Michelle Hoereth, Assistant Dean, Diversity & Inclusion

Michelle Hoereth, the assistant dean for Diversity and Inclusion at Harris Public Policy, gets a lot of questions this time of year. Everyone wants to know: What’s the next Common Read

The next Common Read will be announced later this spring. In the meantime, the Harris community hasn’t yet put down the current book, What the Eyes Don’t See: A Story of Crisis, Resistance, and Hope in an American City, a firsthand account of the Flint, Michigan, water crisis. In May, Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, the book’s author, will speak at a Harris event, capping the Common Read year, Hoereth says. 

Harris Public Policy spoke with Hoereth about The Common Read and the school’s D&I Roadmap

Why this book?

This year, I purposely picked a theme — environmental policy — that I knew would resonate with students from across the globe. The right to clean water is an international issue. It’s been a topic that students have been very excited to engage in because you can’t talk about environmental policy without talking about social justice issues or housing issues or urban policy issues.

What about The Common Read program has most surprised you?

The Common Read has historically been for our incoming first-years. The thing that has surprised me is that our second-years now ask if they can get in on it. Alumni want the book, our Harris Council members want the book, our faculty want it. Even Harris staff have been reading it! More people are really starting to embrace this “one book, one Harris” idea. People start asking me very early in the year, “What’s the next Common Read?” “Can you give us a date?” People are really excited about this.

What makes The Common Read so compelling for students?

The Common Read gives students an opportunity to explore interests and topics and have discussions that they sometimes don’t have the chance to have inside the classroom. We talk a lot at Harris about the student experience and take very seriously the idea that the student experience doesn’t stop once a student comes out of class each day.  It’s also a wonderful thing to see students’ conversations about the book at the beginning of the school year and then to see what those conversations look like at the end of the year. That progression takes them to a place where they are saying, “This is what’s happening in Flint or in Chicago, but tell me what’s happening in your home country?” They want to understand what this issue looks and feels like for someone else.

Can you elaborate on that progression?

In the beginning, students are very careful about not wanting to say the wrong thing. Then I see progression in their comfort level, about having conversations with people who don’t necessarily agree with them. I’ve also seen students’ interest in the topic grow. We’re talking about this in a very different kind of way. It’s not just environmental policy. When you think about this through a social justice lens, and you talk about the right to clean water and about why these issues are happening in low-income communities of color across the world, it adds another dimension to how you think about the policy issue, which can’t just be thought of in isolation. We want students to have a profound appreciation for data. We are a data-driven school. But I also want them to develop an appreciation for the story behind the data. 

How do you take The Common Read beyond reading?

One of the most important things we’ve done with The Common Read — which students would historically read during the summer and then maybe have a discussion about before moving onto other things — is to be intentional with our efforts to keep the book and discussions alive all year. The Common Read has filtered into our classes. Students who took the Policy Labs course this year just gave their presentations on water issues here in Chicago and in Milwaukee. And once a quarter we’ve been exploring sectors that environmental policy cuts across by bringing in different perspectives from outside of Harris. One session, in partnership with the Smart Museum of Art, looked at the intersection of art, activism, and environmental policy, or how art is being used to elevate these issues and how people on the ground are shaping movements to elevate the issue of environmental justice. It’s been great to see The Common Read take on a life of its own, past Welcome Week here at Harris. 

How do you choose the book?

People think that I pick the book. Obviously I provide oversight of the process, but Orientation leaders, second-year students who help first-years with their transition, make the selection. I typically start with a really long list that covers every topic you can imagine and whittle it down to about 10 books and then I put it in the hands of the students to choose.

The Common Read is now part of the D&I Roadmap that Harris launched for the 2020-21 academic year. How has the first year gone and what was the impact of COVID-19?

COVID probably set back anyone who’s launching, or in the middle of, a strategic planning process. What COVID did was make us pivot and sometimes go in a different direction. But the inequities that COVID laid bare made the D&I Roadmap all the more urgent. At the end of this year, we will have things that we can be extremely proud about in terms of progress made. And then there will be things where we had to take a detour. But that’s OK. We thought really long and hard about whether we would call this tool a strategic plan or a roadmap, and we settled on “roadmap” because we wanted to recognize that there’s more than one way to get to where we’re going.

One of the pillars of the Roadmap is foundational infrastructure, and we have spent the most time on that this year because those are things we needed to have in place before any of the other efforts could be launched. The creation of the Roadmap was part of that.

Any other Roadmap highlights?

We just launched our pre-doctorate program: We are being intentional about creating a more diverse pipeline of students interested in getting their PhD. And we have a new post-doc position posted. That faculty member will focus entirely on issues of race and inequality. That’s a first at Harris. 

What does the Roadmap mean for Harris?

For Harris to create a document like this essentially means we were willing to be vulnerable in this space. Our efforts are going to be applauded or criticized, but we are committed to transparency because there is so much room for growth and learning and reflection that was built into this document. There is no perfect way to do this. But we wanted to create something where we let our students and our broader Harris community know that this is the work we are committed to doing. We may not always get it right. But we will continue to keep working at it.