By Laura Milani Alessio
Photo by Robert Kozloff

Prof. Cathy Cohen, a leading scholar on race and gender, has a long history of political advocacy to match her academic work. For Cohen, diversity is at the heart of her scholarship and activism, which promote social justice on America’s cultural and political landscape.

“I can’t imagine an academic career without thinking about questions about diversity, because it’s so central to the intellectual work we do,” Cohen says. “We’re always trying to think of new ways of looking at problems, new and innovative approaches to solving them. And one of the more efficient ways to meet that goal is to have different people at the table—different perspectives, different lived experiences.”

Cohen, the David and Mary Winton Green Professor of Political Science, is the University’s inaugural Faculty Diversity Leadership Award recipient. Her honor is now one of three presented annually by the University of Chicago’s Diversity Leadership Council. The awards, which are in their seventh year, will be presented during a special presidential reception on campus on Jan. 15, in conjunction with the University of Chicago’s 25th annual Martin Luther King Jr. celebration.

“As the inaugural recipient of the Faculty Diversity Leadership Award, Cathy Cohen embodies the passion, intelligence, and persistence needed to improve diversity on campus and in our community,” says William McDade, co-chair of the Diversity Leadership Council, associate professor of Anesthesia & Critical Care, and deputy provost for Research and Minority Issues.

McDade noted that the faculty award recognizes those who foster a diverse and inclusive environment both on and off the UChicago campus. “The award will honor those who believe in these values and see them as an important goal worthy of considerable time and effort.”

This year’s alumni and staff Diversity Leadership Award recipients—Timuel Black, AM’54, and Veronica Hauad, director of Equity and Access Programming and senior associate director of Admissions—share with Cohen the link between academics and advocacy.

Black, a historian, WWII veteran, and a South Sider for nearly all of his 96 years, left his UChicago doctorate program to work alongside Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as the civil rights movement began to gather momentum.

Hauad’s commitment to removing barriers to college for under-represented high school students has increased the number of Chicago students enrolling in and attending selective colleges nationwide.  

McDade says the University is honored to have such strong advocates for diversity, equality, and social justice. “Timuel Black has been a leading figure in the civil rights movement and we are proud to have him as an alumnus. Veronica’s leadership in outreach to pre-college students in Chicago has opened doors that seemed closed to many college-ready scholars.”

Sonya Malunda, senior associate vice president for community engagement, who co-chairs the Diversity Leadership Council, says: “As a member of the UChicago community of scholars, students, researchers, and staff, I believe we all are fortunate to have such inspiring and amazing leaders living and working among us, and demonstrating the values and goals of Dr. King.”

For the MLK celebration, longtime civil rights leader Rev. Jesse L. Jackson Sr. will deliver the keynote address at 6 p.m. on Jan. 15 in Rockefeller Memorial Chapel. Jackson will speak to this year’s theme, “What does justice look like?” drawing on his personal history as an advocate for issues of civil rights, economic and social justice, and global peace. Jackson worked with King during the 1960s, directing Operation Breadbasket, a program committed to the economic empowerment of African American communities.

The Chicago Tradition

Cohen, who is principal investigator for the Black Youth Project, empowers young African Americans to express their experiences and ideas. The project explores the attitudes, resources, and culture of black youth between the ages of 15 and 25, and provides a web forum for their voices to be heard and seen through new media, blogs, and art.

Cohen also started The Mobilization, Change, and Political and Civic Engagement Project at the University to study the heightened political awareness and involvement resulting from the 2008 Presidential race with candidates Obama, Hillary Clinton, and Sarah Palin.

She has authored several influential texts in her field that include Democracy Remixed: Black Youth and the Future of American Politics. In addition, Cohen directed the University’s Center for the Study of Race, Politics, and Culture and was on the board of the American Political Science Association.

Cohen also was a founding member of Black AIDS Mobilization and served on the boards of Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press, the Center for Lesbian and Gay Studies at City College of New York, and the Arcus social justice foundation.

She also was a founding board member of the Audre Lorde Project, a community-organizing center for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Two-Spirit, Trans and Gender Non-Conforming People of Color. The center is named for the Caribbean American writer who was New York State’s Poet Laureate until her death in 1992.

“Cathy’s commitment to social justice is infused throughout her scholarship, and her work is clearly dedicated to understanding and advancing the efforts related to marginalized populations, says Tamara Johnson, director of Faculty Diversity Initiatives and one of Cohen’s nominators.

“She has contributed to our thinking about the limits and possibility of political mobilization and engagement of African American communities generally, and for members within different communities who experience what she calls ‘secondary marginalization,’ based on identities such as gender or sexuality,” says Johnson.

She also cited Cohen’s work with the Black Youth Project as having a particularly significant impact. “Starting this program, Cathy helped build a unique relationship between the campus and the community that serves as a model for the many who aspire to be a scholar-activist,” says Johnson.

Johnson praises Cohen’s recent research looking at the role of digital media in politics and how Black and Latino youth understand the world, define politics, and engage with political questions, for crossing into multiple academic fields—a trait for which Cohen credits the University’s established style of diversely informed, interdisciplinary research.

“I’d like to think the work I do is interdisciplinary in the best Chicago tradition, in that it is clearly rooted in questions of politics and political science but also questions of community that might be found in sociology, questions of identity that scholars of anthropology might pose, or comparative human development questions stemming from psychology,” Cohen says, adding that this traditional scholarly approach is more relevant today than ever. “Young people, in particular,” she said, “are presenting us with the opportunity to rethink the boundaries of politics, what counts as politics, and the relationship between culture and politics.”

Keeping the Dream Alive

Black maintains a tireless passion for social justice first instilled in him by his parents, children of former slaves who moved the family to Chicago’s “Black Belt” from Alabama when Black was 8 months old. His passion was fueled by atrocities he witnessed as a WWII Army soldier touring newly liberated German concentration camps, and cumulated when he left his PhD program to work alongside King as the civil rights movement began to grow.

In 1956, Rockefeller Chapel was the site of Dr. King’s first major speech in the city of Chicago, and Black helped lead the First Unitarian Church’s efforts to bring him there. Black later helped organize the Chicago contingent of Freedom Trains to the 1963 March on Washington, where King delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech.

Black’s other activist work has included efforts to end segregation in the U.S. armed forces and in the Chicago Public Schools, where he taught for 40 years. He also helped Harold Washington, a former DuSable High School classmate, with his successful grassroots campaign to become Chicago’s first African American mayor. Other candidates he worked to get elected to public office include Carol Moseley Braun, JD’72, the first female African American U.S. senator, and Barack Obama, who came to teach at the University of Chicago after getting his law degree at Harvard. Black was instrumental in Obama’s U.S. Senate campaign and later his bid to become the first African American U.S. president.

Currently, Black serves on the Community Advisory Board for the collaborative effort led by the University of Chicago to bring the Barack Obama Presidential Library to the South Side of Chicago.

“It would give people a place where they can understand that Obama’s political and social organizing skills came from the South Side of Chicago, with South Side people—ministers, lay people, academics—all of that prepared him and gave him information and inspiration to move into the political world, “ Black says.

It’s that connection between information and inspiration that continues to be Black’s passion. He has compiled hundreds of oral histories from African Americans who lived on Chicago’s South Side after the first and second Great Migrations from the South for the first, second, and a forthcoming third volume of Bridges of Memory. Black also is writing an autobiography to share his experiences with future generations. He encourages students, whenever possible, to strive to learn and understand the historical and sociological context of society to help shape the future.

Opening Doors

Hauad views her mission as widening the base of students who experience the Chicago tradition—drawing more from the diverse neighborhoods surrounding the University, in particular.

After attending college and working at Kenyon College in Ohio, Hauad returned to her hometown of Chicago four years ago to spearhead the UChicago Promise initiative. That initiative has grown into No Barriers, a comprehensive program to support students in all phases of their education and beyond graduation. The program helps ease financial and administrative barriers for potential students, but Hauad said an equally great challenge is to get more students who live in the surrounding communities to consider the University of Chicago or other highly selective colleges as an option for themselves.

“A lot of students in cities like Chicago just don’t see selective schools like the University of Chicago as an option,” says Hauad, who is a first-generation college graduate. “They think they’re not going to get it or can’t afford it, so a lot of times they write these schools off right off the bat.” In addition, she said, first generation college-bound students don’t always understand the value of a liberal arts school rather than one offering more career-oriented majors.

“Sometimes kids get trapped into trade work, which is fine work, but they get trapped there because of who they are,” Hauad says, “and not because they wanted to do that work. So I think in particular, it’s important to make sure that this group of students understands how a liberal arts-based education is beneficial to everything you do going forward.”

Even before the UChicago Promise program launched, Hauad encouraged local students to aim high when considering college. During the fall 2012 Chicago Public Schools teachers strike, Hauad invited CPS high school students to campus for college application essay writing and mock interview sessions.

“That was one of the favorite things that I’ve done in this job so far,” Hauad recalls, adding that the essay-writing workshop alone drew hundreds of students from 40 different Chicago Public Schools across the city.

James Nondorf, Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid and one of Hauad’s nominators, noted that she continues to offer essay-writing workshops to any high school or community-based organization in the city that asks. “Veronica spends countless hours, including in the evenings and on weekends, offering a wide variety of sessions to help Chicago high school students be prepared for the college admissions process at the University of Chicago or any other school that they are considering,” he says.

“Veronica is truly inspiring to everybody who works with her,” Nondorf says. “She has a deep commitment to diversity, social justice, and equality. With her kind and calm nature and her willingness to help, she has singlehandedly expanded our visibility in the city of Chicago, particularly among underrepresented students, families, and community-based organizations.”

The ongoing success of No Barriers and the UChicago Promise program brings a great deal of satisfaction to Hauad. “Within the first year of implementing the program, we saw an almost 50 percent increase in our own applications to the University of Chicago from city of Chicago students. So internally, directly for us it was a great success in just bringing more kids out of the woodwork to take a look at us,” she says. “We’ve also been able to build relationships with a wider variety of schools, teachers, coordinators, and counselors—not necessarily just to recruit their students to our school, but to work together to make sure these kids are going onto college.”

Hauad says one UChicago Promise student from the South Side recently shared her admissions application essay with other students at a workshop. It was the essay that helped her get into UChicago. “She wrote about the metaphorical connection she once made between the big, old, large, heavy wood-and-steel doors in so many of the [Gothic style] campus buildings,” Hauad says.

“She described how they felt like a true barrier to her,” Hauad says, “how she felt she didn’t belong in this place even though she was from one of the neighborhoods right here on the South Side.” Hauad says this student started taking college-level classes on campus while she was still in high school as part of the University’s BRIDGE program, and began to realize that she did belong.

“I opened that door,” the student wrote, “I took that challenge and all of a sudden I realized I fit in and deserved to be here, too.”

The opening of doors—both metaphorical and otherwise—remains an end goal for all three Diversity Leadership Award recipients. Black said he is optimistic about the continued progress today’s young people will make in enriching society with more diversity and social justice.

“I’m invigorated by the interest and talent of the younger generations today," Black says. "They’re anxious to change the world. And people like myself can help them understand that change is going to come if they keep at it, but they have to be prepared for when it does come. They have to be ready when that door they’ve been trying to open finally does, and be prepared for the positions and opportunities they’ve made available,” says Black.

Originally published on January 12, 2015.