Diversity in leadership positions can have a valuable impact, particularly in bringing underrepresented perspectives to the table and inspiring the next generation of leaders. President-elect Joe Biden’s selection of Rep. Deb Haaland to be the country’s next secretary of the Department of Interior is a powerful example.
Haaland, currently a member of the U.S. House of Representatives from New Mexico, is also a member of the Laguna Pueblo tribe. If confirmed, she would be the first Native American cabinet secretary in U.S. history, and would helm a department that manages the federal government’s relationship with native tribes and oversees public lands and waterways.
“A voice like mine has never been a Cabinet secretary or at the head of the Department of Interior. I’m incredibly honored to accept President-elect Joe Biden’s nomination for Secretary of the Interior,” Haaland said in a statement last week. “As our country faces the impacts of climate change and environmental injustice, the Interior has a role and I will be a partner in addressing these challenges by protecting our public lands and moving our country towards a clean energy future.”
It’s not just Haaland’s background and the historic nature of her nomination, but the future she envisions for the Department of Interior that makes her nomination exciting. Refocusing the department’s work with an emphasis on climate change will be a positive and necessary step in the management of lands across America. As Joel Clement, a former climate policy expert and whistleblower at the department, wrote last week in a Bangor Daily News OpEd, Haaland’s nomination is “good news for scientists, for the 70,000 career employees at Interior and for our nation’s public lands.”
Haaland’s selection has clearly reverberated close to home. Penobscot Nation Chief Kirk Francis and Ambassador Maulian Dana issued statements on Friday welcoming the move as an important step toward a stronger America that is more inclusive and honest about both our history and present day realities.
“As an Indigenous woman and mother of two daughters, it makes me feel like there is so much more that is possible for us to achieve because of leaders like Congresswoman Halaand breaking barrier after barrier,” Dana said. “We stand on her shoulders as well as all the Indigenous women that came before us and were silenced by oppression, racism and colonial violence. I feel like we have more of a voice in the halls of a government that has failed us time and time again. It feels empowering and like a new beginning after a dark four years.”
Rep. Chellie Pingree, who sits on the appropriations subcommittee that deals with interior matters, also celebrated Haaland’s nomination.
“This marks a turning point for Native American representation at the agency that oversees the Bureau of Indian Affairs and our public lands,” Pingree said in a statement last week. “Congresswoman Haaland’s nomination is an opportunity to right many past wrongs, especially the badly mismanaged U.S. Treaty obligations to our native tribes.”
Biden has made diversity a priority while selecting the top officials in his administration, promising “a cabinet of firsts.” That has been met with some inevitable criticism that the incoming administration is sacrificing competency in the name of diversity. But this is yet another false choice. Making a concerted effort to have diverse voices in the room where decisions are made does not have to come, and should not come, at the expense of competence. This should not be about just checking boxes to meet a diversity quota, but about providing sustained commitment to inclusion and the elevation of underrepresented voices in policymaking.
Maine government has experienced its own share of “firsts” heading into a new year and a new legislative session, including Rep. Ryan Fecteau becoming the first openly gay Speaker of the Maine House and Rep. Rachel Talbot Ross becoming the first Black woman to serve in legislative leadership as assistant House majority leader.
What matters most is the job they do in the next two or four years, not their backgrounds. But when leaders bring new experiences and perspectives to these significant roles, that not only informs their work in government, it sends an important message to other people from marginalized communities that they too can be leaders and find a voice in our democratic process. Just take a look at how young people of color, particularly young women, have reacted to Kamala Harris becoming the first female, first Black and first South Asian vice president-elect.
We welcome the day when equality has reached the point that all the “firsts” have been achieved and everyone has a seat at the table. Until then, we’ll continue to celebrate historic advances like Haaland’s nomination.