Dean Dr. Susan Gooden: Fighting Injustice through Education

This is the second half of a two-part interview with the new Dean of the L. Douglas Wilder School, Dr. Gooden. View the first half of the interview here.

As the new Dean of the Wilder School, what are your long term goals?

I’m excited to now be Dean of the L. Douglas Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs; I had an opportunity to serve as interim dean for the past two years and I’ve been a member of the faculty since 2004. So I feel like I have a good sense of the school. We have a tremendous group of colleagues; students love our location in Richmond.

I like to remind myself to think about our namesake and what that legacy means. We are named for the honorable Douglas Wilder, the 66th governor of Virginia and the first elected African-American governor in the United States. That’s huge. And that comes with a huge responsibility in making sure we continue to take the notion of citizen engagement seriously.

I think one of the things we have to do is make sure that our mission remains committed to Douglas Wilder’s ideals. And a big part of that has been social equity in local government and state government. The work that we’ve done, relative to social equity, far precedes the social issues that are going on today.

Unfortunately, through the killing of George Floyd and many others, this is now a much more nationally recognized topic, but the Wilder school has been very committed to this space even prior to that, and we will be here for the years to come.

We received the Social Equity Award from the Network of Associated Schools of Public Policy Administration (NASPAA) several years ago. This means a lot of our faculty members – whether we’re talking about housing eviction or immigration policy or entrepreneurship, criminal justice or Homeland Security, or just governance and leadership – are thinking about issues from an equity perspective. That really is a point of pride and a point of distinction for us as a comprehensive public affairs school and permeates the work we do through the Center for Public Policy with our faculty research, leadership and training.

In addition to doing comprehensive public affairs training that is first rate compared to all other schools of public affairs, we think from a lens of equity. It’s not something that’s superimposed, but something that’s ingrained in how we operate as a school and the work our students go on to do.

We are particularly well known for our social equity work. So we hope to continue to build that out. We’re committed to this work in-season and out of season.

You mention George Floyd. How does his death, the activism it has sparked across the nation and the attention it has brought to other unlawful deaths at the hands of law enforcement change Wilder’s mission and approach?

I wouldn’t say it’s changed our mission because I think our mission was already focused on issues related to social justice and social equity and again we embrace that as a school. But, one of the things that we’re working on right now is a Racial Equity Action Plan.

Immediately after the George Floyd event, I sent out an email with a statement that was very clear about moving toward action and from that we put racial equity action teams in place.

Now we have teams looking at teaching, research, community engagement and alumni relations. We have another team that’s looking at Wilder school policies and practices. These teams are charged with coming up with preliminary recommendations by the fall.

It’s important to note: anybody could join these groups if they wanted to. We welcome all ideas and contributions. But I was also clear about what we were not going to do: we’re not going on a data gathering exercise and we’re not having conversations just to be having conversations.

We have a lot of data that’s already available to us through the university and we have national data and we know what the trends are. And too often folks will say ‘Well, we need to have folks get together and have conversations.’

Conversations are fine. You know, we all have conversations every day. But there has to be a point to them, and there has to be an outcome. There are lots of learning resources and excellent articles and podcasts and all those types of things that are well documenting the experiences of institutional racism in the United States, but we need to move toward action, and as a school, we have the power to do that.

We’re looking at suspending standardized test requirements as a condition of admission. Many schools are moving in that direction because we know that these tests negatively disadvantage minority students because some of the questions don’t account for cultural bias. We’ve already made the decision to let that go on a temporary basis. I think we need to let that go on a permanent basis because we know that if we’re concerned about equity and fairness, then that’s a specific action that we need to take.

I think the main thing that we have to have, and I say this for everywhere: in order to overcome institutional racism, we must have the resilience to solve it. And when we are resilient, we can accomplish many things.

I mean, think about this coronavirus and environment and the things that we’ve been able to accomplish. From a public policy perspective, we’ve had all kinds of policy changes in a very short period of time. It has been extraordinary. Because there was a will that we needed to keep individuals safe, and we needed to protect ourselves and others from the threat of the virus. So if we remain resilient and hold onto that will to protect ourselves and others from racism and from institutional racism, then we can pass in similar fashion policies and practices that will eradicate and minimize racism. Once we have the will there, I believe everything will fall into place.

Between the pandemic and the light being shined on systemic racism in this country, I think there may be many Americans who are feeling hopeless right now. What is your advice to them?

Well, I certainly don’t take the hopeless stance. I am very confident in Americans, I’m confident in our fellow citizens and residents. I think that there are a lot of good people out here in this world. And I think there are a lot of smart people. We all have a skill set to contribute, so I’m actually very hopeful.

This situation has caused us to reflect on our lives, to really examine what’s important. Out of all tragedies there are always silver linings. Right now, each of us is asking ourselves, what is it that we want society to look like? How can we contribute to making that happen? I think we all have to carefully look at the role of politics in this country. It’s unfortunate that something as simple as wearing a mask has now become politicized. This is no longer a health issue, it’s become a political issue.

I think we all have to kind of take a step back and say, you know, at some point, this is counterproductive to the well-being of society, and I hope that this will help us build bridges for the future.

I think we’re starting to see some of this. We’re starting to begin to see some bridges that are really looking at the common good of society, and moving away from partisanship. Of course, we’re not going to all agree on everything; there are going to be policy issues that remain divisive.

But if we can focus on commonalities – things that we can agree upon versus things that we hold differences of opinion on – I think we could clear the deck on a lot of issues and move forward in a very progressive and helpful way and leave this country and and the world and much better shape for our children and our grandchildren.

What would your advice be to the average American who wants to make a difference but isn’t really sure how he or she has the ability to make an impact?

I would say, first: do an inventory of your talents. Then, put them to use. Some people are artists. Some people, they analyze data. And some people are empathetic and have a caring spirit. You know, there are all kinds of different talents that we have, and I think putting those talents to use toward both of the pandemics – the coronavirus pandemic and institutional racism – putting both of those to use in a very helpful way, I think that is the way to go.

These problems are too large for any one of us to solve, but working together, we can do a lot. I talked about the class I taught this summer. The students had to provide recommendations, relative to COVID-19 and Virginia for Governor Northam’s administration, and I was really pleased at the innovation and the thinking that went on as part of that.

We cannot afford to leave any talent on the table. We simply cannot. And we can’t ignore any people or persons based on race, sexual identity, or religious preference. Whatever the defining characteristic is, we need all hands on deck, and we need to capitalize on all the talent that we have.

The recent protests in America have been inspiring. Let’s talk about emergency preparedness and preparedness in relation to those. The fact they’ve been so well attended, the fact they’ve been so widespread, that gives me hope. But from an emergency preparedness standpoint, you have a large gathering of people during a time of pandemic. What is your advice there? How should people be approaching large gatherings, especially when there’s something so important at stake?

I think one of the biggest lessons that we learned from the protests is the importance of mask wearing. If you go to a protest or even watch them on TV, you’ll notice that the vast majority of individuals who are participating in protests have on a mask. Governor Northam of Virginia has been looking at this – we have not seen an increase and uptick in the coronavirus in areas where protesting has occurred. If we’re trying to return to normal as much as possible relative to a society, this is a very simple thing to do.

Historically, when you talked about Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness, the issues have been largely “event-centered.” For example, there’s a shooting, or there’s a disease, or there’s a hurricane or tornado or flooding,you must respond to that finite event accordingly by bringing the necessary resources. But now, this is completely different. This is ongoing and we have no idea when it’s going to end.

Today, we could call what we’re experiencing the “long term new stage of normal.” Unlike prior events that required immediate attention and an immediate resolution, this is a different beast. I think now people see the relationship between emergency preparedness and a lot of other areas. We see the relationship between emergency management and unemployment. In the past, I think people thought ‘Oh! That’s nice: Emergency Management folks help folks cope with the fallout of a tornado,” but I think what’s happening now brings to light the implications between a state of emergency, which of course is what we were in, and its relationship to healthcare, to housing, to livelihood from K-12 through higher education. Today, more than ever, we’re seeing a broad intersectionality.

I think after this we’re going to see topics related to emergency management become part of the body of public policy in a proactive way, and will no longer be seen as an afterthought.

How has the current state of the world, and of our country in particular, affected interest around the Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness program?

I think that people probably have more interest in the program now because people see the true value and how critical and how central it is to the well-being of our society. One of the things that has been a limitation to Homeland Security Emergency Preparedness in general is that it is not as diverse as some other fields. One of our Master of Arts in Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness alums, Curtis Brown, who graduated from the eight step program at VCU and was recently appointed to be director of the Virginia Department of Emergency Management, has been very committed to diversity and inclusiveness, and emergency management. He co-founded an organization called I-DIEM, Institute for Diversity and Inclusion in Emergency Management.

I’m hoping that, as the interest in the HSEP expands, we also attract a very diverse group of students, because we need that talent and we need to be able to have deep knowledge of vulnerable populations, strategies for how we can best reach those populations, and how we can reduce inequities to create a better world for us all.

An online M.A. in Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness from VCU can give you the tools to advance your career and make an immediate impact on your community and your nation. If you think the HSEP program could be the right fit for you, don’t wait. Apply here today.