Rudy Nimocks, Margaret Beale Spencer, Jamil Khoury named diversity leadership winners

Embracing diversity demands a change of perspective, as winners of the University of Chicago’s 2017 Diversity Leadership Awards can attest.  

Sometimes that shift yields remarkable external results. For example, former University police chief and community leader Rudy Nimocks credits his efforts to better understand youth and their environments for launching him into community policing, youth development and partnerships for neighborhood revitalization.

In other examples, leaders pushed to open the mainstream frame of reference to new viewpoints. Margaret Beale Spencer, PhD’76, the Marshall Field IV Professor of Urban Education in Comparative Human Development, has spent her academic career working to change the field of psychology’s perspective on “normal” human development to make room for the experiences of marginalized people. And for Jamil Khoury, AM’92, telling universal stories through the lenses of Asian and Middle Eastern playwrights brings audiences new ways of seeing the world and themselves. 

Each year the Diversity Leadership Awards recognize members of the faculty, staff and alumni communities who display leadership in fostering diversity and advance social justice and equity, both within the University and beyond into the broader community. President Robert J. Zimmer will present the awards at a Jan. 9 reception, and the recipients will be recognized at the University’s Martin Luther King Jr. celebration in Rockefeller Memorial Chapel.

“These leaders reflect Dr. King’s legacy through service, scholarship and art. It is an honor to recognize them for their impactful work,” said Prof. Melissa Gilliam, vice provost for academic leadership, advancement and diversity, who co-chairs the University’s Diversity Leadership Council. 

Changing mindsets and environments

In his early career with the Chicago Police Department, Nimocks said, “I didn’t think like I do now. I only wanted to put people in jail.” His views began to change when he became a homicide detective and observed the same situation over and over again. “The home environment is not inviting. The kids want to be somebody. They get into gangs,” he said. “We have a certain segment of our population that is trapped in this vicious cycle. I figured it out by being exposed to it.”

Nimocks began working to change the environment for those young people in small ways. Back in the 1960s, well before community policing became a well-known strategy, Nimocks and his partner began working with families. When they arrested a youth, “we’d go back and pick up the parents the next day, take them to court, explain the court process.” As Nimocks rose through the ranks of the CPD, he became the first African American to hold several important positions, including commander of the homicide section and later chief of the organized crime division. His leadership “helped to open doors to higher-level positions for African Americans and other diverse candidates,” noted nominator Sonya Malunda, senior associate vice president for community engagement, who co-chairs the Diversity Leadership Council.

After retiring from the CPD as a deputy superintendent, Nimocks took the position of chief of the University’s police department. During his 20-year tenure in the role, he instituted community-oriented policing practices and developed relationships that led to the expansion of the University’s policing borders to the north and south.

“The UCPD was invited into these community areas because of Mr. Nimocks’ leadership and the trust he had built with our campus neighbors to the north and south,” wrote Malunda.

Now in his late 80s, Nimocks continues to build bridges between the University and surrounding communities as director of community partnerships in the Office of Civic Engagement. For the last seven years he has led fundraising efforts for the Chicago Youth Leadership Academy, a partnership between the University and Chicago Police Department serving the Woodlawn and Englewood communities. Since its inception, CYLA has brought 217 at-risk youth with leadership potential to campus for a three-week, residential summer program. 

“It’s amazing how total immersion in the University of Chicago can have such dramatic impact on where they’re going,” said Nimocks.

Understanding resilience

For Spencer, those effects might not come as a surprise, since she has dedicated her life to understanding the dynamics of resilience, especially in urban youth.

“All humans, no matter who you are, possess both risk factors and protective factors,” she said. “I want to understand how we get resiliency for everyone. It might look different for different groups. I want to understand how we get good outcomes independent of risk factors.”

To account for how these factors affect human development over the lifespan across a variety of environments, Spencer developed the Phenomenological Variant of Ecological Systems Theory, or PVEST. “People who share the same context make very different meaning of it,” she said, depending on the complex interplay of the stressors and protective factors in their lives, the coping strategies they develop and internalize, and how experienced stressors and coping strategies change.

By contrast, much of the research on low-income youth of color approaches them from a deficit perspective. Bringing a more complex and nuanced understanding of human development to the psychology and education of young people hasn’t been easy. “We do not implement our science with that understanding,” Spencer said. “People lack interest in unpacking the complexity. They use simple analogies to construct very complicated lives. PVEST helps us de-complicate some of those dynamic human experiences.”

Spencer’s career has been dedicated to furthering both the intellectual understanding and the concrete experience of diversity in academic settings. After completing her PhD at the University in 1976, she became one of the first African American women appointed to a tenure-track position at Emory University, and later joined the faculty at the University of Pennsylvania before returning to Chicago.

“One testament to the power of her scholarship is to be found in the students who have flourished under her mentorship. They represent a diversity of thought, and of being, that is truly remarkable,” said David Nirenberg, dean of the Division of the Social Sciences, who nominated Spencer.

Seeing yourself in another’s story

For Divinity School alumnus Khoury, the foundation of diversity is the ability “to see yourself in someone else’s story.” In the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks, Khoury and his husband, Malik Gillani, founded Silk Road Rising, a Chicago-based theater company that showcases playwrights of Asian and Middle Eastern origins.  Since their first show in 2002, Silk Road Rising has collaborated with more than 59 playwrights, pioneered the use of video to transmit their work to international audiences, and won numerous awards for both artistic excellence and community leadership.

By bringing Silk Road stories to mainstream audiences in Chicago, Khoury has seen empathy at work first hand. During a 2004 production of Tea, a play that told the story of Japanese war brides in a small-town Kansas, a fifth-generation German-American woman saw the play and responded by saying, “That’s my story. That is my sister,” Khoury recalled. “Those are the moments when we are realizing success.”

Silk Road Rising has “worked to counter the dominant narratives against Asian, Middle Eastern and Muslim Americans with those that are authentic, multifaceted and grounded in reality,” wrote nominator Mary Abowd. It presents these communities “as neither angels nor demons, but true human beings burdened with the same faults and blessed with the same strengths as all people everywhere.” 

The recent wave of anti-Muslim sentiment unleashed over the last year has reaffirmed the importance of Silk Road’s work. “We’ve had internal conversations, asking ourselves, ‘How do we broaden the reach of our aesthetic?” said Khoury. But the company remains committed to multi-dimensional, complex storytelling. “This is not didactic theater or polemic. I get plays like that sent to me, and I don’t produce them. We offer questions, we don’t offer answers.”