Dr. Olivia Cook is the Executive Director, Center for Economic and Social Justice at Miles College. Miles College is a senior, private, liberal arts Historically Black College with roots in the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church. The College through dedicated faculty cultivates students to seek knowledge that leads to intellectual and civic empowerment. Students are transformed through rigorous study, scholarly inquiry, and spiritual awareness, thereby enabling graduates to become responsible citizens who help shape the global society. Miles College employs about 500 people in Alabama.
#IncludingYouPodcast Interview with Dr. Olivia Cook
[00:00:47] Amy: Welcome back to including you. I’m your host, Amy C wanting her. My guest today is Dr. Olivia Cook. Dr. Cook is the executive director of the center for economic and social justice at Miles college. Miles college is a senior in private liberal arts, historically black college with roots in the Christian Methodist Episcopal church.
[00:01:06] Amy: The college employs about 500 people in Alabama and serves a broad community of students and Alabama residents. Dr. Cook, welcome to the show. Thank you for being here.
[00:01:18] Dr. Cook: Thank you so much for having me, Amy, I greatly appreciate it. I’m super excited to engage in conversation with you this morning.
[00:01:25] Amy: I am excited to talk to you because I think you’re the first H B C U representative I’ve had on the show.
[00:01:31] Amy: The show’s still new, so I’m sure I’ll have more, but I’m really glad to talk to you about that, and I love this department title that you have, that you’re the executive director of the center for economic and social justice. Can you tell us a little bit more about what your organization within Mile college does?
[00:01:50] Amy: What you’re responsible for.
[00:01:52] Dr. Cook: Absolutely. Absolutely. Thank you so much again for your time this morning. I am actually pretty new to the institution, so I, August 13th will make one full year at Miles college, and I came on board last year and I actually met president Bobby Knight who is serving as our
[00:02:11] Dr. Cook: 15th president of the institution and the first woman president of the institution, and so I met her last year, honestly, just through serendipity. I was on a zoom call. I saw how dynamic she was and how incredible she is, and I was like, I have to meet her. I don’t know this lady from a can of paint, but I have to meet her immediately.
[00:02:31] Dr. Cook: And so, I did what anyone else would do. I sent her a cold email to introduce myself and eventually we got connected met up with her. We were on, we were supposed to meet via zoom, we wound up meeting in person, and she was telling me about the center for economic and social justice that she was looking to erect at the institution.
[00:02:49] Dr. Cook: She had created it in 2020 prior to really due to the social unrest, with the multiple pandemics that we were going through, and particularly after the murder of Mr. George Floyd, and so she created it in 2020. Really through a question from a colleague, they asked her, what was she going to do?
[00:03:07] Dr. Cook: Or what was Miles’s college going to do in terms of being a leader in in the social movement? And so, she said, okay, she pinned this letter called this, we believe which can be found online, and she said, we’re going to create this center for economic and social justice, and as I mentioned, that was in 2020.
[00:03:23] Dr. Cook: I came on last year in 2021 after meeting with her and learning about her goals and her missions with the institution and her mission with the center, and since then we have literally been rocking and rolling creating a mission statement, a vision statement, our signature program, different goals that we have for the center.
[00:03:40] Dr. Cook: And the mission of the center is to create a vibrant ecosystem that fosters innovative thinking, scholarly research and entrepreneur ideas that promote systems of economic and social prosperity, and so, we really push the vision of creating social justice change agents who have a sense of their own agency and use it to change their world.
[00:03:59] Dr. Cook: And so, we are really airing on the side of economic prosperity and economic equity, because we feel that Minorities from marginalized communities have been underrepresented and underserved for so long, and so we are looking to fill that gap the economic wealth gap in those spaces.
[00:04:15] Dr. Cook: And so, a lot of our programs have been focused on that this past year and really looking in into this upcoming year, and so that has been my primary primarily. My role within the institution, and also I serve as an assistant professor in the social and behavioral sciences department, and I teach US Congress.
[00:04:35] Dr. Cook: I’m trying to remember, I teach like four classes, US Congress, public administration the American presidency, and I’m missing one more, a public administration. I did I say that, I can’t remember if I say it that or not, but I teach four courses, two per semester, and so really excited about what is happening at miles college and also what is happening with the center for economic and social justice.
[00:05:01] Amy: This is so fantastic, and I’m gonna, I’m gonna go a step further. You said communities that have been underrepresented and underserved I’m gonna take that a step further communities that have been systemically excluded from opportunity, because for me personally I think it’s, it’s important to call out the there’s some intention behind that underrepresented and underserved and I think it’s so important for organizations like yours.
[00:05:23] Amy: To step into that gap and to, exert some of that narrative and some of that authority back, and say, look, we can do this. We can we can stand where we belong to stand, we can take this power into space and move forward. So, I’m so excited that you all have engaged in this work at Miles.
[00:05:45] Amy: What, I know you’re still getting started, but what are you seeing that’s really pushing you forward? Where are you getting the most traction in this work?
[00:05:55] Dr. Cook: I would definitely have to say it’s the people, right? When the people, when people feel motivated, when they feel impacted, when they feel inspired to do something because of a program or an event that we have had, that is what keeps me motivated in the field.
[00:06:10] Dr. Cook: And so this past year, we were able to have 11 events. We brought in two really big-time speakers. Reverend Al Sharpen. He actually helped us launch the center on February 21st, and I only remember that day because it was president’s day, and so, he helped us launch the center, and then a few weeks later we had Van Jones, a CNN political commentator,
[00:06:31] Dr. Cook: and special advisor to former president Barack Obama while he was in office, and we have had a lot of traction this past year, and honestly it has been super exciting to receive the feedback right, from a lot of the programs and events, and they’re like, man, I didn’t know what social justice was.
[00:06:48] Dr. Cook: I didn’t know how I could get involved in my community, or I didn’t know that this was a passion of mine or I didn’t, all of those things that keeps us motivated and keeps us inspired to say, okay, how can we do things differently and do things better? How can we bring some more zeal to the field?
[00:07:05] Dr. Cook: How can we bring some zeal to our community, to our faculty, our administrators, our staff, and in particularly our students, and that is a real passion point for president Knight. She is incredibly developmental towards the younger generation, and that is who we really have been focusing on because we know that they’re going to be our next leaders.
[00:07:26] Dr. Cook: And, when you have that cyclical effect and we’re able to inspire them, and then they’re able to inspire the next generation, it just keeps going, and it just keeps moving that, that needle forward, if you will, and, but for me, I like to say let’s move mountains forward because the needle, it can only move so fast.
[00:07:43] Dr. Cook: So little at a time, I’m like, let’s move some mountains. Let’s really make a big push, somewhere else, and I really feel like with president Knight and her creation of the center for economic and social justice, this was a huge push with the institution because for my research, especially being here the first three months, I did a lot of benchmarking and there’s nothing else.
[00:08:01] Dr. Cook: In their, in the state like this, and so we, I feel like we are the only center for economic and social justice. You have a lot that may focus on racial justice or a specific part of it, but to have the economics part of it, that has been a game changer.
[00:08:15] Amy: That’s amazing. And HBCU have really been.
[00:08:19] Amy: Centers just broadly centers for economic and social justice. That’s the purpose of HBCUs as you think about the young people. I love that you said this about the young people, really engaging in being a catalyst for their activism. It there’s something about being young, I think.
[00:08:37] Amy: And the sort of feeling of invincibility that people have when they’re young, coupled with, and I’m old enough to remember when I felt this way. I had idealism, I had this feeling of invincibility, a sense of optimism and also this righteous indignation, about very clear lines of right and wrong.
[00:08:59] Amy: And the gray areas, I don’t think form until we’re a little bit older maybe, and so having just this you know the sense of, I’m not getting my words right today. I’m so sorry. Sort of the sense of right of rightness and direction and purpose and energy when your college age is such a huge deal.
[00:09:21] Amy: And to take that in math and funnel it toward justice initiative is really powerful because these kids have energy, like they can stay up all night and keep going, and they also have the drive and they also really wanna see and create the world that they wanna live in, and I think every generation has had that push, usually with the college students of activism, most generations, I don’t know, my generation did as much but how do you see the sustainability of that momentum. Is it keeping those same bulk moving forward through other lives, or is it refreshing the pool of people with the new energy?
[00:10:00] Dr. Cook: Yeah, I definitely think it would be sustainable. And I say that because when you think about the history of social movements and how they have transpired over the years, a lot of social movements have been led by young people and by college students, right? You think of the women’s suffrage movement.
[00:10:17] Dr. Cook: You think of the civil rights movement, you think of the gay rights movement, you think of Black Lives Matter movement. It’s a lot of young people who are leading those movements, and so I think honestly, as the years transpire and as we move along, I think it’s just going to grow bigger where many more young people are going to become even more inspired because they have more access to information through social media, through other news outlets.
[00:10:41] Dr. Cook: And you’re seeing what is going on even, I think about the movement what was, it was a Tunisian revolution that happened the spring, and that happened because of Facebook through social media, where they were able to connect and say, we’re gonna meet here at this place at this time.
[00:10:57] Dr. Cook: And, we are going to affect some change in those spaces, and I think social media, I know it gets a bad rap, a lot of times with these different apps and things. But honestly, I think it can be a really good thing because it’s a way to reach more people simultaneously and so I think it’s just going to continue to grow, especially when you have folks in our generation to be able to lead as we climb or lift as we climb, and to be able to bring other folks up to the table so that.
[00:11:26] Dr. Cook: They’re able to see what is going on and how they can fill the gaps of those needs. I think Ag Gaston, he said this “find the need and fill it”, and so that is honestly, a real-life quote that I like to live by, and I feel like our institution likes to live by as well, and I think I can speak for president Knight in this respect too.
[00:11:45] Dr. Cook: We like to find that need and fill it and make sure that feel is also equitable in that space, and not just, oh, we’re just patching something up. No, we’re making sure that it is affecting some real change at the social political and economic levels.
[00:12:02] Amy: Yeah. The other thing that I love about young people, especially is you mentioned like the social media piece.
[00:12:07] Amy: But if the creativity with which young people can solve problems, They will come, young people will come up with ideas and ways of, forms of protest, for example, or ways to get access or ways to mobilize that are on trend, right with whatever’s going on in the world, that are so pointed, and so in many ways, ironic and calculated and brilliant and, I’m wondering how much of your how much of your strategic direction, how much of your tactics are student driven versus faculty driven, and how are you marrying those two? Because I would imagine for the folks, older folks, cause I’m including myself and older folks, we think about the ways things have been done in the past. The methodologies and modalities that we’re accustomed to, or that we’ve seen or we’ve read about or been involved in. But then you’ve got this new generation that’s we’ll just do a TikTok and we’ll get, 200,000 people to show up, right?
[00:13:09] Dr. Cook: Yeah, absolutely. I know for us like I mentioned to you before president Knight, she is incredibly passionate about students, and so for us within the center we try to make sure students are involved in every single thing that we do, and so even we brought Van Jones in, back in March and well renowned speaker on CNN, on TV all the time.
[00:13:32] Dr. Cook: And we had a social justice symposium after he spoke, and so it was a full day full of events from about, I would say 11 until four or something that day, and so we actually had one of our, the honors college president. We had her sit on the panel with him as a speaker as a panelist ,and so she was on the panel the first black male of Birmingham Dr.
[00:13:54] Dr. Cook: Richard Arrington, he was on the panel and also, we had a representative from Alabama power company, Mr. Ralph Williams, and so being able to be on a panel with people of that magnitude is mind blowing, especially as a student. And that is something that we really try to incorporate with our students so that they have that proverbial seat at the table, and that we’re making sure we are putting them in those spaces to be able to use their voice.
[00:14:21] Dr. Cook: I think for so long students have probably been afraid to use their voice or been able to speak up the way they wanted to speak up, and I say that primarily when I think about the black community and the, and black culture, sometimes it’s Southern culture as well. Sometimes it’s oh, you can’t tell someone older than you, that they’re wrong or you have to always say, yes, ma’am no ma’am or yes, sir.
[00:14:42] Dr. Cook: No, sir. All of those things, and so being able to be at the same table with them on the same playing field and be able to use your voice in that light, and with that magnitude is incredible and is a way for you to build confidence as well, and I think that is incredible just speaking broadly with HBCUs, they are developmental in that regard because they make sure that they nurture the students.
[00:15:07] Dr. Cook: They make sure that they’re able to put the students in spaces that they probably would have never been put in if they were somewhere else, and they make sure that they are developing them in many ways that they may have not been developed before, and so I think that has been incredible with us, especially with the center.
[00:15:24] Dr. Cook: And being able to involve them in spaces, and another thing I would say to that is with our food pantry, and I know on many campuses they have like a food pantry because you think of food deserts and even at my previous institution a lot of graduate students didn’t have access to food and to good food all the time.
[00:15:41] Dr. Cook: And or they couldn’t afford it. You think of people coming from, other countries to just to come to the university to learn. Sometimes they don’t have the funds to, to eat all the time and so we had a food pantry for them in my previous university and so we’re looking to do that here at the college, which will be student led.
[00:16:01] Dr. Cook: I actually had one of our students come up and talk about the need and the food desert, within the Fairfield community, and I’m like, okay, let’s do it. Let’s figure out how to get it done, let’s connect with all the right people and she is leading that initiative, and so for me, that is an incredible mentorship opportunity for me.
[00:16:19] Dr. Cook: And I really love being a mentor because I feel like I learned the most when I am a mentor, and I think it, it will be an incredible initiative for us to impart on at the institution and for it to be also student led as well, and be able to impact not just our miles community, but the community outside of us as well.
[00:16:38] Amy: That is absolutely wonderful. It’s so nice to see when organizations are taking a broader look, what’s around us. What’s the community, the broader community that we serve and how do we serve them better, and how do we, you mentioned two things that, that I’m extremely passionate about.
[00:16:54] Amy: One was networking in the very beginning, you said, I saw this woman and I thought she was incredible. So, I contacted her and built a relationship and got my dream job. I talk to people all the time about networking, how powerful that is, because it’s the relationships that we have that change, who we see as us versus them.
[00:17:13] Amy: First of all, it’s also the relationships we have to give us access to opportunity and allow us to share opportunity with others. And so, by then taking a student under your wing through mentorship, which is another thing I talk about a lot. You are of pushing that forward, right? Paying it forward, but you’re also.
[00:17:29] Amy: You’re creating something new in that relationship and for that student and for the community. I just think it’s incredible. You mentioned earlier that you were doing some benchmarking in your space and usually when we do benchmarking it’s because we wanna set some target, then we wanna hold ourselves accountable with the metrics.
[00:17:48] Amy: Can you talk a little bit about how you’re measuring success in this work?
[00:17:52] Dr. Cook: Absolutely. Particularly we have been really looking at how we are compared to other institutions. So, when I first got here the first three months, it was okay, what is everybody else doing? And how can we be doing it, but do it a little differently.
[00:18:06] Dr. Cook: Do it a little better, and as I mentioned I looked at both peer and exemplary institutions, the Harvards, the Yales, the MITs of the world, and also our sister institutions to see what they’re doing and also institutions in SEC ,and so what I found was with a lot of the institutions in particular the, those who were at HBCUs.
[00:18:26] Dr. Cook: Our centers for economic and social justice or racial equity, or what have you. They were really new. They started coming on 2018, 2019, a lot of them, 2020, just because of all the racial reckoning, and what I saw, what was different though was our economics piece, and so many of the centers didn’t have this economics piece within their name or within a lot of the things that they were doing.
[00:18:50] Dr. Cook: And so, for us being able to measure success, we’re like, okay the programs are good, we had 11 programs last year that people were able to come to how many people came, how many people actually showed up, and within those 11 programs, we had around 350 to 400 people who showed up, which was really good.
[00:19:07] Dr. Cook: And within that, okay, how were people impacted when they left our program? Did they feel inspired? Were they ready to affect some change, with their communities, within their neighborhoods and things, and then we, honestly, we wanted to say, okay, how can we receive more access and more funds to be able to do the work more broadly?
[00:19:26] Dr. Cook: Because as I mentioned before, the program and events, that’s all great. That’s fun work to do, but for us, we really want to affect some real change, and so actually last year I wrote a grant for us with the SBA and I wrote a grant for us to have a women’s business center and we received a grant back in May.
[00:19:44] Dr. Cook: And so, we’ll be one of five new institutions in the US to have a women’s business center at Miles college, and so that will take into effect this October, and for me that is affecting change, that is how we will measure results, right? Because we’re looking to impact 100 minority women who are looking to go in the business space and we’ll be teaching them through a nine-month program, how to go from the ideation stage to that product commercialization stage.
[00:20:11] Dr. Cook: And so, for us affecting change and measuring results is okay. How many women come out of this program saying that they have a sustainable business or a viable business or ready to scale their business? Do they have their LSC? Are they looking to, have the business in Fairfield in Birmingham?
[00:20:28] Dr. Cook: What does that look like? To me, that is how we will really measure some results because that will help us feel that economic equity gap that I mentioned before,
[00:20:36] Amy: And small businesses, don’t just benefit the founders of those businesses, and I think this is a piece that a lot of people don’t realize.
[00:20:44] Amy: And I didn’t realize until I was a small business owner myself, but 50% of people in this country who work in small businesses, and small businesses are actually responsible for as much as two thirds of new job creation since the pandemic started. So, you are not, you’re talking about metrics, right?
[00:21:03] Amy: Not just impacting the hundred women that go through this program. But all of the people that they will employ all of the families that will sustain all of the generational wealth they can build. This is, that’s a huge impact, not just on your students, not just on those women, but on the communities where they will live and grow these businesses.
[00:21:26] Dr. Cook: Right, no, absolutely. I completely agree, and even for me, while you were talking, when I think about the student realm, as I mentioned prior to me coming, we didn’t have a person leading the center for economic and social justice. I came on last year, but this was created in 2020.
[00:21:41] Dr. Cook: So, I serve as the inaugural executive director of the center, and with student involvement with the center and everything, it, there wasn’t any right, and to be able to involve students so much in the work that we’re doing and to be able to have 30 to 50 volunteers at events and things that we put on that has been a game changer, that has been incredible, and to me, those are the kind of results that we really love to see and the kind of metrics that we really love to, to look at and feel. But I know specifically with this women’s business center we will be able to really nailed down a lot of the systemic inequities that have been happening, particularly for minority women.
[00:22:20] Dr. Cook: And even for me, if I could take it a step further for black women that’s actually really what I wrote my dissertation on. I wrote my dissertation on African American women, senior leaders and how they advance to those senior leadership positions using the authentic leadership development framework.
[00:22:34] Dr. Cook: And so black women are passionate our passion point for me not just through my work, but because I am one, and because I see how we have been overlooked and underserved for so long, and so for me, I am really looking to I impact that area substantially and exponentially to where we’re not just talking the talk, but we’re actually walking the walk.
[00:22:57] Amy: Absolutely, and the, the exclusion of black business owners from capital access to capital historically and in the present let’s be honest about that, it’s still a problem the, the exclusion of women, black women then have that.
[00:23:18] Amy: I’m so sorry. So, we’ll edit that part. This is where editing comes. Black business owners have been historically, and even in the present day, excluded from access to capital women business owners have a tougher time for so many reasons, black women in particular are, know, they face both of those hurdles, but then additional obstacles combined.
[00:23:39] Amy: I think it’s absolutely not that you need my permission, but I think it’s absolutely fair to call out and say, look, we need to give black women a space to grow in this entrepreneurship journey and have special access to these resources because for so long, they’ve been kept out.
[00:23:59] Dr. Cook: Absolutely, for so long have been kept out or left out of the literature, and that’s what I saw, when I was writing my dissertation, I’m like, okay, where are the studies on black women? How have black women, led in leadership? How have they been able to be their authentic sales when they are in executive leadership positions?
[00:24:18] Dr. Cook: Do they code switch? Why do they code switch? Do they feel comfortable in those spaces? Do they feel like they belong in those spaces? And so, I saw that a lot in my research which was why I did my research on black women so that I could give them a voice and give them space to take up, within the literature and also reaffirming their space within.
[00:24:38] Amy: To me, one of the measures of success in a role, especially in the executive leadership role is how much authority do you have to hold the door open for others? Were you able to discover, did these women not only get to where they wanted to be?
[00:24:53] Amy: But were they able to sponsor other black women into those spaces? Because that, that in my mind is the real measure of authority in those spaces, are they allowed to break those break down right from the code switching break away from the bias against, affiliation, yesou can be a black woman in an executive leadership role, but you can be the only one, or you can be a black woman in the executive role, the next five people you sponsor need to not be black women. Were you able to see any trends around that?
[00:25:24] Dr. Cook: So that actually wasn’t a part of the research questions that I had in particular, but when they answered a lot of the questions that I had for them, I had about 10 questions that I asked each of them.
[00:25:36] Dr. Cook: I interviewed seven different women from presidents, chief diversity officers, chief human resource officers, general counsels, you name it. I interviewed seven of them and in their response to the questions, they mention how they do look to develop other black women, because they understand how important mentorship was to them and how important sponsorship was to them in particular.
[00:25:57] Dr. Cook: One of the questions within the interview questions was around mentorship, but a lot of them lean towards the sponsorship piece because they’re like, mentorship is great and that’s all fine and dandy, but having someone who can really advocate for you and really put your name in those spaces and having a sponsor who will, and I say this loosely, but lay down their life for you, that is a game changer, and so all of them talked about seven out of the seven mention how mentorship sponsorship was a game changer for them and it helped them ascend to those top leadership positions and they know how their ascendancy to those positions really has helped them be able to mentor other black women in those spaces so that they know, okay, you can do it too.
[00:26:40] Amy: I’m just a firm believer in we’re when we all come together, we’re all gonna get where we need to go, and it’s just so important that we all ally for each other.
[00:26:49] Amy: So, I think it’s fantastic, the work that you’re doing, economic justice is a huge component because we live in a capital of society. Money is power, so without the economic justice component, there’s very little political power there’s very little social power, there’s very little security.
[00:27:04] Amy: And I’m just so glad that you’re doing this work, and how can people support this if they want to get involved? Do you have a foundation or anything that, that people can contribute to?
[00:27:14] Dr. Cook: Oh, absolutely. So first, if anyone would love to get involved in terms of collaborating, I’m really big on collaboration.
[00:27:21] Dr. Cook: My direct email address is Ocook@mouse.edu and I can be reached I’m really quick in terms of email responses and everything. So, I can be reached through that channel and also, if you would like to give then I would definitely encourage calling our institution, calling miles college at 12059291428.
[00:27:43] Dr. Cook: And so that will be able to get you directed to our Senior vice president of advancement, and you’ll be able to get connected with him so that you can give directly to our foundation, and if you want to restrict your gift directly towards the center for economic and social justice, that would be great as well, but would love to collaborate would love to.
[00:28:03] Dr. Cook: Have some brain meetings together, have, feed off of everyone’s brain power because I know there’s still a lot of things that I don’t know, and I know there there’s more power when we are together, as you just mentioned, so would love to would love to just connect with as many people as I can.
[00:28:17] Amy: Dr. Olivia Cook, thank you so much for coming on the show today for sharing your experience, your expertise with us and telling us a little bit more about your journey at Miles college.
[00:28:27] Dr. Cook: Thank you, Amy.
[00:29:15] Amy: That’s it for this week’s episode of including you join me next week when my guest will be Sophia Lewis from Tinted-Glass BIPOC Careers.