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Roundup Presents: The Directors Series (AJ)

Noah J. Michelsohn |
May 3, 2019

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
Deborah Urbanski, JSC Director of the Office of Equal Opportunity and Diversity