Left to right: Debario Fleming, moderator; President Cordano; Wayne A. I. Frederick, former president of Howard University. Photo credit: Caroline Solomon

Gallaudet University President Roberta “Bobbi” Cordano is a Deaf, white, gay woman. 

Dr. Wayne A. I. Frederick, President Emeritus of Howard University, is a hearing, Black, straight man. 

The pair explored all of these aspects of their identities in a frank conversation about intersectionality on Monday, November 13 at Sidwell Friends School, a private PK-12 school in Northwest Washington.  

Moderated by Debario Fleming, director of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion at the Field School, the event was hosted by several Sidwell parent groups, including a new Disability Awareness Committee. Gallaudet’s Dr. Caroline Solomon, whose son is a student at Sidwell, offered opening remarks highlighting some of the remarkable intersections between all the institutions involved. She noted that Gallaudet and Howard were both chartered in the 1860s, are represented by bison mascots, and have close ties with Sidwell. Gallaudet students have been student-teaching at Sidwell for more than 25 years, and a recent graduate is currently an ASL coach for a Sidwell theater production. 

Despite their distinct missions — Gallaudet as a liberal arts university that serves primarily deaf and hard of hearing students, and Howard as a historically Black research institution — the role of president requires grappling with similar challenges. One that they have both faced is how to show their support for people from different backgrounds. 

Cordano related the story of stepping into her job, and recognizing that her selection meant that the position had not gone to a person of color or a member of the DeafBlind community. “I noticed right away that there was a loss,” she said, “A loss of people being able to look to the president and see themselves.” Aware of these limitations, they have tried to build bridges through their leadership. Cordano emphasized the importance of curiosity, asking questions, and a willingness to learn. 

When asked about the origins of the pair’s friendship, Frederick credited his daughter for introducing him to American Sign Language. She became friends with a classmate whose parents are deaf. So when he was invited to take part in Cordano’s installation in 2016, he knew the importance of ASL. “You can’t go over there and give a speech and not sign,” he said.  

Cordano shared that she had gone to Minnesota to visit her kids in the summer of 2020, when George Floyd was killed just seven miles from her home. It was hard to be so far away from Gallaudet during the ensuing protests. “There was no way for me to take in what might happen in the neighborhood, even on campus,” she said. “In that moment of desperation, I called Wayne.” Being able to turn to others for help is difficult for her, she noted, because she spent so much of her early life trying to be self-reliant and independent. 

For students today, the landscape has shifted in some noticeable ways. Frederick remembers seeing older graduates in tears at an LGBTQ function during Howard Homecoming. They were happy to see such a welcoming event — and the university president in attendance. 

There is still a lot left to do to create welcoming environments where everyone feels a sense of belonging, but there is also a lot of hope, both presidents agreed. Cordano closed the event by describing this summer’s Kendall School graduation ceremony honoring the 24 Black students who had to wait 71 years for their diplomas due to past discrimination. “I believe this is part of the most important work we’ve done at Gallaudet in the last few years, bringing forward and highlighting these stories and looking to places where our systemic ‘isms’ have really hurt people’s lives,” she said. 

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