By: Valerie Lemmie
Valerie A. Lemmie ('98), Charles F. Kettering Foundation - Director of Exploratory Research
Q. Who or what inspired you to pursue a career in public administration?
My family strongly influenced my decision to pursue a career in public service. They were among the thousands of African Americans who protested segregation by marching and picketing and through political action. My mother worked for the local NAACP Chapter, assisting with community organizing. Having attended segregated schools with books handed down from white-only schools—where students wrote offensive messages knowing black students would be given the books once they were in poor condition, my parents and grandparents valued a good education above all else. Not only did they view it as key to achieving the American Dream, but it was also the “great leveler.” Armed with a good education, I could achieve anything I wanted if I worked hard enough. Though it was almost twenty years before school integration was realized for most African American students after the Brown v Board of Education of Topeka 1954 Supreme Court decision, I represent the first generation to attend integrated schools. For my family, this was a victory and the road to civil rights. They believed I would have the same educational opportunities as white students and compete on a level playing field. Benefiting from this long-sought goal, I was expected to further the cause of service and use the fruits of that service on behalf of others. Public administration provided me the opportunity to change the order of things by working in the system without becoming the system. Other experiences in college and my first job with the City of Kansas City would guide me to city management.
Q. What is your favorite class you have ever taken and why?
I have two favorite college classes, which are related. The first is an African American Literature class that highlighted contributions of black writers with attention to the Harlem Renaissance, one of my favorite literary periods. Thanks to my mother, I had read books and poems written by many of these writers, like Langston Hughes. In this class, I was exposed to a new group of talented but less well-known authors like Eric Walrond, Countee Cullen, and Jean Toomer and writers whose works had been all but forgotten, like my favorite, Zora Neale Hurston. This class sparked a lifelong interest in reading and collecting first editions by Harlem Renaissance writers. My other favorite class is Urban American History, which covered much of the same period as the Harlem Renaissance, roughly 1910 through the 1930’s. While the former class highlighted a period of remarkable artistic expression by African Americans, the latter class highlighted the adverse impact of public policies on African American families and communities, especially in the areas of education, housing, and welfare. This class also influenced my decision to become a public administrator where I could right great wrongs by changing public policies, practices, and procedures that excluded and marginalized people of color.
Q. What advice would you give to those interested in pursuing a career in public administration?
There is no more noble profession than public administration. You make a profound difference in the daily lives of everyday people. You work in a field of practice that has impact, adds value to community life, and promotes democratic practices. A friend who left government for the private sector once remarked, “It’s hard to get excited about selling cookies and tobacco.” You can get excited about working in government, especially at the local level, where you routinely engage with the public and must bring your A-game every day. My advice to aspiring public administrators is to take your responsibilities seriously and learn as much as possible about your organization, including its history and culture, revenue and annual budget, performance metrics, and reputation. Understand what your supervisor expects of you and what you expect from those you supervise. I have always found it important know your authority to innovate and shift priorities, people, and resources to meet changing times and conditions. Public administrators are entrusted with great responsibility and must act on behalf of the public. The greater good should be your guiding principle. Remember your job is entrusted to you—you do not own it and it will not be yours forever, so do your best while you serve. Place service to the public above self, maintain your sense of humor and learn to give yourself and others a little grace. These are tough jobs at the leadership level, and you will make mistakes. Learn from them and move on. Do not become paralyzed by your mistakes and unable to make decisions. Instead, ensure you have the best available information and understand possible outcomes of decisions, including what could happen if you do not decide on a course of action. Treat everyone with the same respect and appreciation you want to receive. We need the best and the brightest leading our cities, counties, states, and national government. Over the course of my public service career, the Oath of the Athenian State inspired me and reinforced the importance of leading with courage and determination on behalf of the greater good. The last paragraph especially resonated with me: “Thus, in all these ways, we will transmit this City not only, not less, but greater and more beautiful than it was transmitted to us."
Q. If you could have dinner with 3 people, who would they be and why?
I would love to have dinner with Oprah Winfrey, Michelle Obama, and Jacinda Ardern. They are amazing women who inspire me professionally to continuously enhance my skills and personally to share what I know and what I have with others.
Q. What is the best movie you have seen?
The original German version of Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror. Even though I know what will happen, it frightens me every time!
Q. What was your dream job as a child?
I wanted to be an astronaut. When I was supposed to be sleeping, I would stare out the window, watching the stars, thinking about travelling on a spaceship! The closest I got was an opportunity to watch Senator John Glenn take-off from Cape Canaveral on the shuttle orbiter Discover. I was a member of the Ohio delegation that included Governor Taft and other cabinet members and Air Force commanders. It was an awesome experience!
Q. What is your favorite cuisine?
After a distinguished career in public service, in May 2014 Valerie Lemmie joined the Charles F. Kettering Foundation as director of exploratory research, an opportunity that allows her to devote more attention to a long-standing research interest in democratic theory and continue research begun in 2005 when she was a scholar-in-residence at the Foundation. In her current role, Valerie identifies research opportunities and oversees research studies and learning exchanges that explore the fundamental question of the Foundation: How to make democracy work as it should? Much of her work centers on sharing what public professionals and citizens are learning as they seek to build trust and coproduce the work needed to address shared community problems.
An adept leader and strategic thinker with more than 35 years of managerial experience in solving complex community problems and controversial issues, prior to joining the Foundation Valerie served as, acting chief of staff and district director for Congressman Mike Turner (Ohio’s 10th District); commissioner, Public Utilities Commission of Ohio; and city manager in Cincinnati and Dayton, Ohio and Petersburg, Virginia. She also served as adjunct professor at the University of Dayton and Howard University and was a Fellow at the Center for Municipal Management, George Washington University.
In addition to her work in the United States, Valerie has extensive experience internationally. She has worked with public officials in developing countries in Africa, Eastern Europe and Asia to establish effective and efficient financial and managerial systems, structures and policies; develop professional practices and routines; develop service delivery protocols and performance measurements; meet regulatory and audit requirements; leverage public investment to attract private capital; foster accountability and transparency; and advance democratic public engagement. She has also worked with utility companies in the Black Sea region to explore creating competitive energy markets. She was recently in Bosnia as part of a USAID funded initiative to provide leadership training to women in the energy sector.
An active volunteer, Valerie is immediate past chair of the board of directors for the National Civic League and Dayton History; incoming board member, Dayton Foundation; treasurer, Initiatives of Change, USA; board member, National Freedom of Information Association; and the US representative on the grassroots based SIVIO Institute board (Zimbabwe). Valerie is also an advisory board member for the Healthier Democracies Advisory Council of Public Agenda and the Advisory Committee of the Neal Peirce Foundation. She is past board chair of the National Academy of Public Administration (where she is an elected Fellow) and founding board member of the Alliance for Community Schools. Valerie has also served on presidential and congressional advisory committees on the family, urban redevelopment and greenhouse gas reduction.
A published author and speaker on public management, utility regulation/deregulation, and democratic civic engagement. Valerie received her BA in political science and urban sociology from the University of Missouri and an MA in urban affairs/public policy planning from Washington University.