CC Magazine welcomes your Class Notes submissions. Please include your name, class year, email, and physical address for verification purposes. Please note that CC Magazine reserves the right to edit for space and clarity. Thank you.
Veronica Venture ’86 protects civil liberties and equality within the department charged with securing the nation.
By Amy Martin
custom superhero bobblehead sits atop a bookshelf in her office. A superhero because Veronica “Ronnie” Venture’86 fights daily for the rights of nearly a quarter million U.S. Department of Homeland Security employees, as well as every single member of the American public.
“Someone gave that to me,” says Venture, DHS’s Deputy Officer for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties and Director of Equal Employment Opportunity and Diversity.
“It’s supposed to look like me. I’m not sure it does, but it’s supposed to.”
Within a massive organization charged with safeguarding America from myriad threats to national security, Venture works to preserve individual liberty, fairness and equality under the law. She wears a red power blazer instead of a cape, but in a world where terrorist attacks occur nearly daily, and security and liberty are often at odds, championing civil rights is no easy task.
DHS is the federal government’s third-largest cabinet department. It is made up of agencies with varied responsibilities related to security, including Citizenship and Immigration Services, Customs and Border Protection, the Coast Guard, Federal Emergency Management Agency, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Transportation Security Administration and the Secret Service.
Venture’s work is twofold. She is responsible for ensuring equity for each of DHS’s 240,000 employees—from border patrol agents to helicopter pilots to cybersecurity analysts—as well as for the members of the general public who interact with these government employees on a daily basis.
She’s been busy lately.
On Aug. 17, Hurricane Harvey slammed Texas as a Category 4 storm, setting new records for rainfall and causing catastrophic flooding. Less than two weeks later, Hurricane Irma ravaged the Caribbean before making landfall in Florida. Then, Hurricane Maria devastated the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico.
“It was wild—we had a whole bunch of disasters at once. FEMA was responding, the Coast Guard—our office even sent people to help with disaster relief,” Venture says.
Over the span of 25 days, FEMA and partner organizations deployed tens of thousands of personnel across 270,000 square miles, and the response to Maria in Puerto Rico became the longest sustained air mission of food and water in FEMA history.
In the worst of disasters, Venture is thinking about those who might be left behind.
“We worked a lot with FEMA on providing services to those with disabilities,” she says. “For example, when we hear about shelters not taking service dogs, we have to remind them, ‘This isn’t a pet. This person needs this dog.’”
In Puerto Rico, where many were—and still are—without power in their homes, FEMA was broadcasting most emergency announcements over the radio.
“We have to stop and think, ‘What about people who are deaf or hard of hearing? How are they going to get these important messages?’”
Taking on the powerful
Each year, the DHS Office of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties reviews as many as 3,000 complaints from members of the public. Some, like the one made by neuroscientist Malaika Singleton against the TSA in 2013, make national news. Singleton, a black woman, said that while she was passing through security at Los Angeles International Airport on her way to London, TSA agents squeezed, pulled and patted down her hair, which she wore in a stylized form of dreadlocks known as “sisterlocks.” When the same thing happened during her return through Minneapolis–Saint Paul International Airport, she contacted the American Civil Liberties Union and learned that one of the lawyers there had similar experiences. The two filed a formal complaint.
“If African-American women are being pulled aside so agents can look through their hair, the big questions is: Is there a racial element at play here, or are the agents just following proper procedure?” Venture says.
Adopting procedures that are fair and equitable and that respect individual liberties at the outset is in the best interests of the agencies and employees who are carrying them out, Venture says. She encourages divisions and managers to work with her office to hone their procedures, before complaints are made.
“I always say, ‘Call me now and get advice. Because if I have to call you later, it’s going to be an unpleasant conversation.’”
In response to Singleton’s complaint, the TSA agreed to retrain agents at both airports to ensure they are upholding the organization’s “commitment to race neutrality” in security screenings. It also agreed to track complaints about excessive hair searches at other airports to make sure black women aren’t being singled out.
Venture is quick to point out that DHS employees have a responsibility to uphold the law, and that the vast majority of the time they are following policies and procedures that have been carefully developed. Her office does significant public outreach to help members of the public better understand the work of DHS, and to let them know that the Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties is there in cases where procedures weren’t followed or where the procedures themselves need review.
While working with the general public is perhaps Venture’s favorite part of the job, much of her work is internal. She is an expert in federal EEO processes and diversity management, so when DHS employees feel they are being discriminated against, they come to her.
“Every once in a while, it’s blatant. But most of the time, it’s more subtle,” Venture says of discrimination in the workplace. “It’s rarely a single interaction; instead, things happen and you start to recognize a pattern.”
When employees make formal complaints, they are investigated within the specific component of DHS and then land on Venture’s desk for adjudication. But Venture prefers to mediate situations before they get to that point.
“We’ve made it mandatory for managers to sit down and talk if the employee requests it,” Venture says. “Most don’t realize how their actions are impacting other people. A lot of them are surprised; they never intended their actions to be taken that way.”
Still, Venture says, “some managers are never going to get it.” And despite EEO laws, better training and changing societal norms about the workplace, discrimination and harassment are still rampant everywhere. The #MeToo movement and high-profile cases of workplace sexual harassment and assault in politics, film and news are evidence of that, Venture says.
“It’s a really interesting time, and I’m glad to see so many people coming forward. It’s never easy for the employee, but we can’t discipline perpetrators if no one comes forward.”
‘You talk funny’
Venture sees her work as fighting for the underdog, and that comes naturally to her. She’s been doing it since she was five, when her family immigrated to Long Island, New York, from her birthplace in Guyana, South America.
“I had an accent, so, kids being kids, they would say things to me like, ‘You talk funny.’ I started sticking up for myself, and then for other people, and I sort of started to bully the bullies,” she says. “My mom got nervous and sent me to Catholic school.”
In school, Venture excelled in math and science and was recruited to apply to the U.S. Coast Guard Academy. She spent a week on campus but quickly decided that “getting up at 5 a.m. and having people yell in my face wasn’t for me.”
Instead, Venture looked across the street.
“I thought, ‘What’s that place?’”
That place, of course, was Connecticut College. Venture applied and was granted enough scholarship money to attend. At Conn, she found she was one of only a handful of students of color in her class.
“I went to predominantly white Catholic schools, but it was still a shock,” she says.
A government and English major, Venture was active in Conn’s chapter of Society Organized Against Racism, and she participated in the 1986 takeover of Fanning Hall that led to more concerted efforts to recruit underrepresented students to the college. After graduation, she worked for a year in the humanities department, then went to law school at American University. She had dreams of campaigning for international human rights at the United Nations but also learned that those jobs typically went to lawyers with, well, experience.
Instead, Venture began her career as a law clerk with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and subsequently worked her way up to EEO director. After 12 years, Venture, who jokes that she suffers from a form of “professional ADHD,” took a position as the assistant director of EEO for the FBI.
“That was another culture shock,” Venture remembers of her first day on the job. “Here’s me, who comes from ... a civil rights background, and I walk into a meeting and every person there has an ankle holster strapped to their leg. I’d never shot a gun. I’d never even held a gun.”
Venture spent nine years at the FBI, serving under Robert Mueller, before taking the position at DHS in 2011. It’s an impressive career for someone who, in many ways, remains the underdog.
“At the FBI, I was often the only woman, only person of color in the room. And I was the ‘civil rights person.’ I had to fight to get a seat at the table,” she says.
Still, Venture says 27 years in government have left her with a tremendous respect for law enforcement and those who serve in public positions.
“People don’t like the FBI, the police, DHS—they say, ‘Oh, you are spying on us!’ As government employees, we are often criticized for doing our jobs,” she says. “But people who do this work don’t get paid like they do in the private sector—they aren’t doing it for money. They are doing it because they have a sense of duty; they want to serve the people.”
Venture’s mission is to make sure they balance the need for security with respect for civil liberties.
“We aren’t going to stop screening people,” she says. “But we need to screen them fairly in a way that is justifiable.”