“The Challenges Are the Opportunities; with Disruption Comes the Space to Rethink and Reimagine” – Meet the New MPA Director, Bobby Derival

The MPA Program is thrilled to welcome our new executive director, Bobby Derival. Bobby first came to the MPA Program as a guest lecturer in 2019. He quickly developed a meaningful bond with the students and demonstrated a strong commitment to the program’s mission of preparing the next generation of civic and global leaders to create transformative social change. A first-generation Haitian-American, Bobby holds master’s degrees in public health and international conflict resolution from Arcadia University. He brings more than eight years of executive experience in a Queens-based home health care provider that is committed to humanistic health care for vulnerable populations. Bobby serves as a board member at Hands Up for Haiti, an international public health nonprofit run and led by Haitians, and has also helped launch and implement public health projects in Thailand and Bangladesh.   

You’re a globally engaged citizen now leading a program that trains burgeoning leaders of social change. Tell me about what motivates you to dedicate your life to this type of work. 

The through-line of my education and background has been service to others. We are ourselves in service to others. Our unique talents and abilities that we are born with and that we develop over the course of our lives are in their best use when in service to others. I firmly believe this; it is one of those things that continually proves true to me. 

I wanted to get into public health because I saw impacting society and communities as perhaps more effective than impacting individuals on a one-to-one basis. I started off on the pre-med track and ended up enrolling in a graduate public health program, instead of attending medical school. My global perspective was transformed in another degree program that I did at the same time as my MPH that focused on international peace and conflict resolution. So my education has been this long arc of understanding how we as individuals fit into a larger framework of people, how we fit into society and our communities, and what we as individuals can do to improve our communities, through interpersonal relationships, through self-discovery, and through working on our systems and our institutions and the aspects of our society that serve other people. 

Tell me about when you first started teaching in the program: your guest lectures, your relationship with the students, and your connection to the program’s mission. 

It was a bit serendipitous. I had the opportunity to guest lecture for the American Governance and Public Administration course in the MPA Program. The students taught me a lot about the thirst for knowledge that drives emerging changemakers. It was euphoric to be surrounded by this energy. I felt a very real sense of activism, and I also felt a very sincere and serious yearning to understand the world as my students saw it. To me, it absolutely captured my spirit, and it really shifted for me what I thought my vocation would be while I was here on this planet. I recognized this moment in my life as a point where my north star shifted. As I became more aware of the principles for which CCNY is founded, I felt myself called to the program. 

We are amidst an unprecedented global pandemic. Additionally, recently we saw a series of acts of police brutality and the protests that have arisen. What unique challenges and opportunities does this context provide for our students and our program? 

One unique aspect of this context is the diversity of the student body at CCNY more generally as well as within our program. We have students who are either first-generation or second-generation Americans or who come from marginalized communities; including LGBTQ+ individuals as well as other marginalized communities. Their worldview, their perspective is shaped by the experiences that they, their friends, their peers, their parents have lived through. Their experiences are uniquely couched in this societal upheaval. 

The way I think about it is that there is no better way to address tension or conflict in our lives than to face it head on. The challenges are the opportunities; with disruption comes the space to rethink and reimagine. For the students this means that you can choose to see this as a difficult time start a career or advance yourself, or you can choose to see this as the right time get involved and instigate positive change. That is where you, as students, can find agency in the moment. The choice is yours. Likewise, for the program, there is no better time than now to demonstrate the need for public sector leaders who are attuned to the needs of our most vulnerable communities, and to equip emerging leaders with the tools to effectuate transformative change. 

People are seeing the connections among the issues, among racism, police brutality, poverty, the disproportionate impact of the pandemic, and more. Throughout your studies and your career, you have worked at the intersection of issues. Talk to me about the interdisciplinary, intersectional approach. 

The problems that we see represent what a professor of mine referred to as emergent complexity. Our social system, the systemic nature of our challenges and our issues and how they manifest in society, are not easily explained as “it’s just complicated” – no, this is emergent complexity. These are unique interactions, many of which are designed, while others can be categorized as collateral or unintended consequences; regardless, they operate within systems, and they can be traced back to root causes, to biases, to ways of thinking and understanding that are not naturally represented or obvious to many people who go through these experiences.   

Something we often see is that if you want to effect positive change in one area, you usually have to deal with and collaborate in multiple other areas. We see this with environmental justice, for example, and the need to have an understanding from the perspectives of engineers and architects in addition to political perspectives and the social context. The MPA Program itself is an interdisciplinary program for that exact reason. I think we have a unique and fundamental understanding that it’s a holistic approach that traverses many different areas that will determine the success of a particular policy outcome or of community organizing objectives. My unique background, and my education, having a dual master’s degree, embodies the interdisciplinary approach that’s needed in so many of our current professions, particularly those that are at the forefront of social change. 

You also bring experience in both the private sector and the nonprofit sector. Tell me about the relationship between these sectors and what it tells us about the professional landscape for public servants. 

I think that we’ve seen some convincing movement in certain areas of the private sector, where public service values such as sustainability, equity and inclusion, or social impact have achieved greater prominence. I think that we’ve seen an evolution in how business leaders think about change and think about their employees and their consumers. And just looking at the space of social entrepreneurism, I think we’ve seen tremendous growth in utilizing the private sector as a tool to move progressive agendas forward with regard to social equity. Coming from a for-profit entity that works specifically in the space of delivering services to vulnerable communities, I do agree and believe in the private sector as a unique engine for growth in the space of social justice or social equity. 

At the same time, I think we’ve seen a lot of unsavory components of the private sector and our capitalistic structure at large. Every day we see catastrophic abuses of power. We have seen how corporate values become more entrenched and frankly more harmful to the general public.

All of this means that the professional landscape for our graduates will have some degree of ambiguity. We need to start rethinking and reimagining how these different sectors interplay with each other and what roles they play in our larger system. It’s important to remember, as we talk about systemic issues, that public and private entities operate within the system. Once we understand their unique motivations and interests and the ways those interests conflict with each other, it’s our job, then, to investigate those complexities, investigate the nuance, and investigate the disconnect between values and practice, across all sectors. This is where an MPA Program like ours can be truly effective.

You have worked extensively in Haiti, where your parents are from, as well as Southeast Asia and New York City. What is a commonality that you see among the social issues in different parts of the globe?

I can talk about two experiences that shaped me as a global citizen and that I carry with me now in my work at CCNY. 

I spent six months interning at a public health organization in the north of Thailand, which is much more rural than what everybody knows in Bangkok. While in Chiang Mai, I got to see up close and personally what community health looked like and also what community organizing looked like. That right there is one of the first commonalities that I see across so many different cultures, but also across so many different social issues. What is the ability for organizations and community participants – the organizations, community leaders, politicians, business leaders, workers and everyday people – what agency do they have in their own betterment? Shadowing the program director, I realized that the program was not effective unless there was tremendous buy-in and input from the beneficiaries of your program. They have to be designers; they have to be participants. So we did a ton of focus groups, a ton of surveys, a ton of interviews with various rural communities to identify how we could build a more effective breast cancer screening program. A lot of the solutions and ideas were actually generated from the bottom, and they make their way up to the top, as opposed to the other way around. I think it’s entirely different to talk about this bottom-up approach, versus to live that ideal and to rely on that as a process and to systematize that as we design community interventions. So that’s one commonality: the community is where the solutions base typically is – it’s with the people. You generate solutions from those who are most affected by the social issues. 

My work in Haiti has highlighted a second commonality that I see, which is human suffering. Human suffering in all its forms connects us across cultures and nationalities. Poverty and inequality take root in different ways in Haiti and in the US, and pandemic of drug addiction have ravaged both white, rural communities and urban communities of color. The through-line for all of this is human suffering. As social changemakers, that is one of the most visceral ways that we understand our world: through the eyes of those who suffer the most. What I think we always need to remember is that we all suffer. We all process and deal with suffering in different ways. One of the unique forms of value that we can help add in our relationships with other people is to help them along in their process and allow them to help us along our process of working through suffering and trauma. Our ability to dialogue, our ability to connect our individual suffering and trauma, will help us to create better institutions. Institutions that are empathic, and that respect the whole person. The disconnect – when we talk past each other, which every culture struggles with, drives us to create institutions that do harm.  

What gives you hope in the coming years, in the MPA Program as well as in society more broadly? 

I find hope in people. For all the bad news and bad happenings that we see around us, we still see kindness and compassion. We see people who are still dedicated to voting, dedicated to their own vocations, to their own unique expressions of their talents or their strengths. Right now healthcare workers are sacrificing so much of themselves to fulfill their vocation. We see protesters marching for racial justice. We see people risking it all to make the world around them better. We see people committing themselves to noble causes. That comes from acts of love: love of self, love of the other, love for the betterment of this world. This gives me hope that people believe in the power of their own existence. People know that they matter.

Find out more about Executive Director Bobby Derival and about the students, faculty, and alumni of the MPA Program at CCNY

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