Meet the Obama alum who is championing disability rights for all
Obama Administration alum Rebecca Cokley is the first program officer to lead the U.S. disability rights portfolio for the Office of the President at the Ford Foundation. She has been championing disability rights her entire career. We recently connected with Rebecca to discuss her disability activism and how she carries the spirit of the Obama administration into her work today.
Q: When did your interests in policy and politics begin?
A: I have dwarfism, and both my parents had it and they were very much activists in the early days of the disability rights movement. I always loved politics! I remember voting in the first ever Nickelodeon presidential election back in 1988. Obviously that was before the internet, so we had to go to Toys R Us to cast a ballot. I drove my parents crazy to take me! My parents talked about how we had a moral responsibility to do the exact opposite of what his father did—my grandfather was a super racist federal judge from Selma, Alabama who put John Lewis in jail enough times that there's a chapter about him in his first autobiography. They taught me that we had a responsibility to push for civil rights, equality, and justice.
I am a program officer for the Ford Foundation's U.S. Disability Rights program. We focus on diversifying the field and pipeline to leadership, mobilizing resources toward disability rights work, and promoting disability pride. I came to the Ford Foundation a little over two years ago, and Ford was the first foundation that has been really proactive in funding the disability rights movement. Prior to five years ago there were really no foundations in the space. Every day is different, but a lot of my day consists of my team and I meeting with prospective grantees, going out into the field, writing grants, relationship building, and sponsoring events.
Q: Let’s go back to 2008—how did you join the Obama administration and what was your role?
A: On the 2008 campaign, President Obama was the first presidential campaign to have a Disability Policy Committee. I got onto the leadership of the committee by scaring the old people. At the time, I was in my twenties and there were all mature people on the campaign. I asked the one question that was terrifying back then—“Who manages your social media?” They immediately were like, "Okay, you can be the director of disability social media for the Obama Presidential campaign." I was like, "I got a title. That's hot!" I was one of the two youngest people on the Obama Disability Policy Committee.
Part of my work was managing a series of blogs from people who were endorsing the president, reaching out to people to bring them onto the campaign for surrogacy work or organizing around the convention. One of the people I brought on was a mentor, Paul Steven Miller. Paul was the longest serving Commissioner of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and served under H.W. Bush, Clinton,and W. Bush. He had been part of the hardcore Clinton folks, but I convinced him to come to my side. He asked me, “What do you have over there that's so awesome?" I was like, "Everything is awesome. It's new. It's innovative." I didn’t realize that bringing over somebody who was a heavyweight from the other campaign and getting him to cross over was a really big deal.
When we won the election, he was brought to the White House to recruit lawyers for the Obama administration. One day, he called me. He said, “You have 30 seconds to tell me where you want to work because I have 50 people I have to call in the next two hours and I'm only supposed to be calling lawyers—and you're not a lawyer, so I'm making you an exception.” I loved working with young people so I took a role at the Department of Education. That was the first job I had in the administration. I was there for about a year before taking over the diversity portfolio in the presidential personnel office. I was essentially the chief diversity officer in the first term. I was responsible for outreach to racial, ethnic, and religious minority groups, people with disabilities, the LGBTQ+ community, women's groups, and veterans. When I got there, I had a list of 300 people and 150 organizations. By the time I left, our individual candidate pool was like 6,000 and we were working with about 1,500 organizations.
It was an amazing job! The President was committed to making the government cool, which he very clearly did, and I feel like we all really bought into that mission—especially in the first term because we didn't know if we were going to get a second term. Every decision mattered. There was no mandate. Every decision was historic. I spent two years there before moving to the Department of Health and Human Services and then later the National Council on Disability. The administration was a place to learn. I always used to say the sneaky superpower of the job was to use the bully pulpit of the White House to drive change in society. We were an organization that focused on communities of color, people with disabilities, LGBTQ+ people, and women.
Q: July is Disability Pride Month. How do you carry your pride into each role you take?
A: I walk in the room as a little person so I lose the shock factor when I’m like, "Hi, I'm disabled." But I also talk about the fact that I live with anxiety. Knowing that mental health is so stigmatized and that for some folks living with mental illness there's a real risk in self-identifying. One of the things I do at every public event I host is take a moment to welcome people to the space—people who are able to self-identify and those who can't, whether personally or professionally because it's not safe for them. One time, someone came up to me and said, "I live with a serious mental illness and if I were to self-disclose I could lose my job. So I always hide it. You were the first time that I felt that part of me was hugged.”
To me, disability pride is asking yourself, “How do I shift the expectation of my community? How do I hold the door open for the folks behind me? How do I continue to drive those issues?”
Q: How did your experience working in the administration lead to your work today?
A: The administration looked like none other in every way possible. We were proud of every single decision. There was a swagger, we walked with purpose and determination. The bar was set exceptionally high in the Obama administration because you could not get caught slipping. It was not just a reflection of you, it was a reflection of all of us. We stuck together.
I am still super close to the folks from my time in the White House. We try to find ways to collaborate with each other. I talk to folks in the alumni network all the time. Our office was very close-knit. I like to say that the domestic policy council was the brain and the heart was the public engagement team. The Presidential Personnel office was the nervous system.
I think the power of the Obama Alumni Network is the sense that the work isn't done. We're not done. We are a cross-generation movement unlike any other before us, but there should be more after us if we've done it right. How do we show up for each other? How do we do it differently? That's something that really came out of the Obama Administration and its alumni—we show up for each other.
When I think about the work and the continued work that I do I reflect on this, “How do we still act on the values that we had in 2008? How do we remind ourselves—as some of us move up into leadership roles and as we make more money—how do we still hold on to the core of the person that you were in 2007 when we heard President Obama accept the nomination for president? How do we not lose sight of that?