A champion of inclusion through public service

VCU grad Curtis Brown believes his role in emergency management goes beyond being an agency leader.

VCU alum Curtis Brown is the first African American to head the Virginia Department of Emergency ...
VCU alum Curtis Brown is the first African American to head the Virginia Department of Emergency Management. (Joe Mahoney)

As the first African American to head the Virginia Department of Emergency Management, Curtis Brown, a graduate of VCU’s L. Douglas Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs, acknowledges that he is an anomaly in an industry distinctive in its homogeneity.

Over 80% of the nation’s emergency management directors are white and 70% are male. At the Department of Homeland Security, one of the most racially and ethnically diverse agencies across the federal government, African Americans make up 30% of the workforce and just 8% of senior leadership roles. Compare that representation with the demography of the 10 U.S. localities deemed “most vulnerable” to disaster by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — communities that average minority populations of 81% — and the lack of diversity among chief emergency managers is alarming.

Women and racial and ethnic minorities have long been underrepresented in the field of emergency management despite being disproportionately affected by disaster.

“This is true for both practice and research,” said Brown, who was appointed head of the Virginia Department of Emergency Management by Gov. Ralph Northam in June.

“The lack of women and minorities in the profession and their perceived absence in research perpetuates inequities that have long-term, very often lethal, consequences that undermine us as a society,” Brown said.

Women and minorities in leadership

Brown co-founded the Institute for Diversity and Inclusion in Emergency Management in January 2019. It’s a nonprofit dedicated to increasing diversity in the field and promoting the application of equitable practices to improve disaster outcomes for vulnerable communities.

“The first and foremost goal of [the institute] is to “increase the representation of women and minorities in leadership positions within the field and to increase training and awareness of [diversity and inclusion] practices,” said Brown, a public safety professional with more than 15 years of service at the federal, state and local levels.

The institute has embarked on a series of educational collaborations with a number of partners, including the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the National Academy of Public Administration and the Wilder School to help achieve that goal. Last fall, the organization sponsored an open forum for students at Savannah State University in collaboration with VCU’s Grace E. Harris Leadership Institute. Savannah State is the only historically Black college or university offering a bachelor’s degree program in disaster management.

Successful Black role models

The son of a union-card-carrying phone technician and a small-business owner, Brown grew up just outside the Beltway in Prince George’s County, Maryland. Prince George’s has fabled neighborhoods unlike almost any other in the United States: highly educated, majority African American enclaves with median incomes in excess of six figures.

“I grew up in a place where Black excellence and the influence of public leadership were ubiquitous,” Brown said. “It was a powerful experience to grow up in a post-segregation context and within a community led and inhabited almost exclusively by successful African Americans.”

Brown described his parents as modest, industrious people who moved from the South to the Washington suburbs to make a better way for their children.

“They weren’t wealthy, by any means, but they were part of a generation of Blacks who worked hard to enter the middle class. Our family was like any family in its striving. I was away from home and in my first year of college before I understood that the beauty of that experience is that we were in no way exceptional.”

Beyond public safety leadership

In the past several months, Brown has been out front in leading Virginia’s response to COVID-19. He’s been cited by Northam as a critical player in the commonwealth’s COVID-19 Equity Leadership Task Force, which is designed to ensure adequate resources, outreach and support for the state’s vulnerable, high-risk populations.

Despite a deluge of professional responsibilities, Brown makes a point of connecting with emerging emergency professionals. This past spring he taught an undergraduate course, “Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness and Incident Management.” Additionally, he has shared his response experience, which includes the Unite the Right rally of 2017, the Virginia Tech shootings of 2007, and numerous protests and natural disasters through various school-sponsored panels and programs.

“I think it’s critical as a Black man and as a leader within my profession to engage young people, particularly people of color, in public service,” Brown said. “I know personally the power of ‘seeing is believing’ and the powerful link between inclusion and efficacy.”

A version of this story originally published in the Fall 2020 edition of Wilder School in Action under the headline Alumni spotlight: Curtis Brown.

Subscribe to VCU News

Subscribe to VCU News at newsletter.vcu.edu and receive a selection of stories, videos, photos, news clips and event listings in your inbox.