Staff Profiles

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 Emaiorganizations.

Email Barbara Ransby at

Prudence Browne

Associate Director

Prudence Browne is a Ph.D. Candidate in Curriculum and Instruction at the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC), and former Managing Editor of Souls Journal. She has over 15 years of experience working with community based organizations and schools in New York City and Chicago. She is a core organizing member of Teachers for Social Justice in Chicago and a member of the Urban South Grassroots Research Collective. Her own scholarly research is focused on post-hurricane education reform in New Orleans, Louisiana.

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Essence McDowell

Communications Strategist & Program Manager

Essence McDowell is a communications strategist and program manager who turned her love of digital aesthetics into a multimedia career.

She started out as a journalist, writing for national newspapers, the Daytona Beach News-Journal and the Afro-American in Washington DC.  As print media transitioned into the digital sphere, Essence moved into the nonprofit sector taking on a position in communications and programming with the Illinois Humanities Council.

In 2013, Essence joined the Social Justice Initiative at University of Illinois in Chicago as the media coordinator and digital activist for the Freedom Dreams, Freedom Now conference. Since then, Essence has worked as a communications coordinator for the Chicago Torture Justice Memorials, national media coordinator for INCITE!’s Color of Violence 4 Conference, and community engagement manager with Chicago’s Gallery 400.

Her educational background includes a master’s degree in 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 writer and communications consultant for various organizations in throughout Chicago.  She recently co-authored the book, Lifting As They Climbed: Mapping a History of Black Women on Chicago’s South Side.

Email Essence McDowell at