“Born and bred” Chicagoan Kelly Suzanne Saulsberry works for the City as the Director of Policy and Outreach at the Chicago Commission on Human Relations. She tells us about the roots of her passion for civic engagement and social justice, crises of confidence in high school and her early 20s, the importance of investing in herself, and that she’d tell her teenage self, “Girl, you’re all right.”

Kelly in her second grade class portrait at St. Felicitas School in Chicago.

Kelly recalls, "I had some phenomenal teachers. They set the bar really high. They demanded excellence. They were very caring teachers and they went above and beyond the call of duty."

Fast facts about Kelly

Where she’s from: Chicago, Illinois
Grew up with: her mom, dad, and older sister
Education: Bachelor's degree in History with minors in Women's and Gender Studies  and French Language from Wellesley College and a Master's in Public Policy from the University of Chicago
Where she lives now: Chicago, Illinois
Growing up she wanted to be: a nun and an actor
Now she’s: Director of Public Policy and Outreach at the Commission on Human Relations for the City of Chicago

What were you like growing up?

I grew up on the South Side of Chicago to Billy and Delores Saulsberry and I have an older sister. I was very inquisitive as a child growing up. My parents would often joke and say “girl, if you ask us one more question!” But I always had questions. I was a big reader. I loved being outside; I was very active. And I liked to just think.

 How did you feel about school?

 My elementary school education was a very powerful and inspiring experience. I was raised Roman Catholic and went to Catholic elementary and high schools. I had some very caring, phenomenal teachers, some of whom were nuns.

In high school when I went to Saint Ignatius, I was inspired by phenomenal teachers and the really rigorous academic environment. In grammar school I was very confident; I did very well academically. I had this crisis of confidence when I went to Saint Ignatius. Some of my classmates had gone to schools where they were doing science labs in the fourth and fifth grade. I had never done a science lab. It was the first time I remember seriously, seriously doubting whether or not I was up to the task. That was a rough period for me. I was still interested in learning, but I did not do as well academically as in elementary school. 

How did you work through that transition?

I have to say part of my high school experience at Ignatius was blurry because there was a big block of time in high school when I felt really depressed, and I don’t remember exactly how [I got through it]. My parents were instrumental in that. My father worked really hard with me on some of the math and the history. Every night at the table he was helping me with my homework. He was reading my class assignments that I had done, and my mother as well, so I think that helped get me back on track.

What were your favorite subjects in high school?

I enjoyed English literature and a writing class. My favorite classes were religion and ethics class and world religions. Everyone was required to take world religions, so you had to learn about Buddhism, Christianity, Islam, Jainism, Zoroastrianism, atheism. It was my first entre into all of these major world philosophies and religions and that really piqued my curiosity about other cultures, other ways of life.  

What did you like to do outside of school?

I always enjoyed diving into a really juicy book. I also enjoyed spending time with family. My sister and I were always around our parents and our aunts and our uncles. One of our favorite things to do was to all go out and have a nice dinner together, or people would come over to the house and we’d have these late night discussions. I’m a big outdoors person. Going on walks or riding my bike brought me a lot of joy. 

Mayor Harold washington and my parents really were the people who planted the seeds of civic engagement and social justice and public service in me. 

You said your parents were very important and very formative in your upbringing. Were there other adults who were important to you?

I grew up being very close to my mom’s sisters. They felt almost like my secondary parents and it meant a lot to have people besides my parents who played a really important role in my life and, who I aspired to be like and could spend time with. I looked up to my two fourth grade teachers from Saint Felicitas, Mrs. Tadem and Mrs. Robinson.

I looked up to Harold Washington a lot, our city’s first black mayor. My parents were very active in his mayoral campaign. Even when I was a little girl I felt like I knew him, like he was an uncle or something. I could tell that he had a real passion for Chicago and people. He and my parents really were the people who planted the seeds of civic engagement and social justice and public service in me. 

When you finished high school, you went on to college. What were you involved in and what did you study there?

At Wellesley College I majored in history and had a minor in women’s and gender studies and French language. I also took dance classes and was a part of Yanvalou, the Haitian drumming and dance ensemble. I was also active in Ethos, the organization of black students on campus and I also wound up joining Wellesley Lesbians Bisexual Transgender and Friends [now SPECTRUM].

After Wellesley, what did you do?

I had started taking French at Wellesley. Absolutely fell in love with the language and my French Professor Anjali Prabhu let me know about this English assistantship program through the French Ministry of Education. People from Anglophone countries apply to teach in a school. I applied. I wound up getting placed in a high school in a suburb of Paris.

I taught there for a year and lived in Paris proper in a high rise building in the 11th district called Place D’italie, and I had a phenomenal experience of working abroad, of living abroad by myself. Doing everyday things that everyday French people do. Getting to know the city. I had a wonderful time. It was definitely a confidence builder, an eye opener.

I really strongly believed that if I went to graduate school I should go focused and clear on what my professional goals and passions were.

What did you find yourself doing when you returned to Chicago?

It was hard to move back in with my parents after having a year of being on my own. They said, “Okay, it’s great that you had this wonderful experience; now it’s time for you to go to grad school.” Between them and my aunt pressuring me to go to grad school, go to grad school, go to grad school, I wound up applying to graduate programs that I had absolutely no interest in. I caved into the pressure.

Tufts University accepted me to a graduate program in Middle Eastern history. I went to the orientation and I said, “I don’t want to do this. This is not my path.” I wound up coming back home. I really strongly believed that if I went to graduate school I should go focused and clear on what my professional goals and passions were. This is not something I should do for my aunts, for my parents.

I wound up getting a steady job with a salary, decent benefits. I was not doing something that’s meaningful or in alignment with my interests and my passions and my skills. I got a break when an acquaintance of mine said, “There is a new institute at Columbia College Chicago that’s starting.” She knew the founding executive director for the Ellen Stone Belic Institute at Columbia College, Chicago. And she was looking for an assistant.

I worked on some amazing public programs and initiatives addressing the intersections of race, culture, class, gender, creativity in the arts and media. I met some fabulous people. I worked there about two and a half years, and then I transitioned to the Jane Addams Hull House Museum at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

That’s such an iconic place to be. What did you do there?

I was a public programmer and special assistant to the director. Hull House, does a lot of phenomenal public programming, lectures, conversation series, performances, and collaborations in a variety of different areas addresses labor rights, working rights, immigration, racial and social justice, economic justice and also the importance of arts and culture in our country and in a lot of social movements.

"This is a good time to invest in myself, to invest in my career, to invest in my professional developmenT."

You were there for almost three years when you decided to go to graduate school. How did you decide it was the right time and the right focus?

I found that I kept hitting this glass ceiling in terms of professional development. I needed some additional skills and credentials to do the work that I was interested in doing, especially things like work in public policy and being able to work in non-profit at a higher level.

Between my paid work and then my board work at Affinity Community Services I figured out I wanted to go into public policy. Affinity is a policy advocacy and community building organization that serves primarily black LGBTQ people youth and allies. I’ve had work experience and some leadership development and this is my own goal. It’s not someone imposing their desires and their goals on me. This is a good time to invest in myself, to invest in my career, to invest in my professional development.

The University of Chicago’s Harris School of Public Policy was among my very top choices. My dear friend Kim, a friend and a mentor and an alum of the Harris School at U of C, encouraged me to give it a shot. I got in and I had a very good experience there.

Kelly learned to consider some key questions while getting her Master's degree:
What are the barriers?
What are the consequences and the unintended consequences?
What are the intersections between the broader population, lawmakers, multiple interests, and stakeholders?
We can have these very pie-in-the-sky ideals but how do you get there? What are the people and the issues and the situations and circumstances you have to take into account?
Who are the stakeholders? What is the context?

What is public policy and what kind of work does a master’s in public policy prepare you for?

It’s the intersection of government, business, and social work. That’s how I see it. You’re learning about laws, policies, the role of government, the role of the private sector, and then social ideas and social and economic outcomes that you want. 

You’re learning about things from those perspectives and how to inform public policy at the macro and the micro level. It can be in different areas: health, economics, a whole range of things.

I thought it would be really good for me to take classes in economics and statistics. Take classes that look at public policy from a political angle to really sharpen skills in those areas which I thought would complement the issues of social justice and some of the questions that I had. It really broadened and expanded my thinking. Policy school was a place where we could really grapple with a lot of these issues and layers of complexity and deal with those kinds of questions. It was a different way of thinking for me.  

Now you work for the City of Chicago with the Commission on Human Relations. What kind of work do you do?

The Chicago Commission on Human Relations is the civil rights department at the City of Chicago and we have a few key areas that involve investigation and adjudication of discrimination complaints. We have 16 protected categories under which a resident can file a discrimination complaint. Those categories include race, sex, national origin, parental status, disability and many others.

Investigation and adjudication is one area of our work, and then the other area is intergroup relations team at the Commission, which provides a lot of proactive education programs on diversity and inclusion, prejudice and stereotype reduction, and anti-violence and anti-bullying initiatives. We also provide assistance to victims of hate crimes and provide conflict mediation services.

What is the mix of working with your own department and with individual citizens or citizens groups or other city departments?

In my role as director of policy and outreach at the Chicago Commission on Human Relations I supervise the intergroup relations team. I also have a broader role here, which is integrating the Commission’s work on civil rights and discrimination into other relevant city departments such as the City’s Business Affairs and Consumer Protection Department and the Mayor’s Office for People with Disabilities. I also work on some outreach initiatives to increase the visibility of the Commission. I’m letting people know what the Commission does and the services and programs available to residents.

What keeps you excited about your work? 

I’m doing work that I actually care about. I have an interest in people and healthy communities, healthy neighborhoods. I care about issues of access and equity and inclusion and diversity, not just for diversity’s sake but because I think it’s an access and fairness issue. I feel very fortunate to be doing it, and I also think it helps that I work with people I like and respect and I feel respected here. I think that makes a big difference.

What fills your time outside of work?

I love to read. I love to run. I like to go on long walks. Love going to the movies. And sharing a good meal with a close friend. I try to make facetime once a month with one of my friends so that I’m not always communicating with them on Facebook or text message. Spending time with my partner. We have date night once a week, which is nice. It’s usually on Friday unless something comes up and she’s delayed at work, I think it’s important to have that quality time with your significant other. And I love travelling.

What advice would you give a girl like you?

I spent a lot of time being anxious and worried about what I was going to be, if I would be successful, what I would do, having everything figured out. If I were to give that younger me some advice it would be, Girl you’re all right. You’re okay and you’ll be okay. Just keep living and don’t worry about it. Keep doing your thing but you’ll be okay.

Be in PUblic policy for the long haul because the progress and the gains are not immediately won especially when you’re talking about any kind of political or social change.

That’s something that I think we can all take to heart. My last question is what advice would you give to someone who wants to do the kind of work you do?

Remember to be in it for the long haul because some of the progress and the gains are not immediately won especially when you’re talking about policy work and any kind of political or social change. That usually happens incrementally and over a period of time. It can be very easy to get frustrated and to get burned out. Keep pushing so that things can happen sooner rather than later but usually you don’t get a quick turnaround. Be a long-distance runner.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Check out some of Kelly's favorite books and find out more about her work!