Trey Gaither ’21, a Bucknell Institute of Public Policy (BIPP) intern, recently had the opportunity to interview Kevin Blackwell, a BIPP Advisory Board member and graduate of Bucknell’s Class of 1985.
Where did you grow up? How has your family structure imposed itself on your current profession? How does your identity impose itself on the profession that you currently have?
I grew up in Catonsville, Maryland, the oldest of six boys. I came from a single parent household as my Father passed away when I was 10. I was lucky in that my Mother’s brothers were my male role models and had a big influence on my life. Along with my Mother, my uncles shaped my view on what it means to be a productive member of society. My Mother was a teacher in West Baltimore for 32 years. One of my uncles was an engineer and one of my majors was Chemical Engineering. Another uncle was a Marine, police officer and an athlete. Growing up I played all the sports he played and ended up a member of the Bucknell basketball team. Finally, another uncle eventually became the Chief Judge in Baltimore and I currently work in the sentencing policy arena. Through these role models, I came to believe that public service was a worthwhile career path.
What was your major in college? What educational road map did you follow in order to get to where you are today?
At Bucknell I majored in Chemical Engineering and Sociology. I also worked as a Teacher’s Assistant in the Chemistry and History departments. After graduation from Bucknell, I worked as a Chemical Engineer for over a year. I followed that up by attending graduate school for Sociology at the Pennsylvania State University. While at Penn State, as part of my assistantship, I worked at the Pennsylvania Commission on Sentencing. I went directly to the United States Sentencing Commission after graduate school.
Are you satisfied overall with your respective profession? Are there things that you wish to change? Does your personal political identity impose itself on the daily routines that you carry out in your profession?
I have been at the US Sentencing Commission for over 29 years, and I would say that I am very satisfied with my profession. By working in DC, politics infiltrate everything that is done, and if I had the ability to lessen that effect, I would. I try not to let my personal politics affect my professional life and fortunately, I use statistics to help make policy, which lessens the opportunity for any personal beliefs or politics to contaminate my work. My job as a Senior Research Associate is to inform the Presidentially appointed Commissioners on what is actually occurring in federal sentencing from a macro level in an attempt to not let anecdotal events or the “crime of the day” shape federal sentencing policy.
Briefly describe your profession. What is needed in order for students, similar to yourself during your time here at Bucknell, to obtain the amount of leverage within their respective fields? How does your profession interact and relate to public policy? On what level does your profession work: local, state, fed, etc…?
The United States Sentencing Commission is a non-partisan agency responsible for creating sentencing policy on the federal level. There are seven voting Commissioners appointed by the President, and no more than four can be of the same political party. For the last 29 years I have worked in the Office of Research and Data where I am a Senior Research Associate. This job has enabled me to combine my strong mathematical and science background obtained when completing my degree in Chemical Engineering with the social science background I obtained from completing my degree in Sociology at Bucknell.
Do you feel that Bucknell prepared you overall for your profession? To what extent, and to what degree, did you have to work in order to complete your undergraduate experience? What resources did you utilize in order to gain success over the years?
At Bucknell, I had a weekly Op Ed column in the Bucknellian for two years. I would describe myself politically as a left-leaning moderate, but in the “Reagan 80’s” this political stance was not the norm, even on a college campus. The power of voicing opinions was ingrained in me at Bucknell as one of the major issues I wrote about was pushing for Bucknell’s divestment from South Africa. One of the major reasons I still have great respect for President Gary Sojka is, though I was writing scathing opinion pieces on Bucknell’s investment in apartheid, he always welcomed me into his office for an interview with a smile and grace that I still remember 35 years later. Professors such as Carl Milofsky, Karen Dugger and Marty Sklar also offered me great guidance and encouragement in exploring the social sciences and how important such pursuits could be. I realize that I “lucked” into my position, but as the saying goes “luck is just preparation meeting opportunity.”
The key to my “success” in my profession is very easy. I love my job. After 29 years I still am happy getting up in the morning and commuting from Baltimore to DC to work. It helps that in any given year, I am working on different policy areas. In the last 10 years, for example, I have worked on disparity in sentencing, immigration policy, mandatory minimum sentencing, child pornography, sex offenses against children, and Native American issues. Therefore, I never get bored. Find something you love doing and success will follow in whatever profession you decide to go into.