KALAMAZOO, Mich.—"We've got a responsibility to live up to the legacy of those who came before us by doing all that we can to help those who come after us," former first lady Michelle Obama once told a college audience.
That responsibility is not lost on Dr. Brandy Brown, who's been charged with developing strategies to combat and mitigate climate change in Michigan. Her personal story is fueled by a rich history of forward-thinkers. Brown's family moved to southwest Michigan in the 1800s as free people of color, planting deep roots in the area. Her great uncle, Hon. Charles Pratt, paved the way as Kalamazoo's first African-American judge. Now, Brown is carving a new path as the head of Michigan's newly created Office of Climate and Energy.
"That is something that's just a family expectation—that you give back to the community and you work hard,"says Brown, who earned a doctoral degree in interdisciplinary evaluation from Western Michigan University.
A NEW DIRECTION
Growing up with a large extended family in Kalamazoo, Brown was ready to spread her wings after high school. She landed at American University in Washington, where she earned bachelor's and master's degrees in interdisciplinary studies. While working with a youth development nonprofit, she had a change in life circumstances.
"I was a single mom of two and I made the decision I didn't want to raise my children away from family, so I came back to Kalamazoo," Brown says.
At a crossroads in her life, Brown found herself reevaluating her priorities and looking for the best way to support her children.
"Luckily I am blessed to have wonderful family and a wonderful network of people that have been instrumental in helping me guide my life," says Brown. "
This time that guidance came from her cousin, a professor at Cornell University.
"She said, 'You've always sounded like an evaluator and you know that Western Michigan University has the best evaluation program in the country,'" says Brown, who admits it felt like serendipity having just moved back to Kalamazoo to put her life back together.
FINDING A HOME
With the help of her cousin, Brown secured interviews with the late Dr. Daniel Stufflebeam, professor emeritus and founder of the WMU Evaluation Center, and Dr. Chris Coryn, program director. She walked away eager to dive into the field of evaluation.
"I was kind of blown away by them," Brown says. "I was impressed by the way they thought, and they were very direct like I tend to be. I felt like I found my people."
WMU's Interdisciplinary Ph.D. in Evaluation program is the only doctoral program of its kind in the world.
"In many educational fields of study, you're kind of boxed in," says Brown. "The interdisciplinary nature of this program gave me more choice and made me much more invested in what I was learning and wanting to do it well, and it certainly helped me understand how to increase my productivity and efficiency."
Brown's professors were also invested in her success, understanding she was both a student and a parent. When she started the program, her oldest child was 1 year old and she was pregnant with her second.
"My son was born my first semester in the program right before the final. Then I had my third child while I was finishing my dissertation," says Brown, emphasizing how accommodating her professors and colleagues were.
"I couldn't afford childcare, so I brought my kids to class and I would just strap them in a carrier," says Brown, who also was able to keep a playpen in her office on campus. "Just being able to be in that kind of environment that allowed me to take care of what I needed to do for my family and build myself back up, and the skills I learned in the program, were so valuable."
DEVELOPING ENERGY STRATEGY
The work Brown did with firms while she was in WMU's program also helped her get recruited into the energy field, where she worked in the private sector developing strategy for products like electric vehicles, battery storage and other emerging technologies.
"They were looking for someone with my skills to be able to look into energy programs and use that understanding of methodology and statistics to weave data and information together."
Those skills helped land Brown a pivotal role in the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy as the state's first ever climate and energy advisor.
"Dr. Brown is a perfect fit for this new role at EGLE," says Liesl Clark, EGLE director. "Her expertise in the clean energy economy will inform our work coordinating state efforts on climate change, providing insight and recommendations on mitigation and adaption to climate change."
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