Janice Underwood, Old Dominion University’s diversity director, was tapped Monday to play a similar role on a large scale as Virginia’s first-ever director of diversity, equity and inclusion.
Gov. Ralph Northam announced the hire at a news conference, seven months after the blackface scandal that rocked his administration and led to promises by Northam to focus the rest of his time in office on racial equity.
Amid the fallout, Northam vowed to bring on staff members who would advise him personally on matters of race and diversity. In hiring Underwood, Northam’s administration hopes the job will become a permanent Cabinet-level position, sanctioned by the General Assembly, focused on inequity in state government.
Underwood has been ODU’s director of diversity initiatives for the past year, working to “create inclusive work and learning environments” at the university, and leading workshops on racial and cultural diversity, according to her bio. Before working in higher education, Underwood was a teacher for students with special needs.
“I am committed to making Virginia more equitable and inclusive, and that starts with my administration and our state government,” Northam said. “[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.”
In remarks Monday, Underwood said one of the things that attracted her to the job was Northam’s “unprecedented commitment to rebuilding the trust we have in him.”
In February, Northam fielded widespread calls for his resignation after a racist photo showing a man in blackface and another in a Ku Klux Klan robe was found on Northam’s 1984 medical school yearbook page.
Northam has for months denied he is one of the two people in the photo, though he initially said he was. Investigations into the matter by Northam’s political arm and Eastern Virginia Medical School were inconclusive.
“He hasn’t always gotten it right, but what I respect most is that he’s willing to learn and do the work,” Underwood said, heaping praise on Northam for actions on racial equity his administration has taken since.
“I’m committed to working alongside him to go even further.”
Asked about her priorities coming into the job, Underwood said she is looking forward to engaging lawmakers and the public in conversations about equity in the coming months.
Northam’s administration kicked off the search for a diversity officer in May. Underwood was picked from a pool of 80 applicants and 30 finalists.
Underwood will be responsible for developing a plan to promote inclusive practices and address systemic inequities in state government, while “fostering an inclusive environment throughout state government where employees feel a sense of belonging,” according to the job posting. She will be tasked with creating an office under her leadership to complete the work.
Underwood will also work with the Virginia Department of Human Resource Management and the Virginia Department for Aging and Rehabilitative Services to promote inclusive recruitment and retention across state government.