In February 2019, Cassie Wilcox, MPP’19, was sitting in a political communications class at the Harris School of Public Policy when she joked to a classmate, Peter Danos, MPP’19, “If Joe Biden runs for president, let's move to Iowa.” She believed the fate of democracy was in the balance, and the class had sparked the question: Who had the best skillset and messaging to beat then-incumbent President Donald Trump in the 2020 election?

Cassie Wilcox, MPP'19

Three months later, just after Wilcox and Danos graduated, she packed her bags in a used 2000 Ford Escape that Wilcox had bought from David Chrisinger, executive director of Harris’ writing workshop, and headed to Des Moines to campaign for Biden - joining Danos on the trail. “For the first month, we worked out of a coffee shop because we didn't even have offices yet,” says Wilcox, 32, who also served as a special projects director in Florida.

Once the campaign wrapped, Wilcox landed at the Office of Partnership and Engagement at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS), where she now serves as deputy chief of staff and leads a team of 34 on issues of national security and public safety. “And that 2000 Ford Escape ended up driving Secretary of State Tony Blinken around,” she says.

A native of Enterprise, Alabama, Wilcox took a circuitous path to the U.S. government. After playing college soccer and studying Social Science at Faulkner University, a tiny Christian college in Montgomery, Alabama, she traded in law school dreams for an internship with the Chicago Red Stars in the National Women’s Soccer League. This led to an operations job on the soccer staff at Clemson University, where she juggled everything from transportation and meals to the team’s game-day set up.

Her next move was into the nonprofit space, where she launched Nomad, an organization that offered social services for survivors of domestic violence. But after two years, Nomad dissolved. “I realized that going at something alone is a little bit foolish,” she says. “But going at it with depth and the backing of public policy and data can really increase your impact and scope of influence.”

That’s when—and why—Wilcox applied to Harris, unaware that it was one of the best public policy schools in the nation. (“I was this small-town Alabama girl who just knew I liked Chicago,” she says.) With no quantitative background, Wilcox had to enroll in math camp and calculus classes. Meanwhile, as she integrated herself into the community-building aspect of Harris’ diverse student population, her energy and outgoing nature flourished. “I made a vow not to say no to anything social,” Wilcox says. “I went to Colombian night, I went to Japanese night, I went to Chinese night.” As social chair, she helped create spaces where people could feel seen, and through attendance supported events such as a Thanksgiving meal for Harris’ Latinx population.

In the classroom, Wilcox leaned toward the leadership development track in courses such as survey research for political campaigns. For one class, taught by Assistant Professor Austin Wright, she consulted 20 years of survey data that NATO had done in Afghanistan to study the ways people's perception of a corrupt government impacted their views of services provided. Three years later, when Wilcox was at the DHS during the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan, the academic exercise helped contextualize some of the things she was seeing. “I think learning how to take information, digest it, and then report out and brief out is the most useful tangible skillset that someone could learn from Harris,” she says.

Another huge influence on Wilcox was Jens Ludwig, the Pritzker Director of the University of Chicago’s Crime Lab, who went out of his way to humanize research for students. “He’d say, ‘Let's go sit for a day at the court and listen to these people talk about the crimes they're committing, and you tell me if this intervention was going to stop them from doing X or not,’” says Wilcox. “I think what really gives Harris the texture and color are the instructors like him who are able to do the practical implementation of research.”

It’s this real-world application, paired with a healthy dose of skepticism, that sets Harris graduates apart in the workforce, Wilcox says. In a world where data is constantly being manipulated into misinformation, the ability to question data—its origins, its sources, its overall rigor—is essential. “Particularly if we're in, say, a government role and are having to make decisions based on data,” says Wilcox. “Having more practitioners that can point that out and call that out, or fix those issues, is a big deal.” Rather than “going under” misinformation in politics and trying to correct it, Wilcox has found it more effective to overpower it with the correct information to “drown out the noise of bad data.”

Her team at DHS covers everything from private sector outreach to intergovernmental affairs to non-governmental organizations to academic institutions. Questions such as, “What elements in the United States are both our adversaries and domestic bad actors trying to corrupt in some way?” are central to the job. For example, the Office of Partnership and Engagement is currently following a recent presidential executive order to set up a diverse artificial intelligence safety and security board. Or, regarding the complicated topic of the Mexican border, Wilcox is part of a data-driven team that helps model projections for border encounters. “That means how many people might be coming to the U.S. in any given week or month and what's informing those projections,” she says. “That’s where we are most directly touching a vulnerable population of people.”

As a queer individual in a same-sex relationship, Wilcox is perhaps proudest of her work on LGBTQI issues. In 2022, when she helped secure $20 million in congressional funding from a bipartisan vote to get scanning algorithms updated for TSA at airports. “Used to be that when you went through security, the TSA agent would click a blue button for boy or pink button for girl,” Wilcox says. “But if you're a transgender traveler, they're not going to know.” This usually led to a humiliating public pat-down. Now, when TSA scans your identification at the first checkpoint, they're not checking if one’s gender matches on their ID but rather their name and date of birth—and rather than making assumptions about a person’s gender, they’ve been trained in neutral greetings. “This is where good policy meets good national security decision-making,” says Wilcox. “So it was good from both standpoints.”

This work led her to help form the president's LGBTQI Community Safety Partnership with the Department of Justice and Health and Human Services, which provides dedicated training and webinars for the LGBTQI community and service organizations. If, for example, a nonprofit hosts a vulnerable event for the LGBTQI community, they can learn about DHS grant opportunities designed to protect their facilities with security cameras or security guards. The committee also pulls in the intelligence community to do an LGBTQI specific threat briefing about populations likely to be targeted at mass events. The LGBTQI community and law enforcement have not always had the best relationship, which meant a slow process of building trust. “I've been given a lot of credibility from the secretary himself in that space,” Wilcox says. “And I've been given a lot of latitude to work within that space to make gains. When you are part of the people you're helping, there's so much to gain.”

The workaholic culture that dominates Washington, D.C. hasn’t stopped Wilcox from pursuing her first love: soccer. “Actually, a Harris adjunct professor and I play soccer together on a Sunday league,” she says. “I play Wednesdays as well. I don't have a lot of free time, but when I do, it’s spent playing soccer.” Which is a perfect illustration of her advice for Harris students—the same philosophy she followed during her Harris years: Don't say no to social things. “You learn so much about yourself and you learn so much about others,” she says. “As you see with my career pipeline, I'm kind of a say-yes-and-then-figure-it-out kind of person.”


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