Two new faculty members at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs are bringing a specific focus on social justice in public policy and public administration.
Associate professors Brandi Blessett and Tia Sherèe Gaynor both joined the leadership and management area this academic year.
They come from the University of Cincinnati, where Blessett was the director of the Master of Public Administration program and Gaynor was the founding director of the Center for Truth, Racial Healing & Transformation and Taft Professor of Social Justice.
Their approach can be summarized best by this statement from one of Blessett’s recent research papers. “The highest objective of public service is to improve people’s lives, and yet, the U.S. has created policies and programs benefiting white people and disadvantaging Black people and other people of color.”
Having Gaynor and Blessett on the faculty strengthens the leadership and management area's emphasis on impactful research and teaching on equity, according to the area chair, Associate Professor Kathy Quick.
"Dr. Gaynor and Dr. Blessett are nationally recognized for their ethics of engaged scholarship, their thoughtful research on intersectional identities and lived experience, and their commitment to advancing justice in community-government interactions," said Quick. "It is a privilege and pleasure to be their colleague and I am excited to see them grow their connections in Minnesota."
We asked Blessett and Gaynor about their research interests and their move to the Humphrey School.
Blessett: I’m originally from Detroit, and just about all my immediate family still resides there. I really enjoy going back home.
I started my career as a high school teacher in Highland Park in the Detroit area. I wanted to be a superintendent, so I got a master’s degree in education leadership – and then realized that public administration gave me a lot more fluidity to touch on issues outside of education. I could talk about community development, engagement, and housing. I could talk about education and employment. It was an opportunity for me to broaden how I could engage with these topics in different communities.
I never had intentions to be an academic, so the fact that I’m here 10 years later is a testament to finding my path in the academy.
Gaynor: I’m from New Jersey. My mom was a school teacher, and my dad was a police detective. So from a very early age I was introduced to service professions.
I had a career in fundraising, and I decided to go back to graduate school, so that was the transition for me into the academy. Early on in my academic career I was introduced to social equity and really felt connected to it, so I knew that I wanted my work to have a tangible and real impact.
Blessett: My research focuses on urban policy and public administration through the lens of social justice. I believe in the lived experience, so I center the voices of people who are directly impacted by any number of public policy issues.
I was at the University of Cincinnati for four years. They recruited me to start the only social justice MPA program in the country. So that was really big – to start a program and instill in it the values and different approaches that I felt I missed out on in my graduate studies.
We were very intentional about integrating a race-conscious pedagogy into the program, from intro to capstone, to contextualize the field in a way that didn’t exist before. All of the instructors were committed to bringing in the context of history and politics and the social context, but also a racial lens that has defined the experiences of so many people in this country.
Gaynor: The newest area of research for me is related to racial healing. I’m interested in understanding the path toward healing the harms that the myths of white supremacy and racial hierarchy have caused for all of us. We often act like racism just impacts people who feel the brunt of racism. But we know that racism impacts everyone – not just folks of color, not just Black people. White people are also impacted by racism.
At the Center for Truth, Racial Healing & Transformation, we researched the impact that racial healing circles can have on strengthening individuals’ willingness to engage in these conversations and addressing the prejudices that they hold and biases that they have.
I want to translate my research in ways that can shape policy and management, that can reduce inequity, and that strengthens justice, particularly for people who look like me – who identify as LGBTQ, for Black people, and for people with intersectional identities.
Their focus at the Humphrey School:
Blessett: The Humphrey School is one of the top programs in our field. I worked with [former dean] Laura Bloomberg on a Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion task force for NASPAA in 2020. I really got an opportunity to know her and her leadership style, and she spoke so highly about the faculty here.
There are faculty here that I respect, in particular professors Samuel Myers Jr. and Joe Soss. I’m a fan of their work, and followed them long before I ever thought that I’d be a colleague of theirs at the Humphrey School.
I'll primarily be teaching in the Master of Public Affairs [mid-career] program, which has a different approach because the students are already established in their careers. This degree is really about developing their leadership, creating a space where they can be change agents, and ways to challenge the status quo.
From the interactions I’ve had with our cohort, they want to do things very differently than they’ve experienced in their current environments. They’re secure enough in their positions where they can push the envelope a bit differently than someone who’s starting out in their career.
Gaynor: I definitely want to connect my racial healing work to the Humphrey School, and also in the local community. I want to take my time building relationships, recognizing that I’m new to the area. [In the future] I would love to engage in some kind of training for students, maybe even for folks in the Capitol, around healing, around engaging in wellbeing that advances justice and equitable decision making.
This fall I’m teaching LGBTQ policy and politics, and I’m excited to be able to engage in teaching that very much aligns with my research. I appreciate the fact that there is a lot of room to bring myself into my classes. That’s quite refreshing, not only to be able to teach classes that relate to your research but also to be able to be authentic in the classroom, particularly for a Black woman that identifies as queer. You can’t always do that.
A better way to teach public policy:
Gaynor: A critique that I’ve had about public administration is that we teach the history of the field without context. We teach about Woodrow Wilson in the late 1800s, but we don't talk about what the country looked like then. Public administration lifts Wilson up as a father of the field, but doesn’t want to acknowledge the fact that he was a segregationist.
We talk about the Founding Fathers, who were all white men. We don’t talk about Black intellectuals, women intellectuals – about anyone that falls outside of white heteronormative cis gender identities – who were integral to the establishment of our government.
The Humphrey School has an opportunity to position itself as a school that offers its students a full understanding of the field, a full understanding of the ways in which this country has developed, and the policies that have been intentionally created to discriminate and disenfranchise and to marginalize.
The Humphrey School can think about a future that is proactive, that trains leaders to think holistically about who they are, who the communities are that they serve, and how to best serve them in a way that meets their needs.
Blessett: The last five or six years have demonstrated the need for those making policy to be more thoughtfully engaged with all of the people who are impacted by their policies. The murder of George Floyd opened people’s eyes to the realities for Black and Indigenous people, Latino people – how they have to navigate being hyper-surveilled within our current context. Unfortunately, it took a nine-minute video of somebody being killed in order for that to be real in their minds.
I think our public policy schools need to train the next cadre of leaders to be open, to listen, to respect diversity and justice. Because to continue to do things the way we always have – I don’t see any transformational change happening in any capacity. What we’re doing is putting little Band-Aids on huge gunshot wounds, literally. Our schools of public policy need to be responsive, and they need to be brave in the face of [political] pushback.
It can be overwhelming to think about all the change that needs to happen. But the Humphrey School can be really impactful. Doing what we do locally and doing it well, and being seen as a trusted entity by the community and by our colleagues across the University – I think that’s a game changer.
Blessett and Gaynor have been married for five years.
Blessett earned her undergraduate degree at the University of Michigan. “Go Blue! I’m really disappointed that Michigan is not playing the Gophers in football this season. But I look forward to the Big Ten rivalry in our house. Tia went to Rutgers, so we have a little tension during football season.”
Gaynor’s interests are Peloton, kickboxing, and cooking: “That’s how I communicate my love.”
They are both enjoying the transition to living in Minnesota and enjoying the fall weather so far. “It seems to be a hustle and bustle space,” says Blessett. “Also, I’m a foodie and I like to eat, and we’ve not found a bad restaurant yet.”