Dr. Janice Underwood, Chief Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Officer for the Commonwealth of Virginia, joined Alignment Strategies CEO Dr. Vanessa Weaver to discuss her role and impact as the country’s first cabinet-level diversity professional. She shared 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. The following is an edited excerpt of their conversation.
Dr. Vanessa Weaver: As the Chief Diversity Officer in the State of Virginia, you built ONE Virginia, a statewide strategic plan for inclusion across more than 100 state agencies and other public and private sectors. Tell us a little bit about ONE Virginia.
Dr. Janice Underwood: Diversity, equity and inclusion (DE&I) has never really existed at the intersection of government and politics. The ONE Virginia plan is the first statewide strategic plan for DE&I, but what’s so amazing about it is 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 to 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 100 state agencies. 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. As of right now, we have 82 plans submitted and we have a few more plans on the way with a few extensions. 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 make these plans better work with agency leadership. 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. Other states are watching and trying to do the same thing. It’s an exciting time for DE&I.
Weaver: What does the ONE Virginia plan do for the average person in the State of Virginia?
Underwood: The ONE Virginia plan is built on the inclusive excellence framework, which has five major buckets. The agency plans aren’t overly prescriptive. This is strategic planning individualized for state agencies. For example, the inclusive excellence framework starts with the theme of access and success. Most agencies might interpret access and success as 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 Resources indicated that they have a huge priority in increasing the diversity of those who have gaming licenses. Every agency has the ability to individualize the plan.
Weaver: 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. Was that part of what folks talked about when they talked about diversity in Virginia, because all I heard about was critical race theory. Here we have a ONE Virginia that can benefit everyone in Virginia and I’m not sure people really got that.
Underwood: 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 sector, but the bottom line is it’s here and it’s for everyone. 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 weaponization of critical race theory and diversity, equity, inclusion broadly as synonymous with critical race theory is quite unfortunate. 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. ONE Virginia is based on the idea that we are stronger together.
Weaver: Given that you have a new administration that’s coming that will be leading 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 what we did here in the Commonwealth of Virginia.
We passed legislation, House Bill 1993, which has a statutory obligation, a legal mandate for every state agency to 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: 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.
Weaver: As I think about 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: 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. 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. 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 what we need to do. For the first time in Virginia history, we created 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: 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. 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. 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, 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: I agree that metrics are critical, but I’m wondering what happened with the whole metrics debate in critical race theory, because that was a big topic, and there was a lot of emotion. At least according to what we saw on the news, there was a lot of emotion around critical race theory. But I understand that your metrics indicated that critical race theory has never been taught in the public schools of Virginia. 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. If we don’t, 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. 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. 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. That’s how we use critical race theory to reform manifestations of racism in the Virginia law.