Social justice: There’s no one way

Denise Bransford Profile

Growing up on the South Side of Chicago in the 1960s, I remember hearing my parents and their friends talk about Roosevelt University and how it provided opportunities for all students, without the racial quotas common at colleges at the time. They talked about the black people they knew, or at least knew about, who went to Roosevelt: Mr. Harvey, our neighbor, who attended class at night and was now a manager with the power to hire and fire people; then-State Rep. Harold Washington (who of course would go on to be the city’s first black mayor); and Gus Savage, editor of The Citizen newspaper who went on to serve in Congress. The adults in my life pointed out that these pioneers were putting their education to use to help the people. With the civil rights movement happening in the background of my young life, I began to absorb the importance of education, social justice and service.

Today, I am one of those Roosevelt success stories (BPS, ’04) and a proud member of the Roosevelt family for the past 17 years, serving in various administrative roles. In those years, I have often asked myself what social justice means to me. How can I serve the Roosevelt legacy? The answer has come back to me in many different ways, and through many fascinating people. Just a few examples:

Hallie Amey

The author, Mrs. Amey and Prof. Al Bennett.

Early in my career at Roosevelt, when I worked in public relations, the University began a partnership with the residents of Wentworth Gardens, a public housing development. Mrs. Amey, a community activist and Wentworth Gardens resident, was 83 years old when she came to Roosevelt in 2002 and asked for help preparing the youth of the development to graduate from high school and attend college.

I was so proud of how Roosevelt responded. Faculty members and students signed up to mentor young residents. The University’s Jumpstart program, in which college students help prepare children for kindergarten, started serving the schools near the development.
Students and staff members helped residents create a safe and clean play area and community garden.

This partnership kept bearing fruit. In 2005, two Roosevelt freshmen came from Wentworth Gardens. And when Mrs. Amey told me most of the children in Wentworth Gardens weren’t likely to receive Christmas gifts, we organized an “angel tree” of their wants and needs. Again, the Roosevelt community responded in a big way; in fact, the response was so overwhelming that we had extra gifts and grocery cards, as well as hats and gloves for some adults. One snowy night, Mrs. Amey brought dozens of children and their parents down to Roosevelt to receive their gifts and share food with us. We ate and laughed and had a wonderful time; word spread throughout the offices, and staff members still at work because of the snow joined us in increasing numbers. It was a beautiful night. I don’t remember what gifts I got for Christmas that year, but I will always remember the joy I felt in knowing what we did made a difference.

That was just the start of what turned out to be a long relationship with Wentworth Gardens. Last year, we fully endowed the Hallie Amey Memorial Scholarship Fund, in honor of Mrs. Amey’s dedication to her neighbors.

Harold Washington

Mayor Harold Washington, class of 1949, addressing Roosevelt University graduates at the January 8, 1984 commencement in the Auditorium Theatre. Photographer: Gary Sigman
Mayor Harold Washington addressing Roosevelt University graduates at the January 8, 1984 commencement in the Auditorium Theatre. Photographer: Gary Sigman

I believe strongly that students of color need to know about the heroes of the past who were like them, people who looked like them and came from similar backgrounds. People of all races and experiences have contributed to make this city great, but many young people–and many adults–don’t understand that.

I joined the Mayor Harold Washington Legacy Committee in 2010, while I was chief of staff to Roosevelt President Chuck Middleton. The committee was planning events to honor the 25th anniversary of Mayor Washington’s passing. It made sense for his alma mater (he was class of 1949) to have a role in the celebration.

I worked with the committee as we sponsored events to help school children get to know this important figure; first, an essay contest (with laptops as prizes) and then the “Know Your Harold” contest, a multi-school trivia game.

The final trivia round brought three schools to DuSable High School to vie for the trophy, and the excitement among the students and audience was palpable. I’ll never forget one of the young men on the winning team telling me, “The only ones who ever win trophies are the jocks. Now we’ll have a trophy for being smart.” I knew we succeeded in giving these young people pride in their city and a belief in their own abilities.

Martha Sklar

Dr. Martha Sklar
Bransford, center, with Dr. Sklar, right, and Sklar’s sister.

Today, I am assistant vice-president for planned giving, which gives me a chance to spend a lot of time talking to our alumni, some of whom were here in the very beginning. We work together to create a legacy for a new generation of students, and they tell me inspiring stories.

Dr. Sklar (BA, ’62) is one of many great examples. She came to the U.S. from her native Cuba when she was eight years old, and was only able to attend Roosevelt because of financial assistance from the University. Dr. Sklar taught mathematics at the high school and college level for more than 20 years and has been a loyal and generous donor to the University. She endowed a mathematics scholarship in 2011, and recently the Dr. Martha R. Sklar Study Lounge in the Wabash Building was dedicated in honor of another generous gift.

We asked her why she’s so committed to Roosevelt, and she replied: “When I needed help, some generous people provided a scholarship for me at Roosevelt; my philosophy is to pay it forward.”

These experiences, and many more, taught me that social justice takes many forms, especially at Roosevelt. I first heard it when I was a little girl, but all these decades later, I’ve seen it firsthand.

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