Staff Profiles

Learn more about the Social Justice Initiative team.

Barbara Ransby

barbara ransby


Professor Barbara Ransby is an historian, writer and longtime community activist. She received her B.A. from Columbia University and her M.A. and Ph.D in History from the University of Michigan. Barbara Ransby is currently a Professor of African American Studies, Gender and Women’s Studies (director, 2008-2013), and History at the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC) where she directs the campus-wide Social Justice Initiative. She previously served as Interim Vice Provost for Planning and Programs (2011 -2012). Her highly acclaimed biography, Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement: A Radical Democratic Vision received eight national awards and recognitions. Professor Ransby is also winner of the prestigious Catherine Prelinger Prize for her contributions to women’s history. Her most recent book is Eslanda: The Large and Unconventional Life of Mrs. Paul Robeson (Yale University Press, 2013).

Professor Ransby has also published in numerous scholarly and popular publications and lectures widely. She serves on the editorial boards of The Black Commentator, (an online journal); the London-based journal, Race and Class; the Justice, Power and Politics Book Series at University of North Carolina Press; and the Scholar’s Advisory Committee of Ms. Magazine, as well as the National Advisory Board of “Imagining America”. In the summer of 2012 she became the second Editor in Chief of SOULS, a critical journal of Black Politics, Culture and Society published quarterly since 1999. In addition to her scholarship, Professor Ransby is a public historian who works with many community based and activist organizations.

Email Barbara Ransby at

Essence McDowell

Essence McDowell

Director of Communications

Essence McDowell is a communications strategist, organizer and co-author of Lifting As They Climbed: Mapping a History of Black Women on Chicago’s South Side. She is currently the Director of Communications at the Social Justice Initiative.

Essence utilizes media, digital design and communications technologies to amplify the work of community institutions and justice-based organizations. She has worked with numerous national and local entities including the Illinois Humanities Council, Chicago Torture Justice Memorials, INCITE! Color of Violence, and Gallery 400. She creates digital platforms, organizing tools, and impact strategies to facilitate social change.

Her educational background includes a master’s degree in journalism & new media from DePaul University and bachelor’s degree in communications from Bethune-Cookman University. Essence also attended Georgetown University as a leadership scholar in the Institute of Political Journalism.

In addition to her role at the Social Justice Initiative, Essence is a communications consultant for educational institutions and non-profit organizations in throughout Chicago.

Email Essence McDowell at

Stacey Sutton

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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Noor Shawaf

Noor Shawaf

Director of Special Projects and Publications

Noor Shawaf is an editor of scholarly and arts publications focused on how public engagement, publishing, and the arts can address inequities of access and privilege. Noor is currently the Director of Special Projects and Publications with the Social Justice Initiative at University of Illinois at Chicago. Prior to joining SJI, Noor held the role of Mellon Diversity Fellow at the University of Chicago Press, where she worked to expand the content and voices represented in academic publishing. Noor has also served on the staff of the National Women’s Studies Association. She received her B.F.A. from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and M.A. from the University of Chicago.

Email Noor Shawaf at

Bettina Johnson

Bettina Johnson

Associate Director of Engaged Scholarship and Operations

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.

Email Bettina Johnson at

Lilian Paniagua

Lilian Paniagua

Business 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.

Email Lilian Paniagua at

Mia Silva

Mia Silva

Research Assistant

Mia Silva has been a research assistant for UIC’s Social Justice Initiative since 2019. Here, she has offered support with various projects that advocate for a more just society. Mia is a senior at UIC pursuing a dual degree in History and Spanish. In her time as an undergraduate, she has also completed a double minor in Museum & Exhibition Studies and Social Justice. Mia’s academic goals reflect her personal drive 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.

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Lesly Zevala

Lesly Zavala

Research Assistant

Lesly Zavala is the newest Research Assistant to the Social Justice Initiative team. She is committed to dismantling structural violence and institutional oppression through her work. Lesly is a junior undergraduate student at UIC, working towards a double major in Political Science and Gender Women Studies with a minor in History. She is on the pre-law track, with hopes of obtaining a law degree to fight for undocumented immigrant rights, social justice, and to create amnesty policy.

Lesly has expressed her passion for equality by organizing solidarity protests, facilitating online conversations around race and police brutality, working with grassroots organizations to increase youth and Latinx voter turnout, and running renewable energy campaigns. She hopes to inspire others to work towards liberation through transformational politics that challenge the rigid status quo of our society and economy.

Email Lesly Zavala at