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Leading with Grace: A Reflection on 20 Years of The Grace E. Harris Leadership Institute

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By The Center for Public Policy at VCU’s Wilder School
October 27, 2019

In 1999, the Grace E. Harris Leadership Institute (GEHLI) was formed by the VCU Board of Visitors to honor Dr. Grace E. Harris following her retirement as provost and vice president for academic affairs at Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU). The Institute is now a part of the Center for Public Policy at VCU’s L. Douglas Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs, and has emerged as one of the most prominent leadership development institutes in the Commonwealth. Through an investment in leadership development within academic, public and private institutions, GEHLI works to develop and inspire the next generation of leaders while honoring Harris’ legacy.

Harris’ story is a remarkable one. In 1954, after completing the Hampton Institute, Harris applied to the Richmond Professional Institute (which would later become VCU) yet was denied admission due to the color of her skin. At that time, denying admission to African Americans was legal in Virginia. Undeterred, she went on to Boston University to study for a year. Harris later returned to Virginia to the Richmond Professional Institute to complete her master’s degree in social work in 1960. She would later go on to receive an MA and a Ph.D. in sociology from the University of Virginia.

Harris returned to VCU as an assistant professor within the School of Social Work in 1968, as one of the first three African American faculty hired by the university. She quickly rose within the School’s faculty and administrative ranks, becoming dean just a few years later. In 1993, she became the first African American and first woman provost and vice president for academic affairs in VCU’s history. Also named the acting president of VCU twice, Harris had a deep and far-reaching impact on the university that once rejected her because of her race. She retired in 1999 from her provost and vice president position and stepped down from her distinguished professor position in 2015. Harris passed away in February of 2018, yet her work and her vision continue.

When GEHLI was created, its focus on leadership development primarily centered on VCU’s faculty and administration. In 2001, however, GEHLI also initiated a leadership development opportunity called Women in Faith-Based Organizations and Higher Education, which was aimed at women leaders in Virginia. This later evolved into one of GEHLI’s most prominent annual programs, HIGHER Ground Women’s Leadership Development Program, a five-month leadership experience for current and emerging women leaders who are committed to investing in themselves and their organizations.

Dr. Nakeina Douglas-Glenn, GEHLI’s current director, described the significance of having a women-centered leadership development program:

“One of the principles that the institution is founded on is the concept of collaboration, and it was the thought that if we could get women of different identities and professional experiences into the room to have conversations around racial reconciliation, we could break down the barriers in our politics, in our homes, and in our communities.”

While GEHLI has grown and evolved over the years, its mission, values and dedication to preserving Harris’ legacy remain constant. GEHLI strives to ensure that every person, regardless of race and/or gender, has equal opportunity within his or her organization and communities to strengthen and engage their voice and presence.

Another GEHLI initiative, the Minority Political Leadership Institute (MPLI), was created in 2004 in collaboration with the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus Foundation to promote the discussion of public policy on issues that are significant to minority communities. In many cases, these issues have been ongoing. “You only have to open a newspaper or turn on the news to realize that we are dealing with some similar issues that we were perhaps 20, 30, 40 years ago,” said Dr. Douglas-Glenn.

“There are different tactics today, but I think when you go into perhaps the black church or when you go into Latinx communities or when you go to Native American reservations, you really understand the issues that they’re talking about are really the same issues: its education, its healthcare, its issues related to safety and security of their personal beings. How do we help folks that are moving into decision-making roles have access to power that some individuals of these communities might not have? How do we help bring these narratives to their forefront so they can make better policy solutions?”

Today, the Grace E. Harris Leadership Institute remains a living representation of the courageous, bold work of its namesake. By investing in leadership development within VCU and beyond, and by elevating leaders, GEHLI’s work helps to promote equal representation and to ensure that all voices are heard. Through this work, Harris’ vision continues to create a more equitable community for all.

Author: The Wilder School’s Center for Public Policy advances research and training that informs public policy and decision-making to improve our communities. Drawing on the wide-ranging expertise of Wilder School faculty, we services including leadership development and training, economic and policy impact analysis, survey insights, and program evaluation to clients in governments, nonprofits, businesses, and the public, across Virginia and beyond.

Twitter: @CPPatVCU and @VCU_GEHLI


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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

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