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Reflections on the Institute’s Fifteenth Anniversary

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The 15th anniversary of the Virginia Tech Institute for Policy and Governance (VTIPG) officially occurs on July 1, 2021.  The day is a significant milestone, as many organizations and initiatives established in 2006 in all three of our nation’s sectors and, indeed, at our own university, have not attained such longevity. As I write, the Institute is as strong as it has ever been, and we recently saw our fourth successful post-doctoral research scholar depart following an active stint with us. The Institute today is a vibrant research community engaged in an array of inquiry in its chosen domains, with a variety of colleagues and stakeholders as essential partners. As I have reflected in recent weeks on VTIPG’s institutional trajectory across these years, I have sought to identify some of the reasons for our success during a period in which the nation has otherwise fallen into an ongoing and dangerous governance crisis. Our history has coincided, too, with an era during which a share of those we have self-consciously aimed to serve as an institution— the nation’s vulnerable—have become the targets of wild and sometimes violent and deadly scapegoating attacks and also have had to confront despair in many cases, as their life chances have too often crumbled around them.

Several signal values and factors have animated our collective efforts as we have worked to fulfill our assigned charge of conducting research and outreach as well as serving the university’s instructional mission in policy and governance, broadly understood. Those include the deep dedication and length of service of several core Institute faculty and staff members; their individual and collective devotion to learning and to serving the most vulnerable populations in their efforts, even when it has been difficult or unpopular to do so; our faculty and staff’s long-term willingness to work across disciplinary boundaries, both at the university and substantively; our collective devotion to practicing empathy and valorizing the dignity of those with whom we interact in our daily responsibilities; and our shared willingness to do all we can to assist those we serve in expressing their innate agency as they go about their daily lives.

The Institute was the product of the merger 15 years ago of one outreach center and another young, but robust, research entity. The outreach center brought with it two individuals (one staff member and one research faculty member) who have served with VTIPG since. It also yielded another staff member who served the Institute until just a few years ago. The research center brought two faculty members to VTIPG, who have served it since. In addition, that unit brought with it an affiliated faculty member who continues to be involved with the Institute.  Less than a year into its life, the Institute absorbed the operations of another departmental research center and an individual associated with that operation has been a faculty member in our organization since.

In short, we have been blessed to have five of our principals and one of our key staff members as a part of the organization for virtually our entire history. Such personnel stability is rare, and it has surely played a role in ensuring VTIPG’s success across the years. But experience alone does not guarantee accomplishment. In my view, it has been the individual and collective willingness of that core group of individuals to learn and to continue to grow as they adapted to changing conditions and circumstances that have ensured that the Institute would thrive. Put differently, each of us at the Institute, original members or not, has made our share of mistakes and missteps, but to a person, we have accepted those turns as a feature of our work. This remarkable group has seen such vicissitudes as occasions to learn and to adjust as they pressed forward together to serve the Institute’s mission. Each of us has also grown markedly as a result of that orientation, and we have together helped VTIPG to navigate successfully what has often been a turbulent strategic and operating environment for more than 15 years.

A second value that has guided our faculty and staff since the organization’s inception is the idea that we would focus our efforts disproportionately on serving vulnerable groups and individuals. As I reflected, I recalled that we have been involved in workforce development programs for those most requiring them and, in some cases, have guided implementation of those efforts, too. We have also conducted studies aimed at ensuring improved access to needed services for those with disabilities, worked to improve international development outcomes, investigated and shared life-saving options for those suffering drug addiction, assayed social service organization service provision processes in efforts to improve their effectiveness and equity and worked assiduously to support youngsters from fragile and broken families, among many examples that could be cited. All of these initiatives have been animated by a shared mission to serve those who are otherwise disadvantaged and vulnerable in their societies. In this aim, we have succeeded, despite operating during a time in which those living with poverty or otherwise having to address difficult circumstances, including perduring social conflicts, have often been blamed for the conditions confronting them or assigned responsibility for the perceived woes of other populations for which they had no responsibility. According to organizational theorists, one mark of what defines an institution, in contrast to an organization, is an entity’s adoption of a shared vision and norms and values to support it, and its ongoing efforts to realize the same. By that measure, VTIPG has become not only an institution, but a sturdy one.

We were given few injunctions concerning our specific purview when university officials chartered the Institute, but one item that those leaders did request particularly was that we work across the university’s various colleges, and we have continued to do so throughout our existence. We have engaged faculty and students from every college at Virginia Tech during our history and we continue to work with colleagues across several of those entities on shared initiatives concerning policies addressing enduring concerns for our populations of interest. We have done so believing that multiple academic disciplines can contribute meaningfully to democratic governance decision-making. We have also found that individual disciplines often are addressing like policy concerns and doing so with interesting and relevant theory, but their representatives are often not aware of cognate ideas and claims concerning similar phenomena and questions in related fields. Unpacking those shared interests and doing so in open dialogue is the essence of interdisciplinary possibility. We have often been delighted by the opportunities that have arisen as we have pursued that goal for the last decade and a half.

We have similarly established partnerships with community and governmental organizations at all geographic scales. Those have often offered openings for graduate students from an array of allied disciplines, including public health, civil and environmental engineering, sociology, theater, public administration, urban affairs and planning, political science and others, to obtain support for their studies. In many cases, too, those opportunities have provided the subjects for those students’ capstone analyses. Indeed, to date, 37 Ph.D. students closely aligned with the Institute have completed their work and approximately 75 master’s degree students have done so.

Another value we have sought to pursue and to embody in our work is empathy, which is too little understood. Many imagine that it is somehow bound up with making others or oneself feel good, while it actually has nothing to do with either of those things. Instead, according to the Merriam Webster dictionary, empathy is,

the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner.[1]

As I reflect, I am persuaded that all of our work at VTIPG during our first 15 years has been anchored in a willingness to practice empathy with and on behalf of those we serve. In this sense, our energies have been directed foremost by a passionate self-discipline aimed at seeking to understand the situations confronting those with whom we have interacted, from their perspectives, rather than imposing our own. Such efforts require strong self-awareness, abiding humility and a deep willingness to listen, in addition to a persistent openness. None of these qualities are automatic or readily attained and none can be realized without gaining the trust of those served as one proceeds. We have set the practice of empathy, rightly understood and patiently and humbly practiced, as a lodestone ideal across our efforts. As difficult as that pursuit can be, I am convinced it is an appropriate yardstick and cardinal value for our work going forward as well. While imagining the experiences of others and seeking to dignify them simply because they are human surely is a challenge in our current culture, which often seeks to dictate otherwise, I believe those pressures can be overcome with genuine appreciation, goodwill and reflexive humility. We have established these values as our goals and sought to realize them in daily practice, aware that they are key not only to overcoming many of the impediments confronting those we would serve, but also to meaningful involvement with any democratic community.

Finally, much of the rich variety of work that has engaged the Institute in our first decade and a half has been tethered to the fundamental question of democratic agency. Few concerns are more significant than the issue of whether free individuals perceive themselves able to exercise their innate capacity to act as they may wish in their daily lives. Too many factors, including systemic cultural and economic oppression and inequality, impair or bound such capacity for action for millions of individuals each day. Since humans have always terrorized some in their midst on no ground but perceived difference, this injunction of democratic self-governance is surely an immense challenge. That fact makes it more, not less, significant. The lion’s share of the individuals the Institute has sought to serve have been the target of such opprobrium on grounds of their individual or ascribed characteristics and history teaches those ascriptions, however far-fetched or ludicrous, are also often very difficult to change. That said, democracy and its companion attribute, political equality, demand that those beliefs and their accompanying practices be overcome or abandoned. Indeed, no true friend of freedom should sit idle while millions are deprived of even a modicum of their agency by the effects of such norms, values or views. The Institute faculty and staff members have sought to keep that concern front of mind across our years of work in policy and governance to date.

The ruby is considered the appropriate gem to give those celebrating 15-year anniversaries, and that traditional gift somehow seems apt for the Institute’s current milestone as we look to the future. The ruby is associated with energy and vitality. The most prized of these gems have a deeply iridescent quality that has been described as “glowing from within.” My hope, as VTIPG looks to the future, is that we can continue to embrace our vision with curiosity and vitality and thereby evidence our own version of such iridescence. With sincere thanks to all who have supported us in any way across these years, it is now time to redouble our efforts as we look ahead.

Notes  

[1]. “Empathy,” Merriam Webster Dictionary, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/empathy, Accessed June 12, 2021.  

Publication Date

July 1, 2021

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