Legendary singer Joni Mitchell has praised the wonderful cover of her song “Both Sides Now” from the Oscar-winning movie CODA. As one of the most prolific songwriters of all time, Mitchell’s approval speaks volumes, particularly to the deaf community. The film tells the story of Ruby (Emilia Jones), a child of deaf adults (or, CODA) who dreams of a musical career. However, her aspirations clash with her fear of abandoning her parents (Marlee Matlin and Troy Kotsur) right when they need her most.
One of CODA’s most poignant moments comes near the end of the film, when Ruby is auditioning for the Berklee College of Music. She sings “Both Sides Now,” and, after seeing her family sitting in the audience, begins signing along to the lyrics. For me, the experience was akin to watching Dorothy’s transition in the Wizard of Oz go black-and-white to technicolor.
The film moved me to invite Roberta “Bobbi” Cordano on to my show to share more about the deaf community. She is a values-driven leader focused on sign language equity in education, economic opportunity, innovation, and belonging as president of Gallaudet University, the only birth-PhD education entity in the world that uses American Sign Language in every aspect of its daily education and operations.
Always curious, President Cordano is guiding Gallaudet as it transforms to meet the demands of the 21st century. Being deaf is part of human diversity and Cordano is a fierce advocate for deaf people being embraced in all facets of society. Showcasing the value, contributions, and innate innovation of deaf people, as well as the power of sign language, is at the heart of her leadership.
As the audience realizes during the interview, true transformation can only happen if a multitude of perspectives and experiences are welcomed, and Cordano is vigilant in infusing equity, diversity, and inclusion into all aspects of Gallaudet. She is focused on creating a welcoming and engaging experience for all students and strengthening efforts to ensure they are active citizens at Gallaudet and in the community, nation, and world.
Cordano reaffirms the critical importance of education and access to opportunities and systems, particularly for marginalized communities. To that end, she exemplifies the intersectionality of contemporary life as she is the first deaf woman and LGBTQ president to lead a major university and she shares her excitement with the audience for the continued transformation and impact Gallaudet will have on deaf lives throughout the nation and across the globe.
Some of the fun take-away’s from our interview with Cordano include:
- “I was regularly told growing up that I could be anything I wanted, even president of the United States, so he believed in my full potential, and I believe that is true for everyone to this day.”
- “Deaf people can be successful, they can succeed doing anything, when they have sign language. When we all cansign, we can access one another, we can talk together, learn together, and there’s a deep cultural richness that’s a part of our community. . . sign language is an asset a benefit to all of us . . . There’s a famous quote that say,‘Deaf people can do anything except hear.’ It has served us well.”
Cordano also shares fascinating background on how Gallaudet isfacilitating greater understanding of US history and the legacies of slavery and discrimination, including a new capital campaign in honor of Louise Burwell Miller.
In 1952, the Washington mother of four – three deaf sons and one hearing daughter – was angered by the city’s biased regulations that forced parents such as her to send their Black deaf children away – at their expense – to segregated public schools in neighboring states. She and other parents filed suit in federal court against the D.C. Board of Education and won.
The ruling led to the opening in 1953 of a school division for Black deaf students in grades K-12 on the Gallaudet campus, separate from a division for white deaf primary-grade students and taught by a handful of dedicated Black teachers. The case also proved to be foundation for the later Brown v. Board of Education. The university awarded Miller a posthumous honorary degree in May 2021.
Cordano also shares with the audience the endless opportunities for businesses to fully engage with the deaf community, citing the success of such global brands as Starbucks, Apple, and JP Morgan Chase. Cordano presents a portal into a world of enlightenment and opportunity throughout our interview. Her insights will have you wanting to hire Gallaudet alumni, commit to including the deaf community more actively in your business, and maybe even learn a little ASL (American Sign Language). In short, with Cordano’s stories, the audience goes from black-and-white to technicolor.
Some words of wisdom that Cordano shares for all young people, not just deaf youth, include:
- Always be curious and learning. She says, “If you continue to learn throughout your life and continue to challenge yourself to grow beyond what you currently know and who you currently know, life will just shape itself and create its path for you. You just have to be curious and be willing to learn and you have to be willing to take some of those hard knocks along the way and get feedback from people that you might not want to hear from.
- Sometimes the feedback that you get is based on the other person’s need and maybe not on what you necessarily did, but if you can learn to be more responsive to other people’s needs, you can change and grow and create a more positive relationships with others. Don’t always take feedback personally but understand that it is a growth opportunity.
Bobbi Cordanoexemplifies how leaders with purpose-driven lives and careers are shaping our contemporary workplace for the better.