“We are reflecting, we are growing every single year,” says Michelle Hoereth, Director of Diversity & Inclusion. “There's no institution that has it right.”

When it comes to the work that the University of Chicago Harris School of Public Policy is doing around diversity and inclusion, every day is a school day.

“Social impact, down to a science” is Harris’ motto, and yet, when it comes to issues of diversity within the world of public policy — and in day-to-day life at Harris — “data does not always tell the end-all, be-all story,” said Sparkle Dalphinis, associate director of student recruitment at Harris.

Through her role on the recruitment team, Dalphinis is focused on developing a more diverse public policy program year round. She conducts outreach to historically black colleges and universities and Hispanic-serving institutions, in addition to partnering with community organizations such as Pickering and Truman, in order to reach prospective students who are interested in pursuing a degree in public policy, but who might not otherwise be encouraged to do so beyond their undergraduate studies. 

Sparkle Dalphinis
Sparkle Dalphinis, Associate Director of Student Recruitment at Harris Public Policy

Diversity Day, a two-day event that Dalphinis enterprised last year, and which took place this year on November 7 and 8, is an opportunity for college students from underrepresented backgrounds – some of them first-generation – to connect with current Harris students, alumni, and faculty while learning about the support systems that will be available to them should they ultimately enroll in the program. 

Since 2013, the number of minority students in each incoming class has grown. By showcasing different affinity groups and the various resources available to underrepresented students at Harris, Dalphinis said she hopes to showcase the benefit of being surrounded by the community that is welcoming for all students — regardless of racial, religious or geographic background, or sexual orientation — not just the majority.

Recruitment initiatives go hand in hand with those of the Student Affairs team, Dalphinis said. 

“In my role, I collaborate with other members of the University, so I am a huge supporter of other initiatives being done by our affinity student groups. Minorities in Public Policy (MiPPs), Black Action in Public Policy (BAPP), Latin American Matters (LAM), OutPolitik for the LGBTQI community — I like to connect students in those groups with prospective students, so that they're able to have those honest and authentic conversations about what it’s like to be a graduate student at a predominantly white institution, who might be wondering,  ‘Is there a community that exists there for me? Is it an inclusive community?’”

Michelle Hoereth, director of diversity and inclusion at Harris Public Policy, addressed the students during the second day of Diversity Day programming. 

“My main goal is to give students the opportunity to talk and ask questions,” Hoereth said. “I want to give them the opportunity to have a very candid conversation, because there is no perfect way to do the work that Harris is doing around diversity and inclusion.”

Michelle Hoereth
Michelle Hoereth, Director of Diversity and Inclusion at Harris

In preparing her remarks, Hoereth said it was important to her that the day’s programming reflected a growth mentality. 

“We are reflecting, we are growing every single year,” Hoereth said. “There's no institution that has it right. We are a work in progress and we will continue to be a work in progress.”

Bianca Castro was one of the more than 50 prospective students who attended Diversity Day this year. She graduated from Syracuse University in 2018 with a degree in public policy and now works in emergency management consulting advising New York City on Hurricane Sandy recovery initiatives. 

“I'm realizing there’s a lack of technology and data being used in this field,” Castro says “Incorporating data into our public policy decisions and our policies going forward is a strong interest of mine, so Harris is a school I'm seriously thinking about.”

While she believes all graduate schools have room to improve when it comes to diversity, Castro said Harris is the only program she’s considering that has shown a specific interest and effort in reaching out to underrepresented students in a direct, obvious way.

“I think an event showing that you're committed to having these diverse perspectives and wanting to attract these students who may not traditionally even realize that graduate school is a possibility, was something that I definitely wanted to attend and be a part of,” she said. “I wanted to hear what the Harris School has to offer for students with similar backgrounds like me. Growing up, I experienced a lot of the hardships that come with being in a low-income, single mother household and some of the disadvantages that come with being in a predominantly Mexican-American community.” 

Speakers at Diversity Day programming included (l-r) Ranjan Daniels, senior associate dean of student recruitment and global outreach; Austin Wright, assistant professor; and Damon Jones, associate professor.

Todd Hall also attended Diversity Day as a prospective student this year. He graduated from Williams College in Massachusetts with a degree in political economy and a separate concentration in Africana Studies. He currently works for a non-profit educational technology startup, Empatico, within the KIND Foundation. 

“I gathered from Diversity Day that Harris – like any place – isn't perfect, but students, alumni, and staff ‘go to bat’ for each other,” Hall said, reflecting on his takeaways. “Michelle made clear that Harris may not have Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion down to a science. However, they do have a robust set of initiatives in place to make the community welcoming and affirming of diverse perspectives.”

“Before I got the agenda, I expected to hear from administrators, and then perhaps some students and alumni on a panel. I did not expect as much informal face time with students and alumni. That was great. I feel as if I had already started a network in Chicago because the students and alumni were so open to being a resource.”

As Harris leadership, faculty and staff continue the neverending work of building a more diverse learning environment, Harris students are doing the important work of furthering this conversation, as well. 

Kinda Sorta Brown
"Kinda Sorta Brown" is available for listening on your favorite listening platforms.

On November 7, Diversity Day attendees were invited to attend a live recording of the “Kinda Sorta Brown” podcast, co-hosted by Rei Bertoldi, James Johnson and Kurt Nugent, all MPP Class of 2020 students at Harris. 

Bertoldi, Johnson and Nugent became close friends during their first year at Harris aftermeeting at Jumpstart, a two-week customized program designed for incoming first-year students who have a limited quantitative background prior to enrolling at Harris. Throughout their first year at Harris, they continued to bond over their shared interests and identities.

In August, they launched their new podcast as part of UC3P, a collection of podcasts made by students at the University of Chicago. “Kinda Sorta Brown” takes a deep dive into how intersectional identities influence a variety of policy areas through personal narratives of those working in public policy spaces, tackling issues like climate change, student activism and discrimination.

“Higher education tends to be very siloed," Bertoldi said. “And so our purpose was to highlight voices of individuals living at intersectional crossroads. But as we were going through it, we just realized that a lot of people resonated with what we were doing and now we are reassured that we’re doing important work.”

“Kinda Sorta Brown” emerged after a bottle and a half of wine, and honest and vulnerable discussions about how the three friends felt growing up while navigating mixed identities across different communities. 

“We realized that there's a lot of other people like us, especially in academic communities who don't get the opportunities a lot of times to have a really tight group of people that they can be really, really vulnerable with and talk about how their identity impacts not only a lot of the work that they're doing, but how it shapes and impacts the world in the policy sectors that we all feel really passionate about, surrounding us,” Nugent said. 

Beatriz Rendón MPP'96 and Melissa Navas MPP'19 were both interviewed as guests on the “Kinda Sorta Brown” episode recorded live on November 7. 

Panelists on Kinda Sorta Brown spoke before a live audience.

Navas is now the Director of Career Development at the University of Chicago Institute of Politics, but her career as a student at Harris, and the insights she shared during the live taping, made a lasting impression on the KSB co-hosts and their guests.

“Melissa was a huge part of the reason I chose to come to this school,” Nugent said. “She was the former president of MiPPs, a historic organization that has existed for over 40 years. When she got here it had no leadership, there was no membership, there was conflict. It took real fire and blood of a lot of really committed students of color to sit there and say, ‘No, just because this place doesn’t have 50/50 balance doesn't mean we can't have a really strong community.’”

Having graduated from Harris more than 20 years ago, Rendón said she was impressed by the messaging of Diversity Day, and the intentions behind it.

“When you already feel like you're not sure whether this is the place for you or not, those intentional and strategic efforts to say, ‘Hey, this is a place where you belong, too, even if it still seems foreign to you,’ matters, and I think that goes a long way. I know it would have made a difference for me personally.”

Two decades later, Nugent said he arrived at Harris expecting to have a “very solitary experience,” but, “I fell in love with the community here that, while not perfect, is always getting better and filled with people like Rei and James, some of the best people I've ever known. And I couldn't imagine trying to go through it without them.”