Skip to content
Career
November 1, 2023

Seeking Justice In The Classroom

Written by: Waymaker Journal Team

It is difficult to overstate the importance of education in how it can help change not only individual lives but also communities, cities, and even a nation. She has seen that clearly since becoming president of Chicago State University almost three years ago.

One in 10 Black people in Illinois with a degree got it from Chicago State, which ranks in the top 4% of all universities in the country in terms of economic mobility. The school is No. 2 in the country in graduating Black students with degrees in physics. “With a degree from Chicago State, students have the opportunity to travel across the world,” Scott says. “Our degree has proven value in helping someone move up the economic ladder.”

The school makes an impact at home as well. Sitting on 161 acres on the South Side of Chicago, it is one of the largest employers there. Many on the payroll live in the neighborhood, “so we are already contributing to the community,” she says, “but we also do so much programming that further benefits the area.”

By way of example, there was a 2020 program where Black and brown physicians and community organizers came together to provide local residents information about COVID-19 and their health. When Chicago experienced some of the rioting that occurred across the country last summer, Chicago State arranged a forum to support the rebuilding of small businesses by providing information about state and city services available to them.

“Academic institutions are often the cornerstone for economic development,” Scott notes, citing a memorandum of understanding with the City to promote economic development on the Southeast side. “My vision is that in about two years 95th Street, where we sit, will not look like it does now. Instead, there will be commerce, there will be thriving businesses, there will be new homes being built that are being supported by the commerce and economic development activity all along that corridor.”

Zaldwaynaka Scott's Photo

AN ENROLLMENT CRISIS

Scott sees local transformation as part of her school’s mission to not only provide education but also to be active in community service.

Under her leadership, Chicago State is also working to address what she describes as “something of a crisis for the Black community” in Illinois. That challenge is found in the rate at which Black students are going to college, which has dropped 29%. The school has convened a statewide equity working group to study how to improve access to higher education for Black students.

To get more young Black people interested in pursuing education “we need to invest our time early—not wait till junior year in high school and say, ‘You have to have a plan,’” Scott believes. “We need to start talking about college sooner. We need to start showing academic excellence in first grade, so they start seeing people that look like them from a young age. The teaching profession has lost a number of its Black teachers. There is a shortage of Black and brown teachers in public education, and we have to do something about that.”

Chicago State’s efforts in that regard include offering a four-year free ride for Black or brown students interested in a career in education: “We need to do what we can to make sure that young people in school see people that look like them.”

Chicago State is Illinois’ only predominantly Black educational institution, as defined by the United States Department of Education. Its makeup is 70% Black, 11% Latinx, 4% Asian and other. Students come from all over the country—36 states—and 28 countries. Most of them are female, and most of them have at least one dependent.

But that doesn’t tell the full story. Ninety-one percent of students come from Illinois, and the majority of them live below the poverty line. There is “a real need for scholarship funding,” says Scott. “It’s not a crime to be poor: Your economic situation should not be what keeps you from getting a college degree. We really want to make sure people are adequately funded to be able to come in, pay for books, pay tuition and finish school.”

Zaldwaynaka Scott's Photo

“Your economic situation should not be what keeps you from getting a college degree.”

AN ECONOMIC CHALLENGE

This economic challenge was highlighted by the coronavirus pandemic when students were instructed to stay home and study there. “But what does that do for the student who doesn’t have a computer, the student who doesn’t have technology access, the student who depends on the library for a place to study and for a place to access the internet?” Scott asks. “It puts all that in disarray. The foundation for some of our students was shaken to the core.”

In response, Chicago State endeavored to make sure every student that needed technology and a computer had access. Dormitories were reduced to half their population so everyone could have a single room. A survey of students found the big questions were, “How do I pay my rent?” and, “How do I take care of my children?” The school “did all that we can to backstop some of these things”—there was a quiet place for students to study on campus, a food pantry and mental health services to help students through.

“It is really difficult to see students struggle to stay the course,” says Scott. “To see them have to choose between a book and food is so impactful.”

Given Chicago State’s demographic makeup, some people are surprised to learn that it is not one of America’s historically Black colleges and universities. That is because of the Department of Education’s criteria, which include when and why a school was founded.

Chicago State’s history dates back to 1867, when it was started as a teachers college “in a leaky railcar somewhere on the South Side” by Scott’s telling. In the 1960s, the demographic and the appearance of Chicago State started to change, and it became a mostly Black institution.

A FAMILY INFLUENCE

Though she served on the board for several years before becoming president, Scott came to the school from a career in public service, including serving as a federal prosecutor for many years in Chicago. In some ways, her journey to the campus began much earlier.

“My mother, who was an educator—she retired as a high school librarian—was a major influence in my life,” she recalls. “So too were my grandmothers, who were what they called ‘colored maids,’ working in cleaning positions in the homes of white families in the South. They taught me that a good job is nothing to be ashamed of, that you can be anything you want to be in this country.”

Being a lawyer helped prepare her for the current role, she believes. “They teach you in law school to identify the issue—Where do you want to be in terms of concluding?—and then fill in the rest.” Her vision is that in the next five years, Chicago State will be one of the top 100 public institutions in the country, based on contributions, research, and growth.

“I tell people that when you are looking for a real return on investment, the kind that will change lives, change communities, change states and change cities, it is education,” Scott says, “and Chicago State University is in the business of education.”