There is a new leader of Oklahoma’s Department of Human Services, and Justin Brown has hit the ground running with a simple goal to break down silos and change the culture of an agency that looks after our most vulnerable citizens.
Inasmuch Foundation, which I am fortunate to lead, helps support many of the programs that DHS must invest in and improve upon, so we were anxious to learn more about Brown’s vision and leadership style. I’ve known Brown for many years and had the opportunity to travel with him to northeast Oklahoma for a day of agency and community meetings. Arriving early for our first meeting at a DHS division office, Brown suggested we meet some of his new employees. Walking the halls with a warm smile and new ideas, it was apparent to me that his vision will be well received not just within the agency, but among community partners, foundations, sister agencies and other stakeholders.
During his “listening tour” Brown is visiting many more county offices and nonprofit partners. He is laying the groundwork for a new vision for DHS and believes these tours are the first step of a massive cultural change at the state’s largest agency. Team building and strong communication are building blocks to supporting children and their families who are at risk.
My enthusiasm for Brown does not come without gratitude for Ed Lake and his service to our state as the agency’s previous director. My applause extends to Gov. Kevin Stitt, who spent several months interviewing dozens of stakeholders to make sure he got this appointment right. The reach of DHS is significant as this agency is responsible for protecting children from abuse and neglect, strengthening families through prevention services, supporting work and wage advancement toward increased family income sufficiency, serving people with developmental disabilities to work and live in the community and protecting and serving low-income seniors.
For Oklahomans who have not heard of Brown, I can tell you he has a long track record of service to Oklahomans through his volunteer leadership with Big Brothers Big Sisters, YMCA of Greater Oklahoma City, Alzheimer’s Foundation and Regional Food Bank of Oklahoma, to name a few.
I’m convinced this spirit of service is why Brown is stepping out of his private role to tackle DHS because he has the competency and capacity to lead. As a CEO, Brown has built assisted living communities in three states and provides exceptional services to seniors with Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia.
Brown will listen to stakeholders. His style is collaborative, innovative and at times disruptive of the status quo. He’s not afraid to get into the weeds to see what is happening on the front lines, and he treats all levels of people he encounters with respect. He will bring a fresh outlook to the agency and challenge us as partners to think critically of our work as we serve our most vulnerable children and families.
As we left our first meeting, Brown thanked his social service frontline team and committed to more listening visits. We will all benefit from his compassion, empathy and determination to make a difference. This agency deserves that kind of leader.
Bob Ross is chairman and CEO of Inasmuch Foundation.