Profile: Department of Children and Families Secretary Emilie Amundson

WisPolitics.com is profiling some of the newly announced state agency heads. The latest installment features Department of Children and Families Secretary Emilie Amundson.

Amundson previously worked at the Department of Public Instruction under then-state Superintendent Tony Evers, most recently serving as his chief of staff.

Birthplace, age?
39 years old, born in Madison.

Job history?
Spent the last 12 or so years at the Department of Public Instruction, including serving as the chief of staff for the last three-and-a-half years. Before that, she worked as a high school English teacher in Brooklyn, N.Y., and Middleton.

Education?
Received a bachelor’s degree from UW-Madison, followed by a Master’s in education policy from the Harvard Graduate School of Education. She’s also one class away from finishing her Ph.D. in literacy studies at UW-Madison, though she’ll also need to finish the dissertation process.

Family?
Married with two kids, ages 4 and 6. Husband is an art teacher in the Madison School District. Both her parents recently retired, and she also has one brother and one nephew, who was born around six months ago.

Favorite non-work interests?
Spending time with her family doing arts or music-related things, as well as hiking and other outdoor activities. Enjoys cooking in her Instant Pot, particularly Indian food.

Why the interest in being in the Evers administration?
“I worked for now Gov. Evers for the last nine years at the Department of Public Instruction and I really learned what it meant to be a leader from working with him. He’s somebody that I saw build big tables with stakeholders that didn’t always see eye to eye. He’s somebody that really led with his heart, who allowed us as staff to know him as a person, and start to understand his values, what made him tick. And I grew, he’s not the flashiest guy in any room he’s in, but I grew to really respect that in every conversation he was absolutely himself, 100 percent authentic, and really led with his values and his beliefs. So, I came to really understand what it meant to be a leader and also what it really meant to work for him and to kind of work in service to his vision and his values. Of course, I worked for him for nine years, I really saw his vision and values are my vision and my values and so I knew both from a leadership standpoint from the way that I wanted to lead a state agency, I knew that would really mesh with the way that I think he would want to run this administration and then from a values perspective, where I could take the agency, where we could take the work, I knew that would work too. So, from the kind of person he is, to the kind of administration I knew he would run, it was a slam dunk for me.”

What are your priorities for the agency under your leadership?
“DCF has such a critical mission to keep kids safe, to keep families vibrant, and I think that it’s just such a big portfolio of work. I think that because of DCF’s unique history, having pieces from Department of Health Services, pieces from DWD, and even pieces from DOC, it’s a natural sort of connector of policies and of kind of innovation. I’m really excited to continue to build on those collaborative partnerships. The governor talks about connecting the dots, I think DCF is a natural dot-connector because of the work that we do to support working families, to support kids, so our natural partnerships, are really, I mean, I’m finding new partnerships everyday. That’s a piece that I’d really like to bring to DCF. I think another piece is really just, kind of, building back a strong connection to professional associations. We have so many engaged stakeholders, we have so many issues that are truly bipartisan issues. Working on things like childcare, foster care, the child welfare system, even our work around youth justice, these are all places where, again, building that bigger table, that table of stakeholders, of legislators, folks who really see, I guess, see the benefit of working together in service to the families in the communities that we support. I think these are places where we can really grow through this administration.”

What should the agency be doing differently?
“One thing that we’ve talked a lot about here already is our relationship to data and research. So we have an incredibly strong and robust engine to both use and also uncover and kind of crunch on data. And yet, I think that one place where we can grow as an agency is really starting to use that data to better connect to our external stakeholders and really paint a picture of how we use data to continually improve the systems, the processes, and the outputs that our clients or our customers will ultimately use. So I think, aspirationally, I’d love to see data play a much more external or front-facing role in the way that we talk about the work at DCF. And then, on the research side, we are so lucky to live in Wisconsin and to be connected to such an amazing resource in our higher ed system. And so, the partnerships that we have around our research agenda with the Institute for Research on Poverty, with UW-Milwaukee, with UW-Madison, with all of our great higher ed partners, I really want to again, continue to encourage and strengthen all of those partnerships and sort of weave that into the way that we think about the mission and vision of this agency. So we’ve got data, we’ve got research and then we’ve got that mission and vision that we’re continually working toward.”

What’s the best advice you’ve received since getting the job?
“I’ll go back to Gov. Evers and some of the things that he told me, some of the things that I learned from him over the last few years around relationships. For him, it really has always been about the relationships, it’s been about knowing the people, and really understanding the folks in Wisconsin, the folks who do this work, the folks who are boots on the ground. One of the things that he told me is develop the relationships with the folks who know best and use your position or use your bully pulpit to lift up their voices. So that’s something that I’ve been doing quite a bit, I’ve been trying to get out on the road as much as possible. I was out in La Crosse yesterday (March 26) talking with child welfare workers, talking with youth justice workers who do this work day in and day out, and I said the best service I can be to you is to lift up and amplify the stories that you tell me because that helps paint the picture of why we do the work we do, why we’re asking for the budget request we’re asking for, so I think that that’s the best advice and I think it’s cultivating those relationships and then maintaining them, and continuing to show up. I already told them, the folks in La Crosse yesterday, I can’t wait to be back.”

Worst advice?
“The worst advice that I can think of, because it’s so laughable is, ‘Oh, well if you just give, if you just tell people what your schedule is, you’re the boss, right, it’ll just work out.’ So, you know, the first week, I was very prescriptive about, ‘This is when I’d like to take lunch, this is when I’m coming in, this is when I’d like to leave.’ That turned out to be pretty bad advice. I realized, if it’s about relationships, you gotta go where you gotta when you gotta go, and so I’ve been able to try to strike a healthy balance, try to find a healthy way to do this job, but it’s not always about what the clock tells you. You’ve got to be flexible, and you’ve got to go where the people are.”

See past WisPolitics.com interviews and videos with other cabinet secretaries:
https://www.wispolitics.com/east-wing-watch/#1550863417566-2319e1ec-3e60

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