Allison’s Winding Path
I first met Allison Brewer, 37, a decade ago. They were supporting a conference in creating a space that was welcoming to all attendees, but particularly for those who are neurodiverse. It was my first time encountering someone in such a role and Allison was exceedingly patient with my questions and fascination. We’ve been in steady contact as they have applied these skills. A year ago, Allison accepted the position of Assistant Vice President of Strategic Initiatives for the Division of Diversity and Innovative Community Engagement (DICE) at Saint Louis University (SLU). Welcome to Allison’s Winding Path of Work.
In two-three sentences how would you describe what you do most days/weeks?
The scope of my day to day varies widely and generally revolves around increasing a sense of belonging across communities at our institution through addressing systemic barriers across learning and working environments. I lead institution wide committees, strategic planning, frequently guest lecture across academic divisions, and am sought out for insights and guidance on all things accessibility.
What did you want to be when you were eight?
I was 12 the first time I remember having a clear career interest and can clearly recall how certain I was that I was going to be a primatologist. I had just learned about Jane Goodall and was enthralled at this idea of observation and drawing connections from the natural world to our world. Though my dream of becoming a primatologist lasted mere months, I’ve conducted a significant amount of observations across educational settings and still channel her as I draw connections to the impact our environments have on our ability to learn and grow.
What did you learn about work that you learned from your family?
Both my parents were in the military, which provided me with a fairly unique perspective on the idea and practice of work. I was born and we lived on a military base until the end of the Cold War, then proceeded to move across three states and five school districts before I graduated from high school. While my dad was working on his (literal) top secret missions, my mom learned a new job in a seemingly new sector everywhere we went. From them, I learned how to pivot and adapt to whatever came my way. However, it was the collective brilliance of my grandparents who gave me my entrepreneurial and resourceful spirit. My mom’s dad started a handful of businesses (from running his own limo company to running a stall at a flea market) and my dad’s dad owned and operated a barber shop. My grandmother was so happy to work until she couldn’t any longer and I think it was her love of people that drove her happiness-from her days as a telephone operator to her days in the shoe department at Macy’s.
What professional experiences/employers had the greatest impact on you?
I started my career as a special education teacher in the Old North neighborhood of St. Louis and it served as the foundation for my career. I loved teaching but became acutely aware that our systems of education are inaccessible for entire populations of students, educators, and families-myself included. Though I didn’t know it at the time, I’m autistic and have narcolepsy with cataplexy (which took over a decade to diagnose). I couldn’t figure out why I kept falling asleep while teaching and thought I must not be cut out to teach. I went into the nonprofit field and continued on my path at disability serving organizations, which continued to be inaccessible. If disability serving organizations weren’t inclusive for people with disabilities, where could I work? The frustration I felt, combined with fierce awareness that we deserve better than this led me to launch my own educational advocacy and accessibility consulting business. This led me to serving as an advocate at over 1,500 IEP and Section 504 related meetings across 10 states and 200 school districts.
What is something about your career journey that people might not expect?
I’ve followed quite a few unexpected forks on my path so far, but one of my favorites is from a side hustle. While I was developing my business, I cleaned for people in my community, and it wasn’t long before my client list grew to people I didn’t know. It was one of my cleaning clients that became the first investor in my consulting and social impact business. I also occasionally serve as an expert witness in Due Process cases, which happens when a complaint has been filed against a school district for the violation of a child’s rights under IDEA or Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act (which still feels like something reserved for doctors on television programs).
Why did you pivot?
Which time? At this point, I consider myself a bit of a career chameleon having held roles across a wide set of functions and fields. My first major pivot was out of necessity. I couldn’t find a workplace that was accessible for me, so I became determined to build one for myself. My pivot into higher education was the result of recruitment and opportunity. The nature of my work continues to lead me to unexpected paths and opportunities that allow me to apply accessibility across environments in novel ways.
What skills were portable from what you had been doing previously and what was brand new to you?
I will be forever grateful that the foundation of my career was built through the lens of a special education teacher and Universal Design. As a strategist, I approach strategic planning like an educational advocate at an IEP meeting-if we can’t measure it, it isn’t a goal and asking a whole lot of questions across a team. Something new to me is learning how to navigate a large, complex institution after years of working independently-though across global communities. Self-advocacy continues to serve me across all environments, I would not be where I am if I did not know how to ask for help.
What was the hardest part about making a career pivot?
The pivot into entrepreneurship was the hardest. I never imagined I would be running my own business and was overwhelmed by how much I knew I didn’t know. The hardest part that continues to be true for me (particularly as an autistic person) is communicating the vision of what I know is possible-but others cannot see yet. It took me a long time to realize that what I do is highly specialized, so there is often foundation building that I’m doing along the way.
What were the most important lessons you’ve picked up along the way?
Operating from an affirmational approach versus a deficit model in all I do is crucial. This was true when serving as an educational advocate for children in foster and adoptive care and is true as an executive leader in higher education. We cannot approach people and communities through a deficit lens, which often perpetuates existing systems of oppression. I hope to embody the reality of persons with disabilities “Nothing about us, without us,” which speaks to the importance of centering those most impacted by decisions in the decision-making process.
What would you say to others who are doubting their ability to make a change in their career/vocation?
Doubt is so normal and an opportunity to examine where our fears are coming from as we face changes. There is so much power in naming and making the implicit, explicit. We cannot change what we do not name, which is so important in the ongoing journey of self-reflection. Our abilities are not static and major transitions (such as a career change) are challenging to navigate no matter how prepared we are for the change ahead. There is no reason for you to be on your journey alone, we cannot thrive in isolation. When in doubt, reach out.
Where did you get the confidence and support to make such a change?
My daughter inspires me to be my favorite self and my partner encourages me every step of the way. I still struggle with confidence and imposter syndrome, but I am emboldened by those who have come before me and modeled that change is not only possible-but that it is our duty. I am heavily influenced by the living legends that led the Ferguson Uprising after Mike Brown was killed by police and who continue to lead our region towards a more just and equitable future. Through my community, I saw and felt that anything is possible. It was my community that invested in me, who crowdfunded my first fellowship experience through StartingBloc, helped grow my business through word of mouth, and invited me to apply my skills to new opportunities.
What was the hardest thing you had to overcome in your professional life?
I’ve had to file two disability discrimination complaints against previous employers for disability discrimination for two very different causes. Like our education systems, our workplaces were not designed for everyone to be successful. Protecting my rights in the workplace has been the hardest challenge I’ve had to overcome, but a general lack of disability awareness and education is a close second.
What, if anything, are you hoping happens next in your professional life?
I’m currently living beyond my wildest dreams, so it is a challenge for me to imagine what comes next and have learned not to put limits on myself. My life’s mission is to see Congress fully fund IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act), which funds special education in the United States. Congress is currently funding less than 13% of its promise, which led to a $23.92 billion-dollar national deficit in the 2021-2022 school year alone. This isn’t a me thing, but an US thing.
What social media links, if any, might you like to share in the piece?
—Russ Finkelstein [linkedin.com] is the opposite of your High School Guidance Counselor. A career coach, social entrepreneur, and advisor to founders, he is currently the Director of Coaching with the Roddenberry Fellowship and a Coach-in-Residence with StartingBloc Fellowship. He was a founder of the noted careers website Idealist.org and was chosen as a Generation Z & LGBTQ Influencer by LinkedIn.