Staff Spotlight: Ann Verhey-Henke

Ann Verhey-Henke recently met with Storyteller Malin Andersson to talk about her role as C-SED’s Strategic Director and what she is looking forward to this year.

Story by Malin Andersson

How/why did you become involved with C-SED?

Erin Moore and I used to work at the School of Public Health where we ran the Innovation in Action (IiA) program (which is now administered by C-SED). To help students prepare for the IiA Final Showcase we ran practice pitch sessions.  We invited people from U-M’s creativity and innovation community to give thoughtful feedback to students. C-SED staff members Christie Donohue and Charlie Michaels were part of that group. They were great at giving thoughtful, kind feedback and their perspective added to the learning for the student teams. It was great!  

After one practice pitch session, Erin, Christie, Charlie, and I talked about our programs and how we fit into the overall U-M ecosystem. We had a lot in common in values and approaches to working with students. We joked at the time “wow, we do a lot of the same things… Maybe we should be the same?” That joke became reality when Erin and I became a part of C-SED in the fall of September 2018.

My other primary connection with C-SED prior to joining the team was through a previous role I had at the University in the Office of University Development.  In that role, I supported faculty who wanted to approach large foundations for funding to support their research work. This is how I met Kathleen Sienko, one of C-SED’s founders. I supported her and a doctoral student  apply for funding from the Gates Foundation.  Kathleen introduced me to Steve Skerlos and through many conversations, Steve convinced me that C-SED would be a great place for me – and he was right! And that’s my coming-to-C-SED story! 

Describe your role:

As the Strategic Director, my role is to support C-SED in developing and implementing its strategy to teach, research, and put socially engaged design into practice. My job is to make sure we’re aligned with the College of Engineering’s mission and the University of Michigan’s mission while ensuring that the programming we develop meets the needs of students and faculty. 

What has challenged you in your role at C-SED? 

My hesitancy in coming to C-SED was because I am not an engineer. I was drawn to C-SED both through my interactions with Charlie and Christy, as well as numerous conversations with Steve. He saw that engineers needed non-engineers and that my non-engineering skill set and expertise were an asset. Steve’s overall enthusiasm for bringing different forms of creativity, innovation, and design into the College was both inspiring and believable and has yet to ring false in my 3 ½ years with C-SED. 

It’s been a cool challenge to think about what interdisciplinarity looks like in engineering. If we believe that Engineering is both technical and social we need to find ways to infuse the social aspects into what is often taught as purely technical. The challenges that engineering seeks to address are human and often behavioral and if technology ends up being the best path forward to addressing a specific challenge, that technology needs technical expertise and an understanding of how people can and will use it. How do you get both in thoughtful ways without undervaluing one or overvaluing the other? How do we see the experts in social sciences and humanities as equal members of a team?

Which aspects of your role give you the most energy? 

Where I get an energy boost is in designing experiences that help people navigate how their expertise contributes to a bigger vision and that together we’re greater than the sum of our parts.

I enjoy being a person who’s creating the space for conversations, supports the conversation, and facilitates those conversations in an equitable and thoughtful way. I want people to come out feeling energized, excited, and ready to see the world in a slightly different way than they did when they walked into that experience. This isn’t always easy or energizing, but if we don’t solve this complexity and tension between the social and the technical, the world will continue to look like it does. 

What can someone come to talk to you about (areas of passion/expertise)?

I enjoy thinking through a challenge a student, staff, or faculty member is having. I listen and ask questions. 

I also like to geek out over the designing of experiences. I love thinking about how you can bring a group together through the use of new tools, methods and facilitation techniques. You can ask me about all things Ann Arbor – especially good places to eat. You can also ask me about my kids, my husband, and my two yellow labs. I have a daughter who is a freshman at U-M and a son who is a sophomore in high school. 

What have you learned in your role?

I have learned that the things worth doing are not always easy, but with an amazing team, it is both fun and worth it. I have learned how adaptable we are.  The adaptability of our team to transform everything we did online was really inspiring. I am constantly re-affirmed in the power of meeting people where they are. Taking the time to find where people are and meeting them there makes their journey better and your journey with them better. 

Also, I learned Charlie Michaels is super fun to travel with. We are well-matched travelers. Before COVID,  we were traveling a lot. We have a similar travel philosophy: we love finding and sharing good food. 

What advice would you give yourself as you began this role? 

The thing that came first to mind was “you’ll be surprised how much you will love it at Michigan Engineering. It  will be the right place for you.” My career trajectory has been so weird that it’s hard for me to ever give people advice on how to get here. I would say “embrace the varied path as it presents itself to you. Diverging to learn new things only benefits you.” 

Any unexpected parts of the job that have surprised you?

If you would have told me in 2016 that I would take a job at the College of Engineering and that I would love it and be inspired by the leadership and my team, I would not have believed you. 

Also, if you told me that, through this job, I would be standing next to a nuclear reactor, I would not have believed you. To prepare for a class project, Charlie and I went to Idaho National Labs where our nation’s nuclear research happens, and stood there, as two non-engineers, asking each other, “did you ever think this could happen?” 

What is one project you have really enjoyed working on?

Last August, I facilitated a “Design Sprint” around the College of Engineering’s desire to have an equity-centered engineering focus. Our goal was and continues to be infusing diversity, equity, and inclusion across all our work.  One of the challenges for the Associate Dean for Undergraduate Education Joanna Millunchick has been knowing the need to slow down and consult expertise outside of engineering to be aware of how white supremacy culture drives us to do things that actually can create more harm than good. She was put in a position of knowing she had the pieces of an idea, but not having the framework ready to go. I  suggested a Design Sprint. 

 I hadn’t done a Design Sprint since I was at the School for Public Health but I offered to design it with her. She brought in people with different expertise – from cultural anthropology to community engagement and I had the honor to facilitate a four-day conversation, and support the team to develop a framework. It matched all the things I love to do: bringing diverse groups of people together, facilitating them, helping them be creative and diverge in their thinking before then converging again to figure out what they wanted to do. It was just enough conversation for clarity and idea generation but not too much to get off track. It was really fun.

Their prototype was a slide deck –  a visual image of their proposed framework. On the last day, we asked 6 people to interact with and respond to the prototype. I love this model of immediate feedback because, although they are excited about the framework they’ve developed, it wasn’t ‘precious’ yet – the way an idea you’ve spent months on often is. They had three days and then boom – real feedback.

The feedback was, for the most part, really positive. There was excitement and clarity on how the framework could work at the college. It doesn’t always turn out that way – it’s equally awesome when people don’t resonate with your idea. Then, you know not to pursue that path.  

This week was highly energizing and rewarding for me and for the team. It was amazing to have the dedicated time and space to make a leap forward together.  A dedicated week towards something is rare.

Any design tools recommendations?

I love Game Storming. I also love this website called Session Lab. You can also sign up to receive occasional newsletters from Session Lab that highlight a design tool and facilitator tips.  

Name a social justice topic you are passionate about and why.

My mother will tell you that I have always been social justice-oriented. The things for which I get most passionate have usually been focused on women and gender rights. I was born in the year that Title IX was enacted so I have had an affinity for women’s access to health. 

I’ve also been having conversations around anti-racism and racial justice issues for 40 years. I was part of the first-ever “Understanding and Sharing Our Diversity” program at Huron High School here in Ann Arbor where we became peer facilitators on questions of race and racial justice. Then, I went to graduate school in the South Side of Chicago which is a very racially segregated area of Chicago. My school had a big urban ministry program where my passion for racial justice grew. 

The list could really go on, but the issues I’ve been most attached to are around gender and race.

What do you do outside of C-SED? 

I love to spend time with my family and go on hikes with my two Labrador retrievers. They’re Yellow Labs – Rosie and Gus. But Rosie is getting old, so I mostly go on hikes with Gus. I also love to read books and cook.


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