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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

Essence McDowell Heading link

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 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

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 Heading link

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 Heading link

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.

Email Mia Silva at

Lesly Zavala Heading link

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.

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Susan Singleton Heading link

Susan Singleton

Research Assistant

Susan Singleton is one of the newer research assistants at UIC’s Social Justice Initiative. In her role, she offers support primarily for the Social Justice Gallery. Susan is a senior at UIC pursuing a dual degree in Anthropology and Black Studies with a minor in Spanish. She plans to pursue graduate school after completing her undergraduate studies, with the goal of becoming a professor.

Susan’s passion for social justice is rooted in her commitment to dismantling oppressive systems that marginalize the lives and freedoms of people of color, the LGBTQIA community, and women.

Email Susan Singleton at

Samuel Phara Heading link

Samuel Phara

Research Assistant

Samuel Phara (he/him) is one of the newest Research Assistants to the Social Justice Initiative team. Samuel is currently a senior undergraduate student at UIC, majoring in Criminology, Law, and Justice, with a double minor in Psychology and Global Asian Studies. Post UIC, he hopes to continue his studies and acquire a Master’s degree in Social Work. He aspires to become a correctional social worker and fight for post-incarcerated individuals’ rights and well beings in the future.

In addition, Samuel is also a member of the Global Asian Studies Student Advisory Board (GSAB), where he is one of the many voices who supports the Illinois TEAACH (Teaching Equitable Asian American Community History) Act. This legislation would require teaching Asian-American history in every public school in Illinois. With the addition of this new curriculum, he hopes to see a future where students learn more cross-culturally, while simultaneously creating a larger foundation for racial equity.

Email Samuel Phara at