Rebecca Kirszner Katz ’97, Special Advisor to New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, might not be where she is today if she had attended another university.
“Here’s the thing about Clark,” she says. “All my life I’ve struggled with learning disabilities. I went to a big public high school in Philadelphia; I’m a pretty assertive person, and I always knew that I could make my voice heard — but at Clark I didn’t have to shout.”
“Categorizing people isn’t something we do here” — the Clark motto that was ubiquitous in the ’80s and ’90s — first attracted Katz to the University. “I wanted to start somewhere where everybody was welcomed to the table and everybody was being challenged. Creativity comes from all different directions, and all different corners. I think Clark is a place that realized that.” Her professors, she added, recognized that even if students have disabilities in one area, they might thrive in another.
Katz began her studies intending to be a teacher. But a comment from government Professor Bradley Klein set her on a different path.
“You realize you’re a political junkie and need to go into politics, right?” Klein said to her.
With encouragement from government Professor Mark Miller, Katz spent a semester in Washington, D.C. interning for Congressman Chaka Fattah, who represented her district in Philadelphia. The internship went so well that Katz lined up a job in Fattah’s office even before she graduated from Clark with a degree in government and a minor in sociology. She worked both in D.C. and in Philadelphia while earning her master’s in government administration from the University of Pennsylvania.
By 2005, after years working on campaigns across the country, Katz returned to D.C. to be communications director for Sen. Harry Reid, the Senate’s Democratic leader. One day, Reid was doing radio interviews and dialing the phone numbers that Katz read to him. “I kept reading the numbers wrong because I’m dyslexic,” she recalls. Reid asked if she had a learning disability.
“I was mortified,” Katz says. “I tried to figure out which was worse, to admit it or not.” She told him that she did.
“He looked at me and said, without missing a beat, ‘You must have worked twice as hard as everyone else to get where you are today.’ It was one of those moments where you realize that you don’t have to be ashamed. And from then on, I’ve tried to destigmatize some of these special needs.”
Katz spent several years as a consultant for Hilltop Public Solutions in New York, working on a number of political races, most notably de Blasio’s successful mayoral run. She returned to government as his special adviser, dealing with communications strategy, special projects, and long-term planning.
The political communications job has changed significantly since that internship with Rep. Fattah, when Katz would spend an entire day faxing press releases to community newspapers. Those press releases now do their job only if they’re on a website linked to and from other sources, like Twitter. “If you can’t say in 140 characters what you would say in a press release, your message might not be getting through,” she says.
“It’s very rewarding to work for someone you really believe in,” Katz says of de Blasio. “I work for a mayor whose big initiative is universal pre-kindergarten. That’s a very important issue to me, personally. You can find problems kids are having early, and treat them before they get sidetracked. Early intervention is key.”
Katz insists her own learning issues don’t create any barriers these days because of the confidence she gained at Clark.
“Clark professors believed in me, and I had an amazing group of friends,” she says. “It was a wonderful place, and it put me on track to be the person I am today.”
You can follow Rebecca Kirszner Katz on Twitter at @RebeccaKKatz