28 Days of Black Excellence: Shelley Davis

28 Days of Black Excellence
28 Days of Black Excellence
28 Days of Black Excellence: Shelley Davis

“I think that any challenge, whether it was at UIC or early in my career, and still to this day, I rely on a lot of mentors.”



Shelley Davis, president and CEO of the Coleman Foundation, has dedicated her career to the nonprofit sector since she was a UIC urban planning and policy graduate student working at The Field Foundation of Illinois. She credits excellent mentoring and training for helping to guide her development as a grantmaker, instill a deep appreciation for the privilege and responsibilities of moving resources to benefit communities, and prepare her for the challenges of senior management. Davis has held previous leadership roles with the Chicago Foundation for Women and the Forest Preserve Foundation. She is also a lecturer and senior mentor at University of Chicago’s Harris School of Public Policy. Her civic commitments include board president of the Albert Pick Jr. Fund, trustee for Lawrence University, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology, and member of the Illinois Juvenile Justice Commission.

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Tariq El-Amin  00:01
Welcome to Black Excellence at UIC Office of Diversity, Equity and Engagement with Dr. Aisha El-Amin

Recording of Dr. Martin Luther King  00:09
[Applause] Believe in yourself and believe that you’re somebody.

Clips from 1995 movie “Panther”  00:17
That we study and master a bunch of different things.
Why are you here? 
Study and master a bunch of different things.
I’m proud to introduce our new Minister of Information

Aisha El-Amin  00:26
I’m Dr. Aisha El-Amin

Tariq El-Amin  00:29
Welcome to Black Excellence.

Aisha El-Amin 0:36
Greetings! Greetings, UIC family and friends. Welcome to UIC’s “28 Days of Black Excellence.” I am Dr. Aisha El-Amin, UIC associate vice chancellor for equity and belonging. It is my great honor to celebrate the history of Black excellence at UIC with powerful, inspiring, and informative conversations with UIC’s alumni, past faculty and past staff. Each day, we have a new guest and today I’m honored to introduce our guest who is a graduate from urban planning and policy in 1998, Shelley Davis. I am going to hand it over to her to tell us what she’s been up to since 1998, because she’s been up to some phenomenal things. So tell us about what you’ve been up to.

Shelley Davis 1:27
Thank you. Thank you for having me. I went to CUPPA, went to UIC College of Urban Planning and Policy [College of Urban Planning and Public Affairs] for my master’s degree and finished in ’98. I think everyone probably is listening may know that that’s a two-year program and the program also requires a field internship, so to work within another organization typically in between that first and second year. I chose to work at the Field Foundation of Illinois, and really was trained as a program officer to review grants from nonprofits in a variety of areas, but particularly around community development and economic development, which was my interest and what I was studying at UIC.

So studied practically within UIC and then also within the Field Foundation, and really stayed in philanthropy ever since for all practical purposes. So finished UIC, moved to New York and worked for the Ford Foundation and came back and knocked around foundations here in town. Over this past year, I was appointed as the president and CEO of the Coleman Foundation.

Aisha El-Amin 3:03
Wow, phenomenal. So when you say you went to New York and came back, tell us where you’re originally from.

Shelley Davis 3:10
I’m from Chicago. I grew up in South Shore.

Aisha El-Amin 3:13
Alright, what high school?

Shelley Davis 3:15
I went to Whitney Young.

Aisha El-Amin 3:17
Alright, so we’re besties because we’re both South Siders, [Laughter] so I just want tell everyone that. [Laughter] Of course, as you probably know, many of our students are Chicagoans, right? And so to just make that connection explicit to them. As you look back at your time at UIC, I know a lot of things have happened since ’98. You have been just a firestorm of greatness. Even before you came to UIC, you were that and so can you tell us some of your fondest memories as you look back on that time?

Shelley Davis 3:54
My fondest memory was spending time with professor Doug Gills, who died a few years ago. Doug was the advisor to my master’s project and I was his research assistant. I worked with Doug both years, my first and second year, but my second year I worked with Doug on a project that was about documenting the impact of the Algebra Project, which was a math, youth development and youth leadership program that was across the country. There are many different projects and programs across the country, but it was started in Boston, and had received a lot of money from the Rockefeller Foundation and others.

Then, when the founder Bob Moses stepped down, and Bob Moses was a civil rights leader who led the Freedom Summer project in Mississippi, when Bob stepped down a lot of the national funding that he was able to secure was questioned. So it was it Doug’s and my role to document the impact of that program. We did that through a series of convenings, where we were bringing all the programs across the country together to understand how they were implementing the model. The premise of the program was to teach kids, particularly kids of color, low income kids, algebra in seventh grade so then they were able to compete for AP tracks and honors tracks in high school to ideally accelerate them to then go on to college.

Aisha El-Amin 5:45
Wow. Wow. Now I’m curious, what…[Laughter]…do you know what happened? Is it still in existence?

Shelley Davis 5:57
I think the Algebra Project still exists. I think it became much smaller, but it still exists. I think the curriculum also probably was absorbed in other organizations, right? It was fascinating. And it was fascinating because I had read about Bob Moses, I understood what the Freedom Summer project was, and then to understand, this is part of his legacy is to talk to folks that worked directly with him.

Aisha El-Amin 6:24
Wow, what a great experience. Now I feel like I need to find where it led, right? Because often times, what we see is parts of what we look at as great, we don’t even know where they begin and when the nugget started. I’m sure that it is still there and its exploded in different ways.

Shelley Davis 6:47
Yeah, yeah.

Aisha El-Amin 6:50
As you, as you look back at your journey, and we have students who are now at UIC and they’re on their journey in the educational space…they’re meeting with some challenges like we all do. Can you talk about some of the challenges that you faced and how you were able to kind of get over that hump?

Shelley Davis 7:10
Yeah. I think that any challenge, whether it was at UIC or early in my career, and still to this day, I rely on a lot of mentors. And now in this role, it’s a combination of people that came before me in positions like this, but also my peers that are in adjacent and aligned organizations. You just never know, when you ask somebody a question, where that will lead and what insight you can gain from their responses, right? Sometimes people have really practical answers about, try this, try that, but I find the most valuable answers really come from somebody else telling their stories and to be able to share how they overcame something similar. Maybe not, but usually there’s a little bit of nugget in there, someone sharing something that you could really learn from it.

Aisha El-Amin 8:14
Yes, mentorship is definitely one of those spaces that I highlight as well. If you could go back and talk to your first-year college self, what would you tell yourself? What words of advice or things that may help your journey be a little bit easier?

Shelley Davis 8:38
Yeah, so I didn’t go to college at UIC, right? If I think about my college, my first-year college self, I went to Lawrence University, which is in Appleton, Wisconsin. So a very small, predominantly white liberal arts college. I think I would tell myself to ask for help earlier. Those first couple years of college were very difficult for me, I think probably because high school is probably just a little too easy or I felt like it was too easy. To recognize that I was going to need help to not only to do better, but to do really well. I figured that out but I was probably in year three of my four-year college degree.

By the time I got to grad school, I was very clear. I finished college in ’92. I had a few years of work experience before I went to UIC in ’96 full time. By the time I got there, I was really clear on what kind of student I was, how to ask for help and how to follow the instructions in the syllabus and understand the expectations early. My time at UIC was also really different because at Lawrence, like some other schools, they were on a quarter system, which meant that time went by really fast.

Aisha El-Amin 10:18

Shelley Davis 10:18
That’s great when they’re things that you’re not interested in, but when they’re things that you’re really curious about it almost went by too fast. I had to learn a different kind of pacing when it came to the semester system that I just wasn’t accustomed to. Where I was like, ‘oh my God, this is just taking forever in some cases’. And other cases, I need every single moment I have, you know, so it was more of a test of endurance that I had to get used to going from a quarter system to a semester system.

Aisha El-Amin 10:46
Wow. Now, I have to ask you this, because I see some books in your background, and I know books do something for your soul. As you think of books, even for pleasure, or for self help, or any of the genres, autobiography, or biographical rather, do you have any recommendations for something that folks should read or a show that people should watch?

Shelley Davis 11:19
I don’t know. So, I’m surrounded by a lot of good literature here. I spend time reading. I like reading short stories, if I’m reading fiction. So I tend to buy the collections of short stories by year. So like, New York Times puts out one and other people put out some. So that’s one type of genre that I really enjoy because it can be really satisfying reading a short story where I can actually get through and having a beginning, middle, and end. I also love reading memoirs. Particularly, whether it’s people that own their own businesses, like restaurateurs, or just leaders, I like hearing their stories and listen to their failures, right, and how they overcame those challenges. It’s enlightening in a way that I feel like you can not picture yourself, but learn from somebody else’s story and I think that’s really fun.

Aisha El-Amin 12:32

Shelley Davis 12:33
So those are the things that I’m mainly surrounded by. And then of course, there’s like, there’s all this nonprofit management stuff because that’s work. So there’s a bunch of leadership in nonprofit management and in philanthropy books directly that you can see. And then there’s three shelves below this that are more of the fun stuff.

Aisha El-Amin 12:54
Yeah. So I appreciate you. And I thank you for taking time out and sharing your story with us and giving us words of advice so the folks that are at UIC now can learn from from you as you’ve paved the way and are doing great things in the world. So thank you.

Shelley Davis 13:11
Thanks. Thanks for the opportunity. This was fun.

Tariq El-Amin 13:15
[Music] Thanks for joining us find more inspiring and informative conversations with UIC alumni, faculty and staff at blackresources.uic.edu. That’s blackresources.uic.edu.

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