Tiaja Pauls likes to ask questions.
She’s the person who will unapologetically raise her hand to ask a clarifying question when everyone else in the room just wants the long-winded meeting to end.
“I’ve always been inquisitive,” said Pauls, the first female Deputy Director of the TSA Academy West in Las Vegas.
A permanent TSA training center on the west side of the country, the newly opened Academy West serves as a sister site to the TSA Academy at the Federal Law Enforcement Training Academy located in Glynco, Georgia.
“I want to know the why behind the answer,” explained Pauls. “It makes me more valuable, not in a selfish way, but so I can be more helpful to others. If I know a little bit more of something because I’ve asked questions and gained insight, then I can share that information with others.”
Pauls sees this character trait as a strength. In helping stand up Academy West, she’s benefiting from her natural curiosity.
“It’s been a joy,” said Pauls. “In this role, I’m learning the business operations end of the agency — budgeting, contracting, construction, furniture — all the different things people don’t always consider. I’m learning that while still being connected to the mission through training.”
After joining TSA in 2006 as a TSA officer at John F. Kennedy International Airport, Pauls leveraged a number of collateral duty assignments to expand her knowledge of the agency.
“When I got introduced to the assistant training instructor position (as a collateral duty) I knew, ‘oh yes this is my passion,’” said Pauls.
Pauls’ career grew with stops at Los Angeles International Airport (LAX), Burbank Hollywood Airport and at Harry Reid International Airport (LAS) as the training manager for Nevada before her latest jump to deputy director.
Effective communication takes work
Candid, two-way communication is a skill that has to be developed and maintained, and Pauls works hard to keep channels open with her colleagues. Even so, sometimes she’s mischaracterized.
“Because I seek to understand by asking a lot of questions, I am sometimes perceived as aggressive,” said Pauls. “I'm going to speak freely and comfortably and sometimes people see me as being combative, but I’m just being assertive. Unfortunately, I’ve also been labeled as an ‘angry Black woman’ which is a known stigma for Black women. Some people get offended by the term and the mere mention of the topic can cause an uproar. However, for me, it’s a reminder that there is still work to be done in the area of diversity, equity, inclusion and accessibility.”
She’s quick to say that not all people see her that way, but when conscious or unconscious biases arise, she deescalates the falsehood by leaning into it.
“I’m very aware that not everyone is going to see me in the same way,” said Pauls. “I try to meet people where they are, right? I walk them to the line of understanding me, and oftentimes it's really just having a conversation. I don't get mad. Some people may get mad because they're being labeled, but for me, I take it as an opportunity for us to understand each other better.”
Passion for diversity and inclusion
Pauls’ focus on diversity and inclusion dates back to her grassroots work at LAX planning the annual diversity month celebrations in October. When she arrived at LAS, the FSD asked her to stand up their diversity and inclusion program (D&I), which won the 2021 TSA Honorary Award for Workforce Diversity and Inclusion.
“My proudest moment was launching the Community Two: Bridging the Gap 4U open forum at LAS as the chair of the D&I committee,” said Pauls. “This started a series of conversations with several subtopics that created an avenue for employees across Nevada to speak candidly on their thoughts of diversity and inclusion. It allowed me and my team to not only hear and understand the thoughts and concerns of our colleagues, but also to correct some myths and share some additional truths.”
Pauls recently has been appointed chair for the Inclusion Action Committee (IAC), moving forward the legacy committee’s work with Chief Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Accessibility (DEIA) Officer Dr. Vernell Sutherland.
“TSA is an agency with over 50,000 employees of all different backgrounds,” Pauls said when asked why the IAC and DEIA were important to the future of TSA. “When we take action to move toward a culture and workplace of diversity, equity, inclusion and accessibility, the end result is an agency that better represents the American people and the people we serve. When we have a diverse workforce who feels included and empowered to be their authentic selves, we set the agency up to better respond to the people we serve by leveraging the diversity of our employees.”
Through her continued IAC work, Pauls stays focused on DEIA, and she was especially happy to share her thoughts on Black History Month.
Who have been Black role models in your life?
My parents, Barack and Michelle Obama and every African American I’ve had the pleasure of meeting who reached their desired level of success despite lack of equity.
Why is Black History Month important to you?
I think it’s important to highlight not just Black culture but all cultures that are considered minorities. This helps to not only acknowledge and appreciate the contributions, but also to better understand the various cultures that make up the melting pot that is America.
What essence of the culture do you feel must be handed down to future generations?
The sacrifices of our ancestors. Without the history, future generations lose sight of why the luxuries they enjoy are possible. Honoring the past means living the life that our forefathers died for and continuing to fight with tenacity for equality.
What I do matters
What I do matters because I have a team that relies on me to be kind, transparent, empathetic, yet assertive and decisive. I am responsible for a team that provides the necessary information to train the frontline workforce. New hires depend on my team for their success as officers and my team depends on me for their success. Therefore, I must ensure my team can come to work and be their best. That means addressing the whole person and acknowledging a work-life balance. It means creating an environment where everyone feels they belong and that their voices are heard.
What I do matters because I am the change I want to see. As an advocate for DEIA I am okay with sparking the uncomfortable conversations in hopes to create a culture that seeks to understand and not avoid, a culture that respects a difference of opinion, a culture that is ultimately inclusive.
Finally, what I do matters because I am black history. There is a young person who sees themselves in me and what they see is a leader, a success story, someone they can strive to be. There is a new hire who may read this article and say “if she can do it so can I.” What I do matters because I am hope! I am inspiration! I am a dream come true!
By Karen Robicheaux, TSA Strategic Communications and Public Affairs