Tikki Brown started her career as an intern with the Department of Human Services (DHS). More than two decades later, she's leaving — though she's not going far.

When Minnesota launches a Department of Children, Youth and Families on July 1, Brown will be at the helm.

The new agency, which will be phased in over the next year, will work on topics including early childhood education, child protection, juvenile justice and economic assistance for families. The state is breaking up DHS, and this new department will take over part of its work. It is also taking on roles and staff from various other state departments with the aim of making kids and families a higher priority in leaders' spending and policy decisions.

Minnesota is one of a growing number of states reorganizing and consolidating services focused on young people under one agency.

"We're not alone in this. This is a nationwide trend," said Brown, 46, of Minneapolis. "This is an agency that is being built to really help provide better services, improve services and increase access to services."

The Star Tribune sat down with the new commissioner, who is stepping into the role following a legislative session where lawmakers made a number of child welfare-related changes and as state agencies are drawing up spending plans for the next two years. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Q: You've spent all of your career at DHS. You're an insider. How will that shape your approach to this job?

A: I've spent the entirety of my career at DHS, mostly focused in on food and nutrition programs, economic opportunity programs. That has put me in a really good position for this new agency with the knowledge base that I have about state agencies, working together with a variety of different agencies across my career. I come from a belief of collaboration, and coordination really makes a difference. I don't believe that we can do our work alone and be successful and sustainable.

Q: Over two decades at DHS, you've seen a lot of leaders come and go. What makes an effective leader in human services?

A: An effective leader in human services has a mix of both understanding of the role of state government and an appreciation for the role of state employees within the system, and an acknowledgment and empathy for the people that are utilizing our services.

I say empathy very intentionally, because I think we have to be very thoughtful and aware of how it's difficult to come and receive help. And in order to ensure that we are best meeting the needs of participants and recipients of our services, we need to connect with them and understand where they're coming from.

Q: What in your background gives you that empathy or connection?

A: As a child, I was a recipient of many programs that are at the Department of Human Services. And so my family went through a period of poverty where we utilized SNAP, we utilized food shelves, community action programs, a lot of those services. And I knew how hard it was for my mother to come off of those services, but she did it.

She shared with us, I think probably pretty intentionally, about the difficulties she faced. And that has always been in the back of my mind as I have worked on different programs and policies.

Q: Are there specific ways Minnesota hasn't prioritized the needs of young people and families that you intend to change?

A: Through our engagement efforts, youth very clearly have felt that their voice has not been present in state government. An assistant commissioner will be in place over youth services and economic opportunity and that's intentional ... both to elevate [youth services], but then also have some space where we can grow programming. That's definitely needed.

We also heard pretty specifically that families want to be able to share with us exactly what they need and that we need more avenues and opportunities for that direct communication to occur. A policy and equity work group, as part of the transition process, has been putting together recommendations that will be presented to me, as commissioner, in July. And some of that, I believe, is around particular ways that we can engage with families.

Q: What do you see as the most pressing needs for Minnesota kids and families right now?

A: It is incredibly expensive to provide care and well-being to children. Families are really feeling the strain of being able to support their children.

And so really in the short term, my goal is for this agency to really align all of our programs to provide better access and supports to families. And then long-term, through input from our strategic plan and as we get our full leadership team in place, really looking to innovate so that we can not only have this alignment in place, but then we actually can be serving families in new and different and better ways.