28 Days of Black Excellence: Gerald Hankerson
Gerald Hankerson serves as the outreach coordinator at the Chicago office and Illinois chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), the nation’s largest Muslim civil rights organization. He leads CAIR-Chicago’s community relations, civic engagement, internship and fellowship programs, and youth development.
Upon invitation by the U.S. State Department, Hankerson hosted numerous international delegations from six continents and cultural initiatives such as the Mandela Washington Fellowship for Young African Leaders and Professional Fellows Program. He is currently a 2022 Waraich Family Fellow in the Civic Leadership Academy at the University of Chicago Center for Effective Government at the Harris School of Public Policy.
An active UIC alumnus, Hankerson is a member of the African American Advisory Council and a founding member of the first UIC Alumni Association affinity network, Umoja: Black Legacy Alumni Coalition.
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 0:35
Greetings UIC family and friends and welcome to UIC “28 Days of Black Excellence.” I am Dr. Aisha El-Amin, UIC’s associate vice chancellor for equity and belonging. It is my great honor to celebrate the history of black excellence and UIC with powerful, inspiring and informative conversations with UIC alumni, past faculty and staff. Each day, we’ll have a new guest who will share their story. And today I am elated to welcome our guest, Gerald Hankerson, who graduated from the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences in 2017. And has been involved in numerous ways since then, and been just a trailblazer and busy making the world a better place. And so I’m going to hand the mic over, I don’t want to give too much away. I’m going to hand the mic over to my good brother Gerald and let him talk about what he’s been up to since his time at UIC.
Gerald Hankerson 1:36
Greetings, and thank you so much sister Aisha. I appreciate our friendship and collaboration. So I’m delighted to be connected with you in this way. And definitely much love greetings to the UIC fam. Assalamulaikum [Greetings of peace].
Again, I’m Gerald Hankerson. I did graduate from the College of Liberal Arts Sciences as a communication major. Started way back in 1999, actually, and finally completed my degree in 2017. I currently serve as the outreach coordinator of the Chicago office, Illinois chapter of the Council on American Islamic Relations, otherwise known as CAIR Chicago. Pretty much my work involves community outreach, civic engagement, youth and service. I’ve been with this organization since September 2007. Pretty much making sure that the Islamophobia, discrimination and hate that the Muslim community experience throughout the state and greater Chicagoland is eliminated. But also bring together other communities to stand in solidarity and understanding how advocacy activism can be very vital in our lives. For me, I’ve been a lifelong Chicagoan, born and raised. And one of the things that has been really unique for me, is the idea of giving back. And that’s something that I found somewhat of a unique reason as to how I even got tied to UIC. There is the in the original mission, understanding that first generation college students and those who otherwise would have been shut out, has a vital place within the university.
And so my journey to UIC just began, by chance. I was looking to go elsewhere. The college, I almost did not get into college and not because academics, simply because I didn’t have financial aid. And my mom was really very encouraging, like, yo, “you can make something happen at UIC, just like you did with high school. Just go there, just start and just see what happens.” So that’s honestly how I got to UIC. I will remember I registered late. And it was because of running into wonderful people at AAAN, the African American Action Network, as well as the Academic Center for Excellence that really saw me through and made sure that me as a scholar, as someone that wants to be involved with everything that’s good with UIC and beyond. They made sure that there was a place for me. So that really set the tone. And understanding that it’s the people, right, not the bureaucracies and hierarchies of such a budding large institution. But that’s what really kind of took me through my experiences throughout my time there.
So as a Black student, one of the things that was very much similar for me as well as many others was, how do we make our time and transition from being young people to adults? So I had to, as an independent student, live on campus. I have to seek ways of getting financial aid, which through a sort of advocacy of UIC folks I was able to get that. Otherwise I wouldn’t have stayed at UIC. But amongst the fondest memories I have, really just how we came together. And when I say we, I mean everyone that’s of the African diaspora. So UIC is one of these spaces where I was able to connect with my brothers and sisters from all different parts of the city, of the county, of the state, some from out of state. Folks that has generations just wanted to be from Africa, the Caribbean, but also just really understanding like, what bonds us. So the Black Student Union was definitely one of my, I like especially mojo’s in. One of the things I was very much delighted, I was asked to help out with, was being an ambassador my freshman year to incoming freshmen, particularly the Black freshmen and transfer students. That was always pretty dope. The other things for me was just life in the dorms. I lived on west campus my whole entire time. Started out with SRH and then I had the apartment at SSR. But I was kicking it in the Commons all the time. Whether it was Commons North where they had the suites or even like, where the PAP students were, because I was a President Award Program Scholar. But it’s just the dynamic of, man, like we see us. It’s just not seeing us. Right? We were doing well. And we were very present. Some of the most live and most active, like programs that UIC had, it was because of us. The fashion shows we were at, you know, the sporting games, and then people being in sporting events. And of course, the Inner Circle, oh, my gosh, the spades competitions [Laughter].
Aisha El-Amin 6:37
You had spades competitions? Wait a minute, wait a minute.
Gerald Hankerson 6:40
Oh, we got them in. Sadly, I had to say, you know, some of my peeps they kind of dropped off because of it.
Aisha El-Amin 6:43
Gerald Hankerson 6:49
I was often a spectator. I got in some games, but it was just, it was live. It was much love. It wasn’t at all any type of beefs that I ever known or experienced. And even if you didn’t know somebody, if you saw them frequently enough, a head nod, what’s up?
Aisha El-Amin 7:08
Gerald Hankerson 7:09
In fact, there’s some folks that I became Facebook friends with, and I was like, yo, okay, I remember that we never hung out. But it’s because we saw each other that frequently. Right? And that was a lot of synergy there. Briefly when it came to, beyond students. Like I mentioned, like for AAAN to ACE, some other organizations and entities, of course, got to shout out to the African American Cultural Center at Addams Hall. Love the library there. Used to kick it there as well. The faculty — just to be able to see faculty and staff that look like us as well — especially beyond the African American Studies program. Like that, of course, is essential, and to be expected. But when you actually see folks in the other departments and fields like that, that’s transformative. And on the backside of like, even in advising roles. Right? I think she just retired, Mamie Gray from the department of communication, been there for a long time. And she was just always this welcoming space. A welcoming person in that space, and just in the dedication and the real way of like, that we’re here, we matter. That being said, the time, like I said, I started at UIC in 1999.
Aisha El-Amin 8:33
You got to tell us. Tell us about that. That’s because I hear all the great fond memories, and BSU, and the AAAN, and all the involvement and you’re a PAP Scholar. These are things I didn’t even know. I’m sitting here like, wow, wow! But I know you had some challenges. Right? So tell us about some of those as well.
Gerald Hankerson 8:56
Yeah. I graduated from Lindblom Tech when it was still Tech. So let’s start there, swoop [Laughter]. And we actually part of the last class. And I was blessed to do very well at Lindblom. I graduated with very high honors with 4.5 GPA out of 4.0. I graduated with the highest distinction of service. I was recognized as being the most outstanding freshmen, the most outstanding junior in my class, and then one of the top 10 most outstanding seniors. So academically, I was primed. I was also a Illinois State Scholar. So the problem, unfortunately, was there were not — both personally within my family, as well as some of the things that was happening with the school at the time — adequate resources. Help for me to look for scholarships and grants. So even with my academic career from high school, I didn’t have any funds whatsoever. I wanted to go to Morehouse. That didn’t pan out. I put all my eggs in one basket and ultimately it just didn’t happen. I did have a prospect of applying to Urbana-Champaign. But I didn’t because I knew I was gonna go to Morehouse. But that didn’t happen. So that’s when the conversation came up with my mom. You know, I did apply to other schools and got accepted to UIC. And that’s when she, you know, knowing like, I need to be in somebody’s school, there’s no way I cannot be in a college. And so that’s how I wound up at UIC. So I had nothing but all loans. And so that, in of itself, is what kicked off like this very unique situation for me in terms of financial aid needs. There was a point where within my family dynamics, it made it where I got kicked out the house freshman year. And it was to the point where there were days people would give me lunch money, but I wouldn’t buy lunch when I had to save it for bus fare. Right? To go from my uncle’s house, while staying with briefly, just to make a class. So there was a lot of things that I was going through where I just kept my focus on school. Like school has to happen. And so I did, like I said, mention both AAAN and ACE. ACE, I have to give a particular special shout out to, she’s long retired, but Bernadine Canada, who’s a super-duper advisor that worked with the university for a long time. And so, I was just going around, just trying to learn what all the different resources were. And so she saw my academic record. She was like, “wait, this is you? And you have no financial, no grants or scholarship?” Like no. So she was able to be my advocate. And she was able to get me connected to getting the President’s Award Program Scholarship, as well as the MAP, the Pell. Ultimately, I wound up getting the free ride that I deserved. So I got a free month for independent housing, because, again, I was kicked out the home. I was technically homeless. And so, I had a full ride.
Aisha El-Amin 11:54
What a blessing.
Gerald Hankerson 11:58
Al-humdullah [All praise is due to God] indeed. And it was what was needed. Because I was able to thrive my freshman year. So even that first semester, I did very well. That’s when you know, UIC was on a five-point scale. So I was able to get something like, you know, four two five [4.25], or something like that. And did well my second semester as well. And I was able, I missed the Dean’s list very closely. But I was able to apply again to the Honors College. I was also able to get a merit scholarship from the university. And I was inducted in the National Society of Collegiate Scholars. So I did phenomenal for my freshman year.
However, there were things that were happening again with family dynamics. It was such a seismic shift. And something that I hope the university takes, any university or institution, takes into account. Many young people are either the breadwinners, or the emotional, mental support for their families. And so, I was one that when all these things start happening in my family, it took a seismic shift for me. And a lot of my attention, unfortunately, went to help my mother and my sister. But it just did not help me whatsoever, to understand, like how to balance school, and things with the family. And what I started to encounter was, and this is, I’m sure is, unfortunate concerns anywhere where there’s Black students in a mostly white institution. I know UIC has other distinctions. But I definitely ran into issues where there was not sympathy, let alone empathy. Where there were some things that I, at the same time, were I had to take account for. Right? Like, you know, I knew I had an eight o’clock class. Are there ways I could have better, you know, get as ample rest as possible? But in terms of really seeking out, knowing where to go for, you know, therapy. Or having conversations with professors or instructors to understand, I’m really struggling with this. It’s not because I can’t do the work. I just, it’s really becoming insurmountable. And so those changes really started ironically, in 2000. Right after, you know, again this high of freshman year. And things just start shifting. I wound up dropping a class, thinking that will be the better option. And wound up failing the class. I thought, I’ll be able to do well. There were others where it was just impossible to even show my face. That’s why I started having anxiety attacks. That’s why I start having sort of this perpetual self-sabotage; saboteur in me. Because it was the first time of all the things that was self-assuring, reassuring, was school. And it’s not because I was a robot. I enjoy learning. I’ve always considered myself, no matter what, I’ll be a lifelong scholar. And this was the main sanctuary that was not doing it for me. And so I just crashed. I went into very deep manic depression. And I was just trying to stay afloat. Like saving face wherever I go. And it ultimately caught up with me. And I want to say, 2001-2002 school year. I was dismissed from the university. It just got to that point when it took that much of a toll.
One quick story I’ll add. Right before that I had to take a zero hundred level course just to prove I could deal with the rigors of a regular class setting. And it was through ACE. And so I’ll never forget one of their advisors, not Miss Canada. One of their advisors who led this course. I was trying to explain to her what I was going through. And so she sat there and she was looking at me. And then when she had a chance to talk, she’s like, you’re nothing but a charlatan. Right? So the fact she was able to tell me that, let me know, okay, you know that I’m not stupid. But you have the nerve to think I’m playing you. When I’m trying to tell you what I’m going through. So yeah. So I did run into those type of things. And then, honestly, there was also the office financial aid. I have to call them out. But ultimately, I was able to seek help, made an appeal, and was able to get that appeal accepted. And so initially I was supposed to graduate in ’03. That didn’t happen. I went part time for bit after I got reaccepted into the university. I was able to stay. First time having perfect 4.0s, and now we’re on a 4.0 scale. But then again, something happened in 2004. And it was too much of a trigger. And so I went right back. But I was still on par to graduate in spring 2005. But I would have my full ride reinstated. But there was a certain thing where I needed to maintain a certain GPA that was higher than the standard. And so that knocked me back out of the deck, where I have to make another appeal. This appeal, because I was still on par to still graduate, even with all the setbacks. There’s a process that you have to go through. When you appeal to financial aid, you have to, of course, explain what happened. Provide an academic plan of action, how you’re going to get back on track. Provide documentation, of course, if you can, which you really should. And so I was able to connect with all my professors, got permission to send in their classes. With the outset that I’ll have retroactive reenrollment, which is what happened the first time for 2000 to 2003. I got a letter from a doctor I was seeing regularly at U of I Medical Center. Dr. Grief. Dr. Samuel N. Grief who still works there. It’s great. And then of course, I had a wonderful relationship with my academic advisor Dace Kezbers who has also retired from the department of communication. And, for whatever reason, I found out well after the fact that my appeal was rejected. One, because Dr. Grief, unfortunately, he wrote a letter with a signature and the UIC number, but he didn’t put it on a letterhead. And so this is submitted to the department, to the financial aid office sealed. So how was I supposed to know? So they said I didn’t provide documentation. They said I didn’t provide a plan of action. Well, in my letter I indicated I am a candidate to graduate this spring. I have submitted my intent to graduate. I am in every single final class I need to graduate with the full permission of said professors. I am passing every class with at least a B average. So they said I didn’t provide a plan of action. So I had to do another petition on top of that. And with the help of Dr. Michael Ginsburg, who I think he’s now in HR, but at the time he was in the ombudsperson office. Another resource that was pretty good for me.
And so he was able to find it out and and worked with me. And they then accepted that appeal after all those things were resubmitted. Dr. Grief resubmitted his letter. Miss Casper, she definitely provided I’m academically sound; only got 14 hours to go. That was it, y’all, just 14 hours to go. And yeah, I was able to get back in. But I now have this debt from that last year because I didn’t have any financial aid. So that’s what sent me from 1999 to 2003 to 2005 all the way into 2017. So briefly on that. There was this one-off opportunity to, like I mentioned, to stay connected with UIC. So in my work, one of my roles is being an internship director. And I also do a lot of educational efforts to have our communities to understand what the Muslim community faces and how we can stand together solidarity. So I do a lot of workshops. And all these other events. And also recruiting interns at my alma mater. Right? And so through a wonderful connection with Caroline Sweeney, who works in many particular special roles throughout the years and I thinks she’s now like a vice provost, forgive me, I should know this. But she’s, been a great stalwart as well. So originally, she was the director of community relations. That’s how we connected. And at the time, there was an effort to better understand the community dynamics and relationships with the university. So the chancellor at the time, along with the president of the entire UI system, they brought together this group of African American leaders. Many of them alumni, or had some connections, like the students who are a part of UIC. And it was through there where I start to become reinvigorated and re-explored. Can I still get my degree? And people like Miss Swinney, and so many others I’ve met, they were very encouraging with it. So out of this meeting was created the African American Leadership Advisory Council. And this is definitely a group that advises the chancellor. What to be mindful for about building and sustaining strong relationships with the community in terms of student’s recruitment, faculty and staff, procurement, other relationships with the surrounding community with UIC.
And so over the years it’s just really trying to stay in the knack. But there were people who always come hear my story. You are deserving. You should definitely go back to school. And it took a minute, but I was able to do that. And I have to give a shout out. Some of my personal friends were able to help me clear that debt. So I could just reapply and get back in.
Aisha El-Amin 22:09
You know what, Gerald? What a story. What a journey that you’ve been on. And I think this is a journey that many of our students can relate to. Right? You had the stick-to-itiveness and the bumps in the road and all the things that you endured. And you’re here. You’re here with a degree. You’re here serving the community. And you’re still involved in many ways at UIC to make sure that folks that come behind you can also benefit from the work that you’re doing. So I thank you. I thank you for sharing your story. I thank you for being part of this series. And continuing to give back to UIC in all the ways that you do. I know you’re part of Umoja, you’re part of the leadership council. So just thank you. Thank you.
Gerald Hankerson 22:56
Well, thanks again, for this opportunity. If I have to offer at least one piece of advice. It’s interesting that UIC chose the Flames as our mascot. And throughout so many societies fire is totally recognized like a rebirth and cleansing, a purification. Even it lights the way. And so without sounding too cheesy, there’s something resilient about the Black community here. Right now, what we’re going through as a community. Our numbers are lower in the city. We’re facing gentrification. It’s the ongoing homicides and violence that’s plaguing us and other opportunities. You know, there is something at stake. But we have always made this city what it is. Right? So it starts at UIC. I still, despite all of that, UIC definitely shaped me. It is because of the people. Right? It is because of being mindful of where, in juxtaposition, that university sits. That is a magnet for us to make valuable change. And so there’s very much needed presence of people that look like us to be on that campus. And even though I was Muslim, or I am Muslim, the fact that I identify with so many other affinity groups. At the end of the day there was something very valuable about my Black skin being validated. If not by the different bureaucracies and whatever red tape rules. Fact of the matter is, is that people while I was a student and beyond, knew that I valued and needed to be on a campus. And so that’s what I want to remind people. That you’re going to hit those road bumps sometimes. But rely on and connect with people because that’s how our people have remained strong. We’ve been a community. And if you can definitely find that and make that, despite of the haters, in spite of the obstacles and roadblocks, you can definitely succeed at UIC and definitely beyond.
Aisha El-Amin 25:03
Well, thank you. Thank you for leaving with that sage advice. And we wish you many, many more blessings ahead of you.
Gerald Hankerson 25:12
Thank you so much. I appreciate it. Thank you for having me.
Tariq El-Amin 25:16
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.