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Staff Profiles

Learn more about the Social Justice Initiative team.

Barbara Ransby Heading link

barbara ransby


Dr. Barbara Ransby is the John D. MacArthur Chair, and Distinguished Professor, in the Departments of Black Studies, Gender and Women’s Studies, and History at the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC). She also directs the campus-wide Social Justice Initiative, a project that promotes connections between academics and community organizers doing work on social justice. She is a graduate of Columbia University and the University of Michigan, where she was a Mellon Fellow.

Dr. Ransby is author of two award-winning books: Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement: A Radical Democratic Vision (2003); and Eslanda: The Large and Unconventional Life of Mrs. Paul Robeson (2013). She is also author of a third book published in August 2018 entitled: Making All Black Lives Matter: Re-imagining Freedom in the 21st Century. The Ella Baker book was the recipient of 8 national book awards and recognitions including the Liberty – Legacy award from the Organization of American Historians; the Joan Kelly prize from the American Historical Association; and the James A. Rawley Prize (also from the AHA). In 2018 the Chronicle of Higher Education acknowledged the Baker biography as “one of the most influential books of the last twenty years.” Her second biography, Eslanda, was the recipient of the Letitia Woods Brown Memorial prize for the best book in African American women’s history from the Association of Black Women Historians. In 2017 Dr. Ransby was honored as “one of the top 25 women in higher education,” by the publication, Diverse Issues in Higher Education. She is also a recipient of the 2018 Angela Y. Davis Prize from the American Studies Association for scholarship in service of the public good. In 2020 Dr. Ransby received two honors. She was elected as a fellow to the Society of American Historians and received one of the inaugural Freedom Scholar’s Award from the Marguerite Casey Foundation and Group Health Foundation for “social and economic justice scholarship.”

She is also editor in chief of Souls: a critical journal of Black politics, culture and society, and is a member of the editorial working group of the London-based journal, Race and Class, and the Editorial Advisory Board of the “Justice, Politics and Power” book series at University of North Carolina Press. She served as President of the National Women’s Studies Association from 2016 – to 2018.

Dr. Ransby publishes regularly in popular venues, which include: DISSENT, In These Times, Colorlines, The Nation, the Boston Review, Truthout, and the New York Times.

Dr. Ransby is not only a historian and writer but also a longtime activist.  She was deeply involved in the anti-Apartheid/ Free South Africa movement in the 1980s and later co-founded a number of organizations including: The Ella-Baker Nelson Mandela Center, Ella’s Daughters, and African American Women in Defense of Ourselves. She is a founding member of the national organization Scholars for Social Justice and works closely with The Movement for Black Lives and the multi-racial coalition, The Rising Majority. She serves on the Board of Directors of the Woods Fund of Chicago, and the grassroots Chicago-based, Equity and Transformation, (E.A.T.) a group that supports formerly incarcerated persons and those working in the informal economy.

Email Barbara Ransby at

Stacey Sutton Heading link

Stacey Sutton

Director of Applied Research and Strategic Partnerships

Stacey Sutton is an Associate Professor in the Department of Urban Planning and Policy and the Director of Applied Research and Strategic Partnerships at the Social Justice Initiative. Her scholarship and teaching explore questions related to economic democracy and worker-owned cooperatives; solidarity economy infrastructures, ideologies and praxis; Black liberatory zones; and racially disparate effects of punitive city policies. As a scholar-activist, Prof. Sutton partners with various grassroots and community organizations committed to racial and economic justice, equitable development, anti-gentrification, and displacement, community planning, and cooperative ownership models. As the UIC faculty recipient of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation’s Sawyer Seminar grant, Prof. Sutton led comparative cross-disciplinary dialogues among scholars, activists, and artist about radical alternatives for 21st-century American cities.

Prof. Sutton has published in numerous scholarly journals and books. She serves on the editorial board of the Urban Affairs Review and the Board of Directors of In These Times magazine. Prior to joining UIC in 2015, Prof. Sutton taught urban planning and policy at Columbia University. Sutton received a BA Loyola University in Baltimore, an MBA from New York University, and a PhD in Urban Planning and Sociology from Rutgers University.

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Bettina Johnson Heading link

Bettina Johnson

Director of Special Projects

Bettina is a lifelong resident of Chicago and an alum of both Chicago Public Schools and University of Illinois of Chicago. Bettina is a co-founder and current steering committee member of Liberation Library, an abolitionist books-to-incarcerated youth project that serves all five youth prisons and a growing number of youth detention centers in Illinois. Prior to joining the Social Justice Initiative, Bettina has worked in direct service provision at an emergency domestic violence shelter and worked in dental manufacturing as a document and data control specialist. In addition to serving on the steering committee for Liberation Library, Bettina is also a training lead and facilitator for other PIC (Prison Industrial Complex) abolitionist campaigns and organizations in Chicago.

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Lilian Paniagua Heading link

Lilian Paniagua

Finance and Administrative Manager

Lilian is the Business Manager for the Social Justice Initiative. She is an alumna from the University of Illinois at Chicago where she graduated with her bachelor’s in Urban and Public Affairs. Prior to her work at SJI, Lilian worked as a paralegal for Chicago Legal Aid to help low-wage workers protect and assert their rights in the workplace.

Lilian will be continuing her education at the University of Illinois at Chicago to pursue a master’s from the College of Urban Planning and Public Affairs.

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Mia Silva Heading link

Mia Silva

Associate Director of Engaged Scholarship

Mia Silva is the Associate Director of Engaged Scholarship for the Social Justice Initiative. She is an alumna from the University of Illinois at Chicago where she graduated with a dual degree in History and Spanish. In her time as an undergraduate, she also completed a double minor in Museum & Exhibition Studies and Social Justice. Mia’s past academic goals reflect her personal drive and professional goals to understand the deep inequalities present in the way history is told and her ambition to disrupt this pattern. Mia is passionate about efforts that address various forms of oppression and her work at SJI demonstrates this dedication. Prior to her role as Associate Director of Engaged Scholarship, Mia had been a research assistant at SJI for two years. Her previous work also includes conducting research for the multi-racial coalition, The Rising Majority, and event coordination with the national organization, Scholars for Social Justice.

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Rhoda Rae Gutierrez Heading link

Rhoda's headshot wearing black sweater and blue shirt

Visiting Research Associate

Rhoda Rae Gutierrez is a Visiting Research Associate with the Social Justice Initiative working on a collective publication project that will reflect insights from a year of critical dialogues among activists, organizers, scholars and artists convened by SJI’s Portal Project to explore how we journey from injustice to justice.

Rhoda is a long-time Chicago education activist who has worked in coalitions to stop school closings, end high-stakes testing, push for an elected representative school board, and build solidarity among teachers and parents. She served on the boards of directors of the Crossroads Fund, which funds social change grassroots organizing in Chicago, and Pintig Cultural Group, a Filipinx American political theater organization. She is also a former chapter coordinator of GABRIELA Network, an anti-imperialist Philippine-US women’s solidarity organization.

Before coming to SJI, Rhoda worked with the Collaborative for Equity and Justice in Education on multiple projects including research on the impact of Chicago’s historic 2013 wave of school closures from the perspective of parents, students and communities. She has a PhD in Policy Studies in Urban Education-Social Foundations from the University of Illinois at Chicago and her research interests include neoliberal education policy, cultural politics of race, and social justice.

Email Rhoda Rae Gutierrez  at

Lola Ayisha Ogbara Heading link

Lola's headshot wearing wearing a cream turtleneck. She sits in in front of a colorful background.

Program Director

Lola Ayisha Ogbara is a Nigerian American conceptual artist and cultural worker from Chicago, Illinois. She earned a BA from Columbia College Chicago and an MFA from Washington University in St. Louis. Former Curator for the South Side Community Art Center, she currently serves as SJI’s Program Director and Gallery Manager. Ogbara’s curatorial and community arts based practice serves underrepresented artists and is committed to fostering equity and integrity in the artworld. “My practice is rooted in the belief that artists deserve a platform for their expression, irrespective of societal constructs or historical biases”. Driven by a belief in arts advocacy, Ogbara has actively curated a number of relative exhibitions as well as participated in initiatives and programs that cultivated inclusion with diverse narratives. She has partnered with Independent Curators International, Chicago Architectural Biennial, Pulitzer Art Foundation, and more. Ogbara continues to contribute to Chicago’s rich arts landscape, striving to create meaningful connections and facilitate transformative experiences through the power of art.

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Roxana Espoz Heading link

SJI logo

Conference Manager & Communications Specialist

Roxana Espoz is the Conference Manager & Communications Specialist for the Social Justice Initiative. She is an alumna from the University of Illinois at Chicago where she graduated with her bachelor’s in Political Science. Prior to her work at SJI, Roxana worked in the non-profit field as an events manager and fundraiser. Her other projects include working with Bill Ayers in producing the podcast, Under the Tree: A Seminar on Freedom.

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Sakshi Dangi Heading link

Sakshi Dangi

Research Assistant

Sakshi Dangi is a junior at the University of Illinois Chicago, pursuing a dual major in Accounting and Information and Decision Sciences (IDS) with a concentration in Business Analytics. Sakshi recognizes the critical role of transparency and ethical conduct in the field of accounting, and she’s committed to advancing her career with integrity as a cornerstone.
Currently, Sakshi serves as the Administrative Assistant for SJI. At SJI, Sakshi is eager to contribute her skills and dedication to support the organization’s mission. She is also a Teaching Assistant for the Honors College, where she mentors freshman students and assists them in their transition to college life.

Outside of academics and work, Sakshi holds the position of Director of Membership for UWN (United Women’s Network), an on-campus pre-professional organization. Through her involvement in UWN, she actively fosters an inclusive community that empowers and supports aspiring women professionals.

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