Mark Joseph sat in Row 12 and Me’lani Labat in Row 8 that day in October 1992 as Dean Bob Michael welcomed students to the Harris School of Public Policy at the first orientation session. 

As the newest Harris cohort dispersed, Mark followed Me’lani into the hallway. He asked her name, and then he asked how to spell it. “I was completely thrown off by the apostrophe,’’ he said.

He laughs with delight at the memory. She shakes her head and rolls her eyes at this hopeless romantic.

Mark and Me'lani near Harris' former home
Mark and Me'lani outside of Harris' former home

One gets the sense this happens a lot in the partnership of Me’lani Labat Joseph (AM’94) and Mark Labat Joseph (AM'94, PhD'02), married now 25 years and united in love, parenting, and the pursuit of social change.

Their bond was fast in forming, first as part of a group of 10 or so African American students who came together naturally in this Harris class. Then just the two of them – studying, emailing, going to the bank. Me’lani and Mark found a favorite bench on the Midway where they discovered similar childhoods, a common Christian faith, and a shared intent to better the world.

That Thanksgiving, he told his family that he had “met the one.’’ By December, her California boyfriend was gone. The second year, they moved into the Algonquin Apartments in Hyde Park and became engaged. Me’lani and Mark married in 1995.

“We had a joint vision for how we wanted to spend our lives,’’ Me’lani said. 

With activist parents, both had lived in Africa as children and considered themselves citizens of the world. Both had been raised to examine the collective good before individual benefit.

At Harris, with those principles and young love looming, they became immersed in discussions of education, housing, economics, and racial disparities. “We felt so empowered to change the world,’’ Me’lani said.

Me'lani and Mark in 1993
Me'lani and Mark in 1993

Today both are recognized for their respective work toward social justice.

Mark is a noted academic, author, and consultant on mixed-income development as a strategy for promoting urban equity and inclusion. Me’lani is a STEM expert whose passion is tackling the vast discrepancies in access that exist for urban communities and specifically children of color.

Based at the Mandel School of Applied Social Sciences at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Mark founded the National Initiative on Mixed-Income Communities, regarded as the epicenter of policy and practice for cultivating economically and racially integrated housing and neighborhoods.

His interest is traced to undergraduate days at Harvard and an eye-opening summer job in a public housing youth program. When his parents moved to Atlanta, Mark started a similar youth enrichment program there. Three years in, that community was rocked by news that the large apartment complex would be rebuilt and transformed from low-income to mixed-income housing.

“There was so much consternation for the residents,’’ Mark said. “They needed to know, what does it mean for us?’’

Along with the families whose trust he had built over three summers, he sat in meetings hosted by community planners that spelled out the physical redevelopment that lay ahead. By now personally invested, Mark continued to watch from Chicago as a classic situation unfolded: Residents were relocated while construction took place; during the ensuing five years, nearly all were displaced throughout the city, never to return home. Today, homeowners are gated away from the renters in the beautiful but sedate new development.

“Policy was far ahead of research in terms of how to redevelop in equitable ways,’’ Mark said.

This case troubled him and inspired research as a post-doctoral student at the University of Chicago. With a Rockefeller Foundation grant, he studied a small innovative development in Chicago’s North Kenwood-Oakland called Jazz on the Boulevard. Then came MacArthur Foundation funding to track initiatives replacing notorious Chicago public housing developments at Stateway Gardens, Henry Horner Homes, and Ida B. Wells Homes.

By 2006, Mark was off and running, quickly becoming a leader in the field.  Recruited to Case Western, he kept the Chicago research going, leading to an award-winning book published in 2015 with U of C scholar Robert J. Chaskin, “Integrating the Inner City: The Promise and Perils of Mixed-Income Public Housing Transformation.’’

Interest and activity in mixed-income housing proliferated, as did the requests for help and information from policy makers, public officials, and journalists around the world. Mark established the National Initiative on Mixed-Income Communities six years ago as a result. Its website offers a treasure of research and data, including a new edited collection of 48 fascinating and accessible essays titled “What Works to Promote Inclusive, Equitable Mixed-Income Communities.’’

Frustratingly, change has been slow in the 15 years he’s been immersed in mixed-income housing policy aimed at reducing poverty and creating healthy and vibrant communities. In nearly all projects, there is a private developer laser-focused on “making the housing pencil out financially’’ and far less equipped to tackle social and community issues.

“As a field, we are good at building mixed-income housing; we are not good at building mixed-income community,’’ Mark said. “There are more progressive developers taking an enlightened approach, but it’s not the majority.’’ Through his center, Mark and his colleagues currently have more than 20 projects around the country advancing innovative approaches to achieving social cohesion and economic mobility as communities are redeveloped.

Case Western is also professional home base for Me’lani, a thought leader in design and implementation of science and engineering outreach programs. Recognized as a 2019 Crain’s Notable Woman in STEM, her STEM programs have been featured across TV, print and radio. Me’lani’s fervent wish is that all kids could have the education, nurturing, and exposure to ideas and opportunities she enjoyed.

Most of her childhood was in the Bay Area, though there was that short stint in Las Vegas, where her father taught social work at UNLV. Her fellow preschoolers were children of casino dealers, so playing cards and learning numbers were as routine as the afternoon nap.

“I’ve just lived and breathed STEM my entire life. I was good at it,’’ says Me’lani.

From her father, she was encouraged to play with toy trains and assemble model cars. From her mother, Me’lani learned to love math, to question the world like a scientist, and to stand up for what’s right.

“My mother would have been an astrophysicist if she’d been encouraged. (Instead) she became a public health nurse. And she was always politically active. I remember being in Barbara Lee’s living room at a very young age stuffing envelopes,’’ Me’lani said, referring to the California Democrat now serving her 12th term in the U.S. House of Representatives.

When she was 11, Me’lani and her mother lived in Tanzania for six months. Seeing those around her living in mud huts with no water or electricity made an impression and in fact set her on a path to a mechanical engineering degree from MIT.  

“I thought I would travel around the world to build irrigation and transportation systems,’’ Me’lani said.

But engineering didn’t feel quite right as a career when she graduated. Yearning for more direct contact with people, and interested in the work of famed sociologist William Julius Wilson, then at the University of Chicago, Me’lani applied to Harris.

She recalls the days at Harris as fulfilling, in part because she had met her best friend and future husband, and also because she so appreciated the intellectual pursuit and the atmosphere.

“I felt welcomed and supported there. I felt like I belonged,’’ she said, recalling that Joan Harris and Irving B. Harris, after whom the school is named, were frequently present.

Graduating from Harris
The young couple graduating from Harris

Armed with her master’s degree, with a concentration in urban poverty, Me’lani began her career working in the City of Chicago’s Department of Planning and Development, first for Commissioner Valerie Jarrett and then in neighborhood programs in the Planning Department. 

Through her relationships with Jarrett and Harris School mentor Susan Sher, Me’lani got to know Michelle Obama, leading to an enduring friendship between the Josephs and the Obamas, including some treasured family visits to the White House. “We had our first kids two weeks apart. We were there when Barack announced he would run for his first office,’’ Me’lani said. 

When Layla Imani Joseph, now 21 and a senior at Stanford University, was born, Me’lani began working as a consultant so she could spend time at home with the baby.

Projects for The Field Museum and After School Matters, among others, laid the foundation for youth development work. When the Josephs moved to Cleveland, Me’lani continued to stay home with her young children, though the portfolio of civic roles, school task forces, board seats, and consulting projects make clear it was merely a different way to define fulltime.

“Me’lani was transformed when she became a mom,’’ her husband said. “All else became second to these little people….They got the absolute best start in life.’’

Their second child, Malik Sankara Joseph is a sophomore at DePaul University in Chicago, studying this semester in Greece. And Ayande Patrice Joseph is a sophomore in high school in Shaker Heights, Ohio. Both boys’ middle names honor African revolutionaries.

Me’lani’s time with her own children-- going to museums, for example, and volunteering with Shaker Heights public schools – threw a harsh light onto the disparities that exist. Her passion became expanding horizons of inner-city young people, in particular black and brown kids.

Issues of equality and race are never far from the conversation for Me’lani and Mark.

“I want to stay positive for my kids, but it’s tough to watch where the world is right now,’’ Me’lani said. “I feel like we need all hands on deck. We need the next generation to be change agents. People of color have to take leadership in changing the narrative and the world – that’s the only way things are going to be different.’’

Mark offers a similar assessment. “Entrenched racism is getting worse in this country, not better.’’

While they approach life hand-in-hand and with the same profound sense of mission, their personalities and styles are quite different.

He is light-hearted and immediately comfortable with most anyone who walks in the door. She leans serious and shy, opening to a deeper relationship once mutual respect is evident.

Me’lani attributes these differences to heritage. Mark’s parents are West Indian, from Trinidad and Guyana, his dad a Rhodes Scholar, imparting a confidence in Mark that is not inherent for her as an African-American. And Mark benefitted from several years living in Africa as a young child, with everyday exposure to black people as leaders at all levels of society.

“He’s more immune to the stuff that comes at him. He doesn’t internalize it all,’’ she said.

True, Mark says.

“I have a more romantic approach to life, a joie de vivre. What we work on is really heavy and hard – and often it is frustrating and it can generate rage. To get too consumed by that could prevent savoring joys like being married to my best friend and raising these amazing young people together.’’

The Joseph family
The Joseph family   (Photo Credit:  Gary Adams)

So much has changed since those park bench conversations on the Midway, and yet so much is the same.

“Our lives have been magical,’’ says Mark. “A life-long love affair.’’