involved with international deaf organizations and advocacy efforts.
Now, let’s chat with her.
Alex: Hello Melissa! Congratulations on being selected to be on the Obama Fellowship Program. Can you tell us why you wanted to be a part of this group?
Melissa: Why did I send in my application to the foundation? Really, when I first saw the opportunity for the fellowship, I felt very inspired by the vision. I believe in the Obama Foundation values. What I have seen from Obama in his 8 years as president and his work prior to that as a community organizer. He has always worked for positive change. I share the same feelings towards positive change, I believe in that. I believe that through good, positive, exciting work, we can make changes. Community involvement is important, too. I was excited at what I saw. And the work I’ve done myself is very important, I’ve pushed for literacy access for deaf children, which means access to sign language through different tools. Our storybook apps are critical and this is massive work, yet small because we’re just a group working together. It’s impossible, so we will need the world to collaborate. I need communities, I need people to get involved in this collective work. I want to take this to the next level and I see the fellowship as a huge opportunity. That’s why I submitted my application and it is a huge honor to be selected, and I am grateful to President Obama, Mrs. Obama, and the Obama Foundation for the honor.
Alex: In what ways will you work with the other 19 fellows? Can you tell us of a potential goal?
Melissa: I am one of 20 selected for the fellowship. The other 19 people are incredible civic innovators too, who are leaders, creative people, and from a diverse group of 11 different countries. How will I work with them? I visualize meeting them, showing each other our work, I will learn so much from them and they will learn from me, too. I will bring up the Deaf community, values, our vision of sign language representation, so they will realize deaf people are everywhere. I am sure that in their work, they have approached deaf people. So I hope that will open more connections. And I look forward to learning from them and having an amazing cohort for support because it takes a community to make a significant, positive change.
Alex: Will you get the opportunity to meet Barack and Michelle?
Melissa: I believe that we the 20 fellows will work closely with the Obama Foundation, which is led by President Obama and Michelle. So I believe we will have an opportunity to work with them. I look forward to meeting them, interacting, and learning from them, because they are incredible world leaders. They will bring their insights to the Deaf community, too. We will build more connections.
Alex: Do you want to add anything?
Melissa: Your last question asked if I wanted to add anything. I took the time to think about this, and yes, I have a few things to add, so I’m going to sign them now. Firstly, who am I? I am a third-generation Deaf person, my whole family is Deaf. This means I was born and exposed to my first language, ASL. That led me to be skilled in reading and writing. Growing up, I loved to read, and I loved to write, too. I was raised in a Deaf school and graduated there. So, ASL, reading, and writing has always been a part of me. Bilingualism is within me. So literacy, what does it mean? For deaf children and people all over, literacy skills is usually viewed as being able to speak or lipread. But I don’t speak or lipread at all. I sign, read, and write. I communicate with no problems. That’s why it is important that I develop and design digital tools that push for literacy for deaf children that has both sign language and reading. That’s very important and it is designed by deaf for deaf. My being selected on the fellowship means Deaf representation on a world level. I treasure the community, our culture, and I will bring those values to protect our sign language, which is critical for all deaf children, period.
Alex: Thank you for your time, Melissa. Congratulations to her for being selected, and for the Deaf/ASL community, it’s great to know we have someone representing us in the program.