We as a Country do not do well talking about race.

Photo of candlelight vigil for Charlottesville courtesy Andrew Shurtleff/The Daily Progress via AP

By LWG Editor

League of Women in Government (League) President, Pam Antil sat down with fellow League and National Forum for Black Public Administrators (NFBPA) Board Member, David Ellis who serves as the Deputy County Manager for Wake County, NC. Prior to his work in Wake County, David served for three years as the Assistant City Manager for Charlottesville, VA and Assistant to the County Executive in Fairfax County, VA. Pam and David talked about diversity, inclusion and the recent events in Charlottesville, VA. Here is the interview:

David, we’ve know each other for many years and serve together on the League of Women in Government Board, as well as some past ICMA committees, but I don’t know much about your early years. Where did you grow up and why did you choose to become a public servant?

I grew up in a small town about an hour outside of Washington, DC called Fredericksburg, VA. Fredericksburg (or as the locals call it FredVegas), was a City of 23,000 located in between the District of Columbia, and the City of Richmond, VA which was the capital of the confederacy. At the time I grew up, Fredericksburg was a bedroom community and not very diverse – the city was mostly white and black and neighborhoods were segregated by race but we all attended the same schools.  My family was one of the first black families to move a predominately white neighborhood.

As all communities do, Fredericksburg has changed. The community is much more diverse and is more reflective of the D.C. metropolitan area than Richmond, VA. Neighborhoods are far more integrated, more languages are spoken in the schools and the percentage of children of color who attend college has increased.

To be honest, I fell into a career in public service. Many of my classmates from James Madison University relocated to the Northern Virginia area after college and I applied for a job with Fairfax County and that began my career in local government.  After a few months I realized I enjoyed seeing how my work impacted individuals, families and the community and realized local government was for me.

In addition to your regular work as Deputy County Manager for Wake County, NC, you have been very involved in ICMA, as a Board Member for the League and now a new Board Member for the NFBPA National Board. What drives you to be so involved in these professional organizations?

It’s a passion for equality and equity. I remember my first ICMA conference and recall being shocked at the lack of black and brown faces or women in the audience. I thought back even then that if I was ever in a place in my career to change that dynamic, I would. Now that I’ve achieved some of my own career success, I feel that it is my obligation to help others coming up behind us. Pam, you and I are not selfish – we work on things that will likely never benefit us directly, but will benefit others. That is important and really drives me.

You’ve been a career assistant, would you ever like to serve as a City or County Manager someday? If so, what do you think are some of the barriers that assistant chief executives, people of color and women face in attaining those top jobs?

Yes, I would like to be a city or county manager someday. Some of the feedback that I’ve received after interviews when I haven’t been selected for a particular position is that it’s all about the fit. But no one can really describe what the fit is exactly. This can be frustrating to many of us trying to get to that next step in our careers. And what it is in one place is different for another so these interviews are hard. You often don’t know what they are looking for as an elected board until the process is over. And, frankly, I’m not sure the elected boards are able to articulate who would be the right fit at the beginning of a recruitment process. So this can be a barrier if one is not comfortable with the ambiguity and loses confidence as a result.

I will also say that I would hope that we can get beyond gender and the color of a person’s skin and focus on their credentials and experience in all levels of interviewing, but in chief executive positions in particular. The top sets the tone for the entire organization.

I recall a speaker some time ago saying that when someone walks into a room, we have a tendency as human beings to automatically put that person into a box because of the inherent biases we all have. The key to eliminating bias is after talking to that person, can you remove that person from the box you placed them in. That’s why I am so passionate about the work that we are doing through the League to educate senior executives and elected officials about identifying and eliminating bias in organizations so everyone has a chance to be taken out of the box, so to speak, during interviews – especially those for the top jobs.

Keeping people in a particular box is something that has been in the news a great deal this past week after the protests in Charlottesville, VA. You served as their Assistant City Manager from 2012-15, what was it like to see all of the events unfold as a former employee who knows the police officers responding, as well as a person of color who lived and worked there?

I will tell you that my initial reaction was shock, anger and sorrow – all mixed up together. It’s a beautiful city to live, work and enjoy. It’s really a city that accepts everyone. It is a very open, inclusive and welcoming place so it’s surreal to see the events occur in Charlottesville in particular. To see on TV people walking around with Nazi and Confederate flags, torches and weapons it is just the antithesis of what I think about Charlottesville.

I lived right on the downtown mall right above the area where the young woman was killed when one of the alt-right protestors drove into a crowd. That was my street. I would walk on that mall at all hours of the day and night and never had an issue or problem with anyone the entire time I lived there. It was painful to watch as I know that is not Charlottesville.

As a person of color born in 1967, I never witnessed the riots or civil rights clashes between southerners and African-Americans in the late 1950’s or early 60’s. To see it live, truly for the first time, I would have thought that people my age and younger would never have to see this in their lifetime. When you really think about what this country was founded upon and how many people went to war to fight the Nazi regime and to see people walking down the street chanting at and punching people in the same way that occurred in Europe during World War II, it is appalling. And, personally, to have some in leadership not condemn them strongly essentially encouraging them to continue is disheartening.

I grew up with my father telling me I could do and be anything I wanted. That I would face racism, but not to use it as a crutch. That I had to learn to overcome it.

To see how young some of the alt-right protestors were, who displayed so much hate to people who have never done anything to them tells me we have a long way to go in this Country. In fact, I will say, that we as a Country do not do well talking about race. We skirt around the issue. What we are seeing is something that has been under the surface that some people now feel emboldened to come out. It’s as if they were hibernating under political correctness and now they are coming out full force with their true thoughts and ideas. The question really is, are they going to set the tone for the country or are other leaders going to set the tone? The type of violence that occurred during the demonstration in Charlottesville is not acceptable. We as leaders all need to say that very clearly.

Some news commentators have said that the events in Charlottesville are only surprising to white people meaning that people of color have felt this below the surface hate for a long time. Were you surprised by the demonstration?

I think the level of boldness of the alt-right demonstrators was surprising. These protestors don’t seem to care who sees them. The age of the protestors is also surprising to me. These are folks that were born in the late 1990’s and early 2000. Where is all the hate coming from? Charlottesville is where they chose to put their stake in the ground and not care about the consequences.

I will also say that in particular for the events in Charlottesville, people really need to learn the history of the Confederate monuments since some are saying that the demonstrations are really about removing history. Much has been written about the timing of these statues and although many want to believe they are memorials, most of them were erected during the era of Jim Crow segregation. What happened in Charlottesville was not about the statues. It was about people wanting to intimidate other people.

Now that more than a week has gone by, I’ve been thinking about what more we can do as public administrators to open the dialogue on diversity and, as you said, have a real conversation about race in this country. What are your thoughts?

Charlottesville convened a very successful “Dialogue on Race” back in 2010. The purpose was to have honest discussions about race and racism and break down the walls that separate us.  Those types of initiatives are critical and can really help communities come together.  We can’t depend on the federal or state governments to address these issues.  Local government has been focused on community engagement for a number of years and while the topic is uncomfortable, I believe it is imperative for local government leaders to be proactive and lead these discussions. Three people died in Charlottesville– the woman who was hit by the vehicle and two law enforcement officers. Those are lives that were lost that didn’t’ need to be lost. How do we help heal communities and not allow lives to be lost in vain?  What I am reading about the alt-right is that they are going to continue to do these demonstrations because they weren’t called out. It is scary to most people.

As public administrators, number one we can’t tolerate behaviors like those in Charlottesville. If they occur, they have to be dealt with swiftly. We have to talk about the benefit of diversity is within an organization – not a quota system – but truly getting the best people who bring different experiences and viewpoints to a situation. The more diverse the group is has been shown in the private sector to yield better results. We in the public sector need to find ways to diversify not only our front line positions, but in senior leadership as well. We need to find ways to be more inclusive. And it has to be intentional and it has to be a priority starting at the top of the organization.

Earlier you stated that we are not having the difficult conversations about race. Can you share more of your thoughts on what leads you to that conclusion?

I recently had a, believe it or not, 7-hour discussion on race and community with my cohort from the Harvard Kennedy School program. My take away is that many people feel that there is not enough room for error in conversations about race. For example, if you ask a question, some people may take offense to it, so the question remains unasked. People need to be able to ask questions and challenge one another to help people understand their differences without feeling like they are going to be called a racist. We need to discuss and better understand how my differences can benefit an organization along with someone else’s rather than assuming that everything is equal just because we’ve had one black President and much has been achieved since the civil rights era. It’s hard to say everyone is equal when for many folks – people of color, women, etc. – we’re not starting at the starting line. We’re starting 15 yards behind. That is not an equal race.

What do you hope to achieve through your work on the League and NFBPA Boards?

We need to keep working together through the League and NFBPA to change the paradigm we were just discussing and to level the playing field. To me the big challenge, is how to we help prepare elected officials to understand and challenge biases. Because it’s not going to be you and me interviewing each other, it will be a body of elected officials if we’re talking about the CAO job. If they have biases of their own and don’t understand the importance of diversity in organizations, then we won’t make much progress. My goal is to work through these organizations to help educate elected officials so everyone who is prepared to do the job, actually has a shot at the job.


David Ellis was selected as Deputy County Manager in February 2015. He has more than 20 years of local government experience. Ellis oversees the Community Services Department, Environmental Services Department, Human Services Department, Cooperative Extension, Capital Area Workforce Development, and Soil and Water Conservation.

Prior to his work in Wake County, he served as Assistant City Manager in Charlottesville, Virginia for three years. In Fairfax County, Virginia he served as assistant to the County Executive for nine years where he managed the Redevelopment and Housing Authority and the Department of Code Compliance. He also established a regional system of human services as the Assistant Director of Human Services.

Ellis holds a bachelor’s degree from James Madison University and a master’s degree in Public Administration from George Mason University. In addition, David received the designation of credentialed manager (CM) through the International City/County Management Association (ICMA). David is a Board Member for the League of Women in Government and the National Forum for Black Public Administrators.