Alumni Spotlight: Christine Oakley

Chris is pictured from the shoulders up and smiling towards the camera.
Christine Oakley.

In this Alumni Spotlight, we catch up with Christine Oakley. Chris graduated with her PhD from WSU in 2000, with a focus on public health and organizations. She went on to use her sociological training in a variety of ways. Today, she is using it to help people and improve lives in Whitman County; she is president of United Way of Whitman County, involved with the Palouse Alliance for Healthy Individuals, Families, and Communities, as well as the Pine Creek Community Restoration Long-Term Recovery Organization, working to help the community rebuild following the devastating wildfire in 2020.

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Tom: To begin, please tell us about your background and your graduate school experience.

Chris: I am what some would call a late bloomer. I had a life before graduate school. I have a master’s degree in public health and was working in public health for almost 10 years before I reached the limits of that degree and wanted to continue my education. My undergraduate degree is in sociology from University of California at San Diego. I love the discipline and so I thought I would rather go back to school in sociology than continue on in public health, even though health related issues are important to me. I was in my forties at the time, and it was very practical because WSU let me in with an assistantship, while the other schools I got into did not guarantee money. Armand Mauss was the graduate director at the time and called to offer me a position as a graduate student. I said, “Let me think about that for a minute. I have UT Austin on my radar as well.” And he said, “Well, you weren’t our first choice, so don’t give it that much thought.” You know, don’t think of yourself as being a prize commodity. So that was my introduction to the department.

I was always interested in public health, so my master’s degree looked at different ways that HIV education manifested itself in public and private schools. My dissertation was about how organizations carry out a mandate after the law takes that mandate away. I got my PhD in 2000 and because of my teaching and other work I had done in the department, I stayed on as clinical faculty. Sociologically thinking, I think my age and what I brought into the program allowed me to do what I wanted to do. So, I stayed on at WSU and watched it grow and change. I became the new undergrad advisor, taught, and attended to the undergraduate program which was a natural position for me. I was happy fostering the undergraduate students because I saw a lot of potential in them. At the time, the department had a social work program that was ending because human development took over a lot of the social work students. But there were two or three social workers in the department teaching a certificate program. Now social work and public health are very different, but I ended up teaching in that program and learning a lot about social work and the basic values of respect for all human beings, a lot of which I think I have applied. While I’ve always been an applied person, and I was relatively honest with folks about that, the department at the time was not very applied and I knew it didn’t fit with the plans and hopes of the faculty, most of whom were academics and in that world from the get-go, which was not my history. I’m the only person in my family who went to school, and I didn’t grow up with a history of college education, so I didn’t come in with that set of expectations. But my experience was wonderful, and I think I contributed a little bit to the department.

I remember at one graduate student association meeting there was discussion about whether or not public sociology had any value whatsoever. And someone said, “Absolutely not. We don’t know enough. We haven’t studied enough. We can’t put it out there.” And I remember Amy Wharton said, “Well, you know, I do think that we know that women make less than men not because they’re inherently inferior but because of social things that end up being devalued in that way.” That was a showstopper. That was the nature of the department. It was really interesting at the time, and that was truly fun.

A sidewalk is pictured with the dark silhouette of two students at the end. On the left side of the sidewalk is a WSU building, and on the other side is color fall trees and bushes.
Students walking with the fall colors between WSU Pullman campus buildings.

Tom: Tell us about your dissertation and how that translated into both your clinical position and your position that you took after you left the department.

Chris: I became very interested in organizations and institutions and institutional theory—DiMaggio and Powell, and those folks. I started graduate school in 1993, and I believe it was in 1994 that the State of Washington passed the Public Health Improvement Act, which mandated enrollments for every Washington citizen in health insurance, bolstered funding, and saw the value in public health. Few see the value in public health, as we know with COVID. The system has always been underfunded and underappreciated. So that was an interesting opening in 1996. I think it was Newt Gingrich who came in, and everything went out the window. All that funding and everything in the state of Washington changed as well. That program that had so many hopes and potentials for public health went out the door, but the mandate was still there. They kept publishing things about the Public Health Improvement Plan.

So, I did a qualitative study where I interviewed folks from the public health system. Washington has both departments and districts and they’re configured differently. I interviewed people in two departments in two districts to see how they were carrying forth. Did they still believe in the plan? Did it make any difference? I looked at institutional factors that led folks to continue with the public health improvement plan or ditch it entirely.

The findings confirmed that, in a lot of institutional cultural processes, it’s not really the rules and regulations, it’s the people and the funding and everything all around that made the difference in what public health looked like in various counties. But what came out of it was public health is a mess. We have different districts doing different things. We have these things in place, regardless of the big structure. If that structure had been in place and there was money to back it up, maybe things would have looked differently. How do government agencies, in this case public health, try to organize themselves and what do they pull on to in order to do that? It helped solidify what I consider the value of public health. It’s not medical sociology you know. Like I said with COVID and what happened, people just don’t know what it takes for the public to remain healthy, and that’s the value of public health.

Everyone in the department knew I was going to be an applied-research person. I applied to a few different academic departments, and to a few research departments, but I learned through that process that, unless I wanted to do community-based participatory research which didn’t fit into my life plan, I wasn’t going to do research. But the work that I did engaged me in many different networks in Whitman County. Some of the things that I started, even in my master’s degree, are things that I’m still involved with today in Whitman County.

One of those is the Palouse Alliance for Healthy Individuals, Families, and Communities. As an organization it has gone through many changes. Basically we’re a social work agency. We’re a broker of resources and we bring people together. I have a 100 people on our email list, and we maybe get 20 people at any given meeting, and they share resources. It’s continued because there’s no other way to get that done easily. So many good connections are made on the ground, like mental health connections for instance, and it’s a way to put people in touch with other people. We don’t have a staff it’s just all volunteers.

Tom: You also worked with the Office of International Programs at WSU. Can you talk about your time there?

Chris: Yes. After I left sociology I went over to international programs, and that’s a whole different story. Even though I had never studied abroad and knew nothing about it, both teaching and sociology helped a lot. We talk about social perspectives and cultural overlays, and that makes a lot of sense in that world. It has amazed me how other disciplines, especially business, didn’t know the sociological principles that you carry with you as a sociologist and apply when you’re abroad. Sociology helps students understand being in another culture and respective countries’ norms, even if they don’t agree with your own, and how to maintain your own sense of self. We organized a global case competition and I got to take students to Bangladesh, Ansonia, Manos, Brazil, Geneva, and India where they presented some information to the UN. It was fascinating.

Tom: I know you have done work with the Washington town of Malden. Can you tell us about that?

Chris: I retired in 2019 and when COVID hit, the local United Way group needed somebody with an academic background to look at impact and they asked me to do that. I became involved and this year I’m the president.

On September 7, 2020, wildfires in the northern part of the county wiped out the registered town of Malden (Washington) in the unincorporated city of Pine City. There were no fatalities but 116 homes were destroyed, and the place was leveled. Little did I know, United Way has a disaster mandate to do disaster recovery work. We started the committee and raised well over $500,000 which gives you an idea of the community here. But they didn’t know what to do with that money and their recovery efforts were very fractured. People were survivors. They were suffering in many ways, and they were trying to rebuild their community. Somebody I know from Avista suggested I attend their meetings, and eventually I ended up on their long-term recovery board because of skills that I have and what I know about nonprofits, which you need in order to do that kind of work. I’ve been working with them on both building community from the inside out, helping people heal, and writing grants and doing things from the outside in so that they can rebuild.

I learned from Joe Astorino (WSU PhD 2015) that Soren Newman (WSU MA 2008, WSU PhD Environmental Science) did her dissertation on disaster resiliency from both hurricanes and wildfires, and I had coffee with Soren about it. One thing we have going with our long-term recovery organization is a partnership with the University of Washington School of Public Health, in disaster and recovery, and how those areas bounce back or don’t and resilience. My fantasy is to draw on Soren’s work and research questions, present it to the University of Washington, and see if they want to pick up on any of that work, so that we can better understand how we can help communities build back from all of the climate disasters we are and will face. So that’s the applied side of it. I am using my academic connections, my understanding the research and the literature, and as a broker of resources connecting people and organizations. To me, connecting those dots is the important work coming out of this that is bigger than just Malden. I think everyone in Malden wants to be an example or a case study of how this little town that is very poor, an old railroad town, can build back in a different way. So that’s exciting.

I’m doing more research-oriented work, but I have the opportunity to make an impact, and one thing you learn is that those letters after your name open doors. Nobody cares what your dissertation looked like, but if you have a PhD, the degree offers a level of opportunity. For a community to have a sociologist with a PhD run their long-term recovery organization I think it’s helped a lot.

Tom: Do you have any fond memories from graduate school that you like that you’d like to share?

Chris: In my generation, your concept of graduate school is sitting around having a beer or a coffee and having intellectual conversations, and that just doesn’t happen as it did in my fantasy. But that fantasy came through during my dissertation defense because it was a conversation. As Tom knows, I wore a Bikini Kill t-shirt because it was my day and I was going to say what I wanted to say, defend my work, and get the degree. I had this fantasy of thinking big thoughts with really smart people and I got to have those conversations with faculty like Armand Mauss. I learned so much from him and those are the kind of memories I cherish.