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Dr. Janice Underwood (Virginia’s First Director of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion) Has a LOT to Say – On the “Monster Minority Machine,” the Importance of DE&I, Her Successor, “People who were so easily manipulated,” Democratic Messaging Failures, etc.

"DE&I are principles of democracy...and our democracy is under attack."

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Yesterday, I had a chance to chat with Dr. Janice Underwood, Virginia’s first Cabinet-level Director of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DE&I), starting in September 2019. As Governor Ralph Northam said when he announced Dr. Underwood’s selection, “Dr. Underwood’s background as an educator, leader and collaborator, as well as her experience promoting inclusive policies and directing a variety of diversity initiatives, make her the perfect person to fill this role.” Dr. Northam added at the time:

“As the Director of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion in the Commonwealth of Virginia, Dr. Underwood will develop a sustainable framework to promote inclusive practices across Virginia state government; implement a measurable, strategic plan to address systemic inequities in state government practices; and facilitate ways to turn feedback from state employees, external stakeholders, and community leaders into concrete equity policy.”

Now, of course, we unfortunately have a very different administration – with what appears to be an unfortunately very different view of diversity, equity and inclusion – in charge of Virginia. In our conversation, I asked Dr. Underwood for her thoughts on that, as well as on where we are now and where things might be headed. A few key points by Dr. Underwood include:

  • I took the job at great risk professionally. A lot of people thought I was window dressing. I was told that you’re just a pretty face, Janice, you’re just there to just kind of be the face of his work. And I thought, well how incredibly divisive is that right?”
  • “When history looks back on not only Governor Northam but myself, and the entire cabinet, they’re going to say they were the most consequential and most robust administration in Virginia history.”
  • It wasn’t about them choosing me, it was really about me choosing them. Because they needed my street cred; they needed someone that was going to come in and tell them the truth.”
  • Now you see an attempt to undo, erase, or whitewash what Virginians sent the Democratic Party to do in November 2019.  I think that is what you see now. For example, now we see anti-equity legislation with coded language…”
  • We desperately need genuine diversity, equity, and inclusion to allow many of us to access ‘opportunity.’ That’s why it’s so important people understand there’s a return on investment for it.”
  • “The world is bending towards more diversity, equity, and inclusion. So, if Virginia wants to remain competitive across all those sectors, we’ve got to continue the work of One Virginia.”
  • I think a lot of the work was realized and you know you can’t change 400 years of inequity in two, three years, but we were able to get so much done that in my mind it’s going to be difficult to completely undo it.”
  • We didn’t come to play any games…We came to save lives in the middle of a pandemic as well as drive reform.”
  • This is where we didn’t get it right. Because there’s such a fragility about this work – and a lot of people don’t understand what they don’t understand.  The bottom line is most of us don’t know how to talk about this work; we don’t know how to educate others on why we do the work”
  • “We didn’t talk about it, we did not help people or educate people on how to be ambassadors for this work, or how to understand it from a larger systemic lens. And so our work was vulnerable to attacks and weaponization…it was almost like there was a fear, well we can’t talk about it because we’re in the middle of a gubernatorial election.”
  • “Most people outside of the state government bubble, like the suburban soccer mom, didn’t know about the One Virginia mission or online tool kit, which has now been completely erased from the internet. ONE Virginia was about bringing us together,  making Virginia work better for all of us…and was not about division.”
  • “I call it a Monster Minority Machine…because these folks leading these tirades are NOT the majority of voices in Virginia, but they are the loudest. In fact, the majority of the voices in Virginia are demanding MORE African American history taught in schools.”
  • In 2021, many of the majority of these voices were drowned out by the monster minority machine that showed up yelling, screaming, and accusing, and in some case threatening violence.  So the result was the reasonably minded majority that also wanted choice, equity, and opportunity for their children and families, were reticent to voice their concerns.”
  • “…there’s the now defunct ideology, “if you’re explaining you’re already losing.”  Well guess what, we lost anyway by NOT explaining…You’ve got to be able to define critical race theory and use it in a sentence, just like in third grade”
  • “…because of all of our incomplete knowledge of race and racism, it was like, well, let me just give this tall and somewhat attractive guy in a red vest a chance – he seems harmless.”
  • “…you move two steps forward, you come ten steps back…it happened in Reconstruction and after the election of President Obama. But it also happens with people in power feel threatened.”
  • “…the only thing that gets covered in the media is the sensational hot sexy stuff like, you know like, Robert E. Lee coming down to Richmond or at the U.S. Capitol…The only thing most of the press was interested in was talking about Ralph Northam’s yearbook photo, Robert E. Lee coming down in Richmond, and what was in the time capsule, right?”
  • I don’t think we went too fast. I think we didn’t build people’s capacity to talk about the work. I think that was the main issue, we just didn’t talk about the work in a way that helped people understand how it was all connected”
  • “…this false narrative [on the Governor’s Schools] was fueled by a monster minority machine that emboldened and really gaslighted members of a diverse Asian community to champion these issues.”
  • “…now, bringing up this difficult history is diagnosed as a divisive concepts that White parents don’t want spoken about…but not because they don’t want their children to bear the brunt of this factual history, but because they don’t want to be reminded about it.  Members of the monster minority machine would purport that teaching about this stuff would make students hate their country.  I disagree.  Perhaps it would teach the next generation of where we got it wrong.”
  • Governor Youngkin, if he was truly interested in repairing Virginia’s failing schools, he can use critical race theory to interrogate the policies that were used with redlining and Jim Crow laws and all the historical antecedents that get us to failing schools.”
  • “Even though we were told not to talk about [ critical race theory] because we would lose, it was like, well, we didn’t talk about it and we still lost.” 
  • We need more people who respect and affirm diversity, equity and inclusion to run for political office at all levels. We also need people – commonsense reasonable people and elected officials and their communications partners- to speak up and not be so afraid to speak up at school board meetings, in the media, in the local towns square, at the YMCA, grocery store, and on the campaign trail. Because right now, the narrative is being controlled by a minority monster machine…a very small group of parents who have the ability and funding to be loud and apparently get to be threatening to people. And it goes unchecked. This has resulted in the normalization of hating anyone with a different ideology and even political cyberbullying of a 17-year-old.”
  • “…ok parents, member of the minority monster machine who is against critical race theory, look at this language in the Virginia code that says Black people shall not marry white people. Is it ok that we take that out? Because that’s actually ‘critical race theory’ in action.”
  • “I’ve read all of [Angela Sailor’s] works, but I’m not quite sure exactly where she stands.  She is not a DEI thought-leader or practitioner.  She has a lot of political experience on the conservative side but given her support of HBCUs and her stated priority of helping the Black community, I’m not quite sure of her thoughts on a lot of things. It’s a little bit confusing…I certainly wish her well, because if she does well, then Virginia does well. But to say that I’m nervous…is an understatement.”
  • You are talking about the people who were so easily manipulated, who vote back and forth, vote against their interests, or don’t understand that addressing issues of inequity take time to demonstrate success….kind of like the townspeople in a Shakespearean play. You know, first we praise Caesar and now we want to kill him.”
  • “DE&I are principles of democracy…and our democracy is under attack.”
  • “…this work is being weaponized by those who know what they are doing…so we need more people who know how to address this.”

See below for a transcript of our conversation, lightly edited for conciseness and readability. And thanks to Dr. Underwood for her tremendous service to Virginia!

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Blue Virginia: The four years of Northam administration were incredibly eventful and consequential, including your service as the first ever Director of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion in Virginia, starting in September 2019. When he appointed you, Governor Northam said he was committed to making Virginia more equitable and inclusive. Do you think those goals were realized?

Dr. Janice Underwood: “There’s so much to unpack. When I came on, I think everyone was still kind of reeling from the events of February 2019. And…in parallel, we were also dealing with the commemoration of the 400th anniversary of the first enslaved African stepping foot here in Virginia. And so I think the confluence of those two things happening…You know, Virginia was talking about race and racism long before the summer of social justice with the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery, if you will. And so it was about us trying to do the hard work and have hard conversations, not for the sake of just having hard conversations, but really to link it to substantive reform and change and be honest.

I took the job at great risk professionally. A lot of people thought I was window dressing. I was told that you’re just a pretty face, Janice, you’re just there to just kind of be the face of his work. And I thought, well how incredibly divisive is that right? To be clear, I didn’t come to play patty cake, I came to do real work. And when history looks back on not only Governor Northam but myself, and the entire cabinet, they’re going to say they were the most consequential and most robust administration in Virginia history. We weren’t just flapping our wings, we were walking the talk. And let me just also say that Governor Northam didn’t have an idea of what this work would look like. He didn’t come in with any preconceived notions when I got the job or when I met with him in June 2019. I mean they vetted me…but like I said, it wasn’t about them choosing me, it was really about me choosing them. Because they needed my street cred; they needed someone that was going to come in and tell them the truth.

And I wasn’t willing to come in and say just what they wanted to hear. Also, I wasn’t told, this is what we’re going to do, this is what we need you to do. I was told, there’s a tabula rasa in front of you; you tell us what we need to do.  We need you to create an equity agenda so that it’s not disjointed, so that it cuts across and synthesizes across secretariats. And that’s exactly what we did. Everything that we did supported the mission and vision of One Virginia. And you know, One Virginia wasn’t just icing on the top of a cake, where all state agencies had to create a DE&I plan. But it really was across all state agencies, so all state agencies submitted legislation to the governor’s office or agency bills, and secretary’s bills…we proposed legislation and formal and informal polices that addressed the question, how do we make Virginia a place where everyone feels welcome to live, learn, work, visit, and thrive. And that’s exactly what we did. So there is not a specific accomplishment or #diversitywin that I can just unilaterally take credit for, because it really was a team effort.  The equity work was baked in like the eggs, milk, oil, sugar, and flour in a cake – you can’t separate these ingredients once they’re baked…But now you see an attempt to undo, erase, or whitewash what Virginians sent the Democratic Party to do in November 2019.  I think that is what you see now. For example, now we see anti-equity legislation with coded language, like Virginia House Bill 781 [editor’s note: this extreme bill by a far-right delegate “prohibits any public school teacher or other instructional staff member from being required to discuss any current event or widely debated and currently controversial issue of public policy or social affairs“] which is dangerous and divisive.”

But at the same time, we desperately need genuine diversity, equity, and inclusion to allow many of us to access ‘opportunity.’ That’s why it’s so important people understand there’s a return on investment for it. There are so many benefits for diversity-led innovation from a business/economic standpoint to a “recruitment and retention” of our state workforce perspective, and from a higher education standpoint.  In fact, diversity principles are embedded into the national accreditation of all of our public colleges and universities, where the accreditation system, as well as metrics for the best state for which you do business highly prioritize the business case for diversity. The world is bending towards more diversity, equity, and inclusion. So, if Virginia wants to remain competitive across all those sectors, we’ve got to continue the work of One Virginia.”

Blue Virginia: So how much progress do you feel was made.  I mean, obviously this a huge undertaking to turn around a supertanker or whatever – 200 hundred of years of history – and change course somewhat or a lot. How much do you feel like was realized in just a couple years, and how much of it’s embedded, that it’s going to stick?

Dr. Janice Underwood:I’m going to give you a mixed bag answer – a little bit of optimism and a little bit of pessimism. DE&I has never lived at the intersection of government and politics the way it has now. And that’s uncomfortable for a lot of people – a lot of people who think they are allies are not, and a lot of people who are not allies like to say they are, and they intentionally undermine the work. It’s not socially acceptable to be against diversity, equity, and inclusion. In fact, now so many folks love to quote Dr. Martin Luther King but do so very manipulatively or use part of his familiar speech, “I Have a Dream” to support their partisan agenda.  But I will tell you, I think a lot of the work was realized and you know you can’t change 400 years of inequity in two, three years, but we were able to get so much done that in my mind it’s going to be difficult to completely undo it.  I’ll tell you why.  Once people see the benefits of inclusive excellence for example, the idea of being the best  state for which to do business because of our DE&I metrics across secretariats, the state agency DEI plans, and having a secretary level chief diversity officer to synthesize all of the work contributed to us winning the best state for business across so many different organizations.  North Carolina almost beat us out, and one of the reasons North Carolina didn’t win and was kind of on our coattails (they almost beat us) was because of their lack of a DE&I strategy. And if you go back and you look at the report, they were just points away. And then guess who appointed a chief diversity officer in their governor’s office? North Carolina. And soon after I got a call asking, “hey, can you help us, can you talk to us, can you consult, how did you make this work, what did you do?” I had that same conversation with about six other states. So in essence, I emerged as not only the Commonwealth’s Chief Diversity Officer, but also a consultant for other states, local governments, and federal agencies wanted to create this role or adopt the ONE Virginia Plan as a road map for innovation and increased organizational effectiveness. The online tool kit was a free resource my office provided to all state agencies to help them in their DEI journey, but it also was available to any organization, private company, non-profit organization, etc.”

Blue Virginia: Are most states looking into this at this point or have it already, or is this still the minority?

Dr. Janice Underwood:I think it’s still the minority, but you have states like Indiana which are red that have an amazing chief diversity officer…also you’ve got states like North Carolina, Delaware, D.C., and New Jersey who just appointed a senior chief diversity officer in the governor’s office (or Mayor’s office as in the case of DC), and I’ve been in contact with them. The National Governors Association has already identified our work in Virginia under my leadership as an exemplar for all of the states…I’ll say it again, we didn’t come to play any games…We came to save lives in the middle of a pandemic as well as drive reform. Because everyone in 2020 eventually came to understand the pandemic only surfaced already existing inequities, we were trying to not only save lives and livelihoods in real time, but we were also trying to reform the systems that created the inequities in the first place in terms of a lack of trust and access to health care, a lack of trust in law enforcement and the criminal justice system, and in access to voting, in access to social services and supports and unemployment and food insecurity, housing insecurity – the administration was trying to do all of that in real time, while dealing with the response and recovery of the COVID-19 pandemic. That was also was part of the One Virginia mission.

Here’s where my pessimism comes in. This is where we didn’t get it right. Because there’s such a fragility about this work – and a lot of people don’t understand what they don’t understand.  The bottom line is most of us don’t know how to talk about this work; we don’t know how to educate others on why we do the work. And so there was this ideology that was, Janice, let’s keep our heads down, let’s roll up our sleeves, let’s just keep doing the work. And we didn’t talk about it, we did not help people or educate people on how to be ambassadors for this work, or how to understand it from a larger systemic lens. And so our work was vulnerable to attacks and weaponization. I am talking about messaging and the communications part of it.  We should have been doing op-eds, we should have been talking with major stakeholders, the media, holding educational campaigns, doing commercials; we should have been praising this work beyond just sort of the little that we did. But it was almost like there was a fear, well we can’t talk about it because we’re in the middle of a gubernatorial election. Now, while my team engaged corporate partners, faith leaders, DEI thought-leaders across the spectrum, health equity champions and created an internal comms strategy on our own, by in large, the administration did not robustly promote the work, talk about the work, and the work was not talked about the way that it should have been when we saw the coordinated and disingenuous attacks of critical race theory. Most people outside of the state government bubble, like the suburban soccer mom, didn’t know about the One Virginia mission or online tool kit, which has now been completely erased from the internet. ONE Virginia was about bringing us together,  making Virginia work better for all of us…and was not about division.”

Blue Virginia:  So we never really corrected all the misinformation that was being put out there, and you could see this building up, you could see this backlash to critical race theory which apparently was an organized and funded effort by the right wing, it wasn’t just a spontaneous groundswell from ordinary parents…Youngkin rode that to some degree into the governor’s mansion.

Dr. Janice Underwood:I call it a Monster Minority Machine…because these folks leading these tirades are NOT the majority of voices in Virginia, but they are the loudest. In fact, the majority of the voices in Virginia are demanding MORE African American history taught in schools. The majority of Virginia parents, like me, want our children to be taught by culturally competent professionals; in fact, the majority of reasonably minded Virginians were demanding that a Chief Diversity Officer be appointed to the governor’s office after the events of February 2019 to help deal with our collective lack of understanding for issues of race and racism. But in 2021, many of the majority of these voices were drowned out by the monster minority machine that showed up yelling, screaming, and accusing, and in some case threatening violence.  So the result was the reasonably minded majority that also wanted choice, equity, and opportunity for their children and families, were reticent to voice their concerns.  What’s worse, because we weren’t addressing all of the inaccuracies and accusations of critical race theory because of the fragility of the time we were in (and quite frankly are still in) the monster minority got stronger and went unchecked.  This confused so many well-meaning Virginians who had just voted for a Democratic majority.  And I get it, everyone doesn’t have a self-efficacy about talking about this stuff and in politics there has been a tried-and-true algorithm to approaching issues of race to avoid saying the wrong thing, and there’s the now defunct ideology, “if you’re explaining you’re already losing.”  Well guess what, we lost anyway by NOT explaining…You’ve got to be able to define critical race theory and use it in a sentence, just like in third grade when given a list of vocabulary words we had to define and use in a sentence. And if you can’t simply define it quickly, use it in a sentence and then talk about what your priorities are, then you did not meet the mission, you did not meet the moment.  The consequence is that a lot of people got confused and still don’t know what critical race theory is.  They just know it sounded scary because it was a theory that paired the words– critical with race.  So, because of all of our incomplete knowledge of race and racism, it was like, well, let me just give this tall and somewhat attractive guy in a red vest a chance – he seems harmless.”

Blue Virginia: It’s not even about critical race theory, it’s about some white people’s discomfort with their kids learning about or hearing anything that might make them feel bad or guilty. So “inherently divisive concepts” is the phrase that Youngkin used in his executive order. And you’re seeing some moves towards banning books and not allowing teachers to teach about certain topics completely. So this is where we’re at.  This is a backlash, like we’ve seen after Reconstruction in this country’s history, after Obama’s election…you could see the backlash towards electing the country’s first Black president and you ended up with Trump .

Dr. Janice Underwood: And that’s the algorithm – you move two steps forward, you come ten steps back. Yes, it happened in Reconstruction and after the election of President Obama. But it also happens with people in power feel threatened.  For example, after the economic and social progress in Tulsa OK and Richmond Virginia, we saw a dismantling of these prosperous communities for which has never seen commensurate repair.  In 2019, I told the Northam administration it would happen with all of our equity reform if we didn’t do a good job educating people, messaging our reform outside of the Richmond bubble; if we didn’t do a good job making people aware of why this was important, linking our work to the business case for DE&I. But communications, consistent messaging, and acknowledgement is not a strength for some.  In fact, we would rather say, “lets’ keep our head down and do the work,” instead of celebrating the #diversitywins achieved.   And then, the only thing that gets covered in the media is the sensational hot sexy stuff like, you know like, Robert E. Lee coming down to Richmond or at the U.S. Capitol. That’s what got people’s attention as opposed to truly understanding how diversity, equity, and inclusion was truly embedded in the most genuine of ways across all secretariats, whether it was natural resources, education, public safety, elections, healthcare, commerce and trade, but also like agriculture and transportation – there was a whole transportation equity agenda, but people do not understand that because we did not talk about it. The only thing most of the press was interested in was talking about Ralph Northam’s yearbook photo, Robert E. Lee coming down in Richmond, and what was in the time capsule, right?

Blue Virginia:  The local media has been decimated, downsized enormously in the last 15, 20 years. They’re very superficial, they go for clicks and eyeballs…they just want to know about whatever the controversy of the day is, almost impossible to get them to write a story about these amazing initiatives you were taking. Democrats need to use social media, we need to use whatever other communications means that are available, we can’t count on the mainstream media…They focus on things like ‘privilege bingo’ and anything that stirs up outrage. So there’s a backlash now, partly because we weren’t effective in explaining this well enough, how this is crucially important. But I wonder, is part of it also that we went too far, too fast in a couple years that it led almost inevitably to a backlash?

Dr. Janice Underwood:  “No, I don’t think we went too fast. I think we didn’t build people’s capacity to talk about the work. I think that was the main issue, we just didn’t talk about the work in a way that helped people understand how it was all connected, if that makes sense.”

Blue Virginia: And also that it’s not a threat…there was so much fearmongering going on…It’s not a threat, unless you really are terrified of learning about history, but learning about other cultures or learning in general. But you don’t feel like there are any areas that we pushed too fast, too rapidly?

Dr. Janice Underwood: “No, I don’t think we pushed too rapidly. Some people might suggest that. But let me give you another way to think about it. So for example, some people say we pushed too far with the governor’s schools and that was a backlash.  Here’s the truth of the matter.  Our Governor’s Schools have emerged as a public choice for very high performing students, but many high performing students don’t have “access” to that choice.  So, for those who railed against increasing access to those high performing students who didn’t have access to these very homogeneous environments, they instead twisted the narrative that calls for increased diversity was somehow anti-Asian.  This was so far from the truth. But this false narrative was fueled by a monster minority machine that emboldened and really gaslighted members of a diverse Asian community to champion these issues.  Because hey, if a group of “people of color” were willing to say increasing diversity in Governor’s schools was racist, then the minority machine didn’t have to.

The bottom line is all of this is rooted in fear.  One group is afraid their access would be taken away at the expense of some other group.  One group doesn’t want to lose their parking spot.  But it just wasn’t fair, genuine, or messaged well.  Because if we could improve access to our Governor’s schools by those who traditionally are under-represented and understand why—what historical antecedents contributed to the in-access, inequity, and lack of funding for our public school system, like once legal redlining; then we could apply resources for a menu of options and solutions to repair failing schools and give students access to our already coordinated system of Governor’s schools, which operate like private schools.

When I listened to Governor Youngkin talk to the members of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority Incorporated and Alpha Phi Alpha, Incorporated during our 2022 legislative day for which I was one of the speakers, he by in large said that “it’s about time for us to give parents a choice and no kid deserves to be at a failing school; charter schools, which are part of the public school system, give parents choice.” The first thing is, well, which parents are you talking about? I don’t think you’re including me as a parent, because apparently my choices don’t matter. And their preoccupation with choice only apparently seems to matter in terms of charter schools and masks, because they’re not pro-choice anything else.

But more importantly, and – here’s where the rubber meets the road –we didn’t do enough educating on why we have failing schools or why there is a lack of diversity in our Governor’s schools. We just saw a problem and wanted to address it.  But many Virginians don’t know about the historical antecedents of massive resistance and Jim Crow laws or have chosen to forget about it.  Some Virginians still with us, don’t care to acknowledge how they railed against Barbara Johns and others who attempted to integrate our Virginia schools.  Or maybe there are grandparents and parents who don’t want their grandchildren (or children) to learn about a time when they (or their ancestors) spat on, threw rocks, and cussed at the Black students and educators who attempted to integrate out schools.  But now, bringing up this difficult history is diagnosed as a divisive concepts that White parents don’t want spoken about…but not because they don’t want their children to bear the brunt of this factual history, but because they don’t want to be reminded about it.  Members of the monster minority machine would purport that teaching about this stuff would make students hate their country.  I disagree.  Perhaps it would teach the next generation of where we got it wrong.  See, what I did there.  I said, “WE”. I too was not a contributor to massive resistance, but I have inherited it, just like I have the privilege of inheriting the promises of the declaration of independence, although the original framers didn’t have me in mind.

So, Governor Youngkin, if he was truly interested in repairing Virginia’s failing schools, he can use critical race theory to interrogate the policies that were used with redlining and Jim Crow laws and all the historical antecedents that get us to failing schools. And instead of pouring money into the privatizations of schools, which means that failing school will remain failing, Virginia should pour our resources into the failing schools and remedying the systems that create the failing schools, like improving the cultural competency of our educator workforce, addressing poverty, increasing the diversity of opportunity at our Governor’s Schools…as in all the agenda items we were working on. But ultimately, this does not play into the corporate mentality of the conservative right….all runs right through poverty and capitalism.  This is also why there is a push to remove the Cannabis Equity Reinvestment Board and the 30% of revenue that would be reinvested to communities (historically Black and Brown communities with failing schools) that have been historically harmed by marijuana prohibition, poverty, redlining, massive resistance, etc.”

Blue Virginia: This goes back to the book, The Color of Law, the history of segregation, housing policy in this country…When Youngkin talks about failing schools, what does he really mean by that? When he talks about parental choice, what does he really mean? It seems like all coded language, he’s talking about white parents clearly and he’s talking about white people’s anxieties and a choice is about taking kids out of the public schools and taking money out of the public schools and privatizing our public education system…that’s what they’re really pushing for…Betsy DeVos and all those folks…ultimately, that’s what their goal is.

Dr. Janice Underwood: “Education equity is actually where I get my roots.  I was a former biology teacher and a nationally certified special education teacher for 16 years.  I prepared science and math teachers, I have been a researcher, and a higher ed administrator. And so all of those roles in education truly make me a thought leader and education equity is my priority. I hate that people that have no background in education are trying to make decisions in education or define equity.  But when they try to take the word, “equity “out or they’re trying to whitewash the narrative, such as maligning the best practices that went into building that cultural competency legislation and the cultural competency document for VDOE and 132 school districts, what they are really saying, ‘I don’t really know about this stuff and it makes me uncomfortable, so let’s just get rid of it.’

The building of the cultural competency document included diverse stakeholders around the state and the version submitted by VDOE was not the version that our stakeholders unanimously agreed upon.  But the version that’s currently on VDOE’s website is still a bridge too far for some. While the four domains are backed by research by Drs. Vernita Mayfield and Gloria Ladson Billings, the new administration can’t see the return on investment or the business case for the improving education or addressing “failing schools” with these policies– in part because they themselves are uncomfortable and therefore, don’t want their children to be uncomfortable.  But in 2020 and 2021 school districts and leaders in the Virginia School Board Association were asking me and others for help.  Folks would call me and say, “Janice, can you please train our school boards, can you train us, can you go to school districts, can you be a resource, we need a real DE&I thought leader to help us understand this legislation, which is good legislation “  The bottom line is that  all licensed educators should know how to engage diverse students…White, Black, Asian, Native American, Hispanic, and Latino. It’s not critical race theory.  Engaging all learners in a respectful and affirming way is all that means.”

Blue Virginia: What was the concern? Was the concern about the election coming up or more broadly than that? I mean was it a concern from the McAuliffe people or from others?

Dr. Janice Underwood: “I can tell you I never spoke to the McAuliffe campaign about critical race theory.  I never consulted with his team…  I believe there was a concern that [critical race theory] would be used as a vehicle to be a weapon against the Democrats.”

Blue Virginia: Well that happened anyway.

Dr. Janice Underwood: “It happened anyway. We didn’t talk about it and even very seasoned politicians agreed, don’t talk about it. Therefore we followed in that very familiar Carville algorithm. Even though we were told not to talk about it because we would lose, it was like, well, we didn’t talk about it and we still lost.” 

Blue Virginia: And you’re saying it was even watered down. I mean, this what Democrats do, they’re like, well, we can’t talk about raising taxes because if we do the Republicans will attack us as tax-and-spend liberals. Then we don’t raise taxes, we don’t even talk about it, and they still attack us….they’re still going to attack us as ‘crazy leftists’ no matter what. That’s just what they do.

Dr. Janice Underwood: “And so here’s where I’d like to turn. Here are the solutions. We need to discuss a new comms and messaging strategy because if I am a candidate committed to diversity, equity, and inclusion, I will be faced with the monster minority machine who will turn reasonably minded people away from me.  Not because the other candidate is better but because I don’t know how to approach this new well-funded coordinated pivot in politics by one party who only wants to win at any cost.  Here’s the bottom line. We need more people who respect and affirm diversity, equity and inclusion to run for political office at all levels. We also need people – commonsense reasonable people and elected officials and their communications partners- to speak up and not be so afraid to speak up at school board meetings, in the media, in the local towns square, at the YMCA, grocery store, and on the campaign trail. Because right now, the narrative is being controlled by a minority monster machine…a very small group of parents who have the ability and funding to be loud and apparently get to be threatening to people. And it goes unchecked. This has resulted in the normalization of hating anyone with a different ideology and even political cyberbullying of a 17-year-old. 

Secondly, we need Senate Bill 153, which is being patroned by Senator Locke, that’s already passed the Senate, to pass the house and be signed by the Governor.  If you’re not familiar with Senate Bill 153… it is a bill to make the Chief Diversity Officer a full secretary…so that we can realize the original promise of liberty and justice for all.   I am also advocating for a federal Secretary of Diversity to build accountability in our federal agencies.”

Blue Virginia: What did you think specifically about changing the name from Diversity, Equity and Inclusion to Diversity, Opportunity and Inclusion?

Dr. Janice Underwood: “That bill has already failed. In addition to SB 153, one of the other things we need to codify is the Commission to Examine Racial Inequity in the Virginia Law. That was a commission created by Governor Northam and it began to really look at the law to say, you know, ok parents, member of the minority monster machine who is against critical race theory, look at this language in the Virginia code that says Black people shall not marry white people. Is it ok that we take that out? Because that’s actually ‘critical race theory’ in action.”

Blue Virginia: Well, it’s racism – it’s structural institutionalized racism. This is what the right wing does, they just come up with this stuff to distract everybody from the real issues, which know in this case is embedded structural racism. There’s no question about it, if you’ve read any history… I don’t know if you want to talk about this, but your successor, Angela Sailor, she’s written a bunch of articles, she said for example hat critical race theory is harmful to children, she applauded the work of Trump’s advisory committee on patriotic education, she said people have the freedom to use CRT as a weapon to cast hate, etc.

Dr. Janice Underwood:I’ve read all of her works, but I’m not quite sure exactly where she stands.  She is not a DEI thought-leader or practitioner.  She has a lot of political experience on the conservative side but given her support of HBCUs and her stated priority of helping the Black community, I’m not quite sure of her thoughts on a lot of things. It’s a little bit confusing. For example, when she talks about her commitment to HBCUs, what’s so ironic about that is critical race theory scholars (before they were called CRT scholars) identified inequity and in access to a collegiate education and in higher education and solved it with creating HBCUs, like Hampton University, my alma mater.  But I certainly wish her well, because if she does well, then Virginia does well. But to say that I’m nervous…is an understatement.”

Blue Virginia: Have you talked to her at all?

Dr. Janice Underwood: “No… I provided the transition team and the chief of staff a ‘transition document’ with all of the information the next CDO would need. I never was invited to meet with the transition team nor was I contacted about the transition document or the 102 DEI plans created by state agencies.”

Blue Virginia: It comes down ultimately to her boss, which is Governor Youngkin…He ran a campaign based to a large degree on fearmongering, it was kind of the ‘Southern Strategy’, which Republicans have used for decades to stir up – using coded language – racial anxiety amongst white people about race…That’s the campaign he ran.

Dr. Janice Underwood:  “I can’t speak to that, but the fact is the very first thing that the Youngkin administration did was to wipe clean the ONE Virginia materials, a free resource to our agencies that lessened the fiscal impact to our agencies and the equity dashboards that measured the ways inequity manifests itself across social determinants of health broadly in the state, compared to the national numbers as well as across 133 localities.

Blue Virginia: Hopefully, we’ll be able to hold the line. Hopefully, there’ll be a backlash to the backlash too. I think you’re seeing some of that now with the Ethan Lynne thing and the Alexandria Safeway video. I think some people are like wait a minute, we didn’t vote for THAT. I mean not everyone, but some people are like, maybe they were fooled by the TV ads like with the sweater vest and the suburban basketball dad or whatever. Now they’re like ‘wait a minute, this guy really is Trumpkin.’

Dr. Janice Underwood: “You are talking about the people who were so easily manipulated, who vote back and forth, vote against their interests, or don’t understand that addressing issues of inequity take time to demonstrate success….kind of like the townspeople in a Shakespearean play. You know, first we praise Caesar and now we want to kill him.”

Blue Virginia: Exactly. I mean, most people don’t follow this stuff super closely. And that’s the thing, Democrats make that mistake, they assume, well, I follow it closely, so doesn’t everyone else? No they don’t. You have to explain things to people over and over and over again and you have to meet them where they are…

Dr. Janice Underwood: “That’s exactly right. That’s why the solution is more education, easy and approachable messaging, and communication about this work. Because now you have candidates currently who are too afraid to patron equity-minded legislation, because they think that perhaps they will lose their seat, because there’s this new brand of divisive politics that makes you vulnerable if you’re committed to improving Virginia with diversity and inclusion and you do anything with the word equity. We need more people to run for public office that know how to talk about this. We need our candidates to admit that they don’t know what they don’t know and seek the counsel of DEI thought-leaders who understand messaging.  We need training of all our leaders and state employees.  There is a requirement that all state employees engage in cultural competency training through the Virginia Department of Human Resource Management, but this needs to be across all three branches.  And you know what else, we need Senate Bill 153….and we also need a federal secretary of diversity equity and inclusion.”

Blue Virginia: Are you applying?

Dr. Janice Underwood: “Well, they haven’t created the role at the federal level yet.”

Blue Virginia: Are you pushing for that?

Dr. Janice Underwood:I’m very much pushing for that. The closest thing we have now is the racial equity executive order by the Biden-Harris administration. That work is being championed by Ambassador Susan Rice on the Domestic Policy Council. They are creating the same structure that we have here in Virginia. They are creating diversity officers in every federal agency. They’re literally doing what we did here in Virginia, but if there’s no Secretary of DE&I, there’s no way to really synthesize all this work or make it accountable in our federal agencies, which leaves it vulnerable to the next political cycle just like it happened in Virginia. The federal government is creating a DE&I council and they have policy advisors.  The way our politics are right now…DE&I are principles of democracy…and our democracy is under attack.  But again, many of us don’t know how to talk about it in that way, or they say there are more important things to do.  But we need to bring people together and that’s what the One Virginia mission was meant to do, bring us together. So we’ve got to talk about it more, we’ve got to educate, teach more. It is important and can start today, if our leaders would listen!”

Blue Virginia: Are you involved in any of this now? What are you up to these days?

Dr. Janice Underwood: “I have not committed to anything just yet because, I’m just not sure… I need some time off. I’m weighing all the options in front of me; and I’m grateful to have so many options to think about. But to be honest with you, I want to be part of a conversation about how to leverage principles of diversity, equity and inclusion more broadly. And I want to find the right role that allows me to do that, because there’s still so much work to be done, because it’s so important. But more critically, this work is being weaponized by those who know what they are doing…so we need more people who know how to address this.”

Blue Virginia: We can’t allow the backlash to win. I’m so tired that we keep seeing this in our country over and over again – we make some progress, then there’s a backlash every single time…We can’t let that backlash win…So I hope you figure out a great place for yourself and still be in this space and working away at it, because obviously you’re very talented and dedicated to this.

Dr. Janice Underwood: “The bottom line is principles of DE&I are principles of democracy. They are not meant to be partisan. And truly there’s a business case for this work, there’s a return on investment for this work. And that’s in a stronger, more inclusive Virginia.”

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