Michael Bennett and Kim Ransom to receive 2013 Diversity Leadership Awards

For most of his life, sociologist and UChicago alumnus Michael Bennett, AM’72, PhD’88 (SSA), has been working to remove roadblocks that thwart fair access to education and economic opportunity.

“At the level of helping individual families trying to enhance their human capital or financial capital, or trying to adjust policy, you have to remove barriers that keep people from being self-sufficient,” said Bennett, associate professor of sociology at DePaul University, and the 2013 University of Chicago alumni Diversity Leadership Award recipient. “Those are the ways that I’ve tried to help people realize their potential.”

As a young pupil at Charles H. Wacker Elementary School, Kim Ransom acquired the mindset that education is about becoming one’s best self to build the best community. There she discovered her own voice and the importance of raising it along with those of her classmates, as they recited the Pledge of Allegiance or sang “Lift Every Voice and Sing.” “Singing became a metaphor for letting your light shine, making your impact toward that common goal, which in that song was freedom,” said Ransom.

Raising her voice as a child planted the seeds for Ransom to recognize the importance of developing young, diverse leaders to be civic-minded. “There’s a bigger context and bigger purpose beyond ourselves, that’s crucial,” said Ransom, founding director of the Collegiate Scholars Program and the recipient of the University’s 2013 staff Diversity Leadership Award. “Sharpen your mind and find your purpose,” she tells the high school students she works with daily. “Go into the world and do something great, beyond yourself and for the community.”

Both Bennett and Ransom learned early on that the majority of people desire to be self-sufficient and to get a good education, but the structures of society don’t always make those aspirations possible.

“So many kids get lost in the shuffle,” said Ransom. “When we look at the statistics about leadership in America, when you look at minority students, it’s abysmal. What if I didn’t have the mentorship? That’s where the light bulb went off for me.”

The two diversity leaders will receive their awards at a private reception on Jan. 17. The University also will honor them at its Martin Luther King Jr. Commemoration Celebration that evening at 6 p.m. in Rockefeller Memorial Chapel, where Dr. King gave his first major address in Chicago in 1956. 

Judy Richardson, a civil rights author and documentary filmmaker, is the guest speaker for this year’s MLK Celebration. Veteran of the southern civil rights movement and an activist with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, Richardson began her film work with the Academy Award-nominated, 14-hour PBS series, Eyes on the Prize, for which she was series associate producer and education director.

Where there’s a will, there’s a way

Bennett, who was the executive director of the Monsignor John J. Egan Urban Center for over a decade and former President of the Neighborhood Institute, said he always tries to put his education to practical use. “I’ve always been an applied sociologist. The heart of my work has always been to put together programs, stimulate community development efforts on a local or national level.”

At the Egan Center, Bennett was able to help institutions leverage their resources to have major, positive impacts on their communities. By helping organizations with their planning processes, evaluating the effectiveness and efficiency of their operations, and helping them improve and enhance their abilities, they’ve addressed critical urban problems by channeling community and economic assistance directly to the people and communities that need it. 

One way they did this was to found the Fathers, Families and Health Communities Collaborative. This initiative focuses on enhancing the capacities of low-income, noncustodial fathers to enrich the lives of their children. Many of these fathers are formerly incarcerated and have suffered long stretches of unemployment. 

“We partnered with the Safer Foundation, who focused on 22 state regulations that prohibited ex-offenders from gaining certain kinds of licenses,” said Bennett, who chairs the board of the Chicago-based Fathers, Families and Health Communities Collaborative. “You could cut everyone’s hair in prison, but once you got out you couldn’t get a barber’s license!”

All of the obstacles that prevent self-sufficiency aren’t immovable mountains, said Bennett.  

“The only thing we need is the will. That’s it. We can do anything we choose to do as a national society or as a global society. All the resources are here. The mechanism evolves from the will. There’s a disconnect between our rhetoric and our actions in society. If you ask most policymakers what their highest priorities are, they’d say education. But we don’t want to pay teachers. And basically we’ve never really focused on education as the top priority. It’s the will, that’s what we need.”

James Williams, manager of business diversity at the University of Chicago Medicine, nominated Bennett because, he wrote, “[Bennett] has always stood for the fair, equitable distribution of scarce resources, with a particular focus on assuring that under-resourced areas were not only included in economic plans, but were equipped to develop, prosper, and sustain healthy, thriving communities.”

‘From Roseland to UChicago or West Lawn to Harvard’

Ransom founded the Collegiate Scholars Program in 2003, which has since helped hundreds of Chicago Public School students gain entry into college—100 percent of them to four-year institutions. The college application process is long and complicated and, she said, needs to begin in the ninth grade—by junior year, it may already be too late, leaving students confused and panicked.

“My own college search process was not the best,” Ransom said. “The mentorship around where to go and what to choose was just not there. My parents knew, ‘you gotta go to college,’ but they didn’t know much more than that in terms of the process.”

Ransom said UChicago faculty members have played an essential role in Collegiate Scholars’ success, and their presence in the classroom is the program’s hallmark. Three of the first to participate in the program are senior lecturer Allen Sanderson, Prof. Paul Sally and the late Prof. Herman Sinaiko, who provided the foundation for the program’s humanities core.

Sitting in on one of Sinaiko’s classes, Ransom recalls the question he asked the students: “What does it mean to be human?” An answer came: “To be alive.” A deeper discussion ensued, until Sinaiko got another 40 or more answers. “I’ve had so many students come back to me and say, ‘I remember when I was in Herman Sinaiko’s class, and how much it changed the way I think about myself, about humanity and about learning.’ He taught them what it means to be involved in the life of the mind,” said Ransom.

In addition to rigorous summer courses, Collegiate Scholars provides guidance on which classes to take, how to assess the rigor of classes offered during high school, how to develop oneself outside of school hours, and how to find the right fit when it comes to school choice. To extend the work of Collegiate Scholars throughout and beyond college, Ransom, along with six program graduates, created the Collegiate Scholars Alumni Network. Through professional, social and civic opportunities, CAN hopes to develop the next generation of Chicago's civically engaged leaders.

"Wouldn’t it be powerful if alumni were able to go into the public schools and tell young people about their college access journeys through their personal stories of ‘how I went from Roseland to the University of Chicago,’ or ‘West Lawn to Harvard,'" said Ransom.

Derek R. B. Douglas, Vice President for Civic Engagement at the University of Chicago, nominated Ransom. Writing in his nomination letter, Douglas noted, “Through her extensive work with minority youth, Kim has focused on the importance of education as the pathway to successful careers and lives. She continues to apply this philosophy to her own education as well, which is evidenced by her recent participation in the Chicago Community Trust Fellowship for Emerging Leaders and as a Lead the Way Fellow, a program at New York University’s Women of Color Policy Network.”