In a slightly rumpled blue-gray suit and sneakers, the man with the recognizable red beard directed traffic — a steady stream of men and women in sharper suits, with laptops, all gathering behind various closed doors.
Brian Blalock, the new Cabinet secretary of New Mexico’s Children, Youth and Families Department, ducked in and out of conference rooms in his office on the fifth floor of the PERA Building. It’s been the norm since he started the job five weeks ago, he would say in an interview later at a nearby coffee shop.
“Oh, man,” he said over a cup of tea, “20-hour days. Not a lot of sleep.”
Blalock — a lawyer, policymaker, educator and youth advocate with numerous degrees from some of the nation’s most elite schools — was chosen by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham to lead a child welfare agency that her transition team found was in need of an overhaul.
The review by the transition team cites lawsuits against the agency, low morale among staff, persistent staffing shortages, an investigation backlog more than 2,000 cases deep and, most troubling, “preventable” child deaths that “have been normalized in the agency.”
In a state that leads the nation in child poverty and is dead last in many education measures, Blalock, 43, heads a massive agency that not only provides child protective services and foster care, but also administers child care benefits, licenses private day care centers and preschools, and oversees behavioral health services for children and teens.
Wait, there’s more: The department also operates juvenile justice facilities.
Previously a policy director for a San Francisco nonprofit, building public programs for homeless youth, Blalock — confirmed by the state Senate, with a salary of $128,000 a year — is not a typical state department leader.
He’s an outsider — both to New Mexico and politics.
“It was a bold choice,” said Ezra Spitzer, executive director of the Albuquerque-based New Mexico Child Advocacy Network, a nonprofit that serves youth who have been in the state’s foster care and juvenile justice systems. “He’s one of us … a reformer.”
Blalock said he was hesitant to pursue the position when Lujan Grisham reached out to him.
“The first thing I thought was, ‘No, this sounds like a terrible idea,’ ” he said. “I’m not a very public person. I don’t do politics. I’m just not interested in that. I’m a problem solver.”
Blalock’s wife, attorney and social worker Linnea Forsythe, also had reservations.
Among her concerns was a move to the high desert, far from the Pacific Coast.
A Native Hawaiian woman, Forsythe comes from a line of “real water people,” her husband said.
“When I let her know I was looking at a job in New Mexico seriously,” he said, “she just texted me back the distance Santa Fe was from the Pacific Ocean.”
The couple made two agreements, he said. The first: Each had to determine independently whether a move to New Mexico was the right decision. “She has a career and she’s amazing and she helps lots of kids,” Blalock said.
“Our second agreement was that if she moves here and she doesn’t find work that’s impactful … we leave.”
Forsythe, who was busy packing up her Bay Area apartment on Saturday, said she was looking forward to relocating to New Mexico, a state she described as “absolutely gorgeous.”
She acknowledged the fast pace of her husband’s work in the first few weeks, amid an administration change and a busy legislative session: “This seems like a sprint right out of the gate.”
But, she said, Blalock is a high-energy man who is committed to creatively and collaboratively crafting solutions to big problems — “and doing the really hard work in order to get there.”
Before Blalock met with the governor, he made a list of questions for her.
“Those 15 questions were intended to gauge how serious she was at making CYFD a priority,” Blalock said. “How serious was she at making children a priority? How much leeway was she going to give me? How much support was she going to give me to actually make an impact?”
He brought the list into his first meeting with Lujan Grisham and sat down across from her.
“And she started talking,” he said. “I didn’t get a word in for maybe 10 minutes.”
But, he said, without having seen his questions, the governor “answered almost all of them with that opening monologue. … And so that convinced me: OK. This is serious.”
Lujan Grisham praised Blalock, saying: “Brian stood out to us in our search process for his diverse experience, his commitment to improving child welfare in the face of stark obstacles, and his experience in legislative matters in California.
“I’m excited about his tenure,” the governor continued, “because he represents a fresh set of eyes, a sharp set of eyes, and we need leadership that’s prepared to take a holistic view and start rebuilding from the ground up at CYFD.”
A résumé of service
Blalock grew up in southwest Virginia — the edge of Appalachia, he said — and has lived and worked on both coasts, focusing on disadvantaged children, teens and young adults.
He has degrees from four universities: James Madison in Harrisonburg, Va., where he received a bachelor’s in philosophy and English; Harvard, where he earned a master’s in theology; Columbia, where he obtained a second master’s in South Asian studies; and Stanford, where he received a law degree.
One of his first jobs, in 2000, was a teaching position at a high school in the Bronx, N.Y.. He was hired to teach English, he said, but the duties quickly piled up at the impoverished school as other teachers left. He led a Saturday science initiative and developed an after-school leadership program with an eclectic mix of studies, according to his résumé: literacy, public speaking, boxing and capoeira, a Brazilian style of martial arts.
“Loved it,” he said of the teaching job. “Would probably still be there, except they closed my school down.”
His next position was at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Cambridge, Mass., where he developed curriculum for youth with HIV.
After attending Stanford Law School, Blalock began a legal career serving youth in Oakland, Calif., and throughout the San Francisco Bay Area.
He spent a decade at Bay Area Legal Aid, representing young people in the juvenile justice system, chronically homeless youth and kids with disabilities. He developed a program that worked to ensure youth in need were able get housing, Medicaid and other benefits. It also oversaw abuse and guardianship cases.
He looked to youth to guide the program, Blalock said. “They really taught us what they needed, and then we did it.”
Bay Area Legal Aid Executive Director Genevieve Richardson, a social justice attorney who has been with the organization for 18 years and stepped into its top job a year ago, worked with Blalock. “He’s had a tremendous impact stabilizing the lives of young people and their families,” she said.
In his most recent position, as law and policy director for Tipping Point Community, a San Francisco nonprofit, he worked to end homelessness among the city’s young people by building housing and support services. Once again youth were at the center of program development. The organization hired seven young members of a policymaking team.
“They were our guides,” Blalock said.
And after six weeks of training, the teens and young adults found peers in need of services and managed their cases.
It’s essential for social services organizations to ensure they are “being really responsive to the folks who are on the ground, who are experts in how systems don’t work,” Blalock said.
“Because if we only talk to people who know how systems work,” he said, “we get really cool ideas and we don’t actually fix it for people who are suffering, which should be our priority all the time. So we sound smart, but we don’t get anything done.”
Spitzer, with NMCAN, gets that. His organization mentors teens and young adults who have been in the foster care system and trains them to draft legislation and lobby for changes that would improve the lives of other foster kids.
Some of the young people from NMCAN have met with Blalock about legislation they are pushing, Spitzer said, and he has become engaged in their work, such as an effort to extend foster care beyond the age of 18 for youth who want extra support.
“We’ve had very good experiences with Brian,” Spitzer said. “… There’s an easiness about him that they liked.”
Asked whether he thought Blalock could succeed in transforming the Children, Youth and Families Department, Spitzer said, “We could not have a picked a more perfect vision for New Mexico.”
But, he added, “No one can do it alone.”
Blalock will need a strong team at the agency,” he said, as well as continued support from the governor, the Legislature and the community.
Long days, daunting problems
Albuquerque civil rights attorney J. Kate Girard, who began working Monday as the department’s chief counsel, said, “I think he’s the real deal.”
Blalock is equally impressed with Girard, one the few people he has brought in. Last week, he still had no spokesperson and no deputy secretary. He was answering his own phone calls and texts, sometimes late at night or in the early hours of the morning.
“Hopefully, as we keep building our team, it will be full of awesome,” he said.
The work won’t be easy, Blalock said.
“Some of the problems are huge,” he acknowledged. “Some of them are daunting.”
And he knows his job will never be comfortable.
“Every time something bad happens to a kid anywhere in the state of New Mexico,” Blalock said, “it will be my fault. But I’m OK with that.
“Because we have to do better. All of us. … If it helps to have someone who is responsible for that — great. As long as we all agree that we can all be doing better.”