My name is Kristina, a recent inductee to the NJ bar, and a sister, daughter, policy fellow, idealist, advocate, and a lover of analogies. So when asked, “What does leadership and systems change mean to you” I immediately thought “Remember the Titans!” A little strange, no – since what does professional development and leadership in disability rights world have in common with a movie about a small town Virginia football team led by one of the most influential coaches of all times – Herman Boone. I say everything! (Besides the part where they burst out singing “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” but then again even that has relevance). One of the most captivating themes of the movie is leadership - solidified by the main player’s mantra: “Attitude reflects leadership, Captain.” In other words, the attitude of a leader (good or bad) is infectious – and therefore, to be a great leader, one’s attitude must exude dedication and humility, openness and understanding, assertiveness and confidence, wisdom and integrity, as well as passion and composure (under the inevitable moments of chaos).
Coach Boone’s technique at his strictly-run training camp held in 1971 (the year the Alexandria school systems became integrated) was the very definition of systems change. He not only physically broke down his team until they came to the realization that their hatred of each other was the sole factor keeping them from the true prize (winning the championship as an integrated team), but in the midst of the 3-5 a day brutal practices, he (forcefully) encouraged each member of the team to get to know one another on a personal level. He asked one white teammate and one black teammate to interview each other about their family, aspirations, and hobbies, until they no longer saw black vs. white, but future life-long friends and teammates. Likewise, the disability rights movement challenged individuals and America’s businesses and entities to see beyond physical and intellectual limitations, and into each individual’s desire to be part of the same opportunities as their neighbor. Thanks to leaders like Herman Boone, we learn that systems change takes place from the inside out; where it’s about changing people’s mindsets through education and personal stories, and then recruiting them for your cause. The key is to bring awareness to the problem and then go one step further and equip individuals and organizations with the tools to find the right solutions (e.g. provide schools with accessible technology from the start of the school year so every student can learn at the same time), even when no one else has yet to find the courage to do so. True systems change is “an interactive process” (a term made famous by Title I of the ADA) between multiple people/agencies/organizations that all want to work together to find solutions to an emerging or long-existing problem; the outcome of which is share with one another’s concerns and suggested solutions (e.g. briefings, hearings, notice of proposed rulemaking comment periods, grassroots advocacy).
As for my professional experience in the world of advocacy, well, it has only just begun. Two years ago, while attending Cardozo Law School in NY, I was chosen to become the first LEND Law Fellow at the Rose F. Kennedy Center at the Einstein School of Medicine. Under some of the finest leadership - Dr. Robert Marion and Ms. Sheryl Dicker – I was not only privy to the most knowledgeable experts in the field of disability advocacy, but also received outstanding mentorship (I compare it to having my own personal course in professional development). It didn’t take me long to realize, that just by sitting next to great leaders, and hearing their innovative ideas and philosophies, I couldn’t help but take on some of their high-quality attributes– such as dedication to the craft, and the desire to make a difference, no matter how daunting the path ahead may seem. I also learned that throughout the course of professional development, leaders sometimes have to provide opportunities for young professionals to be thrown into challenging situations early in their career so they can learn to push themselves and gain confidence and courage. My mentors afforded me that wonderful opportunity by supporting me throughout the process of applying to be the next disability policy fellow at AUCD. As I continue on my path to a rewarding career in disability advocacy, I will forever look back at my time with both the RFK Center and my current role in AUCD, and be forever grateful for the expertise it taught me, as well as the compassion, and self-confidence it ignited in me. One thing is for certain: great leadership can’t help but birth growth and passion, as well as humility and persistence.
As I continue my journey at AUCD, I am in awe of all the wonderful leadership that I have already come into contact with: George Jesien and Kim Musheno, two people who don’t know the meaning of “quit,” and dedicate themselves to making change happen, not because they are ordered by law, but because they can’t help wanting to; Senator Tom Harkin, the reigning disability rights champion in the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pension committee and a man who cherishes and relies on consumer input in creating life-changing policy for individuals with disabilities and their families; and Ms. Yoshiko Dart, an advocate whose quiet strength has the ability to outshine even the boldest of personalities. As a dedicated and passionate young professional, I have a lifetime of learning ahead of me, but I am confident that the wisest and the most influential leaders are guiding me. No matter what the future holds – I am in the company of brave individuals who believe there is “no mountain high enough” when it comes to disability rights policy, and they will not rest until opportunity and equality is achieved for all.
In conclusion, my advice to early career professionals is to always be on the lookout for new chances to shine and grow in your field, and to especially ignore any internal and external pressures that may try to keep you from the one opportunity that will change you forever. Although many of us entering a new field would hope that they could predict every next step, and be guaranteed a successful transition into this brave new world, the reality is, that would be no fun at all! The thing I most look forward to is not necessarily the end goal – although achieving equality for all seems like a good place to end up – it’s the unexpected moments – the new job postings that appear out of thin air, working for incredible directors of UCEDDs who choose to believe in you and teach you the skills necessary to excel, the chance meetings with Senators and local champions in a field you have been dreamed of entering since elementary school. Those are the moments that define us and our careers. As March begins, I look forward to many more unexpected moments and challenges.