Dr. Daniel Dodgen
Dr. Daniel Dodgen (ΦΒΚ, University of Southern California) is the Senior Advisor for Strategy, Policy, Planning, and Requirements at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, and Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response, where he leads federal efforts regarding the health aspects of disasters and other emergencies. Dr. Dodgen is an active volunteer and member with the DC Phi Beta Kappa Association, recently participating as a panelist on their Key Connections career panel.
What was the most transformative course from your undergraduate education?
I was very fortunate to be enrolled in Thematic Option (aka “Traumatic Option”), the honor’s program at USC. In addition to having great professors, this program had a strong emphasis on interdisciplinary coursework. That emphasis produced such mind-benders as a freshman composition class on The Comic Structure of Shakespearean Tragedy
and a senior seminar on psychology and religion. Rather than a single class, it was the overall emphasis on integration of diverse ideas and disciplines that transformed me. It’s possible to integrate philosophy and science? Comedy and tragedy? Psychology and religion? That was heady stuff for a teenager trained—and perhaps pre-disposed—to think categorically about academic topics. This de-siloed thinking started me on a path toward a career working at the crossroads. I’m still there, now spending every day working at the intersection of science, practice, and policy.
You currently serve as Senior Advisor for Strategy, Policy, Planning, and Requirements at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. What does your job entail? What do you enjoy most about this position? How did your liberal arts and sciences education prepare you for your position?
My agency leads federal efforts regarding health aspects of disasters and other emergencies. On a typical day I will have a working meeting on COVID, followed by another on workplace resilience, followed by another on climate change, followed by another on equity and inclusion in emergency preparedness. Between meetings, I am reviewing documents, planning new initiatives, and supervising staff. At some point in the day, I will have to clear my schedule for something unexpected. Since working in disaster preparedness means planning for the unexpected, I have borrowed the Marine Corps motto, “Semper Gumby!” One upside of this constant churn is that the job is never boring. A greater upside is that we have the chance to help people when they are at their most vulnerable.
My work also involves a lot of writing and reviewing documents—national policies, strategies, implementation plans, etc. My liberal arts background is invaluable in helping me gather, synthesize, and summarize the information needed to develop these policies. Beyond that, I believe my background gives me extra insights into human needs in disasters.
People often connect the liberal arts to active and engaged citizenship. How would you describe your commitment to public service? What are some pressing public health issues that you care about right now?
My passions for public health, mental health, and public service are intertwined. I am fortunate to work in a public health agency, but public service doesn’t have to mean government service. Public service is about giving away the knowledge and experience we have gained from our education and work. I don’t think we always appreciate the privilege of a good education or how much our liberal arts education gives us tools that may benefit others. As a compulsive volunteer, I also try to give away my experiences through service on various boards and committees at the local and national level.
Pressing issues? I think we are finally beginning to realize how much climate change intersects with human health. Climate change increases the potential spread of vector-born illnesses like West Nile and Zika, decreases the nutritional value of certain major crops, and impacts our mental health in multiple ways. Mental health itself is a critical, but often overlooked, public health issue. Research on the global burden of disease consistently shows that about 10-15% of the world’s population suffers from a mental health or substance abuse disorder. That equals close to one billion people! Mental health and substance abuse disorders constitute about 5% of the health burden of the entire globe. To these statistics, we must add the impact of untreated trauma on individual lives and on the network of social programs needed to help them. The disease burden of mental health in our nation is staggering.
You are very active in DC Phi Beta Kappa Association’s mentorship program. What led you to become involved in the program? As a mentor, what was your most rewarding moment?
I’m an educator at heart. I have taught everything from kindergarten to graduate school, including a stint in the juvenile justice system. I love interacting with people in early stages of their career development, so mentoring is perfect for me. I am also acutely aware that the emergency preparedness field is predominantly straight, white, and male. So, I feel a responsibility not just to invest in the next generation but also to invest in helping my field look more like the people we serve. I try to be visible as a member of the LGBT community, so others who are “different” might have it easier.
As a mentor the most rewarding moments are when you see people achieving their goals—getting a great internship or gaining admission to their top grad school choice. But it’s also rewarding just to have conversations with people thinking about their goals and their purpose. The questions they ask are ones I need to keep asking myself, too.
You recently participated as a panelist in the DC Association’s Key Connections career panel. What is your best advice for liberal arts graduates just starting their career path?
Find your true north. Money is nice, (especially if you have to worry about student loans!) but it’s not the only priority. Almost every week I have someone come to me asking for advice about starting a career in policy. My first question is: “what are you passionate about?” If the answer is “nothing” or “policy,” I say, “go home.” The last thing Washington needs is more smart young people who want to have influence but don’t know why. We all have passion; we just may not know it. So, I ask, what classes did you seek out in school even though they weren’t required? What kinds of articles always draw your attention when you’re surfing the net? What theme makes you tear up when you’re watching a movie or reading a news item? I know I get a tear of outrage when I see vulnerable people being taken advantage of and a tear of hope when I see people overcome obstacles. Knowing that about myself helps me identify my true north.
What book(s) are you reading right now? Are you listening to any podcasts or watching any shows? Anything you'd recommend?
Policing the Open Road: How Cars Transformed American Freedom
by Sarah A. Seo. This book addresses how the exponential growth of automobile ownership in the last century changed the role of police and the ability of law enforcement to intervene in our everyday lives. This has had an impact on all of us, but especially on communities of color. I learned of this book during the annual PBK Book Awards
, where it won the Ralph Waldo Emerson Award. So, I recommend everybody check out past winners of PBK Book Awards. Every year these awards inspire me to read at least one of the winners, often on a topic I didn’t know I was interested in!
Phi Beta Kappa’s motto is “the love of learning is the guide of life,” and we are dedicated to life-long learning. What do you want to learn next?
I suspect I have as much to unlearn as to learn. I think honest self-examination can reveal that we aren’t quite as flexible or inclusive or progressive about everything as we believe ourselves to be. For example, how does the Anglophilia of our educational system and popular culture shape the way we understand (or simply neglect) other histories? What is the ongoing impact of the fact that in the movies consumed throughout the 20th
century, Spanish speaking people—whether fighting Errol Flynn in the sea or John Wayne in the desert—were so often the villains? I recently added South to Freedom: Runaway Slaves to Mexico and the Road to the Civil War
by Alice L. Baumgartner to my reading queue (incidentally, this is another PBK Ralph Waldo Emerson award winner
). This book is about how Mexico’s outlawing of slavery in the early 19th
century made it a haven for escaped slaves and a target for Americans who wanted to expand slavery into the Mexican territory known as Texas. That’s a history I’ve never heard before! I imagine it will force me to unlearn something I thought I knew. And I’m sure there are many other examples I haven’t even realized yet.
Why do you think the liberal arts and sciences matter at this particular point in time?
Our nation is at an inflection point. While we are divided by so much, we still have much more in common. The traditional liberal arts curriculum can always benefit from updating, but the liberal arts disciplines—philosophy, history, language, social sciences—all contribute to our fundamental understanding of the humanity that unites us.
Because I’ve always believed that every human being has a value beyond any material object, the value of a liberal arts education seems self-evident to me. The problem with self
-evident concepts is that they tend to be obvious only to one’s self and the selves who think like I do. The traditional liberal arts and sciences have a public relations challenge in articulating how they contribute to the world in part because the value seems so obvious to many of us. Consequently, we may not take full advantage of empirical evidence that diverse thinking enhances the measurable successes of business and educational institutions to build the business case for the value of these disciplines. And it is probably time the liberal arts got better at making that case.
The views expressed in this interview are those of Dr. Dodgen and do not necessarily represent the views of the Department of Health & Human Services or the U.S. Government.