Wade Norwood ’85 vividly recalls the exhilaration he felt taking his first college courses in political science, philosophy, history, and literature. “I was able to bring my whole self to my course of study, to draw on my own experience, and to engage with the academic material to really build arguments that I could support and defend.”
He believes all young people should have that experience, and it should begin well before college. As the pace of technological and social change accelerates, he says, “we don’t need an educational process that teaches people how to regurgitate information, but teaches people how to think and how to engage with sources of information.”
This spring presented Norwood with an unusual opportunity to put his vision for education into practice. In March, the New York legislature elected him a member of the state’s Board of Regents, a 17-member body that oversees state educational policy as it is shaped in the Department of Education and carried out at primary and secondary schools, public universities, and cultural institutions.
Norwood understands well the ways in which the economic, physical, and mental health of children and adolescents are reflected in educational outcomes. His regent’s role, he says, “is very much connected with the community development work that I have always done in my public life.” That work includes 15 years on the Rochester City Council, and three more at the Finger Lakes Health Systems Agency, an independent local health planning organization. As FLHSA’s director of community engagement, Norwood helps to bring a community voice to local health care decisions to improve service in some of the poorest areas of Rochester.
The majority of the regents represent one of the state’s 12 judicial districts, with five regents, including Norwood, serving at large. Norwood plans to be an influential advocate for upstate New York and for the Rochester City School District, which faces multiple challenges, including some of the highest poverty and dropout rates in the state. His top priorities are helping to achieve funding equity between poor and wealthy districts, and to address what he sees as an unfair distribution of resources between upstate and downstate. “These are the two challenges that will define the direction of the New York State educational system in the next decade,” he says.
Norwood’s election to the board is the latest development in a highly visible career in politics and public policy. “It has been a long and winding road,” says the 44-year-old.
A political science major at Rochester, Norwood was on the fast track to a career in local politics even before graduation. He participated in several internships, but the one he says inspired him the most was in the office of state Assemblyman David Gantt, an opportunity he obtained through the Semester in Albany program sponsored by the political science department.
“I really think it was the undergraduate internship experience that created my career path,” Norwood says. After graduation, he joined the paid staff of Gantt—now the dean of the Rochester state delegation—whose district encompassed a broad swath of Rochester as well as the western suburb of Gates.
Four years later, Norwood was elected to the Rochester City Council, becoming one of the youngest members in its history. In 2005, he made a highly anticipated bid for mayor. But local Democrats were divided between Norwood and another candidate, and Norwood lost the race.
As he begins his unpaid regent’s position, Norwood says he will continue working to give minorities greater access to health care through his role at FLHSA. He also plans to remain engaged with the University. He has co-taught a course, spoken on multiple occasions to classes and student groups, and serves on the Rush Rhees Library board.
His most cherished ties to the University, however, are personal. He is married to Lisa Hardy Norwood ’86, ’95W (MS), an assistant dean in the Edmund A. Hajim School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, whom he met when they were both student workers at Rush Rhees Library. Their son, Stephen, completed his freshman year in the College this spring. A younger sister, Walisa Norwood Griffin ’92, is a counselor at the Office of Minority Student Affairs, and their mother, Mary Lou Griffin, worked most of her adult life as a nurse at Strong Memorial Hospital.
Of that “long and winding road,” Norwood says: “It has been a very fruitful path that really does remain rooted in Meliora—betterment of myself, betterment of my community, and betterment of the world in which we live.”