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Member Spotlight: Congressional Black Caucus Executive Director Fabrice Coles

By Anna Stolley Persky

June 18, 2018

Fabrice Coles

Growing up in Queens, New York, Fabrice Emmanuel Coles was that kid — the one who always peppers adults with questions. Coles, executive director of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC), says family members often tell him, “You talked too much. You asked so many questions.”

“From early on, people thought since I liked to argue a lot, and because I was always asking questions, that I should be a lawyer,” says Coles. “It was a seed planted early in my life.”

Since graduating law school in 2008, Coles has held a variety of jobs on Capitol Hill, and in each one, he says, his inquisitive and sometimes skeptical nature has served him well.

“Yes, I’m still that kid that asks ‘why’ a lot,” says Coles. “Why do you believe what you believe? Why do you think that’s a good solution to this problem? I ask what is embellishment and what isn’t. Asking questions is an important part of thinking critically. It’s part of the search for truth.”

Indeed, Coles sees himself as always on a search for truth. So far, that journey has led him into a “deep dive” into the economic difficulties facing underserved communities. Through his studies and work experience, Coles has developed an expertise in community development and small business policy.

“Over the years, I realized my deep commitment to public policy, and especially the economic side of public policy,” says Coles. “I felt compelled to do something to help people.”

Since January 2017, Coles has served as executive director of the CBC, which is composed of African American members of the U.S. House of Representatives and the Senate. The CBC, which describes itself as the “Conscience of the Congress,” is dedicated to empowering African Americans and other marginalized communities. It is chaired by Rep. Cedric Richmond, a Democrat from Louisiana.

Coles works with CBC members and their staff to develop and implement far-reaching policy goals, including reforming the criminal justice system, combatting voter suppression, and expanding access to affordable health care and quality education. Coles says the CBC is also “actively engaged in providing robust oversight into the actions and policies of this current presidential administration.”

“It’s an interesting time,” says Coles, 35. “One of our goals is to engage the public in hot-button topics and important conversations. Our members raise their voices in a variety of ways to ensure that the perspective of underserved Americans is not lost but heard.”

Coles says he uses his expertise in economic issues in helping to craft policy geared toward increasing opportunities for minority-owned business, for example. But he also currently “wears a bunch of different hats” and is honing other skill sets, including event planning and administrative logistics.

“I’m a bit of a jack of all trades right now,” says Coles. “I’m still using my legal skills, not by being in front of a judge, but certainly by being in a constant series of negotiations, advocating and executing frequent written work product. No day is alike.”

Coles grew up in what he describes as a working-class neighborhood. Between 1997 and 2001, he attended Phillips Exeter Academy, an exclusive boarding school in New Hampshire. He then went to Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut, and Howard University School of Law. Coles appreciates the law school experience for “the deep exposure to legacy, the connection with history.”

But, Coles admits, law school was also challenging. He found his classes either profoundly interesting or they were “required drudgery.”

“There was no middle ground for me. A class either animated me and moved me or it didn’t,” says Coles. “I started to dig deep into issues relating to economics and corporations. Once we got to pick our electives, that’s where I started to shine and hit my stride. Looking at the world through an economic policy lens, that has become a lasting passion.”

Coles also met his wife at law school. The couple has three sons.

When Coles graduated law school, it was the middle of a recession and legal jobs were scarce. Coles worked on networking, especially on Capitol Hill.

He started off as a research assistant for the U.S. Senate Committee on Small Business and Entrepreneurship, then worked as a legislative assistant for Rep. Yvette Clarke, a Democrat from New York.

“I was able to advise her in a variety of areas, including community development, so we could address some of the issues going on in Brooklyn at the time,” says Coles.

Coles went briefly into the private sector, then became legislative director for Rep. Richmond. He later moved on to a position on the Senate side, then to the Treasury Department before landing his current job.

Coles also recently received his LL.M in securities and financial regulation from Georgetown University Law Center.

Despite his degrees, Coles says the best education he has received has been through his work on Capitol Hill. Coles advises law students to consider interning or finding a job on the Hill to “learn about the country, the world, yourself.”

“Get a front row seat to the sausage making,” says Coles. And, he says, never stop asking questions.

“If you ask a lot of questions, it’s easier to hold yourself and others accountable,” Coles says.


Know someone whose life and career would make for an interesting Member Spotlight? Contact Andrea Williams at AWilliams@dcbar.org.