Aida Giachello, AM’71, PhD’88, obtained skills at the University of Chicago that she uses to contribute to the field of public health research and ensure its relevance to populations studied. UChicago staff member Kathleen Forde created a groundbreaking mentoring program to help students overcome career obstacles related to sexual orientation, while staff member Theaster Gates utilized his dual talents as an internationally acclaimed artist and urban planner to build avenues of creative exchange between the University community and its surrounding South Side neighbors.
Giachello, Forde and Gates are recipients of the University of Chicago 2014 Diversity Leadership Awards, which recognize alumni and staff leadership in fostering diversity and advancing justice and equality on campus, within the surrounding community and beyond those boundaries. Each of this year’s recipients credits the power of community building for their accomplishments.
Bringing social justice to Latino community
Giachello, who will receive the Diversity Leadership Alumni Award, enrolled in the master’s program at the School of Social Service Administration after moving to Chicago from Puerto Rico in the 1960s. She said a “critical cadre” of mentors and fellow students in the school’s community organizing program—set against the backdrop of the blossoming civil rights movements in the United States—cemented her commitment to social justice issues.
Currently a professor of preventive medicine at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine, Giachello has been named “One of 25 of the Most Influential Latinos in America” by Time magazine in 2005 and received an Inspire Award from the AARP (American Association of Retired Persons) in 2010 for her career-long quest for social justice.
She played leading roles in the formation of numerous health and human services organizations locally, regionally and nationally. These include the Hispanic Health Alliance, the Midwest Hispanic AIDS Coalition, the National Latino Council on Alcohol and Tobacco Prevention and Control, and the National Latino Institute for Reproductive Health, among others.
“It was at the University of Chicago where I began to understand the importance of really working with the community in terms of reshaping and addressing the kinds of issues that affect residents,” Giachello said. “I trained at the University of Chicago as an organizer and engaged in mobilizing communities and understanding social policy and community structure.” That engagement, said Giachello, was instrumental in the pursuit of her non-traditional research track of engaging in community partnerships and community capacity-building, so residents and leaders could be equal partners in the collection and use of data for social action.
These experiences, combined with research methodologies and theoretical frameworks she studied while pursuing her PhD in sociology at UChicago, would later inform her development of a new research approach now known as Community-Based Participatory Action Research, after she founded the University of Illinois-Chicago’s Midwest Latino Health Research, Training and Policy Center. CPAR transformed the health and human services research field with its emphasis on engaging the community in assessing the social determinants of health, participating in data collection, analysis and dissemination, with the end goal of solving community problems and engaging in policy work as the result of research findings.
Efforts bring mentors, health insurance to LGBTQ community
Forde, an assistant dean of students, used her wide community network of LGBTQ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Queer) faculty, staff and alumni to help create a nation-leading mentoring program that matches students with someone to turn to for advice as they make the transition through college to adulthood and, often, a new identity. She first began building these connections on campus as a newly hired academic adviser in the early 1990s after joining a committee that successfully lobbied for domestic partnership benefits for the lesbian and gay community at UChicago.
The policy change, adopted in 1992, is often credited for contributing to the same-sex marriage rights movement undergoing watershed moments today. “Other institutions were giving domestic partnership benefits, but in a very limited way, such as allowing people to sign up their partner for gym memberships or library privileges. We had been looking for something much more comprehensive—namely, health insurance,” Forde said. “I like to say that the University of Chicago may not always do things first, but when we do things we do them right. So, we were actually the first institution to grant same-sex partner benefits, including health insurance.”
But Forde’s true legacy at UChicago lies in the mentoring program, which she co-founded with Jim Howley, a graduate career counselor at the University, and Anne Pizzi, former president of the student organization Queers & Associates. While the program started in 2001 with more than a dozen students and mentors, the program quickly grew to include as many as 100 participants annually.
Forde is a natural mentor and “a friendly, welcoming presence for everyone she encounters,” said Dena van der Wal, AB’96, one of Forde’s nominators. “Kathy connected me with my first job after graduation, a great position with a lesbian-owned software company that helped me develop as a designer,” said van der Wal, now a senior site developer at the University of Chicago.
Another one of the Forde’s nominators, Michael Yarbrough, AB’01, an assistant professor of law and society at John Jay College, said Forde’s mentoring strongly influenced his life. After coming out while enrolled at UChicago, Yarbrough’s father cut off financial support for his education and he was forced to withdraw. (They have since reconciled.) Forde connected Yarbrough with an LGBTQ activist program that paid him to work on Congressional campaigns, after which he spent another three years working on Capitol Hill before returning to UChicago to finish his degree, then able to access financial aid to replace his father’s support.
“Kathy saw me through a successful completion of my bachelor's degree, and I have since gone on to complete a JD and a PhD at Yale, where I did research on LGBTQ people’s and rural women’s rights in South Africa," Yarbrough said. At John Jay College, Yarbrough teaches a heavily working-class, black, Latino and immigrant student body. “Without Kathy, I might not now have any career at all, much less one so focused, like Kathy’s, on issues of inclusion and social justice,” Yarbrough said.
In addition to the mentoring program, Forde also has helped establish the 5710 diversity center, which houses the Office of Multicultural Student Affairs and LGBTQ Student Life. She also has served on the Point Foundation National LGBTQ Scholarship Fund’s Mentoring Subcommittee and as a mentor to University of Chicago Point Scholars. She credits relationships formed as a result of reaching out to the community not only as an activist, but as a volunteer, for having readily available connections to help guide students as they navigate what they might view as uncertain futures. She volunteers regularly in the community, having served on the board of her local YMCA, for example, and includes a volunteer requirement in the mentoring program.
Yarbrough said UChicago’s five-star ”premier” rating in the LGBT-Friendly Campus Climate Index, run by the national organization Campus Pride, is largely is a result of Forde’s efforts. “The strength of diversity is its capacity to bind and enrich communities, and community is the value that drives all of Kathy's efforts both at UChicago and in her non-professional life,” he said.
Opening dialogue between University scholars and South Side artists
This year’s other recipient of a Diversity Leadership Staff Award, Theaster Gates, credits community building for enabling his groundbreaking work as the University of Chicago’s Director of the Arts and Public Life Initiative, a multifaceted effort to foster collaboration and conversation between the University and the civic, cultural and artistic communities of Chicago, with a focus on the South Side.
As part of the initiative, Gates spearheaded the opening of the Washington Park Arts Incubator in March 2013. The facility, located on what was long considered a “dead” corner at 55th and Prairie Street, provides 10,000 square feet of dedicated studio space for artists to grow professionally and build creative connections with the surrounding community.
Prof. Larry Norman, former deputy provost for the arts, said he nominated Gates for a Diversity Leadership Staff Award because of contributions from his current post, in his previous appointment as a community arts liaison in the Humanities Division, and in his many community enrichment projects outside of academia, such as the non-profit Rebuild Foundation that Gates established.
“Through his uncanny ability to connect with an astonishing array of people, Theaster has created wide and reciprocal avenues of exchange between the campus and its neighbors,” Norman said. “On one side, he has worked with a gamut of faculty members from the Humanities and Social Sciences, connecting their research concerns (in art history, studio arts, music, literature, cinema and media, social and cultural history, and political science) to organizations and individuals on the South Side with shared interests.
“Indeed, his ability to create open and productive dialogues between scholars and South Side artists and cultural leaders has helped the University considerably in its efforts aimed at diversifying faculty in these domains,” Norman said.
“On the other side, he has been an untiring advocate for these South Side communities and has been remarkably effective in providing them access to the University in order to further their creative work. He has notably worked closely with the Executive Director of the Logan Center of the Arts, Bill Michel, in leading the efforts to make the new center a powerful resource for the diverse artistic and performing organizations active in the neighborhoods just beyond campus.”
Norman said Gates, who has exhibited at the Whitney Biennial, London's White Cube, the Venice Bieannale and other prestigious venues, could easily devote himself entirely to his highly successful career as an artist of international fame. But Gates said the work he does in the community he lives in, and that he does through the University, helps to inform his artistic work—and visa versa.
“I’d suggest that art and culture have a way of fostering sincere cross-class, cross-racial, intergenerational moments,” Gates said. “Without having to make it my principal agenda, but just by celebrating people’s lives, diversity has been a byproduct of a deeply engaged commitment to culture.”
The 2014 Diversity Leadership Awards will be presented during a special presidential reception on campus on Jan. 15, 2014, in conjunction with the University’s celebration of Martin Luther King Jr.’s life.