As Harris' first leader for diversity and inclusion, Hoereth organizes robust Black History Month programming

Creating an environment where public policy problem-solving can flourish requires the involvement and understanding of diverse viewpoints, experiences, and traditions.  With that worthy goal in mind, the University of Chicago Harris School of Public Policy is bolstering its focus on diversity and inclusion, driving an increase in relevant programming, resources, and training across the school.

As Harris’ first assistant dean for diversity and inclusion (a school-wide position created by Dean Katherine Baicker),  Michelle Hoereth has made it her mission to teach students the importance of humanity in the policymaking practice—and that means putting diversity at the forefront.

“My vision is to create experiences for the short time we have students here so they can gain a greater appreciation for what diversity and inclusion looks like and why policy impacts people differently,” she said. “I hope the tools we give students here become tools they take with them to the outside world.”  

Michelle Hoereth
Michelle Hoereth, Harris's first director of diversity and inclusion 

Hoereth came to Harris in 2018 with 20 years of experience in urban policy and development. She is currently a Ph.D. candidate in policy studies in urban education at the University of Illinois at Chicago, and she has an MA in urban planning and policy development from Rutgers University, an MEd in educational policy from the University of Illinois at Chicago, and a BA in economics from Howard University.

After earning her bachelor's degree, Hoereth planned to attend law school. But after visiting a few campuses, she became unsure if that was the right path, so she took time off of school to work, landing at a policy group in Washington, D.C. She participated in a pilot program the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development had created for people interested in urban policy. Through this program, she tackled broad community development plans in Baltimore, where she interviewed families who lived in public housing.

“I remember how it felt to walk through these housing projects,” Hoereth said, describing concrete high rises with broken elevators, lights out in hallways and stairwells, and overcrowded apartments. She met a mother of eight in a one-bedroom apartment, who represented the third generation of her family to live in that exact housing project.

“I was actually in tears when I left,” Hoereth said. “It was the saddest, most unacceptable experience I’ve ever had to date. I can remember leaving that day and thinking, ‘I’m not sure what I need to major in, but whatever it is, it has to address this. We need to create policies that protect the most vulnerable people.’”

And so, her path to public policy began. Hoereth said that at first, she focused on surrounding herself with experts in her field, eager to learn all she could in order to become an expert, herself. But in the past 10 years, she has felt a shift in her approach to policy.

“I started to recognize how privileged I was to be a part of policymaking,” she said. “I think in policy we often forget that real people are involved, and we can’t impose our idea of what a perfect community looks and feels like. So I started asking communities what their strengths are, in an effort to figure out how we can build on those strengths. It was with that switch that I started to realize the importance of equity."

“That is what I want students to leave here understanding: humanity,” Hoereth added. “People are involved, and we need to understand how policy works on the ground.”

Hoereth’s leadership position in diversity and inclusion at Harris is a culmination of her professional experiences to date: She has seen how policy affects diverse communities, and she is committed to molding future policymakers who see people first and foremost. To achieve that vision, Hoereth is tasked with creating programs and initiatives that engage students from the very start of their time at Harris.

One of Hoereth’s favorite programs is the Common Read. All incoming Harris students are assigned the same book with the intention of getting them thinking about public policy through an equity lens. This year, the program has been expanded to keep students engaged on the subject matter throughout the year.

Hoereth said she has also planned robust series of events around Black History Month this year, and she is excited about a partnership with the SMART Museum that will get students thinking about the intersection between art and policy. She also works to organize an annual Diversity Week, which gives students the space to have conversations they wouldn’t necessarily experience in the classroom. And for the first time, all 500 incoming Harris students in 2019 received diversity training during welcome week. It was here that Hoereth witnessed a moment that solidified for her the importance of her work.

“I got to bounce around and listen in on some of the conversations,” she said. “There was one instance where a student said, ‘I just want to thank you for giving me the courage and space to say things I’ve never heard myself say out loud.’ That, to me, was incredibly powerful. I want to create a space where it’s okay to have those tough conversations. That will make these students much stronger policymakers when they leave here.

“I don’t necessarily need reminding why I’m here,” she continued, “but I love those little nuggets that show me I’m moving in the right direction.”

Note: this story was updated in fall 2020 to reflect Michelle Hoereth's current position as Assistant Dean for Diversity and Inclusion at Harris.  At the time of publication, she held the position of Director of Diversity and Inclusion at Harris.