Susan Stewart: How Choosing PGS Restored a Dream Deferred

Incoming Master of Public Administration (MPA) degree candidate Susan K. Stewart embodies what it means to be a Presidian. Stewart is a remarkable leader and an accomplished Deputy Attorney General with more than fifteen years of experience contributing pragmatic and progressive legal acumen to public and private practice roles. She is the kind of forward-thinking, world-shaker that PGS is proud to have the opportunity to cultivate over the next few years. In fact, we would not be surprised if Susan plays as much of a formative role in the development of the MPA program as we do in the shaping of her future career. We are incredibly grateful to Susan for taking the time to share her professional journey and her decision to ultimately pursue her MPA here.

MR: Thanks so much for taking some time to talk with us, Susan. What inspired you to pursue a career in jurisprudence? 

Susan: I went to law school to save the world, driven by the knowledge that equal justice for all is a fiction. There are two justice systems in the United States: one for those with money and one for those without it. The two systems are unequal. In law school, I focused on trial advocacy and worked at the school’s free legal clinic.

I was working toward a career as a public defender, defending people who could not afford to pay for an attorney. I had hoped that my dedication and work ethic would balance out the lack of available resources to so many charged with a crime.

MR: Yours is a noble calling, indeed. Can you share some experiences that shaped your understanding of the socio-economic biases in the justice system? 

Susan: When I interned at the San Diego Public Defender’s Office, I saw firsthand the disparity between the haves and the have nots. If you are charged with a crime, and you or your family do not have money to post bail, you stay in jail pending trial. The consequences are devastating. These individuals lose their jobs, cannot pay their rent, lose their housing, and completely upend the entire family. In stark contrast are those with resources. If you or your family have money or property, you can post bail and are free to resume your life. Within days of arrest, these individuals go to work, pay their bills, see their children and sleep in their own beds. It is a cruel slap in the face to our justice system’s foundation of innocent until proven guilty.

Once jailed, the pressure to accept a plea bargain is immediate and relentless. Admit you committed a crime and you can go home. Of course, you go home with a criminal record. The Public Defender’s Office wanted our clients to insist upon a jury trial and make the prosecution prove the crime as charged. Unfortunately, this meant that our clients spent more time in jail. All defendants are entitled to a “speedy trial,” but when faced with losing their job, family, and home it is akin to “Sophie’s choice,” choosing between a criminal record or longer jail time with only the hope of a successful trial.

MR: How did you end up at the Office of the Nevada Attorney General? 

Susan: After I graduated law school and passed the California Bar exam, reality set in. I was $90,000 in debt, in the middle of an economic downturn and a San Diego County hiring freeze. I took the first job I was offered—a private law firm specializing in construction law. Everything on my desk was a problem and a fight. It was not a good fit, but I had bills to pay.

My desire to save the world was put on hold. I channeled my need to help by mentoring young women to re-enter school and rebuild their lives.

Then, I left private practice in 2006 and began my career with the Nevada Attorney General’s Office. I chose to leave private practice in the interest of creating more of a work-life balance. In private practice, the reward for good work is more work! (Sure, that means more money, too, but there is little emphasis on the work-life balance). Money has never been the primary motivation. I would say I’m more purpose-driven. In private practice, women pay the price at home and at work. You can never be at home enough and you can never be at work enough.

Susan and her daughter Ruby

As a new mom (my daughter, Ruby, was born in 2003), I was finding that my SoCal commute and private practice job just didn’t fit with my version of motherhood. There is a reason why there are a lot of women in government. It provides a challenging career driven by good work, not profit (or at least that has been my experience). Plus, my mom and several relatives are local to Nevada, which made the final decision to move easy.

MR: Can you tell us about your time with the Office of the Nevada Attorney General? 

Susan: In 2008 I was promoted to Construction Law Counsel for the State Public Works Division. At the time, the Division had an $800 million biennial budget and had lost several lawsuits resulting in attorney’s fees, and multimillion-dollar judgments. The Nevada Legislature created my position as the construction law expert to guide the Division through the construction of multi-million-dollar projects, avoiding litigation and ultimately minimizing the risk associated with these projects.

From start to finish, a Nevada construction project involves the State Public Works Board, the State Public Works Division, Building Official, Governor’s Office, Governor’s Finance Office, Treasurer’s Office, Legislature, and hundreds of employees that work for each of these agencies. Every project requires compliance with multiple layers of bureaucracy, statutes, and regulations and the project must be completed on time, within scope, and on budget. I started at the Division with over 80 employees, 99% of them men.

Initially, I became part of the team because the Division needed my help. But I stayed on the team because I was a part of the solution. I also built a team outside of the Division. In government, there are employees who find a way, and employees who find an excuse. I was the former, and I found similar employees and built a network of resources throughout the State government.

MR: Being a part of the solution is always the way to go. Was there ever a time in which the path solution was more difficult than expected? 

Susan: In 2009, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) appropriated millions of dollars to states, including Nevada, to offset jobs lost during the Great Recession. Nevada received approximately $13 million dollars for Energy Efficiency and Energy Renewable projects. Moving forward required an understanding of the ARRA legislation, the United States Department of Energy guidance, and the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) directives. At the same time, my client was investigating the type and location of projects that met the funding criteria. Nevada’s portion of the funding was allocated to the Governor’s Office of Energy (GOE). The GOE is a policy-driven agency and unfamiliar with Nevada construction law. Without any understanding of the ARRA legislation, OMB directives, and the Federal Department of Energy’s guidance, the GOE pressured SPWD to execute contracts for the installation of solar panels. The GOE was only focused on moving quickly.

MR: How did you overcome this clashing of interests? 

Susan: In my personal life and my career, I decided I would rather be happy than right. People need to feel important, heard, and respected, even if I think they are wrong. I have learned that to shift the dynamic and move toward consensus, I must first accept my faults and missteps. I rarely tackle an issue head-on because a fight does not advance the ball. Working with the GOE, I discussed my concerns regarding executing contracts without a full understanding of the ARRA program. I acknowledged their motives (move fast) and explained we all want to build energy renewable projects. I am not always successful, and in those times, I expand my team. My client understood and supported my position and with my client’s knowledge I reached out to the Governor’s Office (everyone’s boss). Eventually, SPWD was assigned control of the ARRA projects. With input from my client, I wrote new contracts to accommodate Nevada and ARRA requirements, and a federal audit of selected projects did not find a single error.

MR: Susan, you have accomplished so much and served others in an immeasurable way. What drew you to apply for and pursue an MPA at PGS? 

Susan:  I love serving the State of Nevada, but it’s time to find my next chapter. I want to get back on track with my goal to save the world. Presidio Graduate School is the place where I can pursue my passion to create good schools and help ensure a quality education for all children. The experiential learning foundation of the MPA program is a big part of why I chose it.

MR: That’s wonderful to hear. Please tell us about the project you will be undertaking during the program 

Susan: My project at Presidio Graduate School will focus on changing how schools are funded so that every school is a “good school.” I plan to explore states and countries that provide equal education for all children. What works? It will be imperative to:

  • Establish that these inequities were created by racist government housing policies and that it is time for corrective government action.
  • Develop and propose legislation to the Nevada state legislature to address our abysmal education system.

In 2019, Nevada ranked 50th in public education, up from a four-year low where it ranked last. The difference in the starting line for American schoolchildren is stunning. My mother was a teacher and at one point had a student starting first grade that knew one letter: X.

In our country, we have accepted that there are “good schools” and “bad schools.” A history of government-implemented segregated housing has created two levels of education in our country. “Good schools” are in wealthy neighborhoods and supported by property taxes associated with that wealth. “Bad schools” are in poorer neighborhoods created by government policies, composed of black and brown children. Because these schools are supported in part by local property taxes, they’re not funded at the same level as those situated in more affluent neighborhoods.

MR: Wow. Your mother’s experience teaching in the Nevada school system seems to have really shaped your project. Can you tell us more about what you learned from her experience? 

Susan: The school at which my mother taught was largely composed of children from Spanish-speaking families. Often, they would enter the first grade without knowing their letters or numbers, yet they were expected to keep pace with the other children. I was struck by the disparity in terms of the starting line for these children compared to the other children who came from wealthier, English-speaking families. Despite the very different starting points, there is a clear societal pressure for the teachers in the United States to get these students to finish on time. When this doesn’t happen, everyone looks at the teacher and asks him/her “What did you do wrong?” instead of looking at where the child had started from and progressed. My mom saw a lot of progress, but it was not fast enough, according to societal expectations.

My proposed project at PGS is still very much a germ of an idea. Simply put, I was and continue to be continuously struck by the fact that there is a constant call for and focus on “BETTER EDUCATION! BETTER EDUCATION!” Yet, those calling for this change have not taken into account that the problem is already incredibly large and there are other factors involved. We must acknowledge the fact that kids are having problems with truancy and acting out as a result of trauma associated with early childhood experiences. So the rallying cry cannot simply be “BETTER EDUCATION.” It must include avenues in which to give these children the same opportunities and support when they enter the school system.

During my time at PGS, I am going to explore how to ameliorate the situation and create meaningful changes in the system to combat this systematic, long-term challenge.

MR: Susan, your goals are laudable. How will you strike a workable balance between your professional and academic career and still have time for a personal life? 

Susan: That’s the beauty of the PGS program being online and part-time! Balancing my project and returning to school will be a challenge. But I love and welcome a challenge. My work is an important part of my life, but I have always made room for family and fun.

For the past 10 years, I have been competing in triathlons. As a two-time Ironman finisher, I know how to juggle family, work, and fun. In fact, I made a promise to myself that I would continue to make health and exercise priorities during my time at PGS. At the age of 45, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. This event changed me in a big way. Thankfully, I am now in full remission, but the lessons that I learned about taking care of my body have carried over into my present. During my training and meditation practice, I repeat this mantra: “Show up. Do my best. Don’t judge.”

Susan and her daughter after completing an Ironman race.

I hope to carry this mentality into my work at PGS. There is still so much for me to learn, but I will be kind to myself and meet myself where I am. As long as I show up and do my best, there isn’t any sense in judging myself! Judgment only stands in the way of meaningful progress.

Leading a meaningful life is important to me. I am seeking to have the same level of meaning in my career that I have in my personal life, and I know with a Master of Public Administration degree from PGS I can pursue my passion and save the world.

MR: Susan, congratulations on your admission to PGS! We can’t wait to see what you do next! We’d love an update from you about your project as you move forward. 

Susan: Thank you, I’m excited to be a Presidian and join this amazing community. And yes, definitely, I’ll be happy to share more about the project in the future!

Looking to follow in Susan’s footsteps and join our tight-knit community of change agents? Learn more about our MBAMPADual Degree, and Certificate programs, and then start a conversation with us!