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Gov. Northam names new diversity director after blackface scandal

Dr. Janice Underwood | Photo provided by Gov. Ralph Northam's press office
Dr. Janice Underwood | Photo provided by Gov. Ralph Northam's press office(WHSV)
Published: Sep. 9, 2019 at 1:26 PM EDT
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The Virginia governor who narrowly survived a blackface scandal earlier this year appointed a new top aide Monday whose job will be to make government more inclusive.

Gov. Ralph Northam announced at a Capitol news conference that he had hired Janice Underwood as Director of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion. Her duties will include formulating a strategic plan to address unequal treatment in state government. The governor said Underwood would have broad authority to identify and help eliminate workplace politics that "historically and systematically affect the individual of color and other under-represented groups."

The announcement was the latest in a long string of actions Northam has taken to improve race relations in recent months as he works to repair his image.

Underwood, a former director of diversity initiatives at Old Dominion University, said one of the things that drew her to the new job was Northam's commitment to rebuilding trust in the wake of a scandal that nearly forced him from office.

"He hasn't always gotten it right, but what I respect the most is that he's willing to learn and do the work," Underwood said.

Northam has largely rebounded since a racist photo on his 1984 medical school yearbook page surfaced in February and almost forced him from office.

The photo showed a person wearing blackface next to another person in a Ku Klux Klan hood and robe. Northam initially said he was in the photo, and then denied it the next day, while acknowledging that he did wear blackface to a dance party that same year.

Almost all of Northam's political allies initially pushed him to resign and the governor's political career looked all-but dead. But Northam resisted calls to step down, saying he instead wanted to help heal the state's lingering racial wounds and devote the rest of his term to promoting racial equality.

"We have a unique opportunity to bring good from what happened to Virginia," Northam said Monday.

Other recent actions by Northam include successfully pushing to remove lettering honoring the president of the Confederacy from a 1950s-era archway at Fort Monroe, where the first enslaved Africans arrived in Virginia in 1619. And he recently named a commission to eliminate Jim Crow-era discriminatory language from state laws and regulations.

Del. Lamont Bagby, chairman of the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus, said he was pleased with Underwood's appointment as well as Northam's recent job performance.

"I'm starting to see some of the things I was hoping to see," Bagby said. "I would give him a B-plus."

Below is Northam's full statement on his appointment of Dr. Underwood:

Governor Ralph Northam today announced that Dr. Janice Underwood, former Director of Diversity Initiatives at Old Dominion University, will serve as Virginia’s first-ever Director of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion. Governor Northam announced the creation of this senior-level position in May, kicking off an extensive candidate selection process that involved numerous state agencies, stakeholders, and highly-qualified applicants. “I am committed to making Virginia more equitable and inclusive, and that starts with my administration and our state government,” said Governor Northam. “Dr. 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. I’m thrilled to welcome Dr. Underwood to our administration, and I look forward to having her as a partner in this important work.” As the Director of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion in the Commonwealth of Virginia, Dr. Underwood will develop a sustainable framework to promote inclusive practices across Virginia state government; implement a measurable, strategic plan to address systemic inequities in state government practices; and facilitate ways to turn feedback from state employees, external stakeholders, and community leaders into concrete equity policy. “I am deeply honored to serve the Commonwealth in this inaugural position,” said Dr. Underwood. “As I embark on this role I will be relying on my many personal and professional experiences as a teacher, an educational researcher, a parent and wife, and a diversity leader. I am dedicated to working with Virginians to promote lasting, institutional change at all levels of state government, and I look forward to working closely with Governor Northam and the rest of his administration to make the Commonwealth more diverse, equitable, and inclusive for all who live here.” Dr. Janice Underwood earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Hampton University in 1998 (B.A. Psychology) and 2002 (M.A. Learning and Behavior Disorders), respectively. In 2015, she earned her Ph.D. in Curriculum and Instruction from Old Dominion University (ODU), where her research focused on culturally relevant pedagogy. Prior to her appointment, Dr. Underwood served as Old Dominion University’s Director of Diversity Initiatives and as the chair of the President’s Task Force on Inclusive Excellence. Dr. Underwood previously served as the Executive Director and Co-Principal Investigator for the ODU Teacher in Residence master’s program, a collaborative partnership between ODU, Norfolk Public Schools and Newport News Public schools. Dr. Underwood also served for a number of years as a national board certified teacher for students with exceptionalities, and has extensive expertise in the cultural contexts of our public education system. In these roles, Dr. Underwood has worked to create inclusive work and learning environments, and has collaborated with outside groups—such as the Virginia Community College System, the Chesapeake Public Library, and more—on professional development related to racial and cultural diversity.

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