Deb Volberg Pagnotta grew up in exactly the kind of environment that you’d think would lead to an interest in diversity. Born in the United States, she spent large parts of her childhood in Europe and Africa. Her daughter is Chinese. But Deb’s transition from government lawyer to diversity consultant to communications professor was anything but predictable.
Deb went to law school because she was interested in social justice; Clarence Darrow, she says, was one of her first heroes. After her first few years in private practice, in which she found herself in the uncomfortable but not rare position of working for a lawyer (a sole practitioner) with questionable ethics, Deb moved to the New York State Attorney General’s office. One of her first responsibilities, as a young female lawyer, was to defend the prison guards at Attica in the wake of some high-profile prison riots. She found herself spending much of her time with the guards and decided to teach them how to run a procedurally sound hearing. In doing so, she found that she enjoyed the process of training people. Her work was so successful that she soon found herself with a number of new job opportunities, and she moved to the environmental bureau. This, she says, was like finding family. She loved going out into the community and talking with people about local environmental issues. She excelled at making connections, which led to productive conversations. As she accepted promotion after promotion at the New York State Attorney General’s office and then the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation., she found that she always enjoyed the public education part of her work.
Her government work ended when a Republican governor took office. Soon after the regime change, Deb found herself with 24 hours left to clean out her own office. She decided to start her own practice, but had to change focus. Although she had years of experience in environmental affairs, she couldn’t litigate many of the key issues because she had worked on the government side. She turned instead to employment law and developed a successful sexual harassment training program. This, in turn, led to a diversity training practice. Years later, she collaborated with an artist to create diversityDNA, a phone app that launched in 2010 and has received over 75,000 hits on YouTube. It’s now a full-fledged interactice web app that allows users to create, compare and explore their diversityDNA profiles. She also started teaching courses here and there on communications to college students. Deb is now in her first year of full-time teaching communications advocacy and technology at Iona College, including courses on interpersonal and intercultural communication that use diversityDNA.
One thread I see running throughout Deb’s career is a passion for helping people work better together. I see this in her work with prison guards and her community outreach for the environmental bureau. Her work on diversity training and her development of the diversityDNA app may also stem in part from a desire to help people understand each other better. In a way, her current work teaching communication couldn’t be more fitting – but it’s certainly not something I think she or anyone else would have expected at the beginning of her career.
What specific parts of your work have you always been good at? Can those strengths help you figure out your next move?