Serving During Crisis: A Case Study of Public Servants Demonstrating Engagement, Empathy, Equity, and Ethics

ID: 4079
School: School of Civic Leadership, Business, and Social Change
Program: Government
Status: Ongoing
Start date: December 2020
End Date: December 2021


The defining characteristic of 2020 is life interrupted. Across the globe, we have seen wholesale stay-at-home orders, closure of businesses and schools, loss of jobs and income, increases in intimate partner violence and mental health crises, decreases in routine health care, and declines in public service provision. Furthermore, 2020 has forced institutions across the administration spectrum to confront both the global pandemic and international attention to systemic racism in the United States. The burden of these interruptions largely falls on individuals to adapt, respond, and survive the changing dynamics. But inequalities sustained in our social and institutional systems of oppression are heightened during 2020. Just one example is how COVID-19 pandemic disproportionately affect historically marginalized communities, especially communities of color (CDC, 2020). These disproportionalities are made possible by racism at multiple levels, white supremacy, patriarchy, ableism, and more. As an applied discipline, public administration faces a reckoning regarding its roles in creating, maintaining, and perpetuating inequity in the public sector (i.e., government and nonprofit organizations) and society at large. But as a field of practice, for those that work in government or nonprofits: What are the skills that public administrators need in this time of profound crisis to respond and account for the systemic challenges? Historically, the values that have guided public administration were the traditional “Es”: efficiency, effectiveness, and economy (Hummel, 1991). But scholars note how these values do not provide ample support for either the type of micro-encounters typical of contemporary citizen-state interactions (Guy, 2019; Stout & Love, 2017; Zavattaro & Brainard, 2019) or the skills that contemporary public servants need to connect and respond to the communities they serve in (Dolamore et al., 2020; Edlins & Dolamore, 2018; Guy, 2019). This work explores the role of public administrators who promote a corrected set of “Es”: engagement, empathy, equity, and ethics. Through a series of qualitative interviews with American Sign Language interpreters, this research project aims to understand how this group of public administrators’ embraces a set of public service values fundamentally connected to the people they serve. The purpose of this work is to establish the lessons that other public servants can learn from sign language interpreters who performed important work during 2020, a year of tremendous crisis, for a group that is historically marginalized from public service, the D/deaf community.

Principal investigators

Priorities addressed

Approved Products


Dolamore, S., & Whitebread, G. (In)visible and (mis)understood: The public service work of American Sign Language (ASL) Interpreters during emergencies. Book chapter submission for Serving in Silence: The Unheard Stories of Essential Public Servants edited by Zavatarro, S., Sowa, J, Henderson, A., & Edwards, L.