EP4: Don’t Forget Your People with Rebecca Cokley

A group in deep thought during the Accelerator in 2019.

Don’t Forget Your People.

“Inclusive Life for me means our movements have an understanding that it’s your vulnerabilities that make you strong.”


This conversation with Rebecca Cokley is, in part, a peek into the disability rights movement from the intimate perspective of Rebecca’s childhood. Rebecca is an only child of two disabled and rather subversive activists whose family core value was speaking up when something harmful was happening to someone else. 


Cokley learns from her parents’ modeling how to navigate across movements, building coalitions to “rebuild a table that works for all of us.” She’s become a powerful and skilled advocate and policy expert for the disability community.


It was fun to hear of her first encounter with Barack Obama, and how her work as his Diversity Officer in the Obama Administration made it possible for her to attend the best parties in DC all  to advance Obama’s diversity agenda. Rebecca wrote Obama’s special education policy and helped him develop his platform for people with disabilities. She has been instrumental in shaping the disability platforms of the  2020 US Presidential candidates. In fact, twelve of the candidates developed disability platforms. Rebecca was pleased to note that even as the candidates exited the Presidential race, many are still involved in politics and are showing  commitment to the platforms they adopted, influencing their work in response to the COVID pandemic.


Rebecca walks us back through some of the important learnings of the disability community stemming from the AIDS epidemic and further back to the elders of the disability community: those who suffered from polio. 


This is a fascinating conversation and one that will help us all better understand that liberation movements are about people, and more than anything else, we’ve got to hold onto our people.


Rebecca and I talked about:


  • How her family shaped Rebecca as a leader and connector of movements
  • How the activism of the disability community laid the groundwork for necessary accommodations during COVID
  • Rebecca’s early work promoting diversity in Victoria’s Secret, of all places
  • Rebecca’s work in the Obama administration as the President’s Diversity Officer
  • Allyship
  • Strategies for pushing forward change
  • Why Rebecca’s work writing policy for 2020 US Presidential candidates has built an important foundation for people suffering as a result of the pandemic
  • Why Elizabeth Warren called
  • What’s at stake if the Affordable Care Act is dismantled
  • John Lewis’s inspiring words of advice to Rebecca




Rebecca Cokley is the Director of the Disability Justice Initiative at The Center for American Progress, where her work focuses on disability policy. Most recently, she served as the Executive Director of the National Council on Disability (NCD), an independent agency charged with advising Congress and the White House on issues of national disability public policy. She joined the NCD in 2013 after serving in the Obama administration for four years, including time at the Department of Education and the Department of Health and Human Services, as well as a successful stint at the White House where she oversaw diversity and inclusion efforts. 

Cokley got her feet wet in advocacy while working at the Institute for Educational Leadership, where she built a number of tools and resources designed to empower and educate youth with disabilities and their adult allies. Since then, she has spent the last 15 years helping make stronger and deeper connections across civil rights communities and continues to see cross-movement solidarity as the only means of surviving these next four years. She is also currently working on her first book. In 2015, she was inducted into the inaugural class of the Susan M. Daniels Disability Mentoring Hall of Fame and was the recipient of the Frank Harkin Memorial Award by the National Council on Independent Living. Cokley has a Bachelor of Arts in politics from the University of California, Santa Cruz, and is the proud spouse of Patrick and mother of Jackson and Kaya.

Share with the world: