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Danielle Dempsey-Swopes: Equal access for all

By Kimber Williams | Emory Report | Jan. 9, 2013

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Danielle Dempsey-Swopes is director of Equal Opportunity Programs. Emory Photo/Video.

As the new director for Emory's Office of Equal Opportunity Programs, Danielle Dempsey-Swopes knows how it feels to help make things right.  

Access. Equity. Inclusion. Those words create the cornerstones for building a campus culture that honors openness and non-discrimination, a place where everyone has an opportunity to participate fully, she says.  

As an attorney whose career has taken her from university work to political advocacy to serving as an administrative appeals judge with the Kansas Department of Labor, Dempsey-Swopes arrived at Emory this fall knowing full well how her work can impact lives.  

From the classroom to campus laboratories, an executive office setting to a dorm room, her office works across boundaries to assure students, faculty and staff at Emory full participation and a university experience free of discrimination.  

A few months into her new role, Dempsey-Swopes talks with Emory Report about how she found her career path and what has kept her there:  

Growing up, what were your great influences?

My father was in the U.S. Army, so as a kid, we moved every three to four years. I finished second grade in what was Kitzingen, West Germany. And then we moved to a little town called Grosslangheim. So I vividly recall that year because that was what my existence was like up until high school.

As far as influences, I think it would be the way my mother capitalized on our opportunity to be in Europe. She made sure that we had train passes, and every summer we went somewhere. We visited Barcelona. We went to Switzerland. Took the train once to Amsterdam. I remember Wurzburg and Frankfurt and Heidelberg — we just got the most out of being there. That was probably an important part of my development of understanding in appreciating diversity and difference, understanding the world a little better.

How did you come to focus on working with equal opportunity programs?

Part-way through law school, I wasn't sure I really wanted to practice law. I had a chance to intern at the Kansas Department of Worker's Compensation. At the time, Kansas was doing something brand new: Kansas had not paid worker's compensation benefits based on a medical fee schedule. I was the young intern who did 90 percent of the research necessary to provide the leadership of that agency the information they needed to develop a fee schedule for our state. I was really proud of that — I helped these leaders make a change that will ultimately help workers who are injured and help us have a better system for paying their benefits. That felt fantastic. This kind of public service work was intriguing. And after that, I never looked back on working with state agencies and universities.

That's what I'm most proud of. You can see how you truly made a difference, and it changes everything.

What appeals to you about working with equal opportunity programs?

Once in awhile you get the chance to take something that is really wrong and make somebody's work environment right. That's very rewarding. And I found it the most rewarding to work with students. I remember a student who came to me; she was working in a lab, and a faculty member was after her to go on dates, trying to hold her hand, treating her in a way that made it completely uncomfortable for her to work. We had the challenge of looking into the situation, of finding a solution. Graduation day, she sent me a note: “Thank you. I was really struggling and you helped me get back on track and not waste my time here.” You help a few students like that, that's all it takes. It is very rewarding.

Where do you hope to make an impact here at Emory?

I want to make sure that our office is staffed at 100 percent with people who have significant expertise in all areas of equal opportunity and affirmative action. I want to make sure that complaints are responded to in a timely and appropriate way, and that we provide the support and the useful data that you need to understand where you are and how you can manage diversity going forward.

I also want to make sure we have the right kind of process and program for managing our data, the right tools for the best compliance. I want us to be a model institution with great policies and great practices. That's a big list. But we're really in a period of rebuilding, and they're doable. It's kind of exciting.

What would you like the Emory community to know about your office?

That we really are here to provide a service. Our job is to support what faculty and staff do. It's like the person who has to buy the paperclips. Their job is to support you with the paperclips and everything you need to make your unit great. We stand ready to provide that service and support. We want to be a part of that. I hope they will reach out to us and allow us to engage with them, work with them.

I see this office and my staff as partners in solving some of the problems and managing the challenges. You could do compliance work by beating people over the head with the rules, but I don't work that way, and I never have. I think that's what's been rewarding— bringing people together to work in partnerships to solve problems. It's just been a standard for me. It's exciting to meet people and bring them together to do that here.

What intrigues you about what you've found here at Emory so far?

This is a fertile ground for something really great to grow. I'm excited about the way in which the Office of Community and Diversity is embraced and recognized by the institution. In a lot of places, they're marginalized, and that's not the case here. So I think that's what I like best. And the weather — I like the weather!  

What keeps you busy outside of Emory?

I have two children — a 13-year-old son and a 16-year-old daughter — so I gravitate toward what the kids do. I also teach a few undergraduate courses online for Washburn University (in Topeka, Kansas) through the Department of Political Science. I teach legal issues in public service — which is fabulous because I get to draw on my experience with the (Kansas) Governor's Office — and administrative law. The third course I teach – the one I'm teaching right now — is mediation and dispute resolution. I like to start the course with a discussion with students about how they learn to negotiate, how they problem-solve, and what kind of messages they receive from their parents in their formative years about how to manage conflicts, which is really fascinating.