Daring to Unite
Deborah Urbanski still recalls the moment Neil Armstrong
took his historic first step on the Moon.
“I was 10 years old, and I remember my dad yelling, ‘Get in
here, get in here—this is going to be history,’” Urbanski said. “We all
gathered around this little black-and-white television and watched them climb
down the ladder and onto the Moon. I’ve been hooked on NASA ever since.”
She didn’t know it then, but that same girl who watched
Armstrong in awe would go on to serve as a member of the selection committee for
NASA’s 2013 and 2017 astronaut classes, selecting potential candidates to follow
Armstrong’s giant leap and become the next Moon walkers.
(Urbanski meets Houston Texans defensive end JJ. Watt at a JSC event.)
Urbanski came to NASA’s Johnson Space Center as the director
of the Office of Equal Opportunity and Diversity (OEOD) in 2009 after spending the
first part of her career mediating conflict. This unique skillset, which she
developed while managing a mediation clinic for Houston Justice Courts while in
law school and directing the first mediation
program for the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, has given her the
tools to lead diversity, inclusion and conflict-resolution efforts at Johnson.
She knows that with the variety of spaceflight activities taking
place at Johnson, the OEOD isn’t at the forefront of employee’s minds, but
diversity and inclusion are a driving force behind every NASA accomplishment.
“As we dare to expand frontiers, we must also dare to stand
up against unacceptable behavior,” Urbanski said. “As we unite with our
partners to complete bold missions, we must also unite as a team to ensure the
safety and effectiveness of JSC’s workforce. As we explore safety to benefit
humanity, we must also explore our own tendencies and assumptions in the midst
of an increasingly diverse workforce.”
This is a bold vision that takes implementation at all
levels of the center, but the importance of the mission has driven change
across every directorate.
One of the roles that the OEOD plays is advocating for
employees who may be challenged with a disability. This includes ensuring
reasonable accommodations for employees who develop a disability after starting
their career—something that Urbanski understands very well.
“I was sitting at a stop light one day, and my whole life
changed,” Urbanski said.
A few years before starting at Johnson, a driver slammed
into her car, causing lasting effects from a traumatic brain injury. While she faced
a long and challenging recovery, she believes that this struggle has made her a
better advocate for others who encounter disability.
“I try to talk about it, because it is more common than
people know,” Urbanski said. “I think that for people who are working through a
struggle, seeing someone who has made it through can give them hope.”
(Urbanski celebrates the holiday season with her OEOD team.)
Outside of disability advocacy and compliance, her office is
also focused on diversity and inclusion. As the center becomes more diverse,
Urbanski sees work being completed more effectively, but also recognizes that a
shifting landscape can lead to new kinds of conflict.
“A more diverse workforce leads to so many new and exciting
ideas,” Urbanski said. “But as we increase the wide range of ideas being
generated, we also increase debate and conflict about these ideas.”
While this presents new challenges, the mediator in her
believes this is a good thing.
“Conflict can be healthy,” Urbanski said. “It helps us
explore new ideas. I love it when I’m walking around and overhear people
arguing about technical details; it inspires innovation.”
Understanding that debate is a natural part of exploration,
the OEOD has started initiatives to unite the workforce and build up personal
relationships to overcome conflicts. One example of this is the Employee
Resource Groups (ERGs) that Urbanski helped to re-organize and charter, which have
become highly successful for the center.
“ERGs help build the personal relationships that overcome
conflict,” Urbanski said. “Working through problems to find a solution is such
an important skill. We would love people to get out of the mindset that you
have to file a complaint to get a resolution.”
Conflict might be here to stay, but it looks like the
diversity and inclusion efforts at the center are challenging the workforce to
think critically as NASA prepares for daring missions to the Moon and beyond.
Noah J. Michelsohn, Johnson Space Center
Deborah Urbanski is director of NASA Johnson Space Center’s Office of Equal Opportunity and Diversity. This story is part three of The Directors Series, highlighting Johnson’s mission of Dare. Unite. Explore. Stay tuned for stories from each directorate and find previous stories on the directors website.
Deborah Urbanski, JSC Director of the Office of Equal Opportunity and Diversity