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Josephine Allen, first tenured black woman at Cornell, reflects on 32-year career

Of all of the honors bestowed upon Josephine Allen, professor emerita of policy analysis and management, one stands out -- the distinction of being the first African-American woman to receive tenure at Cornell.

Allen recently retired after nearly 32 years in the College of Human Ecology. But in looking back, the milestone of receiving tenure is, she says, just a footnote to her research on social welfare, including empowerment and family support, intergenerational communication of reproductive health with an emphasis on HIV/AIDS prevention, gender and international development, and her work mentoring students and young professionals.

"At the time, I didn't really concentrate on the significance of receiving tenure at Cornell," she says. "It happened; it was appreciated … It made me feel both joyous and relieved, but it also reinforced my ongoing commitment to social justice and action, knowing that I needed to do more to get other people of color on board as students and faculty at this and other prestigious universities. I knew how important it was for all students to have opportunities to hear from faculty with diverse life experiences in every discipline."

It was Allen's commitment to social justice that made her such a respected role model, says professor emeritus John Ford, a former colleague. "It has changed things for the better having Josephine and faculty members like Josephine at Cornell," he says. "She has been a great role model for other young faculty members of color."

Allen taught public policy and critical perspectives with a focus on social welfare policies and families, and worked internationally in Hong Kong, Jamaica, Ghana and South Africa, where she was a Fulbright scholar.

Former student Sean Eversley-Bradwell, assistant professor at Ithaca College's Center for the Study of Culture, Race and Ethnicity, recalls that Allen taught students to think for themselves and to find their own voices.

"Students in her classes said she made them think deeply, but also made them feel comfortable," he says. "There's a particular way in academia you're expected to speak. She taught me to say what I wanted in a way I wanted."

Allen grew up in Atlanta, where she attended segregated schools. When desegregation gave her the chance to go to a predominantly white high school, she declined because her high school "had wonderful teachers, some with Ph.D.s, who were committed to excellence. Their limited professional opportunities inspired them to create opportunities for their students."

She went on to study political science and East Asian studies at Vassar College, where she was one of only seven African-American students in her class, and then earned master's and doctoral degrees in political science and social welfare administration and policy at the University of Michigan.

When she joined Cornell's Department of Community Service Education (which later merged into what is now the Department of Policy Analysis and Management) in 1977, it was one of the most diverse departments on campus.

"At the University of Michigan, we had gone through an extended period of struggle to increase the numbers of students and faculty of color," she explains. "I wanted to work at a place where there were others who could be mentors for me."

She says: "One of the critical issues is always having a critical mass. The environment in the department 32 years ago when I arrived at Cornell was a collegial one that was welcoming. When people of color come one by one into a different and largely homogeneous environment, they often feel isolated and find the setting more difficult in terms of professional collegiality."

Several years ago, Allen helped create the Cornell Black Professional Women's Forum, which has lobbied for the recruitment, retention and advancement of black women faculty and staff at Cornell. In particular, its collaboration with the National Science Foundation-funded CU-ADVANCE Center has resulted in the recruitment of more women faculty in engineering and science.

Though retired from Cornell, Allen continues to hold her post as a professor of social work at Binghamton University. She is co-editing a book of thoughts, perspectives and dreams written as letters to President Obama and is co-writing a book on Obama's political and policy journey.

"To use the words of Mahatma Gandhi, we need to be the change we want to see in the world," she says. "By actively advocating for that change and by creating an environment in which every person can succeed, we can be assured of better lives for all of us."

Sheri Hall is assistant director of communications in the College of Human Ecology.

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Nicola Pytell