Investing in an Inclusive Future with Rebecca Cokely of the Ford Foundation

Transcript

Rebecca Cokley:

I would be really clear in saying that that poverty and economic justice are causes and consequences of each other. If you are poor, if you experience poverty, you are more likely to be disabled. If you’re disabled, you’re more likely to experience poverty. And so you really can’t propose solutions to poverty that don’t center disability, and you can’t propose disability policy solutions that don’t get at poverty. And so really thinking about, “What are the connection between these two and, and how does, where someone lives, um, impact the ability to, to make the right investments, to actually start really getting at the kind of economic justice that people with disabilities need?”

Isaac:

Today, Friday, December 10th, 2021, I am interviewing Rebecca Cokley, the First Disability Rights Program Officer at the Ford Foundation. I am excited to cover funding that is both about housing and disability, the importance of supporting things co-led by people with lived experiences with disabilities and a bit of why Ford supports The Kelsey. Let’s get started. Oh, it’s nice to meet you.

Rebecca Cokley:

Nice to meet you too, Isaac. How are you doing today?

Isaac:

Good. And I’m, and, and it’s great to, and it’s great that you’re, uh, that the Ford Foundation is supporting The Kelsey. 

Rebecca Cokley:

We are thrilled to be able to do everything we can to help combat economic inequality for the disability community. And-

Isaac:

Yeah.

Rebecca Cokley:

… um, The Kelsey’s work is, is so important in this space.

Isaac:

Because housing is very important for everybody, but especially for the disability community who has limited access to housing and can’t afford housing in most housing markets.

Rebecca Cokley:

Definitely. And thinking about what should housing look like as a policy priority. And I think for us at Ford and for the broader disability community, it’s so important that we have a group of advocates who are learning about housing policy, are understanding why it matters, are, are looking at the issues that prevent people with disabilities from, um, living and thriving in their communities. All of that really, really does matter. And for us, it’s about helping build the next generation of advocates informed about a really important policy issue. 

Isaac:

So my first question is, you have spent your career focused on advocacy and policy. What made you interested in making the shift to philanthropy? 

Rebecca Cokley:

That’s a really great question. So, you know, like you said, I spent my life working in advocacy and policy. Both my parents were advocates, so I was raised doing advo… Disability, advocacy work. I think for me it became, it was really a unique opportunity to like level up that work to another level, um, to, you know, move from advancing really good policy for the disability community and stopping really bad policy to then… And what I realized in doing that work, you know, and it, it touches on, on what I just said a minute ago is like we don’t have, have a really robust field. We don’t have advocates trained up on every issue that we need them to. Our organizations don’t have the resources they need to grow and thrive, our leaders don’t have what they need to grow and thrive. And having spent a lifetime working on the problems to be able to actually fund the solutions, it was really cool. 

Like the idea to sit there and say, “Okay, if I have this budget, like what impact can I have?” And let me take this opportunity to say that, like we couldn’t do it without the community. We pulled in over 45 advocates for what we called our, our strategy sessions. And then I’ve spent the last year talking another over 150 organizations and stakeholders saying, “What should we be funding? What should we not be funding? Where do we need to put the resources?” And because my goal was to really make sure the community was in the driver’s seat of what it was that we were pushing.

Isaac:

And how did you find out about The Kelsey? 

Rebecca Cokley:

Um, I have the privilege of having known Allie Cannington, uh, from The Kelsey for years. Um, since she was a college student, I met Allie, I think her, her freshman year at AU, uh, and we immediately became friends. I met her, probably see my son Jackson was maybe I was on maternity leave when Allie Cannington and [Kaete 00:05:05] Davidson asked me to meet them for coffee. And I remember honestly being sort of put out because I had just had a baby and I was on maternity leave from the White House and taking the baby anywhere, taking a baby anywhere, like shortly after they’re born is a pain ’cause you have a diaper bag, you have a carrier, you have a strolley of all this stuff you have to carry, um, with you. And, uh, went and sat down with them at a coffee shop. And like, to be honest, like my life was changed forever that day in meeting the two of them and have, you know, I miss Kaete so much who is just such a phenomenal leader in our community. 

Um, but have really a pre the opportunity to work with Allie over the years and to watch her grow and thrive and particularly her commitment to, to broader racial and social justice. And, you know, when, when she landed at The Kelsey, um, and having a couple of phone calls about what, what The Kelsey was looking to build, um, for us, it was an opportunity to not just invest in an interesting organization, but to invest in our community. 

Isaac:

So how was your role as an advocate in government different from your current role in philanthropy with the Ford Foundation?

Rebecca Cokley:

Um, inside of government, it’s really hard. You can’t talk to people like you, you to, you know, you stay focused with your eyes on the prize, delivering the president’s agenda. In my case, it was President Obama. Um, but you can’t talk to the press when you wanna talk to the press. You can’t talk to Congress when you wanna talk to Congress. Um, and being in, you know, you almost, I, I used to joke that being in government sometimes almost had to ask permission to go to the bathroom or to, to walk across the street almost felt like you were in elementary school again. Um, and those rules are there for a reason. 

And we saw what happened, you know, during the previous administration, when people don’t follow those rules. Um, that said, uh, being in philanthropy so much of my work is listening to the community, is talking to the community, is hearing from the community, is, uh, working with the community to understand how philanthropy works ’cause it’s a weird place. Um, working with people whose job is giving away money and to be real, philanthropy has neglected the disability community for forever. And so there’s a lot that we can learn from each other and a lot we need to teach you each other to be successful in this relationship. 

Isaac:

According to the Ford Foundation website, housing insecurity affects tens of millions of Americans. How do, do people with disabilities fit into, into that and how does housing fit into your work around economic justice and disability rights? 

Rebecca Cokley:

I would be really clear in saying that that poverty and economic justice are causes and consequences of each other. If you are poor, if you experience poverty, you are more likely to be disabled. If you’re disabled, you’re more likely to experience poverty. And so you really can’t propose solutions to poverty that don’t center disability, and you can’t propose disability policy solutions that don’t get at poverty. And so really thinking about, “What are the connection between these two and, and how does, where someone lives, um, impact the ability to, to make the right investments, um, to actually start really getting at the kind of economic justice that people with disabilities need?”

Isaac:

What opportunities and challenges do you run into advocating for disability rights? What advice do you have for fellow advocates? 

Rebecca Cokley:

Honestly, the, the pushback that we often get is the same pushback I got at when I was doing policy work, which is, you know, somebody will say, “Well, I work on food insecurity, that’s not a disability rights issue.” And I would remind them that one third of households that use SNAP benefits include a person with a disability, or, you know, they would say, “I work on childcare. Childcare isn’t a disability rights issue.” It is when parents with disabilities can’t access a childcare center or childcare centers don’t wanna serve children with disabilities. There is not an issue in this country that is not a disability rights or justice issue and we can’t get at social inequality without including disability at the table. 

And so it, it actually really isn’t that different, but it’s just, as you, as you pointed out, like having the data and the facts to show people that you can’t… People will not be success in what they’re providing funding for to get the kind of change that they wanna see if they’re not thinking about the disability community.

Isaac:

Why should people support things co-led by people with disabilities and lived experiences?

Rebecca Cokley:

The disability community likes to say, “Nothing about us, without us a lot.” We often forget where that phrase came from, or we often neglect to say where that phrase came from. That is not a United States based phrase. That phrase comes from South Africa and from disabled leaders that were pushing against apartheid in South Africa. And so I think it’s really important when we, we say that there can’t be work done that concerns our community without us, that we actually acknowledge the roots of that phrasing and, and not doing so is actually really whitewashing the history of the disability rights community. Um, honestly I think that people with disabilities should be at the center of every social justice movement and the secret is we are. There are people with disabilities leading the Black Lives Matter movement, there are people with disabilities leading the DACA movement, but they don’t feel safe coming out as a person with a disability. 

And so that’s something where we across the entire social justice movement have to do more to create the circumstances for which people can feel safe self-identifying as part of our community. Um, you know, and I think part of that really has to do with the, the stigma of disability. I think there is still a sense from not some non-disabled people that if they put people with disabilities in charge of things that we’ll need to be babysat, that we will need to have our handheld, that they can’t let us make a mistake because we personally or professionally couldn’t handle it if we may made a mistake.

I dunno about you all, but I make mistakes every day as a disabled person. There are things that I do where I’m just like, “Why did I do that? Why did I say that? Why did I, you know, give away the one pair of pants I had that was extra long before I moved to New Jersey where it’s snowing already? Like, what was I thinking?” Um, and so I think it’s the important, there is an important lesson to be learned by non-disabled people that we want the exact same as, as they do. We want the freedom to, to fail, the freedom to thrive, the chance to work at the issues that really center our community. And we’re the best folks to it because we understand those issues better than anybody else. 

Isaac:

Yeah. And we will know what best things to put in place to make the, to, to combat that issue better than the people who are trying to do it now ’cause they haven’t-

Rebecca Cokley:

Definitely.

Isaac:

… ‘Cause they don’t have lived experiences or haven’t lived, lived with that, with that issue in their lives. So they don’t know what it’s like to on a day to day basis. 

Rebecca Cokley:

Totally. I completely agree with you 100%.

Isaac:

The Kelsey spends a lot of our time focused on building the field around disability forward housing solutions to connect our mission to other organizations, communities and allies. Sometimes we meet funders who focus on housing, but not disability inclusive housing, what, which is a problem. How do, how do we get more funders to think about these issues? 

Rebecca Cokley:

You know, I think any organization or any, any funder that is funding housing that is not thinking about people with disabilities is not funding it well, they’re not funding it effectively. There are people with disabilities either already in their units that can’t fully thrive or access the unit that they live and access the community that they live in. Or there are people with disabilities that just can’t even get in the front door. I was actually just talking to a friend of mine the other day, who lives in an apartment building where the elevators are, are out and are likely gonna be out for seven or eight weeks because of the supply chain failure. They can’t get the parts that they need and she’s having to hike up, you know, 16 flights of steps a day. And she’s like, “I don’t know how much longer I can do this.” 

And she’s like, “You know, I chose this building partially for its accessibility.” Um, and the building apartment, building’s like, “Well, we’re not, we’re not an ADA building.” Um, and it doesn’t ha… Like first off, there are not ADA buildings and non ADA buildings like housing needs to be accessible. You know, I think, um, part of the opportunity is really encouraging funders to understand that like how many more interested parties they would have for the housing units that they are providing, if they were accessible and what that looks like. And there, you know, it means that pla… there are places that people can age in place. There are places that, you know, work better for all different types of people. We know that when you make a, a, a location accessible for disabled people, it’s better for everybody. 

Isaac:

How are, are you building the disability community into the field of philanthropy? 

Rebecca Cokley:

Definitely, that’s a really great question. We need more disabled people in philanthropy and we need more of the disabled people that are already in philanthropy to feel safe, self identifying. Um, we’re doing this through a couple of things. Uh, I’m really proud to be part of the Presidents’ Council on Disability, Inclusion and Philanthropy. I, I serve in my role there as part of the Ford Foundation and the President’s Council is a coalition of 17 different foundations who have all committed funding to moving the needle on, uh, both hiring people with disabilities within their foundations, as well as including people, including the priorities of the disability community in their grant making.

Um, and so for the last year we’ve been really working to help connect disabled people within philanthropy. Um, and we’re looking to see what this work looks like going forward this next year. And they’re building out a group called Celebrating Disability Across Philanthropy, which will help really connect people with disabilities that are already in philanthropy because we are there. We just don’t really aren’t… We just really aren’t connected with each other. And then I think the opportunity is continuing to see ways to bring people with disabilities from, um, the grassroots, the grass tops from our boots on the ground folks to working inside of foundations. 

Isaac:

There is not a lot of representation of people with disabilities and big funding leaders and Phil- philanthropy. What advice do you have for disability people interested in this field? 

Rebecca Cokley:

I would really strongly encourage you to know what works and what doesn’t work. That was actually one of the things that I got asked the most about when I was interviewing was, “What are the kinds of things that you would like to fund? What are the kinds of things you would not like to fund? What do you think philanthropy is doing right? What do you think the challenges are?” You know, I was very fortunate, you know, I, I came into a, an organization where there were already disabled people working there. I came in knowing people like Ryan Easterly and others who’ve been in philanthropy for a long time, but I also knew non-disabled people that worked in philanthropy.

People like Teresa Younger, at the Ms. Foundation for Women, uh, Keisha Gaskins, Nathan at the Rockefeller Brothers Fund. So I already had friends and mentors in the space that would sort of like teach me the ropes and, and, you know, give me heads ups about things and like, teach me how, teach me about the culture of philanthropy. And so I think that’s a really big thing. Like making sure that when we bring people with disabilities, um, who have direct lived experience into philanthropy, that they’re set up to thrive, that they have the mentors, they have friends, they know people there so that they will find their place in the culture and help shift the culture and, and move the needle on the issues that we care about, um, instead of sort of being left out there. 

I mean, we’ve all been in the person, the disabled person at the event where we’re the only person like us there. I always joke that it’s typically the disabled person, um, a native American person and a transgender person standing in the back of some social justice event. And we’re all sort of like staring at each other like, “Oh, so you’re the only one here for your people. You’re the only one here for your people?” We’ve all been there, it’s not fun. And I think we really don’t wanna perpetuate those silos in philanthropy and we have an opportunity to do much better. But I do think it’s specifically important that as we’re recruiting and bringing people with disabilities into philanthropy, that we’re centering people with disabilities with multiply marginalized identities, we’re bringing in folks from racially and ethnically diverse backgrounds, the LGBTQ community, immigrants with disabilities, et cetera. We can’t perpetuate the, the history of white supremacy within the disability rights community any further than we already have. 

Isaac:

What do you think these organizations can do to better support people with disabilities?

Rebecca Cokley:

I think it, it starts every, like there’s no one place to start. I think it’s looking at your HR policies. “What does your tele-work policy look like? What kind of sick leave do you, do you allow for your staff? Um, does, you know, does your employer allow, is, is your employer supportive of your, the accommodations that you need?” You know, I think part of it is looking at a, a company website and saying, “You know, if they have a diversity statement is disability included?” If it’s not, they’re probably not that supportive. Um, in the imagery on the website is their dis… Is there photos that include people with disabilities throughout, um, and are people with disabilities, not just like subjects, like if it’s a health focused organization, are people with disabilities only in the pictures as patients, or do you see a disabled doctor?

Like putting people with disabilities in positions of power in the imaging and the language of the organization is one of the things that tells me that it’s a place that an employee with a disability could and thrive.

Isaac:

And also hold them accountable to that statement. So that, that statement is true, true from the, uh, higher ups in the company. 

Rebecca Cokley:

Exactly, that’s really important. 

Isaac:

Yeah. Why do you believe in the work The Kelsey does around disability forward housing solutions? 

Rebecca Cokley:

I believe that, as I said before, we, we need more people working on some of these tougher issues. And, um, the folks that are at the table driving this conversation are the people that need to be at the table, driving the conversation. And so I think, um, helping ensure that there is a strong bench of people with disabilities fighting for economic justice issues, which, you know, transportation, access to housing, healthcare, education, all the things that we know we need is really important. Um, and The Kelsey’s commitment to changing who’s at the table and what the conversation looks like is a really important one.

Isaac:

Bringing all the people  together that can help make the change is better is, is a great way to great way to get it done.

Rebecca Cokley:

Exactly. 

Isaac:

That’s ’cause, that’s what Makayla Conrie was always saying is that she wanted to bring all the people together that could make housing possible from the, uh, developers to the architects, to the parents, because she noticed-

Rebecca Cokley:

Definitely.

Isaac:

… ’cause she noticed that the parents would be talking with the parents, the architects will be talking to architects and the developers talking with developers and they wouldn’t be able to, uh, the parents wouldn’t be able to get what they wanted their, uh, agenda done because they weren’t talking to the people that could make it possible. 

Rebecca Cokley:

Definitely. I think, you know, part of it is like creating the opportunities for those conversations to be had, it’s really important. 

Isaac:

And, and then for my last question, I want to ask you about Home for More. “Home for More is our tagline at The Kelsey and it represents that there are many opportunities and ways to advocate and ways to advance housing. For you, what would you like to make home for more of?

Rebecca Cokley:

That’s a really great question. You know, I think, um, I remember having a friend who lived in a congregate housing setting, where, uh, it had previously been at children’s hospital and had been turned into apartments and the room, she was in, had a mural on the wall of the characters from the Peanuts cartoon strip. And in her room, there was, uh, Linus sitting there with his blanket. And I remember her are telling us how much she hated. She was at the time, I think she was probably in her 20s. And she was like, “Every morning I have to wake up and look at this Linus and I hate it. I hate him, I hate his blanket.” I remember being like, “What-what’s your bone to pick with Linus? Like, he he’s a kid, he’s a cartoon.” And she was like, “Because I wanna paint this room purple.”

And I, and she’s like, “And I went out and I got purple paint and they told me if I painted this room purple, um, they’d kick me out, um, because we’re not allowed to put paint on the walls.” And she’s like, “I am a 25 year old woman. I can buy liquor, I can vote, but I can’t put purple paint on my walls or I’ll lose my housing.” She’s like, “How is this a democracy?” And so, you know, for me, what homes for more mean is being able to paint your walls purple if you want to, because you’re an adult and it’s your choice. 

Um, and I remember her, she ended up finally leaving that place. And the person that came in after her also was somebody that we knew and who hated the Linus mural. And so I just always think about that. “Like, what do you need to do to make a place move from a house to a home?” And if there are rules that prevent you from doing the most basic things, that’s it doesn’t become a home. It’s still just, it’s just, it’s still just four walls.

Isaac:

And people should feel like it’s their place and not the… Not someone else’s place.

Rebecca Cokley:

Definitely.

Isaac:

Because people with disabilities deserve the same rights as everybody else.

Rebecca Cokley:

Exactly.

Isaac:

They shouldn’t be denied rights just because they’re considered by society different. 

Rebecca Cokley:

You are at 100% right on the mark on that.

Isaac:

Had a pleasure interviewing you. 

Rebecca Cokley:

It was wonderful to talk, definitely. 

Isaac:

And getting to finally meet you ’cause I’ve heard your name many plenty of times.

Rebecca Cokley:

Well thank you. 

Isaac:

Yeah.

Rebecca Cokley:

I’m, you know, I’m, I’m really excited to see the work that you all are doing there and you know, it, it really matters.

Isaac:

Thanks for listening. For more information on The Kelsey or to check out more of my podcast episodes, visit, theKelsey.org. If you have a topic you’d like me to explore or a person to interview, email me at Isaac@thekelsey.org. Goodbye. 

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