35 students, young professionals with a disabilities, and allies attended a keynote with Rebecca Cokley, Executive Director at the National Council on Disability, and David Johns, Executive Director at the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for African Americans, at the Ed Roberts Campus in Berkeley, CA. on Thursday, May 21, 2015.
Cokley and Johns discussed what it is like to work in Washington D.C., and the various challenges they overcame to get there. They were open about their career difficulties and satisfactions. Their passion for their causes, and their respect for each other, was obvious.
Cokley told the story about being in a room with 200 Caucasian male politicians. There were only two people of color present. Someone handed her the microphone, and she took advantage of the opportunity. She said her agency wouldn’t be participating in that particular event until they had minority representation.
She mentioned that her past job as a retail store manager in San Francisco, CA. prepared her for politics in the White House. She hired people of all different ethnicities, gender, shapes and sizes in her stores and was used to selling things. And this is what she wants in politics.
One attendee asked the guests about what do they do with naysayers, people who do not believe in their capabilities or expertise.
Johns responded that his high school guidance counselor had not believed that his acceptance letter from Stanford was real. He said that his victory came later. This same guidance counselor was told how well he was doing at Columbia.
Cokley nodded vigorously.
Johns and Cokley agreed on a few things, especially on the importance of finding mentors and allies.
They said: Do not try to do everything on your own. But be armed with the facts, know your topic, and know when to stay calm and when it works to “flip the table” and show your passion for the cause in a dramatic way.
Rebecca Cokley was appointed Executive Director of the National Council on Disability, an independent federal agency, in 2013. She has served 5+ years in the Obama Administration in a variety of roles, including as the Special Assistant to the Principal Deputy at the Administration for Community Living and as the Director of Priority Placement for Public Engagement in the Presidential Personnel Office at the White House.
As executive director of the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for African Americans, David Johns works to identify evidence-based best practices to improve African American student achievement—from cradle to career. The initiative works across federal agencies and with partners and communities nationwide to produce a more effective continuum of education programs for African American students. Prior to joining the Department, he was a senior education policy advisor to the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) under the leadership of Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa. He has been a great ally to the disability community.
Cokley and Johns were accessible, funny, warm, and the perfect role models for our audience of recent graduates looking for their paths. They willingly gave out their twitter accounts to our group, and assured us they would respond to any tweeted questions or comments.