Evidence in Action Podcast Cecilia Muñoz on How Evidence Catalyzes Workplace Equity
Subtitle
In episode 3, cohost Kimberlyn Leary and guest Cecilia Muñoz, former director of the White House Domestic Policy Council, discuss the value of diverse lived experience in the workplace, the complexities of using data to spur social change, and leadership.
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About this episode

We are joined by author and immigration advocate Cecilia Muñoz, who served for eight years on President Obama’s senior team, including five years leading the White House Domestic Policy Council as an assistant to President Obama. Cecilia opens up about how her experience as a Midwestern Latina shaped her identity, and how she pivoted from working as an advocate in the Latinx community to formulating immigration policy for the White House. Cecilia shares why it’s okay for leaders to second-guess themselves and the nuance of using data to influence actionable social change.
 

 
 

Interviewer

Kimberlyn Leary, Executive Vice President, Urban Institute

Guest

Cecilia Muñoz, former director of the White House Domestic Policy Council

 

Transcript

Sarah Rosen Wartell, cohost:
Welcome to Evidence in Action, a podcast from the Urban Institute. I’m your cohost, Sarah Rosen Wartell. I have the honor of being Urban’s president.

Kimberlyn Leary, cohost:
And I’m your cohost, Kimberlyn Leary. I’m executive vice president of the Urban Institute.

Sarah Rosen Wartell:
In this podcast, Kim and I are going to explore the role of evidence: what it is, who makes it, who can use it, who should be using it, and how it can help us to shape policy and achieve better social, economic, and environmental outcomes.

Kimberlyn Leary:
And on every episode, we’ll be joined by a brilliant guest ranging from federal policymakers, local leaders, philanthropists, social entrepreneurs, and those who meet community needs.

Sarah Rosen Wartell:
We’ll be asking them how they use facts, data, and evidence to improve lives and strengthen communities, and also about the limits of these tools in today’s complicated world.

Kimberlyn Leary:
On today’s show, we’ll talk to Cecilia Muñoz. Cecilia is among the nation’s foremost experts on US domestic policy, especially on fair, just immigration policy and on advancing equity for Latinx communities. She spent 20 years at the National Council of La Raza, now UnidosUS, the nation’s largest Hispanic policy and advocacy organization, and currently, she serves as an advisor to several nonprofits and philanthropies. She also cochairs the Office of American Possibilities, a civic moonshot factory that aims to solve public challenges across divides. Cecilia and her husband also have two adult daughters, and in 2020, she published the award-winning book, More Than Ready, Be Strong and Be You… and Other Lessons for Women of Color on the Rise. Welcome to the show, Cecilia.

Cecilia Muñoz, guest:
Thank you so much for having me.

Kimberlyn Leary:
We are so delighted to have you on the show, and that’s an impressive background, but there’s much more. In 2000, you were named a MacArthur Fellow, and then you served for eight years on President Obama’s senior team, including five years leading the White House Domestic Policy Council as an assistant to President Obama. You also served on the Biden-Harris transition team, where you shaped the president’s day-one executive order on equity. But let me go back to your book. You open your book by writing, “If there is such a thing as a typical Latina, I am not it.” And throughout the book, you center yourself in your lived experience and you write that we are all products of our history. Tell me more about your family’s story about growing up in Michigan and attending the University of Michigan, which, by the way, is also my alma mater.

Cecilia Muñoz:
Go Blue.

Kimberlyn Leary:
Go Blue.

Cecilia Muñoz:
So I am a Midwestern Latina, and I like to introduce myself that way because a lot of people don’t know that that’s a thing. So, as I sort of use it as an opportunity to remind folks that we’re present in all parts of the country, including in the Midwest, it’s very much part of my identity. I’m the daughter of immigrants from Bolivia, and so I grew up in this lovely, messy, extended immigrant family. It shaped who I am, and being a Midwesterner shaped who I am, and actually being from a University of Michigan family shaped who I am. I’m the first generation of my family to be born in the United States, but I’m actually the third generation of my family to graduate from Michigan. My grandfather went as a foreign student, and he sent my dad and my uncles. It’s kind of hard to overstate the impact that had on my family, on my life. It’s how I came to be a Midwestern Latina.

Kimberlyn Leary:
When you decided to go to Michigan yourself, what did you plan to study?

Cecilia Muñoz:
I was a literature major. I did a double major in English and Latin American studies. I was part of a almost nonexistent Latina community at the university. When I was working a little bit with the university on affirmative action, later, once I was at NCLR, I learned that the year I graduated, the incoming class of freshmen, which was almost 4,000 students, had 20 Latinas in it. I did my graduate work in California and was just blown away. I had this eye-opening experience of suddenly kind of being surrounded by people from my community. Up until then, most of the people that I knew of my heritage were my family because I just didn’t have a lot of exposure at Michigan to my own community.

Kimberlyn Leary:
And at Berkeley you studied public policy?

Cecilia Muñoz:
No, I did Latin American studies there too. I say all of that quite sheepishly because I’m invited to speak at policy schools frequently, as you might imagine, because I’ve made a career in domestic policy, and I feel like I always have to apologize to the students ’cause I don’t have a law degree, I don’t have a public policy degree. But I have made my career in public policy kind of by accident actually. I hope that I am an advertisement for the value of a liberal arts education because my focus both as an undergrad and as a graduate student was on literature that taught me how to think critically. It taught me how to write, to be able to construct an argument, all things that you need to do in all kinds of walks of life.

Kimberlyn Leary:
Absolutely, and I think you’ve just made a strong case for the liberal arts for public policy. Now you’ve made many pivots in your career from providing direct service to Latinx communities to obtain legal citizenship in the United States as head of a legalization outreach program for Catholic charities. And then at La Raza, you were a proud, effective and unabashed advocate. So tell us more about these pivots, and what did you discover about yourself and the work that you’d committed to as you made these various shifts?

Cecilia Muñoz:
I came out of graduate school very certain that I was destined for a career in direct service. I’d worked as a volunteer in a legal aid clinic, so I knew a little bit about what that work was like. I moved back to the Midwest. I ended up, as you say, working for Catholic Charities in Chicago and ran the legalization program. And it was an amazing experience, but I learned that I wasn’t cut out for direct service, and I had been really sure that that was my path. And while my program was really successful, and I’m really proud of the work that we did, at one point I was interviewed by a reporter and I described my job as... I said, “It was like watching people be pushed off of a cliff knowing that you can only help some of them,” which is, those are not the words of someone who loves their job.

And so I learned that I couldn’t let go of the people that the law didn’t help. And I really agonized about that. I learned that if you’re going to be successful in a role like that, you have to find a way to cope with those realities. And I couldn’t. But I also learned that there were a lot of advocacy needs emerging from the program and that I was good at describing what we were seeing among our clients and synthesizing that information for people who were making policy decisions, both in Chicago and in the state of Illinois, but also federally. And so I learned that I wasn’t cut out for the thing I thought I was going to be good at and kind of found my voice as an advocate over the course of doing that work. And I like to tell that story because I think especially young professionals feel like they’ve made a mistake if they embark on a path that turns out not to be the right one. And I think those mistakes can be really, really useful in helping you find where you belong.

Kimberlyn Leary:
Let me ask you about another pivot after La Raza, when you joined the Obama White House. So you went from being an advocate and a very influential outsider to basically being as fully on the inside as one can be. What did that open up for you and for the communities you care about?

Cecilia Muñoz:
It was a change that I never anticipated. And when I was first offered the role in the White House, I turned it down. I had teenage daughters at home at the time. I was sure you need good people on the inside and good people on the outside, and I was pretty sure I was an outside person, and I got my arm twisted and I ended up, to my astonishment, spending all eight years in the Obama administration. And wow, did I learn a lot. I learned a lot about how government works. I learned a lot about the kind of interplay between the outside and the inside. And I learned that it is useful to advocates to understand how the government works and to understand what the decision points look like from within the government. And it’s really useful for people in government to understand how the advocacy world works.

Kimberlyn Leary:
So the Domestic Policy Council spans all areas of US policy, and it’s one of the nerve centers of any presidential administration. As director of DPC, I know you were expected to lead teams that were working on areas outside of your own accrued expertise, on everything from health care to education policy to tribal nations to urban affairs. What was it like to have such expectations like that in your job description?

Cecilia Muñoz:
Well, if I’m honest, I would say it was terrifying. It was exhilarating, exciting, but wow, terrifying. And I had no small amount of imposter syndrome. When you walk into the West Wing every day, I think at some level, anyone would walk in and think, “Holy mackerel, what am I doing here?” But I was the first Hispanic person ever to be a domestic policy advisor to the president. And in that kind of position, you feel like if you make a mistake, it’s not just you making a mistake, it’s everybody you represent. And I felt that every day. But the amazing thing about a job like that is that almost by definition it is not possible to know all of the things that you need to know to cover the full waterfront of domestic policy in the United States. There isn’t anybody with that breadth of knowledge, but fortunately, you get a team.

And so at some level, each team that I led was different, in that they all had amazing expertise, but what they needed from me as domestic policy advisor in each case was different. In some cases, I was kind of doing what I thought of as the blocking and tackling for them in the building to make sure that the work they were doing landed effectively, which meant dealing with the president, with the cabinet, with the senior staff, making sure that there was a pathway to get to decisions and make sure things got implemented well. And sometimes, I was part of the generating of policy ideas. For example, the president asked the team, “We’ve done a lot to expand access to higher education, but it’s not enough. I want you to do more. Go figure it out.” So it’s endlessly creative, endlessly interesting, often terrifying and amazing.

Kimberlyn Leary:
It reminds me of your book, in which you really embrace your own lived experience, not only as a source of insight, but also as a source of evidence. And you encourage people, especially young women leaders, to trust their lived experience. So my question to you is, what does it take, especially as a first, to be able to trust your own experience?

Cecilia Muñoz:
I thought about this long and hard even before I decided to write a book ’cause I had to answer for myself the question of like, “Do I actually have something to say that might be valuable to someone?” And that’s, in some ways, it’s an example of this very challenge. We think as women, we think as people of color, as women of color, that maybe we don’t have something to offer that’s universal, that when we don’t see people like ourselves in these kinds of roles, certainly for me there’s a shred of doubt as to, do I really belong doing this? I think it helped a lot that I worked for an African American president who was also a first, who didn’t have doubts about that.

But more importantly, I know from experience, but also there’s reams of data that bears this out, that if you have a group of people in a room making a decision, if that group is diverse and has a diversity of experiences, it’s going to make better decisions than if that group is homogenous. And most of the groups making decisions in the history of our country, and certainly in the White House, have been homogenous. They’ve been white, and they’ve been male. And so, if you are sitting in that room, the other people in that room may or may not know that they need you there, but you should know that they need you there, because they do. And your experience, even if it is different than the experience of everybody else in the room, is incredibly valuable, especially if it’s different than the experience of everybody in the room.

Kimberlyn Leary:
Could not agree more. You have made the case that good public policy requires political acumen, and it also requires expertise that is often embedded in communities, and as you noted, often unknown to policymakers, especially in homogenous settings. So when at La Raza and then at the White House, what are three realities about the Latinx experience in the US that were just not part of the calculus at that time?

Cecilia Muñoz:
I remember on one occasion describing to someone who I greatly, greatly admire, whose expertise I am in awe of and whose skills and commitment are unquestionable, and describing a benefits program, a program where the government is reaching out to folks who are qualified to make sure that they’re actually using the program which they’re eligible for. And I made a point which rested on the principle that my community is underrepresented. We tend to take advantage of those programs to a lesser extent than our actual eligibility. And that was news to this person. And so I had to explain: people in policy and in politics, at some level, have reached the point in the 30+ years I’ve been doing this, they’re no longer unaware of the existence of my community. But that doesn’t mean we’re well understood. Policymakers don’t always understand some of the dynamics with respect to poverty in the community, with respect to eligibility and access to the things the federal government provides.

And then there’s sort of the usual myths about the community that are really, really common. The proportion of us who were born in the United States as opposed to foreign born, for example, more of us are from here than not from here. The immigration thing sucks up so much oxygen in terms of policymakers’ understanding of the Latina community and for good reason, right? It’s a big challenge, and a lot of us are immigrants or the descendants of immigrants, but not all of us. We care about immigration a lot, of course, but we also care about access to health care, a decent job, ability to provide for our families, and make sure our kids can go to college, like all of the things.

Kimberlyn Leary:
You’ve talked about, the ways in which you were able to be effective in sponsoring conversations, the way in which you were able to garner and leverage expertise across multiple teams, about humility in leadership. But are there some hard lessons that you learned?

Cecilia Muñoz:
Yeah, I can think of two big ones. The person who was chief of staff when I was promoted to the domestic policy director talked to a couple journalists and told them that I was not on his list of recommendations to the president for the job that I got. He gave those journalists the impression that he felt I was not qualified and that he felt I was hired because of my ethnicity and not because of what I can do. Those journalists wrote books, and I read those books and it cost me a couple of years of confidence because I really did walk into the new chief of staff, his successors’, office every morning and think, “Man, if the previous chief of staff thought that about me, how do I know that that’s not what everybody in this room thinks?” I had to develop my own confidence in my competence, which is a pretty common experience for people of color and for women. I devised a couple strategies for doing that, making sure that I was always super prepared and relentlessly asking for feedback among people that it was safe to ask for feedback.

A second one is that when you’re in a visible position like that, you’re not going to make everybody happy. And I was responsible for immigration policy, which is my area of deepest expertise, and I knew when I took the job that I had friends and colleagues who would criticize me and, in some cases, maybe never speak to me again. And that’s turned out to be true. So I developed kind of a philosophy of a North Star, of making sure that I knew why I was there and what I was trying to do, that I was trying to do it with some integrity, and that I was going to do my best, but that perfection was not available. I wanted to walk into that building every day and walk out every day with my integrity intact. And I think I accomplished that. Although I promise you, there are people, including people who know me well, who don’t agree with that statement.

Kimberlyn Leary:
But at work, you also found some friends and some wonderful colleagues, that number of critical women of color leaders in the White House, including my former boss, Valerie Jarrett, and also Julie Chávez Rodriguez, who recently became President Biden’s reelection campaign manager. How did the conversation change because those voices were in the White House, say in those 8:30 a.m. meetings? Is there anything else that you recall that those folks in the room allowed and created and sponsored?

Cecilia Muñoz:
Both Valerie and Julie are people of great heart and great integrity. Valerie, obviously as the president’s senior advisor and close friend, had, in some ways, a special status in the White House, which she used to make sure that every voice got heard and every perspective got considered. And Julie does the same thing. She’s very low-key. She does not like to be out in front of the cameras, but she is really powerful in a really graceful and unassuming way. And so when she lays a truth on the table, it just vibrates there as the truth. Everyone can see it. It’s a really special quality. And I lift that up because again, it comes from the fact that they have experience that was unique, right? That if they weren’t in the room, wouldn’t have been in the room. But it’s not just that they’re offering the experience, it’s that they offer it in a way that people can hear.

Because your goal is not just for the truth to be sitting there on the table, your goal is for the truth to be able to be absorbed by the other people at the table. And that does mean considering when to really put your foot on the gas and when you don’t put your foot on the gas, when you give people some grace, give people some space to absorb something, give them some time to absorb something which is outside of their experience, which they may not see or hear.

Kimberlyn Leary:
You designed President Biden’s day-one executive order on equity, and it has a longish title, but I’m going to say it out loud so that folks who are listening kind of get the spirit of it: Advancing Racial Equity and Support for Underserved Communities through the Federal Government. So that executive order was also a masterclass in change management, and it positioned equity as a whole-of-government responsibility, and data figured centrally in the order, including by establishing an equitable data working group. Can you tell us more about the importance of data-driven and evidence-based strategies for equity in order to create high-quality and responsive government?

Cecilia Muñoz:
Boy, how long have you got? So I should say, first of all, I didn’t design the executive order. There was a whole team that worked on that for months that I’m very, very proud of. It’s not easy to state how to achieve equity, which is something that an order from the president does, but it’s even harder to implement, and you have to start with a common understanding of what we even mean by equity in the first place. And you can’t really do that without data. Just even to use, what I hope, is a fairly straightforward example. If we want to make sure that our food and nutrition programs are implemented with equity, we have to understand: Who are they reaching now, who’s eligible that they’re not reaching? Why is that, and what needs to be done in order to change that?

Not a single one of those questions is an easy one to answer, but you can’t begin to meaningfully move towards equity or accomplish something resembling equity if you don’t understand the baseline, you don’t understand who’s being served and who’s not being served. You can’t fix what you can’t describe or measure. And so data is essential. And very importantly, there’s lots of other complex nuances, and it’s not just about race and ethnicity, it’s also about, in some cases, urban and rural. It’s about people’s economic status. There are a lot of complex factors, but if the goal is to make sure everybody has what they need to succeed, you have to start with information.

Kimberlyn Leary:
We like to ask each visitor the same question: Do you have a favorite example where high-quality evidence has informed choices that result in making the lives of people better? Can you give me an example of evidence in action?

Cecilia Muñoz:
The example that I’d give is an example that haunts me. We have recently gotten so much evidence of big, big differentials in outcomes of maternal health for African American women in particular, the data is really shockingly terrible. African American women and their babies fare much, much worse compared to every other group in the country. And so if you’re the federal government essentially addressing maternal health and child health, you can’t just spread the resources around like peanut butter and the work around like peanut butter, because what the data tells us is that if you’re a Black woman, for reasons that we are still working to understand, your outcomes are going to be far, far, far worse. And so they require specific interventions, and that’s data-based understanding that the fact that we know that there’s a problem is because of the evidence. The only way we’re going to be able to drive at solutions has to be evidence based.

Kimberlyn Leary:
That’s a great example of high-quality evidence, and how important it is for being able to orient your policymaking and then to be able to track whether your interventions are making a difference. But I want to ask you, in this partisan and divided world, which you referenced a few minutes ago, science and evidence is too often distrusted. What needs to happen for institutions to be viewed as more trustworthy and for the evidence that they produce to be a scaffold that enables communities to thrive?

Cecilia Muñoz:
As important as it is to have an evidence base, it is also important to do two things. One is to start where people are, again, to make sure that what you’re presenting is something that they’re able to absorb, and you have to do that in what I think of as a listening way. It’s not enough to just bang people over the head with “here’s what this study shows,” right? You have to understand what people are concerned about and engage in the conversation that they’re able to have. But the other big lesson for me is, even in these times, where there’s so much to be distressed about and where there’s so much yelling and we feel so divided, people all around the country from all walks of life are stepping up to do things, like sponsor refugees, for example.

One of the projects we started is called Welcome.US, and regular people literally in 10,000 zip codes and in every state of the union have stepped forward to sponsor people from Ukraine, from Haiti, from Cuba, from Venezuela, from Nicaragua. If you had told me a year ago that that was going to happen, I’m not sure I would’ve believed you, but we forget that we are capable of solving our problems.

Kimberlyn Leary:
It’s terrific that you remind us of the generosity, ingenuity, and innovation that we, the people, are capable of here in this country. I want to thank you for your incredible generosity today in sharing with us your experiences. I think you’ve made leadership something that can feel accessible to people because in your reflections, you’ve shared that one can be awed by the place you work, and maybe even at times questioning yourself. But you can still summon the courage and summon the smarts, engage the people, and do the work. So what an honor it is to have you in conversation, and it’s always such a pleasure to be talking with you, Cecilia.

Cecilia Muñoz:
Thank you so much.

Kimberlyn Leary:
Join us for this season of Evidence in Action, as we have conversations about important ways to drive change with our talented and captivating guests. If you’d like to learn more about us, go to our website at urban.org. You can also follow the show on Apple Podcast, Spotify, Amazon Music, and wherever you listen to your podcasts. This has been Evidence in Action, created by the Urban Institute and Pod People. I’m your cohost, Kim Leary. Thank you.

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The Urban Institute podcast, Evidence in Action, inspires changemakers to lead with evidence and act with equity. Cohosted by Urban President Sarah Rosen Wartell and Executive Vice President Kimberlyn Leary, every episode features in-depth discussions with experts and leaders on topics ranging from how to advance equity, to designing innovative solutions that achieve community impact, to what it means to practice evidence-based leadership.

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Research Areas Race and equity