Smile Politely

Ruby Mendenhall shows up for Black women and youth

Headshot of a Black woman with shoulder length braided hair. She is wearing a white sleeveless top.
University of Illinois

Get Ruby Mendenhall talking about herself, and you’ll hear about her gardens, her poetry, and how she sneaks in mother-son time practicing guitar (hers is named Lucille, after B.B. King’s) with her boy. You’ll hear family stories of enslavement alongside tales of today’s structural racism, microaggressions, and inequity. But most of all, you’ll hear about a woman working with energy and innovation to make life better for people and communities, including our own.

Now a professor of sociology and African American studies and associate dean in the Carle Illinois College of Medicine at U of I, Mendenhall grew up in Chicago with dreams of becoming a physician (and a poet, but that’s another story). Influenced by 80’s-era Save The Children commercials, she told her mother she wanted to help malnourished children in Africa.

“I remember my mom kind of looking at me, and she was like, you have to go all the way to Africa? I don’t know what that did to me. She didn’t tell me not to become a doctor but perhaps implied that the distance was far away,” Mendenhall recalls.

Recognizing that helping Chicago’s children was also a passion, she went to work as a pediatric occupational therapist. That role started her on her life’s path listening to, advocating for, and returning power to women and children, especially in Black and Latinx communities. 

“When I was at Cook County Hospital, I was on the protective service team, working with children who were failing to thrive. The mothers, and it was mostly Black and Latinx mothers, were watering down the formula because they couldn’t afford it. That’s why the babies weren’t growing. After hearing that for awhile, I was like, this isn’t about the mothers. This is about society. Are we going to invest in enough resources so that they can feed their families?”

That’s when she changed course, earning a master’s degree from the Harris School of Public Policy at the University of Chicago. She started a job with the Ounce of Prevention Fund (now Start Early), working with legislators to develop policies around welfare, childcare, and other family support systems. There, she had another “ah-ha” moment.

“I noticed when I was around the policy table with legislators, I was often the only Black female there, or the only Black person. And I remember thinking, Why aren’t the mothers who were having trouble feeding their children at the table? That’s what’s needed,” she says. “That stayed with me.”

Mendenhall pursued a doctoral program in human development and social policy at Northwestern University and started as a professor here at U of I in 2006. Her research tackles themes from her early career, including resilience in African American women and families, health and wellness, housing inequities, public policy, social and economic mobility, stress, and more. She pulls from diverse disciplines, everything from computer science to genomics, to get at how these factors affect people’s lives.

In other words, she’s an interdisciplinary scholar. A lot of academics do research on similar topics. But Mendenhall’s projects seek to leave the communities she studies better off — even just a little — than they were before. 

A recent example: Mendenhall’s South Chicago Black Mothers’ Resiliency Project. She and her team interviewed almost 100 single mothers and used genomic tools to learn how the stress of living in neighborhoods with high levels of violence affects their mental and physical health. It took awhile to get going, but pretty soon, lines were forming around the block. Women were bursting to share their stories.

“It showed me Black women were interested in talking about their lives, in understanding how stress gets under the skin to affect their health. Around the middle of the study, one of the women waited while we finished up interviews. She said, ‘I just want to thank you for coming to see what we’re going through, and for asking us how we can work together to solve it.’ And then she says, ‘The little things matter, and people don’t understand that.’ 

It was interesting, because for me, the study was about looking at those big structural issues, like what do you need in terms of policy. But it clicked that sitting someone down, looking at them, acknowledging them, and asking them how they’re doing means recognizing their humanity and recognizing they’re in a situation they should not be in. They’re running from bullets with their children, or the children have seen their friends shot, and we’re sitting here talking about how that should not be, and thinking about how we can change it.

So sometimes I do those little things and people are like, ‘Why are you focusing on that?’ But my purpose is to do both. To think about the immediate – the sorrow, the hurt, the loss, the grief, the depression, the anxiety that people are experiencing now – and also at the same time, thinking about how we can change policy. I’d like to be thought of as someone who’s in both of those spaces.

Mendenhall says big interview projects fundamentally change who she is and how she looks at life. She particularly values stories from the women who share their lives, including their learned ways of coping and flourishing. In her view, these stories are what policymakers need to democratize healthcare and education.  

Democratization is in her job title, as Associate Dean for Diversity and Democratization of Health Innovation at the Carle Illinois College of Medicine, but it’s also part of her core philosophy. It’s about empowering people to recognize their own experiences and traditions as sources of wellness, and co-creating healthcare systems to meet their unique needs.

“Communities have information, tools, ways of knowing that have been passed down. And so if we’re trying to make the community as healthy as possible, we need to recognize and have room for these cultural tools and ways of being that already exist. It should be a reciprocal exchange.” 

Her latest health democratization project kicked off in Chicago in late April. She and her partners, with $500,000 in funding from the MacArthur Foundation, are training 50 Black and Latinx youth and young adults as community health workers and citizen scientists. The goal is to radically center the youth in an effort to heal from and prevent racial trauma in the form of police killings, gun violence, and higher rates of COVID-19 deaths. 

“The youth are co-creating the curriculum. We want to know how they’re coping. What do they do when they feel bullied or anxious or hungry, while going to school and trying to concentrate. Once we get that information from them, we can then create wellness tools together. We’re planning a wellness store with different versions, from digital to a physical store to possibly vending machines,” Mendenhall says. “Democratizing health means getting wellness tools into the streets, at people’s fingertips. We’re figuring out how to do that.”

Program participants will learn to perform basic health assessments themselves, but they will also connect residents with community resources that can address unmet health and wellness needs. Community health workers will also serve as interns with 50 community organizations, health centers, and colleges/universities across Chicago, building capacity for the organizations while promoting job skills for the youth and creating pathways into careers or higher education. Oh, and there will be art and music. Remember the poetry and guitar? Mendenhall knows the arts are integral to a holistic Third Reconstruction for the Black community.

“We’re talking about unprecedented access. We want to know what their dreams are, what they want to do, and then try to place them in those fields in the moment. They don’t necessarily have to graduate from high school or college first, they can have that experience and opportunity right now. That’s the goal. And then hopefully, that will inspire some youth to take different pathways, whether it’s straight into a field or continuing as a community health worker professionally, or maybe going to college,” Mendenhall says.

I can hear some of you thinking, “Yeah, that’s great for Chicago, but what about the youth in Champaign Urbana? Why don’t U of I academics invest in our community?” Rest assured, Mendenhall knows all about the perceived divide between the university and the rest of C-U. And she’s showing up.

“I’ve been here since 2006, and I’ve heard it since 2006,” she says. “Even when I tell people in the community, ‘Hey, we’re doing this and that new initiative,’ I still have to sit for 5-10 minutes and hear about the history. And I’m like, ‘Okay, I hear you,’ and then they’re like, ‘But, but, but,’ and launch into something else. I just sit and listen because I learn more about the history of exclusion.”

Mendenhall doesn’t minimize the lived experience of townies, especially in the Black community, who feel left behind by the enterprise known as the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign.

“I see the divide when I teach; I see who’s in my classes and who’s not,” she says. “We went to one of the schools here and a teacher said, ‘The University may as well be on the moon’ for many students of color, because they never make it to campus. So there’s a lot, there’s a lot of systemic exclusion to address related to race, class, geography, etc.”

But she’s working to bridge that gap. Her recent Nobel project, funded by the National Science Foundation, partnered with local leaders, including Tracy Dace of DREAAM and Karen Simms of CU Trauma and Resilience Initiative (CU TRI), to create a “dream incubator” and pathway program for C-U middle and high schoolers. The program met every Saturday for a year, and continues to meet, to train young people as community health workers and entrepreneurs and expose them to computer science, agricultural technology, oral history, and space science. Regardless of their interest area, the goal is to continue supporting these young people until they achieve their dreams.

It’s far from Mendenhall’s only investment in C-U. She often attends community events, such as Community Coalition meetings, and is heavily invested in local organizations, such as CU TRI. 

Why am I out there spending so much time in the community? Part of it is just Black culture. I was socialized by family and other institutions that you give back,” Mendenhall says. “There’s a lot of emotional labor that goes into working in the community. I’m grateful the University is engaging in structural change, putting more value in community engaged scholarship as part of its promotion process. But we have to do it in a sustainable way, creating infrastructure and ecosystems so that if your funding dries up tomorrow, the people are still better off. There are things in place to support them and to continue a reciprocal investment of talent and ideas. 

So, after I listen to the history of exclusion experienced by community members, all I can say is the proof will be in the pudding. It may take some time, but just watch and see what happens.

Top photo from the University of Illinois. 

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