We are creating a pipeline of talent this country is going to need in the future.”
—Dominique Jordan Turner
2018 Obama Foundation Fellow
The Transformative Power of Education
Dominique Jordan Turner
Chicago native and Obama Foundation Fellow Dominique Jordan Turner knows firsthand how an education can change the course of a family for generations. As the first in her family to attend college and go on to earn a graduate degree, she returned to Chicago to prove to other young people across the city that where you’re from should never limit what you can achieve.
Every day Dominique brings drive, passion, and determination to her leadership at Chicago Scholars, a seven-year educational and mentorship program that helps students from underserved neighborhoods across the Windy City get to, through, and beyond college to become the next generation of leaders.
Q: I guess we should start where your story began. You grew up in Chicago, no?
A: I’m proud to say I was born here in Chicago. My whole family’s from here, and my mom and dad were teen sweethearts. They grew up in a housing project, which is gone now, like most of the housing projects in Chicago. My mom was a teenager when she had my older sister and after she had me a couple of years later she thought “You know what? This is a really tough place for my girls, and I need to move them out of here,” and moved us to Michigan. She wanted us to be able to play outside and not have to worry.
We tried to move back to Chicago a couple of times when I was in third grade, but I actually grew up in a really small industrial town called Niles. I went to the one high school in town and graduated with around two hundred kids in my class. Factory work making steering wheels for Ford was the biggest industry at the time in Niles, and that’s what my mom did. That’s how she took care of us. We talk so much about formative experiences and moments that shape the rest of our lives, and I can remember her sitting at our kitchen table doing bills, trying to make the little money we had work.
She’s always had multiple jobs and she would do whatever it took to make sure we had a roof over our heads. But the way the system is set up, no matter how hard she worked, she would never have the life that she hoped and dreamed of for her family. I was constantly hearing from people around me—at school, on TV, everywhere—how important education is. I knew it was the big differentiator and would dictate where I would end up in life.
Q: It’s clear your mom was doing everything she could to make sure you and your sister had access to opportunities. Would you go back to Chicago at all when you were living in Michigan?
A: Yes. Over the summer I would go to Chicago to visit my extended family but the school year was always spent in Niles. It was an interesting place to grow up, but I was so naive! I thought we were living in a post-racial society in 1990 because I was in honors classes. I did the morning news for school. I was a varsity cheerleader. I was involved in a lot of activities and my teachers liked me.
It wasn’t until I came back from my first year of school at Clark Atlanta University, a historically black college, that I realized that racism was alive and well. The disparities and inequalities people of color, including myself, were dealing with became an area that I passionately wanted to change. College transforms you, and it felt like my purpose was to be a voice for the voiceless or for people who feel helpless or hopeless.
When I reflect on my journey and everything I learned and experienced when I was in school, I am very much like our Chicago Scholars. I was the first in my family to graduate from high school and to get a college degree, and honestly that was a defining moment in my story. I’ve experienced firsthand the doors an education can open, so it’s always been really important to me to help other talented people find their own path to success. I’m certain that some of the things that made the difference for me are the exact same things we do at Chicago Scholars—mentorship, exposure to new experiences, and education.
Q: Is that when you decided to return to Chicago permanently? What did it feel like as you were settling in?
A: It was really inspiring because coming back showed me what can change in just one generation. I’ll never forget when I was looking at houses in Bronzeville with my family. Mind you, today’s Bronzeville is completely different from the Bronzeville I knew growing up. My parents affectionately call it “the low end”.
My mom came down for a weekend, and I just had to take her by the old neighborhood. I said, “This is a house that we have an offer on.” What I learned on that trip was that the house sat on the same lot as the building she grew up in when it was a housing project. It was deeply meaningful to say, “Yeah, this is what you did. Your choice to make a different life for your girls changed the course of our family forever.” She was blown away and we laughed together and really shared a wonderful moment. Whenever she comes to visit today we always drive by.
Q: That’s wonderful. On that note, how do you think your life experiences have influenced your commitment to helping students reach their full potential?
A: Chicago is a really unique place. It is the birthplace of grit, determination, and leadership, and I don’t think anyone exhibits that better than President and First Lady Obama. Our students are gritty, they are resilient, and I believe that they are the future leaders of our communities. Unfortunately, the narrative that we often hear about Chicago and youth in Chicago is often negative, and that’s the opposite of what I see in our young people and what my team gets to see in them every single day.
We see hundreds and thousands of young people who have beaten every odd and are becoming the first to not only graduate high school, but to go on to college and change their life. So when I think about Chicago as the backdrop, I feel like if you could succeed, if we could make magic happen here in Chicago, up against this negative narrative that has existed, we can do this anywhere. Change can happen anywhere, but I think Chicago is a great place for this kind of work to happen.
I also have to say that I wish the world knew just how hard my team works. I have the pleasure of being the face of Chicago Scholars and I get a lot of the attention, but I wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for our 38-person “Dream Team.” Back in the day, the ‘92 Olympic basketball team with Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Charles Barkley, Larry Bird, and all of the greats, were at the top of their game as individuals, but they showed up and played like one united team. That’s our ethos at Chicago Scholars, too. My team makes it happen every single day, and without those people to put in the time, the blood, sweat, and tears, none of this would be possible.
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Q: Can you tell me more about how Chicago Scholars helps young people reach higher levels of education?
A: Everything at our organization is built on the belief that your zip code shouldn’t determine your life outcome, but unfortunately in a place like Chicago that’s often the case. We believe that an education is the key to shifting those outcomes and that a tremendous amount of talent exists in every corner of this city. We try to develop our Scholars’ talents and skills, and combine those with access, knowledge, and networks to get to and through college and ultimately back here to Chicago to begin their careers as leaders.
One of my goals for the organization is to show that the Chicago Scholars we serve are the next generation of leaders that this country is going to need. Oftentimes programs like ours partner with companies for philanthropic reasons when their leadership decides they want to give back to the community—to under-resourced, low-income, impoverished neighborhoods. The reality, though, is that those students are going to be the ones who can give more to companies as the next wave of talent. We are creating a pipeline of talent this country is going to need in the future.
I’ll also add that we try to instill in our young people that the entire educational journey is about more than just the college degree. A college degree guarantees you nothing. You should certainly get one because it opens doors for you, but we try to make it clear that leadership skills and new experiences like study abroad programs or internships are important, too.
Your zip code shouldn’t determine your life outcome.”
—Dominique Jordan Turner, Obama Foundation Fellow
Q: I'm wondering if you could share an example of a student who has gone through the program who has gone on to really benefit and do good for their communities?
A: There are so many stories of Chicago Scholars. We’ve been around for 23 years, and there are almost 5,000 Chicago Scholar who have been selected, but I love telling the story of one particular young lady named Mia*. Mia opened up to me over lunch one day when she was going through our program in high school, and she shared that she was experiencing homelessness. She was dedicated to finishing our program, applying to probably 26 colleges, all while experiencing homelesness. She was accepted to nearly twelve of the schools she applied to.
Not only was she accepted, but she earned a full scholarship to go to college! Mia has so many strengths—I call them superpowers—to navigate homelessness, to go through our program, and she developed creativity, decision making, resilience, and so many other skills that are the exact same skills I look for in my senior leaders. They’re the same skills Fortune 500 company CEOs and HR executives look for in their leadership positions, so it was incredibly inspiring to see the superpowers she developed by being a young person growing up in Chicago. At Chicago Scholars we’re all about helping young people translate their superpowers into action.
Q: Is there anything you wish you would have known as you got started in your career?
A: That’s a good question. Hindsight is always 20/20, and one of the most powerful revelations I’ve had is that people are just balls of feelings and those feelings really matter. It seems like common sense, but I think sometimes we get caught up in doing whatever it takes to ace a test, get a promotion, and every other marker of excellence. But when you’re doing this kind of work—human work—you have to approach it from a different perspective. People’s feelings about themselves and their abilities has so much to do with whether they achieve success or not. I wish I would have had that lightbulb come on a little earlier in my life, but I look forward to applying that wisdom in the next phase of growth for Chicago Scholars and my own leadership journey.
Q: And what keeps you going on tougher days?
A: There are absolutely tough days in this work. I remember when I first started I thought to myself “What have I gotten myself into,” because this change stuff is hard. (laughter) People don’t like to change, and I get to experience that every single day. When I step back and think about the Scholars who walk through our doors every day, I see so much of myself in them.
Changing hundreds of years of oppressive systemic policy, procedure, and laws at the generosity of others as a nonprofit makes us feel like we have to work magic to make this work, but it’s always worth it. I also try to keep in mind that no matter what I’m doing or where I’m doing it, I can’t go into somebody’s community, job, or neighborhood and tell them what to do. I have to ask them and I have to partner with them. That really helps me keep things in perspective when my work gets hard. This is something I learned as a Peace Corps volunteer in Panama but definitely applies to my work domestically.
Q: Thank you for sharing your story with us today. We always like to end on this question. How is the Obama Foundation Fellowship impacting your work?
A: So far, this program has really taught me to trust the process and believe in the collective power of community. There’s something inspiring about being in a room full of smart and brilliant people that I otherwise wouldn’t know. It’s one of those unwritten rules that if you’re first generation and you’re going to college, people don’t tell you this stuff, that those are the kinds of things that matter. It’s like Hamilton— “in the room where it happens”. Now I’m in that room.
If we fast forward to 2044, statistics are showing that the United States’ majority will be made up of minorities. Those are our students. They’re walking into internships and their first jobs, and they’re thinking differently. When the country’s majority shifts, companies are going to need to have those kinds of people on their team who bring a multicultural perspective to the table. I’m excited about that shift, and I hope the Fellowship will help me grow the great work happening at Chicago Scholars.
You can learn more about Dominique, Chicago Scholars, and meet our other current class of Fellows here.
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