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Opening Plenary


Emerging Leaders Shape the Future Through the Power of Storytelling

Emerging Leaders represent the next generation of innovative clinicians, service providers, trainers, advocates, family members, and academic professionals. They share a passion to serve, research, and educate to make positive changes with and for people with disabilities and their families. Emerging Leaders are important to the growth of the AUCD Network and to the success of our mission: to improve the lives of people with disabilities. How do we as a Network make sure that Emerging Leaders and people with disabilities have the space and opportunities to lead? How are their stories helping to shape the future? 

The Plenary will begin with a panel discussion led by Derrick Willis, Director of the Iowa UCEDD, AUCD President-Elect, and AUCD 2023 Conference Chair. We will be joined by Jacy Farkas, Associate Director of the Sonoran Center for Excellence in Disabilities at the University of Arizona, Emmanuel Jenkins, LEND Faculty Member at the University of Delaware, Kiley McLean, post-doctoral (someone who recently received their PhD) research fellow in the A.J. Drexel Autism Institute, and Sheida Raley, Assistant Professor of Special Education at the University of Arkansas. Panelists will share their leadership journeys and the challenges they’ve overcome. This panel will discuss what it truly means to be a “leader” and encourage individuals to use their voices. The stories of Emerging Leaders and people with disabilities are what continue to move our Network forward, building on a proud legacy of inclusion, striving for equity, and positively sharing the future. 

Keynote speaker Kiran Singh Sirah will then discuss the artistry of storytelling as an ancient art and as the world's oldest form of communication, and how it can help to build stronger, healthier, more cohesive communities. As a storyteller, peacebuilder, and folklorist, Sirah will share storytelling’s unparalleled ability to change the way we interact with one another—how it links us, not just despite our differences, but because of them. 



Kiran Singh Sirah is a Storyteller, Peacebuilder, Folklorist and Past President of the International Storytelling Center (ISC,) producer of the world-renowned National Storytelling Festival. Prior to his appointment at ISC, Sirah helped establish several award-winning arts, cultural, and human rights programs in numerous countries. These included community building programs in response to the 9/11 attacks, and a number of peacebuilding and conflict resolution initiatives exploring issues of religious, ethnic, and sectarian conflicts in Scotland, Northern Ireland, and the United States. These programs have received recognition from UNESCO, The White House, The United Nations and the European Commission. He has spoken at the Library of Congress, the Kennedy Center, The American Public Health Association, led stories for peace-based discussions with the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee, US State Department, The Desmond Tutu Peace Foundation, The Library of Congress, and numerous World Peace assemblies. In 2015, he was invited to the White House in support of storytelling strategies for national grassroots dialogue and peacebuilding efforts. An advisory member to UNESCO Scotland and a Rotary World Peace Fellow, he develops articles, talks, stories for change initiatives and advises on interdisciplinary storytelling approaches to relationship building in communities around the globe, and been a thought leader on projects with the Smithsonian, Google Arts & Culture, The Pentagon, and developed arts and literacy collaborations with Yo-Yo Ma and invited by Dolly Parton to train her Imagination Library team. As an artist, folklorist, educator, and social justice advocate, he passionately believes in “the power of human creativity, arts, storytelling and social justice, and the notion of a truly global multicultural society.” In 2017, he was awarded the “Champion of Peace” recognition at Rotary International Day at the United Nations in Geneva and was recently nominated for his work to receive a national educational Martin Luther King Jr. human rights award. In addition to storytelling for peace and justice, his passion includes mentoring youth and young adults, particularly youth-at-risk, peace activists, and poets (including mentoring national Poetry Out Loud champions,) to help them be positive change agents in their communities. Kiran firmly believes storytelling not only enriches lives, but also holds the key to building a fairer and more balanced world.


Derrick K. Willis, MPA, in 2019 assumed the leadership of Iowa’s University Center for Excellence in Developmental Disabilities (UCEDD) at the Center for Disabilities and Development (CDD) within University of Iowa Health Care. For the past year, he has served as the interim director. Willis has been instrumental in helping lead and support the UCEDD’s work in reaching under-served populations. He has played a key role in their diversity efforts and helping to lead their Money Follows the Person work as the associate director for the Iowa UCEDD. Prior to joining CDD, Willis served as director of urban mission at the Institute for Human Development, Missouri’s UCEDD, at the University of Missouri–Kansas City. Willis’s background includes 32 years’ experience working at local not-for-profits, state government, and higher education. Most of his career has centered on working with youth and families from diverse backgrounds living in urban communities. He brings experience in mental health, substance and alcohol abuse treatment and prevention, violence prevention, education transition, employment, and cultural competency.He is a past recipient of the Association of University Centers on Disabilities (AUCD) Multicultural Award for Leadership in Diversity and a graduate of the National Leadership Consortium on Developmental Disabilities. He currently serves on the AUCD Board of Directors and co-chairs the Multicultural Council for AUCD and is a member of the University of Iowa’s Disability Planning and Action Committee. Willis received his undergraduate degree from William Penn College and a Master’s in Public Affairs with an emphasis in Nonprofit Management from Park University.


Jairo Arana began his journey as a self-advocate when he participated in UM-NSU CARD's Jobseekers Program after being diagnosed later in life with ASD. He was recommended to participate in the University of Miami Mailman Center for Child Development’s Project SALT (Self-Advocate Leadership Training) Program. After graduating from the SALT Program, he became a trainer for Project SALT and a consultant for the UM Mailman Center for Child Development. He was also the UM Mailman Center for Child Development’s first LEND (Leadership Education in Neurodevelopmental Disabilities) Self-advocate trainee. He graduated from UM Mailman Center’s ETLP (Emerging Transformational Leadership Program, under LEND) and participated in the Florida DD Network Collaborative Leadership Program. He won the UM-NSU CARD Outstanding Self-Advocate Award for 2019. He’s been a guest panelist at the 26th Annual CARD (Center for Autism and Related Disabilities) Conference, AUCD (Association of University Centers on Disabilities) 2020 Conference’s Emerging Leaders Panel, CARD’s Success Across the Spectrum: A Panel Discussion with Autistic Adults, and A Ride Away Webinar: Employ to Empower for Ann Storck Center. He holds a bachelor’s degree in Arts and Science in Communication in Motion Pictures and English, Creative Writing from the University of Miami and works full-time at the UM Mailman Center as a Clinical Program Coordinator and assisting with UM Mailman Center’s leadership pipeline program.

A Black-Filipina woman with long black hair wearing a sweater and blouse.Jacy Farkas, MA is the Associate Director of the Sonoran Center for Excellence in Disabilities at the University of Arizona in Tucson, where she oversees the interdisciplinary pre-service training programs and helps lead multiple efforts related to person-centered practices, youth to adult transition, and intersectional research. Jacy is a former UCEDD trainee and a past chair of AUCD’s Multicultural Council; she has contributed to multiple projects and publications related to diversity, equity, and inclusion within the disability space. Jacy is a doctoral candidate in Human Development and Family Science at the University of Arizona, and she also holds a Master's in Information Resources and Library Science. Jacy identifies as a neurodivergent Black-Filipina mother, scholar, and advocate.

Emmanuel Jenkins Emmanuel Jenkins is the founder of a nonprofit organization called We Stand 4 Something. His organization supports individuals with disabilities and their families. Emmanuel is currently employed by the state of Delaware, where he works full-time for the Delaware Developmental Disabilities Council, as a Community Relations Officer. Emmanuel serves on many Boards and Commissions, locally and nationally. He is the chair of the state of Delaware’s Rehabilitation Council, the chair of the Delaware Employment First Oversight Commission, and the vice chair of the Delaware Developmental Disabilities Services Advisory Committee. Emmanuel graduated from the Partners in Policymaking program in 2014. Emmanuel recently became a member of the Advisory Committee for the Self-Advocacy Resource and Technical Assistance. He is also the chair of the National Association of Councils on Developmental Disabilities (NACDD) Self-Advocacy Committee. After completing his LEND cohort Emmanuel Became a LEND Faculty Member for the University of Delaware, Self Advocacy Discipline. Emmanuel married his wife and 2009. He is the proud father of a 17-year-old boy a.k.a. almost a man. Emmanuel is also a motivational speaker with over 20 years of experience. Emmanuel hopes to hold a seat in Congress in the near future.

Kiley McLean (she/her), PhD, MSW, MSEd, is a post doctoral research fellow in the A.J. Drexel Autism Institute in the Policy, Analytics, and Community Impact Program. Dr. McLean graduated with her PhD from the University of Wisconsin-Madison Sandra Rosenbaum School of Social Work in 2023, where she was also a research assistant through the Waisman Center, two-year LEND trainee, AUCD Leadership Academy scholar, and graduate research fellow through the Institute for Research on Poverty. Kiley’s research program uses a combination of linked administrative data, prospectively collected data, and qualitative data to characterize disparities in and develop strategies to improve health and wellbeing in partnership with autistic adults and adults with other developmental disabilities. Her research focuses broadly on improving the health, social, and economic well-being of adults with developmental disabilities as they transition into adulthood and age, through inclusive and comprehensive policies. Kiley received her master’s in social work and special education from Columbia University and Bank Street College of Education in New York. She has over 15 years of experience working with individuals with disabilities in positions including direct support professional, case planner, special educator, Special Olympics coach, and disability advocacy fellow. Kiley has served as the independent instructor for advanced level master’s seminars in Social Policy, Macro-Practice Social Work, and Issues in Developmental Disabilities. The Issues in Developmental Disabilities course is one of the few offered in schools of social work throughout the country. These courses support students in analyzing current social welfare policies and systems and the differential impact they have on vulnerable communities, including those with disabilities. Through universal design and inclusive pedagogy practices, she introduces students to different ways in which they can be involved in the policymaking process and advocate for policies that directly impact communities they intend to serve. The ultimate goals of Kiley’s research, practice, and teaching are to advance human rights and social and economic justice for, and with, people with developmental disabilities.

Sheida Raley, PhD, is Assistant Professor of Special Education at the University of Arkansas, College of Education Health Professions in the Curriculum and Instruction Department. She is also an affiliated faculty member with Partners for Inclusive Communities, Arkansas' University Center on Disabilities. Her research focuses on assessment and intervention related to self-determination for all students, including students with extensive support needs learning in inclusive contexts. The goal of her research is to understand how to enable all students, including students with and without disabilities, to build abilities and skills associated with self-determination. Prior to joining the University of Arkansas, Dr. Raley was Assistant Professor in the Department of Special Education at the University of Kansas and Assistant Research Professor at Kansas University Center on Developmental Disabilities. She received her doctoral degree from the University of Kansas and master’s degree from Vanderbilt University.