Dr. Janice Underwood, Chief Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Officer for the Commonwealth of Virginia joins host Dr. Vanessa Weaver to discuss her role and impact as the country’s first cabinet-level diversity professional. She shares details about the DE&I initiatives her team has instituted and what she’s done to ensure these efforts continue in future administrations, the critical race theory debate in Virginia and its role in the most recent gubernatorial election, and her plans following the Northam administration's transition out of office.
In This Episode
· The diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives established under Dr. Underwood's leadership, including ONE Virginia, the first statewide strategic plan for inclusive excellence across more than 100 state agencies.
· The steps Dr. Underwood has taken to ensure that the diversity, equity and inclusion efforts of the Northam Administration will continue with future administrations.
· Dr. Underwood’s path from special education biology teacher to appointed government officer.
· Why the Commonwealth of Virginia has declared racism a public health crisis and how the Northam Administration has addressed this issue.
· Misconceptions about critical race theory and how the governor’s office is using CRT to reform manifestations of racism in Virginia law.
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Workin’ It Out
Diversity and Inclusion Television
Dr. Vanessa Weaver: Welcome. I'm Dr. Vanessa Weaver, your host of Workin' It Out. I'm speaking today with Dr. Janice Underwood. She's the Chief Diversity Officer for the Commonwealth of Virginia, which is the State of Virginia. We're going to discuss her role and responsibility as the country's first cabinet-level Chief Diversity Officer and that's a big deal. And we're going to also speak to her about this whole role of Critical Race Theory and its impact on the recent gubernatorial election. And then we're going to also end our show with Dr. Underwood sharing with us what she sees as the state of diversity, particularly as she transitions out of her role as the Chief Diversity Officer in the Commonwealth of Virginia. So I want to say first of all, welcome Dr. Underwood.
Dr. Janice Underwood: Thank you so much for having me, Dr. Weaver. It's a pleasure to be with you.
Weaver: Well, thank you so much for making the time. I know you're planning transitions with the new administration that's coming in and also thinking about your own next moves in your life and in your career. so it's no small matter that you made this time for us today, so thank you so very, very much for it. And you are a phenomenal person, Dr. Underwood, and in many ways have significantly impacted the state of or the status of diversity in Virginia. For example, you've had 25 years in public service, and I don't see 25 years in public service anywhere on your face, but maybe you say you got the memories.
Underwood: I appreciate that.
Weaver: Of all of that, yeah. And as the Chief Diversity Officer in the State of Virginia, you built this ONE Virginia, which was a statewide strategic plan for inclusion across more than 100 state agencies and other public and private sectors. I know I got some more background to read about you but tell us a little bit about this ONE Virginia. I was intrigued by that.
Underwood: Well, thank you for the question. The bottom line is diversity, equity, and inclusion has never really existed at the intersection of government and politics. And the ONE Virginia Plan is the first ever statewide strategic plan for DE&I, but what's so amazing about it it was a collaborative effort, it was an opportunity for all sectors in the Virginia economy, state government, local government, higher ed, and so many other corporate partners come together and say what they want in a statewide plan. Then we went around the state and shared our findings in developing the plan with a volunteer steering committee and then we launched the plan. It is a plan for more than a hundred state agencies. And what's so amazing about it is that it's non-partisan. It's about building diversity-led innovation, it's about really trying to say, let's set a benchmark for where we are. You can't change what you don't measure, and you can't measure that what you don't acknowledge. And as of right now, we have 82 plans submitted and we have a few more plans on the way with a few extensions and we're working with agencies iteratively to say, even though you've submitted your plan and we've reviewed your plan, we're providing support, unprecedented support to say, how can we even make these plans better working with agency leadership. So we have a few agencies we're working with as we come over the finish line at the end of the administration, but we're so pleased and proud to be a national exemplar and other states are watching and trying to do the same thing. So it's an exciting time for DE&I.
Weaver: Well, what's an example of what's in a plan because some people are listening, so I get a plan, but what does a plan do for the average person in the State of Virginia?
Underwood: Yes, thank you for asking. The ONE Virginia Plan is built on the inclusive excellence framework, which basically has five major buckets. And so all of the agency plans aren't overly prescriptive. This is strategic planning individualized for state agencies, and for example, the inclusive excellence framework starts with the bucket or the theme access and success. And so most agencies, for example, might interpret access and success as recruitment and retention plans or recruitment and retention strategies, but there are other agencies that view access and success as building upon external customer bases. For example, our Department of Wildlife agency, DWR, Department of Wildlife Resources. They've indicated that they have a huge priority in increasing the diversity of those who have gaming licenses in underserved populations, access into that genre. And so every agency has the ability to individualize the plan and I encourage everyone listening, take a look at the plan, download the template. There's a free online toolkit. Any agency, any corporation, any local government, nonprofit or for-profit can take a look at the plan and make it their own. There are educational resources. There's also strategic planning tools and worksheets and assessments, so much good information that we are literally giving it away for free because we want to change the narrative about diversity, equity, and inclusion.
Weaver: Well, my goodness, I'm trying to remember in the gubernatorial race, did they even mention ONE Virginia? To me that is such a strong example of the benefits of diversity and the willingness of the administration to look at all those different aspects of diversity as it plays out in Virginia. So was that part of what folks talked about when they talked about diversity in Virginia, because all I kind of heard about was what?
Underwood: Critical race theory.
Weaver: Critical race theory, right. And here we have a ONE Virginia that can benefit everyone in Virginia and I'm not sure people really got that.
Underwood: Well, I think you're probably onto something and I appreciate that observation. I don't know that a lot of folks heard about ONE Virginia outside of the state government or the corporate areas or corporate sector, but the bottom line is it's here and it's for everyone. And the public had an opportunity to engage with us and give their input and we did tons of in-person and virtual town halls to really galvanize the community. But I will share with you that the sort of weaponization of critical race theory and diversity, equity, inclusion broadly as synonymous with critical race theory is quite unfortunate. And I'll also be honest with you that and share with your listeners, inclusive excellence is not critical race theory. They are two different theoretical frameworks, but they're also legitimate peer-reviewed evidence-based theoretical frameworks that should not be used to pit people against each other. And so ONE Virginia is based on the idea that we are stronger together. But you can't change what you don't measure, and you can't measure that what you don't acknowledge. so for the first time in state history we are saying, we're putting down our markers, we're creating a benchmark and we're going to start measuring against the five major categories of the inclusive excellence framework.
Weaver: Well, you're talking about you going to start measuring it and I'm excited because numbers really tell the story, right? Of course you have the experience, but numbers validate the story. So given that you have a new administration that's coming that will be leading the Virginia, the Commonwealth of Virginia, will this continue? Is it a statutory requirement or can it be eliminated or changed with the new administration?
Underwood: I always say that I don't want this work to be like icing on cake, because if you're like me and you don't like a lot of icing, you can just scrape that icing right off the cake. I really wanted this work to be baked in like the eggs and the flour and the sugar so that when it comes out the oven, you can't separate the individual ingredients from the overall cake and that's exactly-
Weaver: That's a good analogy.
Underwood: That's exactly what we did here in the Commonwealth of Virginia. We passed legislation, House Bill 1993, patroned by the Delegate Askew from Virginia Beach. And in addition to his thought leadership and my team, the Office of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion and by the way, I have a fabulous team. I don't do this by myself and I'm sure you appreciate that, that this work is so incredibly rigorous that you need a good team. But as a result of my team, we passed that legislation and House Bill 1993 does have a statutory obligation, a legal mandate for every state agency to have, not only maintain but establish and maintain a DEI plan submitted to the Commonwealth Chief Diversity Officer. So no matter who the next governor is, Governor 74, meaning Governor-elect Youngkin or beyond, whoever she might be, has to appoint a Chief Diversity Officer, because this role has been codified for every future governor's administration.
Weaver: Well, it's great that you're sharing this with us because it really is an example of how you can have continuity on those political and social and economic matters that really matter to the communities in which you serve in the government. So I'm just excited that this will continue and even with the change in administration, and I'm not making a comment on the administration. I'm just saying that you thought as strategically and had a long-term vision for how this could continue its impactful. Thank you so much for that. Thank you and your team and the current governor for envisioning that. Well, when I was reading your bio, I mean, there was so many fascinating aspects of who you are, Dr. Underwood, but I understand you also lead the COVID-19 efforts for the State of Virginia, can you tell us a little bit about that?
Underwood: Absolutely, so excited to share with you that. For the first time in the nation's history we had a COVID-19 health equity working group and task force. We were the first state for which to do so. We're also the first state for which to make it permanent. We have a codified equity emergency management working group, which means that for every future disaster or emergency declaration in Virginia, there will be an equity group led by the Commonwealth Chief Diversity Officer in partnership with our Virginia Department of Emergency Management. Well, what does that mean?
Weaver: I was going to ask you.
Underwood: That means that we won't have, we're thinking proactively and as you know DE&I is about proactive work as opposed to compliance, following the rules work, more reactive. So we're trying to be proactive ahead of the next emergency declaration, but also think smart and work in a smarter way to serve more people during the COVID-19 pandemic. So what we did in partnership with the governor and the governor's state health commissioner and the team at the Virginia Department of Health, we threaded equity in every decision. It was my team and I, a group of agency leaders, that said, okay, wait a minute, who's not at the table? Let's build community engagement because we know there are so many facets of our community that don't have trust in government law enforcement or healthcare and for justifiable reasons. And so we took the messages to them, we made sure that the messages were culturally affirming. So we very much had a say in the statewide communications plan. We had a say in our crisis standards of care. We had a say in a decision-making route or a seat at the table when it came to testing and PPE distribution, as well as our vaccine equity plans. And when we saw things not going right or things we're creating, or there was inequity being created in our vaccine equity plan, we came up with a new plan and said, "Hey, let's go a different direction, let's fix this midstream." So we were at the table for all of this and evaluating leaders in the logistics of the COVID-19 planning and recovery. So part of the budgeting and thinking about how to use the American Rescue Plan funds or the COVID CARES Act funds, all of that really had an equity lens applied to it because we had an unprecedented equity leadership team.
Weaver: So what were the results? What was the participation of communities of color in vaccinations and just their own increased awareness about COVID-19? What are those results that you can share with us?
Underwood: Well, from a high level I'll share this, that we engaged over a hundred thousand residents who initially were underserved and those were in virtual town halls, in person community events. We participated in a health equity reform of 66 local governments so that at the local level we provided them with masks and hand sanitizer and testing and vaccine events. We held community vaccination centers all over the Commonwealth of Virginia, because we went to the communities that the data showed us that these were the most at risk for complications or death from COVID-19.
Weaver: Well, as I listened to you and just all of the innovative approaches, your ability to understand just how government operates and how it should benefit all of the citizens of Virginia. I mean, it's amazing to me how you've been able to connect all of the dots together so that DE&I, diversity, equity, inclusion truly is an enabler to the quality of life for the citizens of Virginia. So I'm curious, what's your why for doing this?
Underwood: Well, I come at this work or my access point in DE&I work is really from an education equity perspective. I served as a special education biology teacher at the high-school level for more than 16 years. And I have to share with you, that's where I was introduced to this idea of American public schooling as being built upon an inequitable system, whether it was red lining and the way we fund schools to even practical applications within actual buildings, meaning tracking students of color and those for whom do not speak English as their first language or students with disabilities into lower level classes and not really providing certain students with the levels of support that other students may enjoy. That fired me up, Dr. Weaver, That got me really thinking about how do I serve these students in their families? But I knew I couldn't do it one student at a time, I needed to begin to help their families advocate for their students. And then I said, I need to help these communities advocate for these families. And as the sphere of influence grew bigger and bigger, I realized that I needed to think about which theoretical frameworks I would use to change policy. And so I went to Old Dominion University and received my PhD in curriculum and instruction and then I was asked to lead teacher preparation programs, a master's program in science and mathematics and reformed that program towards diversity led innovation and got it nationally accredited. And I realized that it was about transforming the actual system of public education so that we can serve as many families and students as possible. But that also got a fire lit under my tush to say, you need to go to policy because it's the policies that are really adversely impacting these students and their families. And so it's not just enough to just help that one student, I thought let's really help the system, let's reform the system from the inside. And that's what led me to Old Dominion University and then I was so honored, and it is the professional honor of my life for Governor Northam and Mrs. Northam to select me to lead this unprecedented historical role as the Virginia Chief Diversity Officer.
Weaver: Well, I'm just getting so fired up to hear you talk about your why, because although you dream of having careers and jobs that really add value to your life and add value to others, sometimes that doesn't happen. And when you see how excited you are about what you've done and the impact that you've made and that you will continue to make as those initiatives continue even as you transition out of this role, it's just really exciting for me. So what is next. What's next for you?
Underwood: There is a next but let me take a step back and just say that my success is because I stand on the shoulders of so many pioneers, such as yourself and others in the field of diversity, equity, and inclusion, and also legislators like Senator Louise Lucas and Senator Mamie Locke. I think about standing on the shoulders of those ancestors that came before me. So my next steps, Dr. Weaver, are already laid out and I'm not quite sure where they're going to lead me, but I know because of the God that I serve and the faith that guides me, I'll be exactly where God has for me to be. They're already ordered.
Weaver: Well, as I think about just the tremendous contributions you've made, what advice would you give to your team that might remain or others who come into that office?
Underwood: Well, as we see billions of dollars flowing from the federal government with the words racial equity attached to them, what we need to be so mindful going forward is that while DE&I is sexy now and everyone's talking about it and everybody wants to hire a Chief Diversity Officer, we need metrics. We need to be able to show measurable outcomes and going forward if we don't do that, those who are reticent about supporting this work or worse those who weaponize this work will have the ammunition that they need to say, this work wasn't worth it, right? So we need to keep our eyes on the prize and that prize is the data because the data will always show us where we are and then what we need to do. And for the first time in Virginia history, we created an equity in action and equity-at-a-glance dashboards because we declared racism as a public health crisis using a social determinants of health framework.
Weaver: Okay, what does that mean, social determinants of health? Break that down for us.
Underwood: Social determinants of health in that framework is really based upon broad categories of how we live and our quality and factors of life, such as housing, food security, education attainment, even health literacy. And for the first time you can measure across the Commonwealth of Virginia, across 133 localities and statewide, and by race and ethnicity, where the equity gaps are across those social determines of health. So you can look up income and poverty, you can look up unemployment, you can look up food insecurity, housing insecurity and you can see them at the local level. This dashboard is unprecedented, is just as one Virginia and the Chief Diversity Officer position, because it makes inequity visible for our local, state and federal policy makers and change makers.
Weaver: Well, I'm curious because, I agree to metrics are just critical, but I'm wondering what happened with the whole metrics debate in critical race theory, because that was a big topic, and it was a lot of emotion. At least we saw it on the news, there was a lot of emotion around critical race theory, but understand your metrics indicated that critical race theory has never been taught in the public schools of Virginia. Yeah, am I correct on that?
Underwood: You are absolutely correct. I've been saying to everyone that will listen, we've got to have the critical race theory debate. We've got to be able to educate the average resident of Virginia and the nation, because if we don't those who wish to weaponize critical race theory, because it sounds scary to those that don't know anything about it. We will continue to lose all future elections. We will continue to lose at that argument over what critical race theory is or isn't. Here's the bottom line: we need to be able to define critical race theory and use it in a sentence. Let me do it very quickly for your listeners. Critical race theory is a legitimate theoretical framework used to examine the ways systems of race were used to create the systems of our nation, period.
Weaver: For example.
Underwood: For example, American chattel slavery and the system of race was used to basically say that in the Virginia code that Black Virginians were three-fifths human. And let me use it in a sentence: In 2020 Governor Northam and our team identified 100 instances of where there was explicit racist language in the Virginia code. We identified those instances. We passed legislation to remove them from the Virginia code, and that's thanks to critical race theory. And that's how we use critical race theory to reform manifestations of racism in the Virginia law.
Weaver: I appreciate you and the governor really tackling that in the State of Virginia. Well, I know that we're out of time and I thank you so much for the incredible contributions you've made to advancing diversity, equity, and inclusion in the State of Virginia and the knowledge that they will continue in spite of changes of leadership and changes in personality, that there've been some statutory elements that you've built in and your team is built in and that the legislators in the State of Virginia have supported that will allow for us to continue the diversity, equity, inclusion journey. So thank you, thank you, thank you very much. And I wish you continued success in your own career evolution. I'm probably going to see you on MSNBC or CNN or someplace like that really just helping the country better understand how we can make diversity, inclusion, and equity work for all of us.
Underwood: Thank you for having me.
Weaver: Thank you. I'm Dr. Vanessa Weaver, your host of Workin' It Out, and I wish each of you a safe, productive, and be happy week.