Here In Delaware: Saundra Johnson
Over the years, Saundra Johnson has taken on some big projects for the State of Delaware. As a Director of the Delaware State Housing Authority (2000-2009), she created the state’s first Interagency Council on Homelessness. In 2017, she was tasked by the governor to build Delaware’s Department of Human Resources in just 18 months. In her current role, she is leading the effort to build another brand-new state agency, the Delaware Office of Statewide Equity Initiatives.
Building a new agency from the ground up may sound intimidating, but Sandy (as she is known) enjoys the challenge. “You know, it’s interesting, my Dad was a builder. I think there is something that is required, a sense of management and creativity and vision—and the vision certainly comes from the legislators and the administration.”
It’s the creativity that she enjoys most. “Once you understand what the vision is, then creativity comes into play. How do you get there the fastest and most efficient way?”
That’s not to say there aren’t challenges. “You are operating without the manual of missteps, long-term outcomes, and curves in the road.”
Delaware State Housing Authority
”It’s a wonderful thing when your faith and your work and your family all are aligned. This certainly was the position where I had total alignment. Finding people a home was so uplifting.”
A recurring theme in Saundra Johnson’s work is collaboration. “When each state was challenged to create a 10-year plan to end chronic homelessness, Delaware started by establishing an Interagency Council on Homelessness, so that the plan could be guided by the council. It was the coming together of all those agencies and partners who were part of helping: assisting at a community level, at a referral level, a brick-and-mortar level, and at a funding level, that helped move this effort forward.”
This resulted in a number of improvements to the system, including providing transitional housing for young adults aging out of the foster care system, and providing financial literacy training to these young adults beginning at age 16; advocating for vouchers for veterans at the federal level; and doubling Delaware’s investment in the State Bond Program.
Through this process a simple, arguably common sense, principle emerged: Housing First. “After all, if you can’t find someone, how are you going to take care of their needs?”
Delaware Department of Human Resources
“We needed to do more for Delaware’s number one asset. The people who serve Delawareans.”
Saundra Johnson faced another challenge when creating the Delaware Department of Human Resources. The legislation that called for this consolidation of Delaware’s human resource programs required that the task be completed in just 18 months.
“I started with a staff of about 40, and the whole consolidation effort was about 280 people coming together. Plus, there were vacancies to fill along the way. We had to build and fly at the same time, and I had to communicate that to my team.”
The Delaware Department of Human Resources also established two important internal divisions: the Office of Women’s Advancement and Advocacy, and the Division of Diversity and Inclusion.
Delaware Office of Statewide Equity Initiatives
“My colleague Alonna Berry, in the governor’s office, describes equity as having everybody with the same access to opportunities so they can strive. That’s what it’s all about.”
In her latest role, Saundra is focused on eliminating disparities Delawareans face due to race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, or gender identity and expression. The initial focus for the office is to look more closely at health, education, and workforce development in Delaware through an equity lens.
COVID really drove home the message that ‘one size fits all’ approaches simply don’t always work. “We had to learn what the points of trust and ease of access were, particularly with attention to race, ethnicity, and age. It’s not just throwing the information out to everyone. How do we make sure that approach is what is needed in a particular population?”
As part of her new role, Saundra has been meeting with many different organizations and stakeholders across the state. “I have learned that a lot of people are doing a lot of great things to assist the three initial focus points: health and wellness, education, and workforce development. I’ve also learned that some of them don’t know what the other is doing. There are many opportunities for collaboration and alignment. We can get so much more done together.”
Saundra is committed to making equity an integrated piece of the work of Delaware. “What makes an equity lens transformational to how we do our work, instead of a sidebar after the work is done? What puts the equity lens into the fabric of this discussion? That becomes a metric for whatever the program is that’s being designed.” ▼
David Mariner is Executive Director of CAMP Rehoboth.
Saundra Johnson will be a speaker at Women’s FEST. Learn more and see the full schedule for Women’s FEST at camprehoboth.com/womensfest.