Powering Structural Change—and the willingness to challenge the status quo—is at the crux of public service

Illustration of multicolored people

The Wagner Diversity Council hosted its conference, Powering Structural Change, between March 28 – April 1, 2022 to engage the Wagner community in discussions about public service. In partnership with other student groups and guest speakers, the conference employed a racial equity and social justice lens over public service work to address systemic and pervasive inequities. We thank the student leaders who planned, hosted, and moderated these discussions and made the conference possible.

Read the highlights and insights from a week of discussion.

Conversation with Alan van Capelle | March 28, 2022
Moderated by Neeraj Bachani (EMPA 2022) and Anna Quinn (MPA 2022) of the Wagner Diversity Council

Alan van Capelle (MPA 2012), President and CEO of Educational Alliance and adjunct professor at Wagner, led the discussion on people-first leadership. A nationally recognized leader in civil rights and social justice, van Capelle shared lessons on the public sector gleaned from his work with labor organizing, healthcare, LGBTQ+ rights campaigns, and advocacy for the Jewish community.

His belief in human dignity and worth has served as a motivating force throughout his career. From his experiences fighting the privatization of public hospitals in the 1990s to standing up for nursing home workers in Long Island, van Capelle has been guided by the firm conviction that every person has the ability to make change when they are empowered to do so. As a leader, he believes strongly in modeling positive behaviors such as openness, taking time to rest, and setting clear boundaries. In terms of DEI practices, van Capelle prioritized and funded internal culture teams at both Educational Alliance and Bend the Arc and empowered them to conduct rigorous equity assessments, noting the importance of “not letting perfect get in the way of good.”

Decolonizing Philanthropy: An Obligation to Do Better | March 29, 2022
Hosted by Lena Opper (MPA 2022) of Wagner Philanthropy

What does it mean to confront the power dynamics inherent to the philanthropic sector? The concept of decolonization within philanthropy was introduced by author Edgar Villanueva, Founder and Principal of the Decolonizing Wealth Project, and he explored ways in which existing philanthropic organizations can lessen their oversight and increase their impact.

Shaady Salehi of Trust-Based Philanthropy Project identified strict impact measurements as a way that philanthropic organizations exert their power on the groups they fund, making it more difficult to work towards goals that are not necessarily quantifiable and measurable. Will Cordery of Freedom Futures expressed frustration with restrictive conditionality that large organizations attached to their donations. M. Scott Frank of The InteRoots Initiative emphasized the potential for philanthropy to support social transformation if used in an inclusive way. A central theme throughout the panel discussion was the need for more trust-based philanthropy practices in which organizations with resources disperse them to organizations in need without extensive preconditions and trust that the money will make an impact.

Leading for Impact in Diversity, Equity and Inclusion at Predominantly White Institutions | March 29, 2022
Hosted by Nikki Vicencio (MPA 2024) of the Wagner Diversity Council

Panelists from across education, nonprofit, and for-profit organizations met to discuss leading DEI within predominantly white institutions (PWI), including members of Morgan Stanley, NYU Silver School of Social Work, NYU Robert F. Wagner Graduate School of Public Service, and The Nature Conservancy.

Monroe France, NYU’s Senior Associate Vice President for Global Engagement and Inclusive Leadership, prompted each panelist to speak about the way they engaged in DEI at work. Almost immediately, panelists spoke about the parallels that exist between higher education PWIs and non-higher education workplace settings as well as the importance of fostering allyship among colleagues. Attendees were also able to ask their own questions and the panel emphasized the need to create a system of accountability and a process that is sustainable for diversity, equity and inclusion work to fully thrive in the workplace.

Structural Change in Arts Organizations | March 30, 2022
Moderated by Bridin Clements (MPA 2022) of the NYU Arts and Culture Network

In partnership with NYU Arts and Culture Network, this free-flowing discussion allowed industry leaders to share their experience with advancing structural change. Maura Danehey (MPA 2023) and Teresa Shyr (MPA 2024) provided introductory remarks, and host Brídín Clements (MPA 2022) introduced the panelists: Kim Chan, Deputy Director of National Sawdust; Jodie Gates, incoming Artistic Director of Cincinnati Ballet; Jonathan McCrory, Artistic Director at National Black Theater; and Jacob G. Padrón, Artistic Director of Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven, Connecticut. The transformative power of grief, the importance of recognizing diverse identities and experiences, and democratizing leadership were key themes of the event. The thought-provoking connections made during this event encouraged attendees to share notes of inquiry, encouragement, and affirmation as we came together in discussion.

Wagner Student and Alumni Forum | March 31, 2022
Facilitated by Sita Goetschius (MPA 2023) and Sarina Noone (MPA 2022) of the Wagner Diversity Council

The Wagner Student and Alumni Forum provided an opportunity for students and alumni to share their experiences at NYU Wagner--inside or outside of the classroom--and to start a dialogue with one another about our commitments to advancing inclusion, diversity, belonging, equity and access (IDBEA). Attendees were encouraged to remain mindful of Powering Structural Change conference’s Brave and Safe Space Norms, and to center the experiences of others, and be ready to "share the mic."

Inclusive Curriculum in the Age of Polarization | March 31, 2022
Hosted by Nicole Eason (MPA 2023) of Wagner’s Education Policy Network

In partnership with Wagner’s Education Policy Network, this event explored the need for more inclusive, affirming, and multicultural curriculum in public school education. The panel was moderated by Professor Leanna Stiefel and featured Lindsey Foster, a research associate with NYU Metropolitan Center for Research on Equity and the Transformation of Schools, and Petria May, a longtime high school English teacher and adjunct professor at Wagner.

The event began with a discussion of what “inclusive curriculum” meant to the two panelists who stressed the importance of framing inclusive curriculum development as an intentional and holistic exercise rather than piecemeal or tokenizing one. To illustrate the concept, Petria presented a real-life example of how she developed a summer reading curriculum in the wake of George Floyd’s murder and advocated for it at her school, leading to its implementation.

While Petria’s curriculum was successfully adopted at her school, Professor Stiefel asked the panelists to discuss general barriers to implementing inclusive curricula. As an educator, Petria spoke to the challenges presented by today’s political and cultural landscape, particularly the “assault on truth,” as well as difficulties working with parents. Ultimately, she argued that buy-in at the school level is critical to the development of not just inclusive but actively anti-oppressive and anti-racist curricula.

Inclusion Revolution Q&A with Daisy Auger-Domínguez, Chief People Officer at VICE |March 31, 2022
Moderated by Sarina Noone (MPA 2022) and Anna Quinn (MPA 2022) of the Wagner Diversity Council

One of the final events of Powering Structural Change featured a Q&A with Daisy Auger-Dominguez (MPA 1997), who recently published Inclusion Revolution: The Essential Guide to Dismantling Racial Inequity in the Workplace. The conversation covered a wide range of topics, from Auger-Dominguez’s time as a Wagner student, to her current work as Chief People Officer at VICE. Auger-Dominguez also reflected on her intentions in writing Inclusion Revolution, discussing the importance of building equitable workplaces and outlining several key ideas the book puts forward that managers can use to actually achieve change. “Change happens with all of us working together,” she stated, explaining that inclusivity work can be operationalized, but transforming culture requires intentional action throughout the entire workplace.

Social Justice Lens: Education, Criminal Justice & Drug Policy in Black Communities | April 1, 2022
Moderated by Ugochi Obidiegwu (MPA 2023) of Wagner's Black Student Association

Examining critical issues of social, educational, and drug-related policies as they affect Black communities, this conversation emphasized the importance of policy reform in the U.S. criminal justice system.

Dr. Sade Lindsay started the panel by discussing the current state of criminal justice in which Black Americans are more likely to go to prison for the same crimes than other Americans. But policy is a tool we use to reverse this process. Dr. Sade Lindsay noted that it took decades of policy to create the carceral state and it will take some time to undo these mistakes as well. Dr. Tyson-Lord Gray explored the way we define progress as well as the difficulty of adopting new policies in an area that is constantly faced with new challenges.