Pota Coston changed local history this year. On Jan. 2, she was sworn in as the first African-American woman elected to the Fayette County Commission. But this is just the latest in an amazing string of firsts for Pota. Her accomplishments span an astounding federal government career, and many suspect she has a few more firsts yet to come.
Pota grew up in Elkins, W. Va., a small town with an even smaller African-American population, and she credits her upbringing for her strong sense of community and foundation of core values. Her mother was the owner and operator of a hair salon, and her father worked for the phone company. Pota was a member of student council and National Honor Society, and was head cheerleader in high school.
“Living in such a small town, you had to learn to get along with different types of people,” Pota explains. “It was a close-knit community. Everyone knew each other, and we were always welcome in one another’s homes.”
In 1976, Pota began classes at Marshall University, which was still grieving after losing its football team in a plane crash in 1970. She was well on her way to a degree in criminal justice when she was approached about a very unusual internship opportunity. The IRS’ Criminal Investigation division wanted to offer her a student co-op position: She would finish her degree while beginning a career in federal law enforcement. Accepting the position would mean she would have a career path after graduation, but she’d have to add a whopping 24 hours – nine in business and 15 in pure accounting – to her studies.
It would also mean blazing a serious trail. Although the federal government was then in the midst of a major initiative to recruit more women and minorities, the IRS, and particularly its prestigious criminal investigation unit, were still almost exclusively white and male. But Pota, always interested in a challenge, was intrigued. In 1979, she began her new coursework and her co-op position. As expected, it wasn’t always easy.
“It was tough at times,” she admits. “They didn’t know how to work with a woman, and they didn’t want to train me because they didn’t think I’d stick with it. It took a lot of work to prove I was serious. Once I became an agent, I attended conferences and began building a network, and then I had resources, but it was very difficult at first.
“In fact, one of the main reasons I accepted management positions later on was so that I could make sure new agents didn’t have to go through some of the struggles I experienced.”
Despite the pressures and doubt surrounding her, Pota succeeded beautifully and began her field work after graduation. In 1981, she broke two barriers when she became the first African American and the first female special agent in the state of West Virginia. In 1988, she was promoted to a manager role and moved to Detroit, becoming the first female manager for the Detroit field office, which encompassed 12 working groups throughout the state.
“She was my very first supervisor in the organization,” explains Veronica Hyman-Pillot, Pota’s friend and former employee, “and she was such an inspiration. Over the years, she’s served as an incredible mentor for young people from all walks of life. She’s very compassionate and she has a real eye for seeing people’s talents and abilities – and for helping them find their areas of weakness and turn them into strengths. She inspired me to pursue my goals, and I wouldn’t have achieved my level of success in the organization without her influence.”
Just two years later, Pota was assigned to a regional analyst post in Atlanta, then returned to Detroit as branch chief in 1993. That position now goes by the more familiar title of Assistant Special Agent in Charge (ASAC), and is every bit as demanding and prestigious as it sounds.
Not only was Pota the first female ASAC in Detroit, she subsequently became the first African American in the country to be named Branch Chief of the Year. She was promoted again in 1998, this time to division chief, which is now titled Special Agent in Charge. This was an incredibly rare feat for a woman or a minority. Her new role was located in the New Orleans Field Office, one of the most challenging in the nation. Her territory covered the states of Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama, but also spanned eight U. S. Attorney’s offices.
Once again, however, Pota shone. She was recognized as Chief of the Year and was the first African – American woman to receive such recognition.
Despite her incredibly demanding career and groundbreaking rise through federal government ranks, Pota always made sure to be there for her family. She has one son, Bernie, and cites her husband, Bernard, as a major inspiration in her life.
“When I look back on my wife’s career,” says Bernard, “one thing I can absolutely, positively say is that she was always willing to take risks – from taking those accounting classes in college to all her career moves. Every step along the way was a step into the unknown.
But we always maintained a solid faith, and our mantra throughout all the moves was ‘home is where you’re at,’ meaning that, as long as the family was together, we were home. That kept us grounded.”
In 2000, the family moved to Washington D.C. when Pota was selected to be deputy director for the new Office of Strategy. Her division was responsible for human resources, training, finance, and information technology nationwide as well as divisional review, strategic planning, and more. Under her guidance, her division became one of the first in IRS to use online job applications and an early adopter of knowledge management databases. She achieved the federal government’s highest rank when she became director of strategy and only the second African American female promoted into the senior executive service with the IRS, Criminal Investigation Division.
When an opportunity as Director of Field Operation for the Southeast Area opened up in 2004, the Coston family returned to the Atlanta area. They had loved it before and wanted to be closer to family in Tallahassee.
“We were looking for some place close to the airport,” says Pota of their move to Fayette County. “My position required about 80 percent travel, and I didn’t want to spend even more time traveling back and forth to the airport. Tyrone reminded me immediately of home, and we knew it was where we wanted to be. We love it.”
For the last four years of her federal career, Pota was responsible for the field operations of 12 states plus Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands. She retired from the IRS in 2008 and did what anyone with her kind of drive might be expected to do; she asked, “Okay, now what?”
The answer was community involvement and volunteer work. Already a member of both the Women in Federal Law Enforcement and the National Association of Retired Special Agents, she joined a staggering number of local organizations, including the Fayette Chamber, Fayette County Ethics Board, Fayette FACTOR, Tyrone Founders Day Committee, and Women Working Wonders. She even launched an LLC devoted to teaching college students interview techniques, how to navigate through a corporate culture, and how to find a mentor. And then she discovered that the Association of Village PRIDE, Inc. (AVPRIDE), a Fayette organization specializing in leadership development for teens and young adults, was searching for a director of career exploration. She applied and, unsurprisingly, landed the job.
“She just blew me away,” says Pam Reid, director of AVPRIDE. “Not only her experience, which is tremendous, but the heart she has for community and youth.”
In her new role, Pota had a chance to help teens obtain internships, establish mentors, and explore different fields of work. She set up mock interviews and connected participants with attorneys, the FAA, medical professionals, theatre organizations, and veterinarians – virtually anyone who might help guide the youths in pursuing their careers of interest. Eventually, she became the director of AVPRIDE’s workforce development program, which provides tutoring as well as courses and experiential learning in life skills and leadership. She continues to serve as a consultant in that role today.
Then, as the 2011 Tyrone Town Council elections began to gear up, a new challenge crossed Pota’s horizon when a friend asked if she’d considered running. Pota was surprised, but intrigued. The Hatch Act prohibits federal employees from holding elected office, so she’d literally never considered the idea. But once she started thinking about it and talking to the important people in her life, interest began to take hold. After all, she was active in her sorority in college and remains so as an alum, and one of Delta Sigma Theta’s very first official acts was to participate in the women’s suffrage march and remains strong in the area of social action. So she campaigned again for Town Council and came in only 300 votes short, an impressive showing for a relative newcomer. When a seat came open again in 2013, she ran again, but lost by a tiny margin: six votes. For someone so committed to community improvement, it was a disappointment, certainly, but Pota’s positive outlook remained.
“Pota’s fortitude has always amazed me,” says Bernard. “Not only throughout her career with the IRS and all of her challenges there, but during the elections. She always took the high road and she never gave up, even though it was discouraging sometimes, especially when she came so close.”
Perhaps everything really does happen for a reason, however, because people soon began calling Pota to encourage her to run for the open spot on the Fayette County Commission. She wasn’t entirely sure she was ready to face another campaign, but she talked to her husband and prayed for guidance. And she kept getting calls of encouragement. Last fall, she ran and won. She was sworn into her new office on January 2, 2015. Those around her are elated.
“I watched the campaign from beginning to end,” recalls Pam. “I was out there with her on corners, holding signs and waving at people, and I just remember thinking, ‘Gosh, she has such passion for positive change.’ I knew that if anyone should have this opportunity it was Pota, and I was thrilled when she won. I think she’s going to do wonderful things.”
Her husband agrees, and he’s confident that Pota can make a difference in Fayette County.
“She’s always been a leader, a visionary, and willing to work with all people,” says Bernard. “Sometimes politicians will tell you what you want to hear, but Pota will not tell you ‘yes’ or ‘no’ until she has done her research, understands the issue, and determines the best solution. People should realize that she is extremely approachable and wants to hear their concerns. She is willing to serve and represent all residents in Fayette County.”
Pota, herself, has a clear vision for Fayette’s future.
“Fayette County has tremendous potential,” she says. “We need to develop a plan to grow our economy, attract and keep our young people here, obtain gainful employment, provide opportunities for our senior citizens, and make Fayette County the best place for people to live, work, and play. I want to make a difference, but it’s going to take all of us working together. We need to hear from all segments of the community, from people with different backgrounds and experiences. The Fayette Visioning Initiative is an excellent start to move us forward. My main goal is for everyone in Fayette County to experience an exceptional quality of life.
“I see myself as a bridge-builder, a servant-leader,” she notes. “I’m a person who genuinely cares, and I truly, truly believe in working together. I always have.”
“She’s just a fantastic person,” says her friend Veronica, “and a great advocate.”
We couldn’t agree more.