Change Projects of Service: Coverdell Fellowships

The Antioch University PhD in Leadership and Change (PhDLC) was approved by the Peace Corps as a Coverdell Fellows Program in 2016. We are one of very few doctoral-level programs with this distinction. This partnership honors the service of Returned Peace Corps Volunteers (RPCV) and encourages them to bring their commitment back home to serve communities in the United States. In other words, to do action that makes our democracy more just and stronger! This partnership also reflects our University’s historic legacy to provide education that ‘wins victories for humanity.’ As well, the partnership reflects Antioch’s long-standing relationship with the Peace Corps, including our very own Al Guskin’s role in the founding of the Corps back in the 1960s!

Coverdell Fellows (CF), who must be Returned Peace Corps Volunteers, receive a significant tuition waiver for the first three pre-candidacy years in the PhD in Leadership and Change program, assuming good academic progress. In return, Fellows are required to do the program’s Change Project in/with an underserved community in the United States (a Peace Corps requirement) and to complete it during the second year in the program (PhDLC requirement).

To date, we have two Coverdell Fellows; Both Helen Lowman and JJ DiBella entered the PhDLC in 2016 and are now completing their second year. Consistent with the Fellows’ requirements, both designed, implemented and reflected on their Change Projects during AY 2016-17. We are so proud of the work they have done to serve communities in the United States through these projects.

HELEN LOWMAN
Cohort ’15, Coverdell Fellow

Helen Lowman held a management position at the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) at the time she designed and implemented her PhDLC Change Project. She was acutely aware of the differential impact of disasters on underserved communities and wanted to make a difference. So, she designed an extensive needs assessment with the goal of helping the Agency reduce the impact of disasters by empowering underserved communities to take steps to protect themselves and their families. Dr. Mitch Kusy, the Change Project evaluator, wrote, “While disaster preparedness demonstrates a call to action among many social systems, Helen’s change initiative intensified this effort even further by engaging historically underserved populations.”

JJ DIBELLA
Cohort ’15, Coverdell Fellow

JJ DiBella holds a management position with the National Parks Service. Through the organization’s Office of Learning and Development, the goal of this project was to support organizational culture change through the development of intercultural competence. Dr. Kusy, the Change Project evaluator, wrote “JJ’s change initiative is an outstanding example of how to propel intercultural competence for change in the National Park Service (NPS). In particular, the aim of this project is to transform current leadership perspectives on diversity and inclusion through a process of senior leader engagement.“

We interviewed our two Coverdell Fellows about their learning, experience, and impact.

AU: Please briefly describe your project and its purposes. What did you set out to do?

HL: Through a better understanding of how underserved communities feel about preparing for disasters, the results of this project’s needs assessment have the potential to impact communities across the United States, and may change the way FEMA preparedness programs collaborate with underserved populations, potentially saving lives in our nation’s communities most likely to be adversely affected by disaster.

JD: My change project set out to work with leaders to respond to an expressed need from employees at different levels of the National Park Service (NPS) to further promote the development of intercultural competence in the NPS. The goal with approximately 30 NPS leaders; was to take the Intercultural Development Inventory (IDI); reflect on personal and group results; commit to relevant actions to support culture change, and give feedback on the efficacy of using the IDI on a larger scale. The project’s premise was that building even stronger intercultural competence in agency leaders will engender more inclusive, employee-centered work environments.

AU: Can you reflect on your learning as both leader and learner as a result of this project?

HL: First, I wanted to gain a greater understanding of underserved communities in the United States. What surprised me most about this goal was how much I would learn about communicating with underserved communities, how interesting the results were and how ignorant I was prior to this project.

I also learned to think differently about national messaging or marketing campaigns. The lesson here is that there is no single message that will inspire cognitive behavior change in every American. Messaging must be adapted to the community for it to be absorbed and acted upon. While the messaging that FEMA is producing is good and has made an enormous impact on the lives of Americans, it is only slowly reaching Americans who historically have been forgotten. I am sure this was never the intent of anyone working at FEMA. Now that I have been a part of this needs assessment, I will be able to guide teams to develop tools and resources that are more targeted and intentional in their outcome.

JD: My career at the Peace Corps ingrained in me a staunch belief that if you are trying to make sustainable change you must work together with those around you to define and implement the change. The change process is a dance involving a multitude of learning and change strategies that metaphorically requires both the letting go and bringing in of new steps and music. I have found this approach more difficult from a position of senior leadership in a hierarchical organization than my former position as a consultant in a flatter organization. While my role as a senior leader gives me access to all levels of leaders, the decentralized nature of the organization can make it difficult to learn what is going on at the field level. To mitigate that, I try to ask lots of questions of staff in different locations and career fields and listen closely to what is said both directly and indirectly.

The project really made me think about race, privilege, marginalization, and leadership. For too long minority groups have been looked toward to educate the majority group about the minority instead of members of the majority groups teaching each other how to be more interculturally competent. This is the same realization I had when serving in the Peace Corps and working with groups where I was in the minority. I’ve learned that I can be very effective, maybe even more so as a member of the majority group, educating others in the majority group.

AU: What do you see as potential implications for the field, in essence how your change project informs practice?

HL: The FEMA team I worked with rated “Targeting programs to underserved communities” as the number one opportunity. Subsequently, their new three-year strategic plan has several goals and objectives that will drive them to realize this vision. There are many simple steps that can be taken by emergency management professionals to adapt their preparedness messaging for underserved communities, making them more equitable and inclusive. However, these changes and initiatives will take intentional effort and specific adaptation to reach individuals and communities unable to prepare with traditional preparedness messaging. Leaders who oversee disaster preparedness programming and promotional campaigns must ensure steps are taken at every turn to remind their staff of the imperative to reach all audiences and communities, not only those who have the ability and access to general messaging. Additionally, inclusive planning and community-level policy-making strategies can strengthen relations, creating a venue for public officials to educate the local population and build community capacity to acquire knowledge about local hazards and future disaster risks and how to prepare, cope with, and recover from disasters. The resiliency of the United States is dependent upon the preparedness of historically underserved communities.

JD: My biggest personal learning from the project at NPS, is the importance of individuals from the majority culture working to educate others in the majority culture. While individuals from the minority culture have a role to play as well, individuals from majority cultures need to work to make change within their own group. The two groups I worked with for my change project were much more representative of the minority groups within the organization than the majority groups. I am continuing with the work started during my change project in the coming months and will be curious to learn how different groups respond to the IDI.

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