Identity and Diversity in Public Service: The Personal, Professional, and Political

On Friday, October 23rd Martha Stark, Clinical Professor of Public Service and Chair of Wagner’s Faculty Diversity Committee, and Erica Foldy, Associate Professor of Public Policy and co-author of "The Color Bind: Talking (and Not Talking) About Race at Work hosted Identity and Diversity in Public Service: The Personal, Professional, and Political, an intimate conversation on how identity impacts how we navigate through life and our roles as leaders in public service. The conversation began with Martha and Erica discussing what their upbringing was like and how that influenced their understanding of the world around them. In particular, they discussed when they first became aware of race and how their upbringing influenced their professional path and forged their identities.

The audience appreciated the ping-pong nature of the discussion and how candid Martha and Erica were about talking about their journeys. Erica noted how her upbringing made her very aware of racial injustice, but, unfortunately, her parents did not discuss what it meant to be white and understanding the privileges that came along with that. Martha reflected on how an experience as a teenager made her realize that perhaps race was embedded in more areas of everyday life than she originally perceived. The pair noted that oftentimes matters of identity and diversity, particularly around race, are more about what goes unsaid and unseen. By talking about matters of identity and diversity, we are better able to learn, process, and understand what we are experiencing. 

In the professional world, talking about diversity and identity is much more layered. Erica reflected how she was hesitant to go into EDI work; while she felt it was important to do the work, doing the work also meant confronting herself and what it meant to be doing this work as a white-identifying person. When she decided to pursue her Ph.D., she realized that she could not hide any longer and while the work evoked a level of discomfort she found ways to hold space for her discomfort as well as the importance of doing this type of work. On the other hand, Martha expressed how her identity as a Black woman made the EDI work inescapable. Across her professional experiences, she was often “the only” or “the first”, and therefore EDIwork was something she felt called to, not only to improve her experience, but also the experience of others and those that would come after her. 

Erica and Martha also talked about the joys and the challenges of doing EDI work at Wagner. Martha talked about how invigorating it is to be at a place like Wagner where there are so many amazing, intelligent people, and how Wagner has created a space that feels filled with possibilities. In addition, Martha acknowledged the challenges of being in an academic setting, where the focus is often on data and research. Martha noted that there is not enough doing, how we often spend so much time researching and planning that progress often feels slow. This sentiment was also present during the Q&A portion of the program. One of the attendees brought up the importance of bridging the gap between academics and practitioners and noted that in order to get the work done, you need both. 

Furthermore, Martha and Erica highlighted the sense of urgency around EDI work and amplified the need to push for radical change. In closing, Erica discussed how important it is for allies to step up and not be afraid to fail. She acknowledged that it’s possible that you may get it wrong, but also stated that through failure, you create an opportunity to learn and figure out how to get it right.