Braille Monitor                          October 2019

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Competing on Terms of Equality and Blending in: Government Service with Federation Style

by Kristen Cox

Kristen CoxFrom the Editor: Kristen Cox is the executive director of the Utah governor’s office of management and budget. Many will remember her distinguished service as a part of our government affairs team almost twenty years ago. Here is what she said on the final presentation of Friday afternoon, July 12:

It’s so great to be here. I love this organization, and the older I get, the more I appreciate the profound philosophy this organization embraces. I want to thank President Riccobono and the staff for putting on a conference of this size. I have put on one that isn’t quite this big, so I know how much energy it takes, and I really want to thank him and the staff. [applause] Yes, they deserve a round of applause.

I run the office of management and budget. I am senior staff to Governor Herbert. He is the third governor I’ve worked for, and I’m going to talk to you a little bit about my job and the journey to get here. Essentially I am the COO and the CFO [chief operating officer and the chief financial officer] for the state of Utah. I manage a budget of almost $19 billion. We do all the revenue projections, I manage a team of economists, and we do all of the operations for the agencies. So it is complicated, and I also deal with the legislature. In fact, originally, way back in the day when I was completing my individualized plan for employment, I wanted to be Dian Fossey and study gorillas in the Congo. I never did that, but I do work with the legislature. Maybe—maybe—I’m just saying—it’s a little close.

I have a great job, it’s rewarding, but I couldn’t be here in the position I am today without this organization. I want to share a little bit of my journey about how I got here and my gratitude. But before I do that, I do want to announce that there is a $10,000 donation coming to the organization. I wrote a book with a colleague and his colleague, who are fans of this wonderful organization. Proceeds from the book and the workshop we are doing in Japan will be coming to the NFB in August. So we’re doing our best to get the mission of the NFB to the entire world, and wherever I go, people are impressed and inspired and more committed to helping our cause.

My journey is probably one that many of us have encountered. I started going blind at eleven. I did large print, I did magnifying glasses, I went through every dang plan you can imagine: an IEP [Individualized Education Plan], an IPE [individual plan for employment], a ticket to work program, and, after years of being in the school system and the rehab system, I graduated from school with no skills. I can’t read Braille, can’t do cane travel, have no adaptive technology. But again, I’m independent, ambitious, and I have dreams and desires. But the idea of holding down a job seemed elusive to me.

But then I came across an invitation to go to a meeting of one of our local chapters in Utah, and I said, “Sure, I’ll go.” I met the Gardner brothers; many of you know the Gardner brothers, and that’s where the beginning of my new life started. Norm Gardner introduced me to a Braille ‘N Speak. At that time we had our first son, I did not know Braille, and I wanted to read to our son. So I would teach myself one letter a day. Then I would go to grade 2, and then I could read Hop on Pop. Finally I read The Hobbit—I’m a big fan of The Hobbit series—so I learned Braille.

Then I started to dabble a little bit more into philosophy in this idea of cane travel. I would get out my cane, but I wasn’t quite convinced that I needed it, and I was a little embarrassed and had some shame about that. At the time, I had one of those collapsible canes. I would stick it in my backpack, and when I thought I needed it, I would pull it out. I’m sure people thought I was crazy because I was like, do I need a cane, do I not need a cane, what in the world am I thinking? So I would pull my cane out when I thought I needed it and then hide it away because I hated people staring at me. One day I was walking home, had just used my cane, had just put it back in my backpack, and I fell right into a manhole. The good news was that it was in the middle of winter, so the manhole was covered with ice-cold water. The bad news was that it was covered with ice-cold water. It was freezing, it was humiliating, and it was really an eye-opener for me to start thinking about getting honest with myself.

At this point I had been in the Federation for a couple of years, and I intellectually understood what we said. I could say the words: that with the right training and opportunity, blindness could be reduced to the level of an inconvenience. I could say the words that the biggest problem with blindness was not blindness itself but the misperceptions and stereotypes we have about blindness. I could say the words, but I don’t think I got them in my heart yet.

Then I had this amazing opportunity to come back and work at the headquarters of the National Federation of the Blind. Dr. Maurer was willing to take a chance on me, and so too was Mr. Gashel, Dr. Jernigan, and others. Getting hired at headquarters exposed me to the most eye-opening experiences I’ve had. I want to tell you about some of them.

Specifically there are four lessons that have had an impact on my life forever, not only my personal life, but even today and the way I do my work in government when we tackle big problems. The Federation philosophy impacts everything I do.

One of the first things I did when I was back at the NFB—and Mr. Gashel, I don’t know if he’ll remember this or not—I know that we all use first names now back at the NFB, but I can’t do it. I think it was my first week back there, and I was trying to figure out what the heck I’m going to do. He takes me to lunch, and we were walking down the street. I was so impressed with Mr. Gashel. He is so articulate, so smart, just always on his game. So while we were walking to get lunch, I remember asking him this silly question: how much can you see? Because, in my mind still then, even though I knew the words, I had this belief that how competent or successful I could be had something to do with how well I could see. Fortunately Mr. Gashel, in the Gashel form, ignored my question, and in the months ahead I worked with such amazing people, including Dr. Maurer and the rest of the team, until I realized that I got to the place where I didn’t wonder can they see or not see or how much or how little. People everywhere were successful and competent and making a difference, and all of a sudden that question of how much can you see became irrelevant.

When I was running for lieutenant governor, one of the headlines said, “Blind Mormon woman running for governor.” I said to myself, “Wait, what about the bald Jewish man running for Senate?” But we were out one day with Governor Ehrlich, and there had been a big flood. He had toured the site with his helicopter looking down, and when he got off, the press said to him, “How would your lieutenant governor candidate do this job? She couldn’t have seen.” And he was so great, because he got what I had learned by this point which was that there are many, many ways to get information other than your eyes. [applause] He knew then what I had finally learned, that vision does not determine our success. It does not determine our success.

We know that in the Federation with the right training and the right support and the right opportunities, that is the mark of our success. So I went on my journey, and I started to get this idea that vision wasn’t the end-all, and then came this second lesson that was so important and President Riccobono talked about yesterday in his report. The word is excellence. I remember doing my first fact sheet for Washington Seminar and giving it to Mr. Gashel. It came back just redlined and redlined and redlined. I would spend hours working on these things, and the sentences were never good enough. Then I would go in with Dr. Maurer and study elements of style with grammar. Do you split your infinitives or not? Where do you punctuate? Do you remember this? [She addresses Mark Riccobono, saying that he was in one of these classes.] I came to understand that excellence, high standards, and being our best were critical.

If we want society to accept us, we’ve got to be our best. We can’t go out to the workplace and compete on equal grounds if we are not bringing our best game to the table. I can’t tell you how many classes I had taken in high school or college where no one gave me the kind of feedback I got at headquarters at the NFB. No one had! Because I was blind, they didn’t want to hurt my feelings, they didn’t have the expectations that I could do it, and this is after eight years of being in the system with all of the IEP and IPE you could have. I didn’t have the basic skills, and it was not until I got to the NFB that something changed: the expectations were elevated. They expected much more from me in everything that I did, and I’ve come to appreciate how important that is because we will live up to the expectations people will set for us. Because of that we should set pretty danged high expectations for ourselves. [applause]

That was the second lesson, and there are two more. The third lesson was a story that Dr. Schroeder—there are so many wonderful mentors that I’ve had here in this room: Dr. Schroeder, Joanne Wilson, the list could just go on and on. But I want to focus on a story that Dr. Schroeder told me. I’m going to repeat it if I can; I know I’ll get the name wrong, but forgive me. This story really affected me, and I use it today with our cabinet members as we ask them to really go after big results. Government is such a mess; I’m in it, and I can’t stand it. It’s such a mess, and we’re asking them to improve, and they’re telling us every reason why they can’t. This story has always affected me. Dr. Schroeder, if I get it wrong I apologize, but this is how I remember it:

He was working with a boy—I call him Tony, but I think his name was Vincent. Anyway he was working with Tony, who wanted to learn to play tag, and Dr. Schroeder thought about this. How do I help this kid play tag was the question that he took home that night. The next day when Dr. Schroder came back, Tony came up to him and had figured out how to play tag. He had taken jars, put pebbles in the jars, and had given them to his friends. There was no high-tech solution or anything like that: just use jars with pebbles in them so he could hear his friends at play and join them in it. I have two sons, and we tried this once. Instead of using jars with pebbles, I had everyone turn their phones on with music so that I could hear where they were. We all wore blindfolds and played tag, and it was a blast.

This little boy, Tony, had the best mindset. So many times as adults we just assume that a thing can’t get done. We give all the reasons why a thing is difficult, all the excuses, all the yes-buts. What is so remarkable about Tony is that it was not an issue of if the thing could be done—but how! This is what we need to understand: that the question is not if but how! The NFB teaches us about creative problem-solving. Yes, we may do things differently, but we still get the job done. [applause]

Every day at work I am working with economists and spreadsheets and graphs and revenue projections, and every day there is a new challenge about how I’m going to access this or how I’m going to communicate on that. There is always a way if we assume the thing is possible, and it’s just that we have to figure out the solutions. We just have to be creative problem solvers.

Again, this is so important. When Gov. Herbert first took office, he charged all the agencies to improve their performance by 25 percent. Now this was just after the recession, and our cabinet members were openly saying, “This is impossible.” But I said no. Because I have learned in the NFB that nothing is impossible. I take this philosophy to work every day, so the third lesson is not if the thing can happen, but it is how to make it happen and to be a creative problem solver.

This last lesson was so critical. I was blessed to go through residential training the NFB way and actually did it in the NFB center, and I’m so grateful for that. At the time we had one son, Tanner, and we went and did four or five months with the sleepshade training, Structured Discovery, and the whole bit. It was so great, and this is where it became less an intellectual exercise but an emotional exercise of really getting it into my heart, what this meant to be an independent cane traveler, and to really learn the skills of blindness.

I remember working with Tony Cobb. He was my O&M instructor for the day. We were out practicing, and we were out in the park across from the headquarters. What is that park called? I can’t believe I forgot the name. Yes, Riverside Park. So I’m at this park, doing my practice for the day, and I cannot get out of the park. I can hear where the highway is, right. But every time I’m walking, I’m hitting a bench. I hit grass. I hit dirt. I cannot get out of this dang park; it’s like the Minneapolis airport. I hate that airport. [laughter] That airport makes no sense to me, and I feel like I travel there once a month.

So I’m in this park, and I can’t get out of it. So I just stop, because it’s frustrating. It felt hard to me. I did not know my way forward. Tony Cobb just let me struggle for a bit, let me struggle just enough, and then he came up behind me and said something that I think about frequently. He said, “Kristin, you’ve got to learn to walk through your confusion and your fear. You’ll get no new information by standing still. You’ve got to take a step into the unknown to get that information.” And that was so impactful for me.

As blind people we can sit back and wait for the world to come to us, but, if we do that, it’s going to pass us by. Sometimes it can feel uncertain, and sometimes when I’m traveling I have questions. Last year I was in Japan traveling by myself, and at first my feeling was “How am I going to do this?” But I set that aside because I know in the NFB that we know about persistence; we know about taking one step at a time. We know that when we set our minds to big goals and things that are important to us, even if we’re not sure how we will achieve it, we know that we can if we just take the next step—through our confusion, through our fear, through the uncertainty. That was a game changer then, and it’s a game changer in my profession today.

So when the agencies say something can’t be done, what do you think I tell them? [an audience member yells out yes. She echoes back the word yes with a laugh.] There’s no mercy.

We have a lot of work still to do in Utah. We’ve made great progress, but vocational rehabilitation was transferred from the Department of Education to the executive branch eighteen months ago, and we have a lot of work to do there. Sometimes in government bureaucracy, people can list all the reasons why a thing is impossible and why we can’t do it. But again, in the NFB way, we will never let obstacles impede us from achieving the goals either professionally or personally that we have.

So I want to leave you with this: the National Federation of the Blind is one of the most profound organizations in the world. I have associated with senators and congressmen and different associations, but the profound and simple philosophy that this organization embodies impacts everything we do from legal action to training and education. But, more importantly, it penetrates our hearts. It’s what gives us the hope and the ability to live out our dreams and totally make a positive contribution in the world around us. For that I am deeply grateful to the organization, and I am excited that we can give the $10,000 donation. The governor also wanted to make sure that I extend his gratitude. He has spoken before this group. I told him I was speaking. He knows we have work to do for the remainder of his term. He’s committed to setting a very robust program to hire people who are blind within state government. I will be working closely with the NFB of Utah to make this happen. [applause] We are going to get the job done in Utah, and with that, I thank you, my Federation family.

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