This article originally appears in the inaugural edition of 'Revisited,' a publication dedicated to Eastern Michigan University's alumni
Karinda Washington (BA01) says the best part of her job is “not knowing what I’m going to encounter each day.” Ironically, she says that degree of uncertainty is also the most challenging part of her job.
That’s how her days unfold as chief of staff for the Office of Partnership and Engagement within the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS). Among her duties are managing several DHS offices that coordinate outreach efforts with state and local governments, elected officials, law enforcement agencies, colleges and universities, and the private sector. She’s also involved in promoting the “If You See Something, Say Something®” campaign.
“Every day is completely different,” says Washington, 40, who earned a degree from Eastern in English Written Communication with a minor in African American Studies. “You just don’t know what your work environment will be like as you begin the day.”
Or how long the day will be. Although Washington regularly puts in 11-hour days, she’s rarely “off the clock,” since issues impacting American security don’t stop after she leaves the office.
“That’s the nature of the job,” she says. “We’re right in the thick of things, whether it involves responding to something like a shooting incident, hurricane or cyberattack. And those things can change, either during the day or overnight. I thrive on those challenges—it’s what gets me up and keeps me going.”
After seven years at DHS, Washington still feels a sense of amazement about her career path.
“Every day when I come to work and swipe my security badge, I pause and think, ‘Wow, I’m working for the Department of Homeland Security,” she says.
The road to the capitol
Washington grew up on Detroit’s northeast side near Van Dyke and 7 Mile Road and graduated from Martin Luther King, Jr. High School. While other kids played with friends, Washington often helped her mother with community volunteerism.
“Mom’s been involved in nonprofit work for more than 30 years,” says Washington, whose mother is CEO of Emmanuel Community House, which provides affordable housing to homeless veterans in Detroit. “I helped with clothing drives when I was in elementary school. I did my homework at town hall meetings while sitting beside my mom. That’s how I became interested in helping the underserved.”
While many of Washington’s high school peers went on to schools like Michigan and Michigan State, she purposely chose Eastern because of its smaller campus environment.
“Eastern gave me the freedom to grow as a person and embrace my passion for diversity and multiculturalism,” she says. “The university also gave me some perspective. Suddenly, I wasn’t among just a few smart kids. I realized I was surrounded by lots of really smart kids. I learned a lot through my friendships with them.”
Washington initially pursued a pre-med program. After completing her freshman year, she wasn’t sure it was right for her. A heartfelt talk with her father led to a change in major.
“My dad asked me to think about what I’d like to do for a career, even if I didn’t get paid a dime,” she says. “I thought about it all summer and told him I want to help people and make an immediate impact in the larger world. He asked, ‘What degree will help you get there?’ I had always earned writing accolades when I was young. I thought an English degree could open doors for me in many different fields.”
After earning her bachelor’s, Washington began working as an office manager at Michigan Legal Services, a nonprofit that provides free legal assistance to low and moderate income families in Detroit.
“Watching my mom’s work with nonprofits propelled me into doing the same thing,” Washington says. “I became a complete replica of my mom.”
While at Michigan Legal Services, Washington earned a master’s in Communication Public Relations and Organizational Communication at Wayne State University. As she approached graduation, her academic adviser asked about her future plans.
“I said I’d probably continue working at Michigan Legal Services, where I’d been working close to 10 years,” Washington says. “But my adviser challenged me and suggested I look for a job in the federal government.”
Washington went online and found an intriguing listing for an external affairs specialist at DHS.
“The title caught my eye because I love outreach,” she says. “The job description was amazing and seemed to really fit me. But I never thought I’d get that job in a million years.”
The application deadline was that same evening. Almost on a whim, Washington filled out the online form and submitted it just before going to bed. Six months later, she received a call for an interview.
“I was so excited,” she says. “I had to borrow money from my parents for a plane ticket to D.C. I had the interview and learned a few months later that I got a job offer pending security clearance.”
Innovations and honors
Washington joined DHS in May 2011 without full awareness of what she was stepping into beyond the basic job description. She quickly became acclimated and earned praise for launching the Loaned Executive Program. This initiative gives executives from the private sector the opportunity to share their expertise with DHS on particular issues and challenges for up to one year.
“DHS had been trying to get that program off the ground for two years prior to my arrival,” Washington says. “Ethics was an issue, because no one wants to favor a certain company or executive over another. But I could see how the program would be invaluable. Finding a way to launch it became a personal challenge.”
Thanks to Washington’s resolve, DHS ironed out the logistics and launched the program in January 2012. Soon, it became recognized as a best practice. In 2015, Washington received the DHS Innovator of the Year Award for her work on the program.
“One of the advantages to working at DHS is the opportunity to innovate,” Washington says. “We’re still a young and developing agency, which allows us some creativity and freedom. That’s a rare thing to find in the federal government.”
After the Loaned Executive Program took off, Washington developed another program that allows DHS employees in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields to work in the private sector for training purposes for up to six months. The program, called Exemplar, launched in June 2016.
“Some people say the federal government isn’t innovative enough,” Washington says. “I saw the need to become more agile in our training opportunities to attract the best and brightest talent. At the same time, the government and private industry are very interdependent in terms of STEM and cybersecurity. The Loaned Executive Program and Exemplar allow us to share ideas and knowledge with each other, which is valuable for the government, for industry and for the country.”
Last October, Washington became the first chief of staff in the history of the Office of Partnership and Engagement. One of her responsibilities is fully realizing the merger of law enforcement, immigration and security departments that had previously operated independently.
Earlier this year, Washington completed the Harvard Kennedy School Education Senior Executive Fellows program, which is designed to prepare managers for executive service in the federal government. But she’s not sure if she’ll remain in the federal government for the long-term.
“I’m leaning more toward getting into corporate social responsibility at a grass roots level,” she says. “I’m interested in how corporations are defining their role for social impact. I’ll probably go in that direction for my next career move. Maybe in five or 10 years.
“D.C. is also not my last stop—Detroit will always be home. I’d love to become involved in community development and see the downtown renaissance extend to the neighborhoods.”
In addition to recognizing excellent DHS employee performance and giving “time off awards,” Washington allows herself “down time” to recharge and continue her work with nonprofits. Besides volunteering with the EMU Black Alumni Association and returning to Eastern occasionally to speak to student organizations, she sits on the advisory board for the Hustlers Guild. This recently launched Washington D.C.-based nonprofit encourages underrepresented youth to develop their inner talents and pursue careers in science, technology, engineering, art and math.
“I’ve advised the Hustlers Guild on how to launch a nonprofit, based on all the things I learned by watching my mom,” Washington says. “I enjoy supporting the next generation of leaders. I feel it’s my duty to help people who are very passionate about their causes and to help guide them.”
What advice does Washington have for recent Eastern graduates?
“Be unapologetically bold about what you want to accomplish in life,” she says. “Be a go-getter and shine your brightest. Don’t be afraid to ask for what you want—you might be surprised when people say ‘yes.’”