By Laura Milani Alessio
Photos by Jason Smith

Education and leadership opportunities almost naturally create diversity because everyone is given the chance to be what they are capable of being.”
—Shayne Evans
director, University of Chicago Charter School

Shayne Evans grew up on Chicago’s South Side. The loss of his father when Evans was only 12 years old was balanced by his single mother’s care and her advice to take school seriously—advice he’s never regretted heeding.

Growing up in a family of advocates for the Latino community, Sylvia Puente joined her mother on the picket line in support of the United Farm Workers. That activism, at age 13, launched her career in Latino policy advocacy.

Despite the obstacles to an equal and diverse society, both Evans and Puente took advantage of education as a stepping-stone to a better life. Now as adults—and the recipients of the University of Chicago 2012 Diversity Leadership Awards—they are leading others to better opportunities.

“Education and leadership opportunities almost naturally create diversity because everyone is given the chance to be what they are capable of being,” says Evans, the director of the University of Chicago Charter School, who will receive the staff diversity award.

Puente, a 1990 alumna of the Harris School of Public Policy Studies and executive director of the Latino Policy Forum, will be honored with the alumni award. “Coming from a family of advocates, what I observed at a very young age is that in addition to being able to mobilize the masses and to speak out on an issue, you also needed the research, the data, the analysis, and the numbers to quantify your case, and the equality or inequality that exists in a particular issue.”

Evans and Puente will receive their awards at a private reception on Jan. 12, 2012. The University also will honor them at its Martin Luther King Celebration that evening at 6 p.m. in Rockefeller Memorial Chapel, where Dr. King gave one of his first speeches in the city of Chicago. On the East Coast, another advocate for education is changing the lives of children through his community-based Harlem Children’s Zone (HCZ). Geoffrey Canada, CEO and president of the HCZ, is the keynote speaker for UChicago’s MLK Celebration. The Harlem Children’s Zone aims to end generational poverty through education and social supports, and it is credited for inspiring the Woodlawn Children’s Promise Community, which will support families and education on Chicago’s South Side.

The highest of expectations

Evans credits quality schools for putting him in a position to take the helm of the University of Chicago Charter School earlier this year, at age 39. “My mom, and later my step-dad, always made sure I could be in good schools that would present me with opportunities. They always pushed me to do my best to take advantage of these opportunities,” says Evans, who graduated from Whitney Young High School before earning a degree at the University of Illinois and becoming a teacher.

Evans worked at both public and private schools across the city before Timothy Knowles recruited him to teach at the University’s North Kenwood Oakland (NKO) campus. Knowles, who directs the University of Chicago Urban Education Institute (UEI), nominated Evans for the Diversity Leadership Award. Knowles recalls going to observe Evans teach before offering him a job. “He had every student in the palm of his hand, and he was absolutely relentless in terms of his expectations about their participation, their behavior, and their engagement in his class,” he says.

Indoctrinating students with the belief that college is “not only possible, but probable” is the driving force behind the results that Evans insists are achievable with a unified team of teachers. “Any success I’ve had was possible only because I’ve had the luck to be part of a team, where each and every staff member believed it and had the highest of expectations for each student,” Evans says. “It’s central to our mission.”

Each year, for example, the Charter School holds a College Week, when the high school students visit different, out-of-state universities and the middle school students go on day trips to various campuses. The Charter School first ramps up the emphasis on college with the 6to16 curriculum, which Evans helped to develop for first-generation college-bound students to get into and graduate from four-year universities. It is now being piloted in 40 schools across the city and five cities nationwide.

“It starts in sixth grade when we begin asking, `You want to go to college, so what do you need to do to get there?’ Good grades go from being an external expectation to a means to a student’s own goal. You see them realize, `Oh, right, that’s how I’m going to become a journalist or a doctor. Not only am I going to have to do well because somebody told me to but because I want to create opportunities for myself to get to that next level.’ It’s about turning over ownership of the idea to the student.”

Addressing an interdependence

Improving the quality of and providing access to education are two of the goals of the Latino Policy Forum, the Chicago-based advocacy organization that Puente has led since 2009. The Forum also works to address affordable housing, and promotes just immigration reform and community advancement.

“When the Latino Policy Forum was formed, we held very extensive stakeholder conversations and talked to over 600 Latino leaders, as well as business leaders and community leaders from around the region,” Puente says. “Education emerged as the top priority, because we will not have the economic mobility we need in society unless we close the educational achievement gap and more Latino children are prepared to compete in a 21st-century global economy.” Puente cites a study the Forum released on Dec. 14 that reveals alarmingly low numbers—roughly 2 percent—of Mexican-born workers in STEM [Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics] careers, for example.

“This is important beyond the Latino community because there’s an interdependence between how well the Latino community does and the rest of society does,” Puente says. “We know from our research that in Illinois, Latinos make up 3 out of every 5 new entrants into the labor market. So improved and increased education is not just essential for Latinos, but also for the state and region to remain economically competitive.”

At the Latino Policy Forum, Puente oversees a leadership program for Latino-serving nonprofit groups. “It is the nonprofit organizations that are the life blood of so many communities,” she says, providing critical programs such as after-school tutoring and mentoring, and social and health services. She also convenes the Illinois Latino Agenda, founded the Latina Leadership Council of the Chicago Foundation for Women, and was named by Hispanic Magazine one of the “100 Most Influential Hispanics in the U.S.”

Puente says her UChicago business and policy training have served her well. “Most of my career has been about being entrepreneurial and initiating new projects, research, and policy analysis as they impact the Latino community in ways and places it hasn’t been done before,” she says.

Susan Gzesh, director of the University of Chicago Human Rights Program, who nominated Puente, says she did so because “Sylvia saw a need in society and created projects and entire organizations to address the void. That’s my definition of leadership.”

Knowles describes Evans' leadership style as “catalytic, crossing diverse intellectual, racial, class, and institutional boundaries,” one that embraces the tension that diversity can surface.

“Almost every meeting you go to with Shayne, he will make the point that if there isn’t conflict, then the meeting isn’t productive,” Knowles says. “He actually seeks out the dissonance and makes it very explicit. And that helps to bring people together, because instead of the difficult part of the conversation being left out of the meeting, or out of the room, he brings it to the fore. And that brings people with diverse perspectives with diverse backgrounds to a point where they can really solve problems and not skirt them.”

Originally published on December 19, 2011.