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Editorial: Virginia's Cabinet-level diversity office is good for business and all Virginians

With just weeks to go before Gov.-elect Glenn Youngkin takes office, there is much for the incoming administration to reflect upon and review. Amid the work of transition teams connecting with Cabinet-level departments, one such unit of note is Virginia’s Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion.

Established in 2019, in the months after the February fallout from disturbing racist photos that were identified in Gov. Ralph Northam’s 1984 medical school yearbook, the office became the nation’s first statewide Cabinet-level DEI unit. By September, Northam appointed Janice Underwood, Old Dominion University’s diversity director, to bring her talents to lead the new office.

Some might say the DEI office was born largely to counter Northam’s public image fiasco, but regardless, Virginia needed one. And Underwood’s team hit the ground running: In the short two years since, the office has laid the groundwork to ensure the state is addressing many elements of diversity.

Following the passage of legislation declaring racism a public health crisis, the office created assessment tools called Equity in Action (on the DEI website) and Equity at a Glance (on the Virginia Department of Health website). Both are dashboards that examine social determinants of health — such as food and housing insecurities, educational attainment, unemployment, income and poverty — to improve health and racial equity statewide.

The dashboards “dispassionately measure the way the social determinants of health create equity gaps across race and ethnicity,” Underwood said in a recent interview.

With the data compiled and accessible, the results can show where inequities exist, which can help steer federal, state or local funding — from the American Rescue Plan, the CARES Act or other investment programs — to where it’s needed. The dashboard is a public resource for comparing data and supporting informed decisions, so it can guide policymakers, faith and community leaders, organizers and activists to have better understanding of their communities.

Another highlight of the office’s work has been to build a digital infrastructure to help vulnerable populations, including individuals with disabilities and those whose first language is not English, have access to critical information.

As Underwood said, the DEI office is about “building economic development. It’s about building psychological safety in our organizations. It’s about building equity for underserved populations. And it’s about building opportunity for all.”

The pandemic has provided many examples of why it’s necessary to reliably communicate with those whose first language is not English, Underwood said. If Virginia dismantles that infrastructure or doesn’t place enough value on it, what we are really saying is we don’t need one.

On the business side, CNBC again awarded Virginia the distinction as the country’s best place to do business, partly because of strong scores for diversity and inclusion metrics — measures in which we should hope Virginia always excels.

“In order to continue being competitive, we need this office and we need the leadership this office creates,” Underwood said. “It is nonpartisan work that really dovetails into innovation. And it’s good for business, as we think about daily operations of our state and government and attracting business.”

Additionally, Virginia is the nation’s first state to have a statewide DEI strategy, a bill codified by lawmakers this year across 100 state agencies and public institutions of higher education. As reported in The Times-Dispatch, the strategic goals are to recruit and retain a diverse workforce; create and sustain agency culture that affirms and respects diversity and inclusion; educate workers on diversity and inclusion; create infrastructure within agencies to track progress on equity goals; and ensure that work with the general public benefits “all of Virginia’s diverse communities.”

The bill passed mostly along party lines in the House of Delegates; in the state Senate, a handful of GOP members joined Democrats in supporting it.

For Youngkin, the DEI office is a vehicle through which he could make good on promises to bolster business. While its leader serves at the pleasure of the governor, the nonpartisan office is established by state code, and Virginia needs the office’s tools and mechanisms to help all Virginians.

“It is so important now, as we think about the overall diversity of our state, nation and world, that the principles of diversity, equity and inclusion — which include accessibility and justice — are actually woven in more deeply now than they ever have been,” Underwood said.

The governor-elect would be wise to not only keep the rock-solid foundation laid by Underwood and her team but to build on it at full steam, in part as a road map to help him serve all Virginians.

— Lisa Vernon Sparks,

Richmond Times-Dispatch

Lisa Vernon Sparks is Opinions co-editor. Contact her at: lvernonsparks@timesdispatch.com

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