In this episode of Inform & Connect, Melody speaks with Sherry Pablo who recently graduated from the inaugural cohort of the AFB Blind Leaders Development Program.
Melody Goodspeed: Hey, everybody. Welcome to the American Foundation for the Blind's Informing and Connect Podcast. We are so excited to be here today, and I am super excited because I get to speak to a very special guest and I love our topic as well. We are going to be diving into AFB's Blind Leaders Program and to do that, we have a very special guest who is a recent graduate of our very first inaugural class. Ms. Sherry, Sherry, how are you today?
Sherry Pablo: I'm doing well. How are you?
Melody: I'm doing great. Actually, I'm doing spectacular because I get to hang with you and we get to talk about blind leaders.
Sherry: Yes. I'm excited to be here.
Melody: Well, congratulations on graduating at our first kickoff program. And boy, my gosh, we did that through a pandemic and the world was nuts, right?
Sherry: Yes. A lot of changes, but as blind leaders, we are adaptable and flexible.
Melody: Exactly, we totally are. I love that, I love it. Yeah, so the world we really had to pivot ... when we first started this, we were making plans to travel and to meet in person and at least at our AFB leadership conference for 2020, and we had to pivot real quick. And you're just... Thank you so much for sticking with us. So let's jump in Sherry. Tell us a little bit about you.
Sherry: Okay. Well, I am currently in graduate school, but when I started the program, I was actually working at the Public Health Institute and my interest is really in healthcare and trying to make it more diverse and inclusive. And as far as my sight loss, I actually became blind in my mid twenties. So I grew up fully sighted able-bodied and one day I ended up getting sick and in the process ended up becoming blind. And so I had a major life transition into the disabled community and I really had to kind of pivot and kind of find what I wanted to do moving forward. Initially, I was really into the sciences and I wanted to go into medicine. That was the path that I was always working towards. And after I lost my sight, I really had to explore where I would like to be moving forward.
Melody: Wow, Sherry, that's awesome. I totally understand, myself being blind and one thing that you and I both share, which I'm going to let everyone know, the reason why I talk about this is I got the privilege to be in the Blind Leaders Program myself as Sherry's mentor which... We really bonded over both of our shared experiences. We both experienced sight loss in a very traumatic and unexpecting way and had to pivot quickly. So, one of the things that has always just really blown me out and has motivated me Sherry, is your willingness to stick and move from... You were in a career when we met and you were wanting to change that. Can you tell us about that? What was it about that made you want to go back to school?
Sherry: Yeah. So as far as, having lost my sight as a young adult, I definitely went through the experiences of trying to figure out what kind of role and what kind of position I wanted to be in, still within science and healthcare, but that whole process of learning my strengths and skills and even just being comfortable with blindness skills and technology was really challenging over time. And as I actually became better at those skills, and I went to a training program and met other blind professionals, those spaces that I wanted to be in, in particular healthcare spaces, aren't the most accessible for the blind, but I was very fortunate in all my opportunities to have amazing supervisors that, gave me the opportunities to learn and to grow in those spaces.
But as I was working, those spaces were really, not very, I guess you could say those kinds of spaces just didn't have the representation, the disability, or even blindness representation that I felt that it needed. And I typically was always the first blind person in these spaces. And that was really problematic. Because at the same time, as I was learning and growing as a professional, I was also having to educate everyone around me.
Melody: And advocate for yourself.
Sherry: Yes. And so that was really one of the reasons why, I was interested in going back to school. I think... Thinking about the big picture, I just knew that if I wanted to make certain changes within the healthcare system and in certain organizations, that I really needed an advanced degree, as well as to increase my leadership capabilities in order to move up.
Melody: That is great. And I want to brag on you in a little bit, but I want to stop here about your leadership and move back into the blind leaders, because that's really what we're all about. Is taking people to the next level, A and another thing B is, you really... I think one of the most common things that we hear about our community, the BVI community is that you fight so hard to get a job and you feel like sometimes you don't have options and you really took that initiative to say "Hey, I am gainfully employed, but I have a bigger calling." And you really followed that so... With blind leaders, can you tell us how it is that you found out about by Blind Leaders Program from AFB?
Sherry: Yes, it was really random. Of course I've always known about AFB, it was actually a social media post that a friend posted on Facebook, that I actually first saw the announcement that the Blind Leaders Development Program was starting and they were accepting applications. And at the time I was in my role as a Vista Lead with Public Health Institute and I was doing well, but I also knew I was struggling because I didn't know that many blind leaders, I still was growing my professional network. And I thought that it would be a great opportunity to be able to have a mentor that could understand my needs in the workforce.
Melody: That is wonderful. So, when you went ahead and applied, what did you find when you started and you found out you got accepted and started the program, what did you find was really pulling you towards that and you've learned throughout the program?
Sherry: I really like the fact that there was going to be a mentor, mentee relationship, and that I would also be able to meet other young or blind professionals working in a whole different variety of fields to connect with across the country. Because a lot of the times, blind professionals are just trying to perform their job duties. And sometimes that in and of itself takes up all of our time and energy and we don't take the time to actually connect with other people in different disciplines and fields. So that was definitely a positive aspect.
I also like the fact that it was dedicated time for me to explore areas that I could improve upon and the curriculum that was in place about trying to explore and get feedback on your strengths and opportunities was really what I needed. A lot of self-reflection and a lot of even evaluation from my peers and my supervisors, getting that at the beginning of the program really opened my eyes to how I viewed myself as a leader versus how other people viewed me, which they were very completely different. And I wouldn't have known that without that kind of assessment.
Melody: That is wonderful. I have to say I also too really enjoyed, we... The program that she's talking about is the leadership challenges, the leadership challenge, and we really explored the different principles of leadership that were really important, especially in that time of being in that virtual world. We talk about networking and other things and navigating that. I think a lot of people think... And I love how you brought up learning about inter disciplines in other areas, both having that cohort of fellows that are looking for the same things, and then also having that mentor relationship. How did you find... when we were, when you were with your fellows, the things that you guys would talk about, what is just some of the things you learned from your peers?
Sherry: Well, we definitely talked a lot about our technology mishaps and just the things that happen when technology does not work. We would share tools and hacks that we would... We knew using certain software programs, we got together as a group several times for happy hours or little social mixers on the weekends, just to get to know each other, which is really nice. But I think it's just knowing that we all struggle in different ways and sometimes, we can relate to each other on that same level, or even just thinking about ways to improve communicating with our peers our supervisors, our next steps, applying for jobs and things like that. It was just really nice to have that kind of comradery.
Melody: That is so nice. And I think for me with... When we got together, with being a mentor in the program, just to give a flip side of it, was we had our own training too talking about and being able to say "Hey, I've never experienced this problem before." But we have, I think the communication part between fellows and mentors one-on-one and together was so beneficial. Sherry, I love the part when we were all talking about, we all had a common goal of just networking being blind, like walking in a room, most people that are sighted, obviously see the person they want to talk to and go to. And so that was a shared thing. So being able to pop in and talk about that, was also one thing that I really found interesting and also very helpful in our current state of being on zoom and then also how to carry myself when we do go to other networking opportunities. Did you find any of those other things that we came to shared understanding and helped each other out with that were beneficial?
Sherry: Yeah, there were... Other than the leadership challenge and of course our relationship with mentors, the program did include other webinars and soft skills and separate workshops that we all attended where we learned about how to build a social media presence or how to use project management tools. And, some of those kinds of topics were really interesting. How to story tell your story and how that's important in building your yourself up. And so those kinds of things were also super useful and quick enough that it was just enough information to start you on the process of thinking and not... But not overwhelming.
Melody: Right. And I too, just want to bring the fact up. With learning those skills that... There's so many times that people think well "This is an individual that's blind, how could they possibly navigate this?" Or, I think there's these conscious and unconscious biases that are put on us, but we also put on ourselves, like you had mentioned before, seeing how you saw yourself as a leader. But for me, the leader I saw in you was, wow. As a mentor, I learned so much from you with watching you say "Hey, I have career goals. This happened to me, I wanted to move into the healthcare world, I had to pivot." And you stuck with your why and what is passionate for you. And I talked about this, for shared a personal experience, about even just going to the doctor and things not being accessible. And listening to your passions about how you want that to change and what you're doing about it.
And then moving into your program. So tell us about what you're doing now, Sherry, and I just, again, want to tell you how so proud I am of you and just how strong you are. And I love that you are a living example of "You can be blind and you have this, but it doesn't mean you have to stay where you are. You can pivot, you can move, you can do what it is you want to do." And I just... the biggest smile on my face and sending you a big virtual hug, but can you talk about what it is you're doing now? Our program is a year long and we'll get into that then a little bit in our Centennial year, but tell us about what you're doing now, Sherry.
Sherry: Yeah. So after acquiring a couple of years or several years of work experience, and that I think is the most important part for like any blind leader professional is just to get out there and try things until figure out what you like and don't like, and I've had both clinical and non-clinical experiences in the healthcare field. And, through that, I learned that I am really good at helping to run teams and working with organizations. And so I found that I actually do like being in the non-clinical role. And so I decided to go back to school. And so now I've currently actually just finished my first year at UC Berkeley in the school of public health. And I will be earning my master's in public health and, graduating on time next year in May 2022.
I'm currently focused on health policy and management, and so it has been a whirlwind of transitioning from working to being a student. And at the moment I am currently a summer intern with PeaceHealth, which is a healthcare organization based in the Pacific Northwest. And it's through a program of the Institute for diversity and health equity through the American Hospital Association.
Melody: Wow. How... If people wanted to learn more about where you're interning, is there a URL they can go to?
Sherry: Yes. So the summer enrichment program is geared specifically towards diversifying health leadership within organizations across the United States. And anyone interested in actually learning more about the program can go to the website ifdhe.aha.org.
Melody: That is incredible. And I also just want to leave you guys with this, Sherry was not only accepted to UC Berkeley, but she was accepted to all the colleges that she applied to, which was five, correct?
Melody: Yes. So we're talking about a girl here I just am so proud of her you guys very much so. Sherry, before we go into some... We're going to introduce our... AFB's public relations manager, John Mack in to ask us some questions to move into, but I want everyone to know that we are in our Centennial year here at AFB. We are getting ready to kick off our second cohort, which is our Centennial cohorts. Application process is going to be at early July. If you're interested in being a mentor or a fellow, check us out at afb.org/blindleaders, no space, just blindleaders together. Again, that's afb.org/blind leaders. Also, if you are interested in supporting the program, you can also contact me, Melody at email@example.com. Sherry, his has been incredible. I have to tell you, this has been one rough year for us all and being able to be here with you through this and kicking off our binders program was just a true gift to me. I'm so incredibly proud of you.
Sherry: Thank you so much. I'm really glad to be here.
Melody: And I'm so glad too. [inaudible] it's so good to have you. Everybody this is our public poli... Public sorry, relations manager, John Mackin, Who's going to hang out with us for a little bit.
John Mackin: Hello.
John: Thank you both, this is... It was fascinating listening to this remarkable journey. I appreciate you sharing your story Sherry, and Melody I love your questions. Speaking of, we have some more here.
Melody: Bring them on John.
John: Shall we dive right in?
John: Okay. Let's see what we got here. Okay, Sherry, we're always having conversations about technology. So one of the questions that we often get is how do you keep your tech skills current?
Sherry: So that is something I struggle with a little bit. What I've actually found helpful are the podcasts that people are producing. I know Freedom Scientific or the Sparrow produces one. I keep track of what's... The changes that happens to [inaudible] and things like that. And I also am a part of different assistive technology groups on Facebook. And I get a lot of interesting tips and tricks there. So I like to pay attention to what other people are learning and doing.
Melody: I'm going to have to pick that up Sherry. I'm going to have to start looking into those. That's excellent. See, always learning.
John: Life is a journey.
John: From hearing your story over the last 20 minutes with Melody sounds like you're a very busy person. So I'm curious, how do you unwind? What does Sherry do for fun? What are your hobbies?
Sherry: Well, now that things are starting to open up a little more in California and even pre COVID. I like to travel a lot. I like having things on my calendar to look forward to. So I love getting together with friends for dinner, if it was over, the last year with getting together, virtually with friends on the weekends, I like to read a lot as well as I've actually been folding origami paper crane the last year. And it's like a meditation practice.
John: We get some here and there, cookie cutter style answers, but I have to say that last one was a first.
Sherry: Yeah, well, definitely folding origami, there's plenty of blind friendly tutorials out there to check out, so anyone can do it.
John: Very cool. And that you mentioned that it was for you, a meditative practice, I love that.
Melody: Me too.
John: Okay. Thank you for that Sherry, where do you see yourself professionally in the next 10 to 15 years? In terms of, how would you like to see your career unfold?
Sherry: A big part of me participating in the Blind Leaders Development Program was this realization I had at my last work place where, I really needed to look that far ahead to see where I wanted to be. And particularly within healthcare, the pandemic has really spotlighted all of the health inequities that have... Pretty much have always existed for people with disabilities. And that, a lot has not changed even within the last 30 years of the passage of the ADA. And a lot of that is because there's a lack of representation within healthcare spaces. And so, I think, I believe... I listened to a recent podcast episode where the chairman of the National Council on Disability actually spoke about how there's so much lack of representation within healthcare leadership, health care organizations, board members, just people who are able to make decisions and provide input for access and for equal treatment of people with disabilities.
And so I see myself actually in that kind of space. I want to move up the field and actually be in executive healthcare leadership within an organization or within a federal agency, or with some type of organization where there is decision-making, power to influence change within the larger system. And I think until, the U.S and agencies pivot towards that, where there is more representation of the disabled, that a lot of these health inequities aren't really going to be addressed. I think we've done a good job of racial diversity, gender diversity, but there hasn't been a lot of work done on disability recruitment retention and upward mobility. So that's kind of where I see myself, I want to influence policy. I want to influence the system, but I also want to, as part of that, my long-term goal is also to increase employment of the disabled within healthcare spaces, because that's also very important to me.
Melody: My job right there Sherry, and I know you're going to do it. There's no doubt in my mind at all. I just, well, John, because I've no other words. What do you think?
John: Well, I thought it was fantastic and frankly, it's a perfect segue into the last question that I have. It's a perfect segue. Sherry, as you probably know, it is... 2021 is the centennial year for the American Foundation for the Blind. And our theme for the centennial is “inclusion knows no limits.” So just thinking big right now, “inclusion knows no limits.” What does a world of no limits look like to you?
Sherry: Inclusion is really about just equal access and treatment. And so, if I think about just healthcare spaces or just, equal opportunity for disabled and the blind to enter these spaces, whether that be education, whether it be in employment, just having that opportunity and even just welcoming nature of really looking at inclusion and trying to change the culture, to be more accepting, to be more accommodating, to pick at all of our strengths, because I think that inclusion also means working at the stigma and the misperceptions of the blind in these spaces.
And so I really, like to challenge people to think about, how the blind can enter these spaces and it's not... Healthcare, isn't just the clinical aspects, we need the blind everywhere, behind the scenes, in the finance department, in technology in all aspects of healthcare. And so I think that there's opportunity for a much more inclusive world that values the disabled. And I think the more that there is representation, the more inclusive we can become.
Melody: Thank you so much, Sherry. That was very well said. I couldn't agree with you any more [crosstalk]. And again, I love the fact that we're moving onward and upward. And even though we have graduated from the first inaugural class, I know that we will still be side by side this whole time, as you mentioned through your career and you become a leader and a mentor, which you already are a leader, so I'm so proud of you again, and everybody can again, we are opening up our application process early July this year. So very soon within the next couple of weeks, if you want to learn more about the blind leaders program at the American Foundation for the Blind, visit afb.org/blindleaders, if you want to email us to find out more about us, you just need to visit B as in blind, L as in leaders, D as in developments, P as in firstname.lastname@example.org. Thank you Sherry again so much for being here, John, thank you so much.