A United Front: Diversity and Inclusion Within the FBI
July 25, 2022
Interview with Cori Curtis, a supervisor for the Weapons of Mass Destruction Directorate and chairperson of the FBI's Persons with Disabilities Advisory Committee.
A UNITED FRONT: DIVERSITY AND INCLUSION WITHIN THE FBI
Axel Villamil: Hey everybody, my name is Axel Villamil. I'm your host for this podcast, A United Front: Diversity and Inclusion Within the FBI. I'm here with Cori Curtis, supervisor, Weapons of Mass Destruction Directorate. How are you doing, Cori?
Cori Curtis: I'm doing well. How about you?
Villamil: I'm doing good. I'm doing good. You know, it's exciting to be here, to speak with people in person. This is, for everybody listening, is not a virtual. This is face to face, we’re chatting, seeing some great smiles in the studio today. And now, Cori, I know apart from your permanent title, there is something else that you do here that's very, very important. Can you explain what that is, and how you got to this role?
Curtis: Yeah, so I'm currently the chairperson of the Persons with Disabilities Advisory Committee or PDAC for short. It is a collateral duty that I volunteer whenever I get free time to advocate for applicants and employees with disabilities at the FBI.
Villamil: Wow, that's amazing. And you know, you usually don't hear or think about that when you do hear FBI, especially with a title that you have. What would you say is most challenging about, you know, this role that you're in because it sounds like there's a lot to take on apart from your regular day job. What is that challenging piece?
Curtis: I would say the challenge in itself is just the whole topic of disabilities itself is very broad, and there's a lot of depth to it as well because when you think about: What is a disability? There's the medical definition, and then there's the societal definition. But really, for me, it's thinking about the spectrum of visible and invisible disability. So there are things that we can see with people that are in wheelchairs or need assistance, or there are those who are blind, visually impaired, deaf, hard of hearing, as well as those who have chronic depression, anxiety, autism. So there's this really big spectrum of different ways to think about and identify with disabilities. And so when it comes to advocating for employees with disabilities, the real challenge is how do we meet the greatest need that the FBI has so that we can really improve the FBI in the most meaningful way for the most people so that they can get on with their mission of protecting the American people?
Villamil: That's amazing. Do you think a lot of the public doesn't realize that the FBI does these things for people that are, you know, have those disabilities that are visual or not visual?
Curtis: Yeah, I think when we normally think of the FBI, we think about that core mission. We see the, you know, the FBI jackets going to somebody's house to go and collect evidence or speaking in courtrooms on the cases that they've gone through or the intelligence analysts. So that is still very much the heart of what we think about the FBI. But a part of all of those individuals that are doing that work is that many of them do have disabilities. So again, like those invisible disabilities, like autism or chronic depression, are things that you just don't see. But we have people behind the scenes that are computer engineers, data scientists who are blind, who are deaf, or who are language specialists and have some disability. So knowing that the FBI has people dedicated and passionate about including those with disabilities, I think would be a really exciting topic for somebody to learn about that they may not always think about when envisioning what the FBI does.
Curtis: Especially, you know, if you do have those types of disabilities, you'd want to join up with the FBI, you know, you feel included by hearing especially a conversation like this, I think, that's a great thing that we're having right now and knowing that the people behind the scenes, like you said, we're human. We're human people that have disabilities, whether it's visible or invisible. So, exactly. And that crosses the whole spectrum. We have three major career categories. We have professional staff, intelligence analysts, and special agents, and there are people with disabilities in every category. So we have agents with disabilities, analysts, and professional staff, and all of them can go and do the work. Run cases, do analytical products. So being able to show that we have people with disabilities is a part of the FBI, I think is really important to get out there.
Villamil: That’s absolutely amazing. So how do you think, apart from already what you're doing right now, how does the FBI look to expand more in its efforts for being, you know, this diverse and inclusive with people especially in your role for people who have disabilities?
Curtis: Yeah, so we'll have to kind of break it down into smaller pieces. So we think about the federal law is always very clear whether we're talking about Americans with Disabilities Act or the Rehabilitation Act. We have a clear legal framework of what we need to do to ensure that we as an organization are inclusive and accessible. So we have to kind of break that down into the digital space and physical space. Are the buildings that we have for people to work in accessible to those who have physical disabilities? Do they have the doors that they can hit a button and get into? So if they need to get into a secure facility, do they have those abilities to get all the way into their office space? Or we think about the digital space-- the documents and the systems that we create--are they accessible to those who are blind or visually impaired so that they can use screen readers, be able to read documents and use the tools that every FBI employee needs to use? So we have to kind of just deep dive into each of those different topics and narrow down: How are we spending our resources? How are we dedicating our decision making to making sure that accessibility and inclusion is a part of the conversation, just as anything else is?
Villamil: Absolutely. Since you've joined, what does that growth look like in the FBI, since you know, this program has been implemented, but also prior to before it was. How much do you think it has actually grown?
Curtis: I would say within the last three years, the whole conversation around accessibility has become at the forefront. One of the most rewarding things that we've done in the last three years is that we've held our executives accountable as a part of their senior executive performance plans. All of them have to focus on accessibility of the systems they own and the people they manage. So they need to ensure, 1) their workforce is training on accessibility, and is including in their conversations. And then 2) the systems that their divisions own are accessible. So they have to figure out the testing of it, the remediation plan, so if it's inaccessible or non-compliant, they have to then communicate, how are they going to make it compliant and talk about it to their workforce and talk about it to not only the workforce in their officer division, but to the rest of the FBI, since other parts of the FBI employees need to use the systems that they create.
Villamil: That's amazing.
Curtis: So it's shifted the conversation completely. Absolutely.
Villamil: I mean, that's very nice to hear because a lot of people don't actually see that innovation internally. And now that I'm listening and hearing about it right from the source is really great to hear. So I do want to ask you Cori, what's your why? You know, why are you doing this?
Curtis: Hmm. I have a really long answer to that. But for me, it is it's always about investment, that there are people in my life that invested in me. Growing up in a small town in Nebraska that looked at me and gave me the chance to have a job, have the scholarships, and to go forth and be included in the rest of the world. And for me, the whole point of my life is how do I take that investment and reinvest in others? So for me, the broader conversation about diversity and inclusion is all about how are we giving and making this world better? So for me, my why is how am I investing my life into the lives of others and being more inclusive? And I have different stories of people in my family that have disabilities, or people I grew up in school and I saw how systems in place that were inclusive created amazing things. Like I went to school with people who are blind and they were in the marching band with me.
Curtis: And who did other activities and were made to feel a part of a community. And I always wanted to share that feeling that investment of being a part of the community wherever I go. And so for me, that is that drive is how do I invest that community of inclusion, and for me, that's at the FBI.
Villamil: It's such an amazing thing to hear that, you know, you want to give back like that because you know, I was listening to, I think, a couple of podcasts and I was, I forget who it was, but something like, why are we here if we're not trying to make a difference with, you know, the abilities that we have and that it's happening within the FBI is great because we see it as this very high institution that is tricky to get in. And maybe you have something you deem is wrong or different about you, you may not see you fit in, but like you said, there's that, you know, friend of yours who was in the marching band is blind. I did coding class and there was a guy who was blind as well, but one of the best coders I knew, and I ask him for help because I was like, I don't - I don't know. And then he had to use a system to read out to me. So it really changes the landscape, not only giving back but having more inclusion. So, specifically for the FBI, how do you think it has benefited the Bureau in terms of this program?
Curtis: Well, I think it's inherently part of our mission is to protect the American people and uphold the Constitution. So protecting the American people means representing and thinking about all of the American people. And so people with disabilities need to be a part of that. Whether we're talking about civil rights, crimes, investigations, or the recruitment, staffing, onboarding, and workforce development processes we have here at the FBI. So for us, it's inherent to the identity of our mission, and I think it should be inherent to our processes and the way that we think about improving this great organization.
Villamil: That was the best answer I've ever heard. If there's anything you could say to anybody that's listening, especially ones with disabilities that are maybe in hopes to, you know, work here. What would you say to them?
Curtis: You have a place here. You have a role here--whether it is a special agent, intelligence analyst, or many of the professional staff roles. If you're interested in data science, computer engineering, running investigations and writing reports, the FBI is thinking about how to make this place always more inclusive for people with disabilities, and you have advocates, and you have a community here. And the difference that you will make here is on a large global scale when you think about the programs and the things that you get to be a part of. And it's a worthy life it’s a worthy mission to be a part of.
Villamil: Cori, thank you so much for your time. This was A United Front: Diversity and Inclusion within the FBI.
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