Skyla Hearn, headshot
Skyla Hearn (CLA'20)

As an archivist, Skyla Hearn protects and amplifies the story of her Chicago community by safeguarding the primary source materials that tell it. She spearheads efforts of preservation, accessibility, and activation to help Chicago residents develop their voice.

Hearn grew up on the South Side of Chicago in Bronzeville, not too far from the original location of the DuSable Museum of African American History. It was a staple of the community and its presence and educational opportunities had a powerful impact on Hearn.

“The museum itself has always had a place in my heart, and upon becoming an archivist, it was one of those places on my list. I wanted to work there,” Hearn said.

She earned her Bachelor of Art in Mass Communications and Media Arts, Cinema and Photography specialization with a minor in Black American Studies from Southern Illinois University in Carbondale and a Master of Library and Information Science with a certificate in Special Collections from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. During this time, she became aware of the narratives that were absent from the collections she worked on.

As a person who identifies as belonging to some of these excluded groups, Hearn said it was clear and evident which crucial voices were missing.

“My focus thereafter really begins to center on representing these voices, these people who were lesser-known in our society, and what the contributions of these people were and establishing a base for these particular narratives,” she said.

Hearn became a consultant for the DuSable Museum’s archives department and was eventually hired for the permanent archivist position. She highlighted the unsung contributions of African Americans and those not of hegemony by providing support and encouragement to those interested in preserving family, community and social justice-oriented narratives.

“The museum itself has always had a place in my heart, and upon becoming an archivist, it was one of those places on my list. I wanted to work there,” Hearn said.

Working through all the materials the Museum has amassed since the early ’60s was a massive undertaking for Hearn. After gaining an extensive understanding of their collections, she moved on to activating it.

Activating a collection means touching on different levels of outreach and engagement with community members. It could mean developing workshops, presenting at national conferences, or creating and publishing educational materials.

Hearn developed policies that helped the Museum open the archives en masse, which had never been done before. She was also able to facilitate the creation of their first reading room.

This engagement with her community also led to another venture of hers: The Blackivists. The field of library information and sciences does not employ many people of color; however, Hearn and several of her archivist friends realized Chicago was Black archivist rich. Six Black archivists collectively formed The Blackivists, to prioritize Black cultural heritage preservation and memory work.

“Our focus,” she said, “is to work as community archivists who are people-centered. We’re putting the people that we work within the community first to help them preserve their information and to preserve these particular legacies.”

The group is a collective of trained, credential, professional archivists. Hearn said this is one way they give back and pay homage to their community as Black archivists.

As she leveraged her work to advocate for her community, Hearn felt something was missing from her role as an archivist activist. She applied and was accepted to join the 2020 cohort of the Civic Leadership Academy hoping that its broad approach to leadership and engagement would fill in the gaps.

Her initial meeting with the cohort affirmed her hopes.

“It was in that initial meeting of the folks in my cohort which, to me, was the most impactful,” she said. “The conversations that took place, the interaction between our speakers and the fellows, and the fellows themselves, it really made me feel right away that everything up until that point made sense as to why I would be in this program. It just felt right.”

The 2020 cohort of Civic Leadership fellows joined by Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot, Dean Katherine Baicker, Professor William Howell, and Center for Effective Government Executive Director Sadia Sindhu.
The 2020 cohort of Civic Leadership fellows joined by Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot, Dean Katherine Baicker, Professor William Howell, and Center for Effective Government Executive Director Sadia Sindhu.

The cohort quickly established deep trust, allowing them to build a strong network. Hearn said that this was critical in the cohort’s collaboration to identify solutions to organizational and policy challenges.

“I think that really allowed for people to be more expressive,” she said. “We’re able to work more closely together to address the things that we want to accomplish for our institutions and for our cities.”

These connections extended beyond Hearn’s cohort to the CLA alumni. Hearn said program directors Sadia Sindhu and Professor William Howell fostered a strong community and built an extensive network of people and organizations that fellows can engage.

Hearn said that in the face of injustice and inequality, civic leaders can collaborate to propose solutions to make the city a better place.

After completing the CLA program, Hearn found herself in a much different position as a leader, equipped to manage responsibilities and challenges in her role. She approaches her work as an archivist with more confidence, knowing she has a network of fellows supporting her.

This network helped Hearn as she recently transitioned a new position: the first Manager of Archives for Cook County.

With the 200th anniversary of Cook County Government approaching in 2031, Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle wanted to ensure the preservation of legacy for generations of residents and employees to come. Narratives of public service and the evolving role of the government in the development of this region, state and nation to be properly recorded and widely accessible.

Toni Preckwinkle, headshot
Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle

The President established the first Cook County Historic Archives and Records Office as part of the 2020 Annual Appropriation.

“As a former history teacher—and in this day and age where powerful forces are trying to make facts matter less and less—I believe it is essential that there be an institution that is dedicated to preserving the history of Cook County’s mission throughout the years,” said President Preckwinkle. “Working with agencies and communities across Cook County, Skyla Hearn—our first-ever Manager of Archives—will provide the experience, and enthusiasm needed to preserve, promote and provide access to the history of Cook County.”

Hearn’s new colleagues at Cook County have full confidence in her innovative expertise and leadership skills.

“Recommending Skyla Hearn to be the County’s first Manager of Archives was an easy decision to make,” said Matthew DeLeon, Cook County Historian and Secretary to the Board of Commissioners. “We hoped to find someone who could combine their professional knowledge, community involvement and civic engagement to build an archive from, essentially, the ground up.”

Nick Shields, headshot
Nick Shields (CLA'20)

Her first day on the job, Hearn received an unexpected visitor. Nick Shields, a fellow member of the CLA 2020 cohort and Director of Communications and Public Affairs for President Preckwinkle, visited Hearn at the office and welcomed her to the new position.

“It was really nice to have someone else within the department welcome me onboard my first day,” she said. “The fact that we had already been connected to one another through CLA speaks volumes to what CLA strives to do in making connections between fellows.”

While she is new to government, Hearn said the idea of organizing an archive is not new. As she did with the DuSable Museum Archives, Hearn plans to activate and amplify the collection for the public.

Hearn will develop systems to preserve historical records, and provide access for the public through exhibitions and research.

“I plan to establish the archives as the substantive body of historic materials that highlight the significance of the contributions, relationships and tireless work of the residents who represent the municipalities of Cook County,” she said.

Hearn brings vast experience, learning, and skills from the Civic Leadership Academy, DuSable Museum, and Blackivists to her new role with Cook County Archives. She reflects on how critical it is to intentionally highlight and amplify voices which are often excluded to the forefront of the city’s narrative.

“Archives are not neutral,” she said. “We are implementing a framework where we are centering people first, and an understanding that people are the ones who create the content. The content can’t be more important than the creator.”