Cherri King: Leading a Movement
Chief among the benefits of hiring persons with disabilities is that they work twice as hard as anyone else, says Cherri King, an HR correspondence analyst. “Give us a chance. Be open-minded!” says King.
As the nation's largest federal law-enforcement agency and an employer of more than 63,000 Americans, U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) is poised to help lead the movement toward equity in the U.S., striving daily to recruit and hire a workforce that reflects the diversity of the population it serves.
Ask Cherri King, who arrived at CBP in October 2019 as a correspondence analyst in the Office of Human Resources Management (HRM). King’s primary duties include evaluating and managing the endless stream of tasks and correspondence that funnel into HRM’s largest directorate, the Talent Management Directorate. Not included in her official position description is her role as a powerful workforce advocate who makes it her mission to encourage the inclusion and hiring of more people who look like her. King is a woman of color who lives with cerebral palsy. She uses a wheelchair to move around, but it’s sheer hustle, ambition, and talent that propel her forward. “As an individual with a disability, it’s twice as hard for us to find employment because we have to deal with so many barriers and unconscious bias,” says King. “So, imagine being a woman of color with a disability. We have to work 10 times as hard.”
King began her federal service while she was still a full-time undergraduate at Bowie State University, majoring in psychology. “I always had aspirations about working for the federal government and aspired to be a public servant,” says King. In her junior year, she came across the Workforce Recruitment Program (WRP), a U.S. Department of Labor–managed initiative that connects federal or private sector employers with highly driven college students or recent graduates with disabilities. In 2008, King landed her first federal job through WRP, as a human resources assistant at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. “WRP is a very good program. It definitely gives students a chance at a first real paying job that actually counts toward federal service,” says King. “I would also encourage hiring managers to make use of it.”
King returned to her alma mater to obtain a graduate degree in HR, then went on to hold various positions at a wide range of federal agencies, all of which found her through WRP. In 2019, as her job as a selective placement program coordinator at the Peace Corps was coming to an end, King found herself looking hard at CBP, drawn by the culture of camaraderie that characterizes law enforcement agencies. An HR specialist at CBP happened to call King to talk about launching a joint initiative to place outgoing Peace Corps volunteers at the agency. “I said, ‘I’m all for supporting this program,’” recalls King. “‘But, by the way, I too am nearing the end of my time here.’” She sent him her resume and the rest, as they say, is history.
In just two years at CBP, King has made a lasting impression, improving day-to-day processes within her own branch while also advocating for future diversity hiring and recruitment opportunities across CBP. Last October, she served as keynote speaker at an internal agency event highlighting the recruitment and hiring of individuals with disabilities. “After that, people were reaching out to me saying ‘Ooh, I want to know more,’” says King.
That is King’s ultimate goal: spreading knowledge. King has been on both sides of the hiring process and marvels at how much people — both hiring managers and applicants with disabilities — still don’t understand. Hiring managers often subscribe to myths about disability: Will this person in a wheelchair be able to do the job? Prospective applicants, meanwhile, feel trepidation about their chances of success: Will this workplace accept me and provide reasonable accommodations so I can do my job?
The answers are absolutely, yes, and yes, says King. She urges hiring managers to remember that people with disabilities often work harder than anybody else. “Take the time to understand how individuals with disabilities can actually benefit your agency. We are ready, willing, and able to do the job. Anybody who is looking to hire us, I don’t think they would regret the decision,” says King.
She appeals to job seekers to be equally open-minded and to articulate clearly what they need to succeed. Reasonable accommodations, such as speech-recognition software or headsets, are readily and easily available at no cost to the agency. To land the job they want, her best piece of advice to potential applicants is to forge as many relationships as possible and not to give up. “Employers like to see that you are persistent and that you go for what you want in your life and in your career,” she says. “Continue to network constantly. You never know how things will pan out. If you want something, always map out a plan and figure out the best strategy. Go for it.”
King’s master plan has her occupying a managerial position one day soon. True to form, she is already participating in a management-training program for CBP employees. “Throughout my career, I’ve had some fantastic leadership and I’ve had some not-so-great leadership. I want to be on the great side. I want my team to look at me and say, ‘She understands the needs of her employees. She wants to see us do great and we want to do great as a representation of her and our team,’” says King.