Trachtenberg School Efforts Toward Public Service Values: Emphasizing Diversity, Equity, Inclusion

Creating a culture to explore big questions and relationships through a lens of privilege and inclusion and develop reflective practitioners.
Amber Palmer-Halma, GW Trachtenberg School | November 12, 2018
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The George Washington University’s Trachtenberg School of Public Policy and Public Administration embraced a motto of “doing good and doing it well” more than five years ago. At the same time, they started a systematic exploration of what it means to teach and live public service values to forward the idea of public servants who do good in their communities and the larger world.

Three public service values that have garnered extra attention in the Trachtenberg School over the past several years are diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI).

While acknowledging that efforts toward greater diversity, equity and inclusion will never be 100% successfully completed, the Trachtenberg School has taken steps toward furthering these public service values.

“The Trachtenberg School has made great progress in the work of DEI,” said Sophia Brown, MPP ’18, who recently became chair of the school-wide Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Committee. “This work was started well before the current cohort by courageous students, staff and faculty and will continue after we leave. It is continuous and ever-changing.”

Evidence of the work being done, according to Brown, includes the increased diversity of the student population, the unconscious bias training all incoming students completed during orientation, the training and efforts of faculty to apply an equity lens to their syllabi, the launch of student-led organizations focused on support for traditionally-marginalized students and the creation of a 1-credit class on embracing the public service values required of MPA and MPP students.

The class, Perspectives on Public Values, teaches students how to have challenging conversations and explore big questions and our relationships through a thematic lens of privilege and inclusion. The goal of the class is to help students become reflective practitioners. In 2018, every first-year student pursuing the Master of Public Administration (MPA) degree took the course and students in the Master of Public Policy (MPP) program will be invited to take it beginning in 2019.

Since the Trachtenberg School is a graduate-only school there is significant turnover in the student body each year with about 450 taking classes toward an MPA, MPP, Master of Arts in Environmental Resource Policy, a PhD in Public Policy and Administration or a graduate certificate. In-depth learning and sustaining a culture for DEI can be a natural challenge for a program with the majority of students only here two or three years.

“I am really encouraged by how the school is approaching DEI issues,” said Chellese Hall, MPA ’20, who began her degree program this fall. “Before I even started classes, I had a great conversation with a staff member who helped me to feel safe. They wanted my input so they can continue to build a better culture within the school-- students and faculty alike.”

“It is important for us to be intentional about the needs of students and create multiple avenues where they can feel a sense of belonging within the Trachtenberg School community,” said Brown. “We are still working on this. It is a challenge, but we are learning.”

“While recognizing the importance of intersectionality and other markers of diversity and inclusion such as gender and class, race is generally the most charged dimension of diversity in the United States, the most difficult to discuss and, therefore, the topic we most often avoid. I am glad that the Trachtenberg School is addressing issues of race and social inequality, as race has the greatest impact on life chances and opportunities, and is often the best predictor of income, wealth, education, health, employment and other important measures of well-being,” said Cesar Villanueva, MPA ’19, who is also a member of the school’s initial cohort in a new Minority Leadership Program (MLP), a student organization aimed at developing the skills of talented students of traditionally marginalized communities, to help them become exemplary leaders in the public, private and nonprofit sectors.

Ilham Dehry, MPP ’19, also noted the school’s willingness to have conversations about these important topics. She’d like to see the school go even further with efforts toward anti-racism education that is required or heavily incentivized for every student.

Student advocacy is a driving force in the efforts of the school and Dehry’s comments and those of her peers help determine the school’s next steps.

For Hall, a new member of the MLP, that emphasis on advocacy brings hope. “The school teaches and encourages advocacy in many ways,” she said. “The Trachtenberg School gives many opportunities for you to bring your full self into the classroom -- from intentional research to policy creation that gets personal. They allow you to use the issues that are closest to you and equip you with tools to effect real change.”

All four of these students encourage others to join the Trachtenberg School if they are interested in earning a public service degree while contributing to a curriculum and culture that includes challenging conversations, explores big questions and relationships through a thematic lens of privilege and inclusion and strives to develop reflective practitioners.