Kouri Marshall (CLA'18)

As a part of Harris Public Policy’s celebration of Black History Month, we asked members of the Harris community to share their perspective on Black History Month and the importance of Black voices in public policy. These are their opinions and perspectives, informed by their own life experiences and worldviews (and do not necessarily reflect the views of Harris).

“If there is no struggle, there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom and yet deprecate agitation are men who want crops without plowing up the ground; they want rain without thunder and lightning.” – Frederick Douglass

It’s February, the time when we all come together to collectively recognize and celebrate the achievements of the Black community. It is challenging to honor the progress that the Black community has made in this country without taking into consideration the valleys they have traversed over the last 400 years in pursuit of the mountaintop. As I reflect on the importance of Black voices in our national and local public policy, I’m reminded of the philosophy of Fredrick Douglass that “there is no freedom without agitation.”

Since the 1600s, the fight for Black Americans was to be emancipated from the unrelenting hand of slavery, to gain the right to vote, and to access economic justice, fair housing, educational parity, and general human decency. Frederick Douglass made it very plain when he said that those who favor freedom should also appreciate agitation. In the 21st Century, there is a new kind of agitation being brought forth by Black public policy makers and practitioners – their voices are critically important to current and future advances of the Black community. The flame of justice today can be lit by the stroke of an ink pen with the intent to modernize our criminal justice, healthcare and public-school system. I’d like to recognize the work of a few local professionals for their everyday strides to improve life for Black Americans across the board: Attorney Risa Lanier (CLA'18), Dr. Kayla Nixon and Dr. Janice Jackson.

Risa Lanier

Though we have made tremendous advances over the years, the fight for equal protection under the law, health equity, and access to quality education is still very much alive and is being lifted up by a new class of leaders. Black Americans have historically had valid reasons to be suspicious of prosecutorial offices across the country because of bad examples set by racially biased State’s Attorneys. This frustration has been taken to the ballot box, which has forced a changing of the guard in Ferguson, Orlando, Broward County, Manhattan, Boston, and right here in Chicago with the election of Black prosecutors. But these officeholders can’t do their jobs alone – they are challenged to bring along capable and well-equipped staff members to execute their policy agendas. One such leader in our local community is Risa Lanier, the First Assistant State's Attorney who is the top advisor to our State's Attorney. Risa has prosecuted several high-profile cases and was the first Black woman to oversee the Criminal Prosecutions Bureau. Risa’s most notable asset is her commitment to equality, equal protection under the law, and her civic engagement in our community.

Dr. Kayla Nixon

The Black Community faces challenges on every front, especially in health care where there is a rising tide of Black women dying from childbirth. According to the Population Reference Bureau, Black women are over three times more likely to die in pregnancy or postpartum than White women. There is a collection of voices across the country responding to the alarming Black maternal mortality rate. The House Oversight Committee recently hosted a congressional inquiry into this morbidity crisis and found that we must change our approach to Black women’s health care. Locally, Dr. Kayla Nixon, Assistant Professor in Obstetrics and Gynecology and a Minimally Invasive Gynecologic Surgeon at Rush University System for Health, is focused on improving the health prospects of Chicago women. Notably, Beyoncé and Serena Williams both have been vocal about their challenges with childbirth and in calling on medical professionals to listen to the voices of Black women during the child birthing process. Dr. Nixon is doing just that, while taking into account the challenges faced by Black women, especially those dealing with preeclampsia and eclampsia since they are recognized as the leading causes of death for maternal Black women.

Dr. Janice Jackson

Even today, educational inequality lingers on with the future of our students too often being determined by the zip codes they were born into. The graduation and achievement gap amongst Black and White students continues to expand with education professionals struggling to devise solutions to this growing problem. Black inner-city students have to manage the challenges of their curriculums and also face the gravity of life outside of the class, which can include living in communities riddled with crime, lack of grocery stores and a crippling lack of hope. Dr. Janice Jackson – former CEO of the Chicago Public School System – is now the CEO of HOPE Chicago, a nonprofit seeking to provide $1 billion dollars to CPS families over the next ten years. Her mission is to disrupt the troubling pattern of students going to college and graduating with crushing debt. Just this month, Dr. Jackson stopped by Morgan Park High School to announce that HOPE Chicago will be awarding full scholarships that covers tuition and housing to every student enrolled and to their parents. This truly underscores the power and importance of Black voices in public policy.

We may never arrive at the metaphoric mountaintop in our lifetime, but it is our duty to keep climbing up its steep trails – because the journey is the reward, not the destination. The way for us to continue this journey is by celebrating our progress and continuing to change policies that do not work for our communities. To do this, it’s imperative that we borrow the best practices from the past while celebrating the leaders who will take us into the future with new innovation. We also don’t have to look too far to find the best and the brightest, we can find them right here near us. In that light, I salute you Risa, Kayla, and Janice for your outstanding leadership and for serving as great examples of what Black public policy professionals can do.

About Kouri C. Marshall

Kouri C. Marshall (CLA'18) serves as the Deputy Director of Personnel to the Office of Illinois Governor JB Pritzker. He previously served as the Chief of Staff to Cook County Commissioner Richard R. Boykin of the 1st District, the legislative and public policy body of the second largest regional government in the United States with a $5.36 billion annual budget. He previously served as the District of Columbia’s State Director for President Barack Obama’s re-election campaign, then as the Executive Director of Democratic GAIN, a progressive political association with 42,000 members. 

Kouri graduated from Eureka College – President Ronald Reagan's alma mater – where he was elected as the first African American Homecoming King in the 150 year history of the college. The Eureka College Board of Trustees and Alumni Board named Kouri as the 2013 Eureka College Outstanding Young Alumni of the Year. He is the recipient of Campaigns & Elections Magazine’s 2016 Rising Star award, one of the political industry’s most prestigious honors. Kouri is a member of the Boys & Girls Clubs of Chicago’s Young Professionals Board of Directors and sits on the Loyola Hospital Chicago Gun Violence Committee. Kouri is a registered Notary Public in the State of Illinois.The views of the author are solely his and do not belong to any employers past or present.