A cabinet-level position devoted to diversity across state government is unusual. A spokesman for the National Governors Association said no other states appear to have such a position.
Northam announced in May that he would create the position, after pledging to spend the rest of his term in office fighting racial inequity in the wake of a race-related scandal. He had defied calls to resign in February after a photo surfaced from his 1984 medical school yearbook page showing one person in blackface and another in Ku Klux Klan robes.
Northam eventually said he was not in the photo but admitted to darkening his face for a dance contest that same year.
Since then, Northam has regularly consulted with black lawmakers and community leaders in what he describes as a quest to better understand racial issues so he can work to alleviate disparity.
“I am committed to making Virginia more equitable and inclusive, and that starts with my administration and our state government,” Northam said Monday in announcing Underwood’s appointment. “I look forward to having her as a partner in this important work.”
The governor’s office said Underwood will “implement a measurable, strategic plan to address systemic inequities” throughout state government. As part of that, she will come up with ways to create policy out of feedback from state employees and community leaders.
“I will be relying on my many personal and professional experiences as a teacher, an educational researcher, a parent and wife, and a diversity leader,” Underwood said in a news release. “I am dedicated to working with Virginians to promote lasting, institutional change at all levels of state government.”
Underwood worked on diversity programs at ODU and coordinated partnerships between the university and several surrounding public school districts. She earned undergraduate and master’s degrees from Hampton University and a doctorate in curriculum and instruction from ODU.