Juanita M. Morris, M.S. ’98, Ph.D. ’07, is giving a whole new meaning to civic engagement by using a $2.3 million grant from the Howard G. Buffett Foundation to start a Civic Leadership Institute for the Decatur Public Schools Foundation.
It has always been Morris’ dream to impact lives of students and community through education.
After receiving a bachelor’s degree in mathematics and statistics from the University of Illinois in Springfield, and a master’s degree and doctoral degree in educational administration from Illinois State, Morris returned to her hometown of Decatur after a 26-year stint doing work all over the country.
“What inspired me to enter into the field of teaching was my own personal experiences with education,” she said. As an African American woman majoring in mathematics, Morris noticed that college was not the most welcoming and inclusive space.
“I became curious about how to help and support students who looked like me in their journey to transition from high school to college and to complete a college degree,” she added.
After realizing her career aspirations in college, Morris decided to pursue a master’s degree in educational administration with a focus on college student personnel. She formed one of the strongest educational relationships with her professor and mentor, Dr. Edward R. Hines.
Hines not only oversaw Morris’ graduate academic career, but also pushed her through the completion of her terminal degree. Morris’ fondest memories at Illinois State stem from her time and experience in this bond, relationship, and connection that was built on education.
“He was officially appointed as my divine angel,” said Morris. “There are people that hit your journey for very specific reasons, and he was there to make sure I completed my degree and guided me through.”
Morris refers to this relationship as a lifetime connection and the two keep in touch today, both personally and professionally. The faculty-student bond that pushed Morris through her master’s and doctoral degrees gave her even more purpose in the work that she aspired to do.
“I realized I needed to help students not only understand the value of education, but also how to maneuver within that educational space,” she said. “What does success look like for them? How do you shift your family’s legacy using education?”
A part of Morris’ advocacy for education, specifically for women and minorities, was to create programs for youth to excel in the STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) field.
She started Girls Who Code of Macon County, an organization with the mission of closing the gap in technology for middle and high schoolers. Hundreds of young women and girls enroll in the 10-week sessions every summer. From this, Morris also designed and started Summer Math Academy, which was created to counteract the “summer slide,” where students lose information that they learned in school during the summer months. These programs were fully funded by those in the Decatur community.
Morris did not see educational programs like this in her community, so she took matters into her own hands. “Advocacy is doing,” she said. “If you don’t see it, then do it. I get to make things up and create. For me, the civic engagement is in advocacy.”
“When you do things with the right intent, people usually participate,” Morris said. What she noticed was that the community willingly donated time, money, and support to these programs for students. That is the true essence of community.
In her years of starting and facilitating these programs, Morris also noticed an irreplaceable exchange between students and the community.
It is because of this experience and these relationships that Morris was chosen to head the Civic Leadership Institute for the Decatur Public Schools Foundation.
The $2.3 million grant from the Howard G. Buffett Foundation will provide opportunities for District 61 middle and high school students to engage in civic-focused career exploration, exposing them to potential jobs that support a positive social framework for the community. The focus will be on the five pillars: criminal justice and law enforcement, healthcare, local governance and politics, civic and social entrepreneurship, and education.
Morris’ job is to plan programs and implement these five pillars into career development opportunities for students, and she is excited to oversee this fulfilling task.
“For me, this is not only an exercise in entrepreneurship, but it is an amazing opportunity to reimagine education for students,” she said. “It’s both nerve-racking and anxiety-ridden, but it’s fun. It’s an amazing opportunity that comes with responsibility and accountability.”
Throughout this journey, Morris had a profound realization: “Civic leadership is not a thing that we do to the community, it’s what we do with the community.”
Her task is to combine education with outside fields to connect students to the community and roles they may have in their future professions. An example is sending junior and seniors in high school to a local healthcare institute program to become certified nursing assistants. Other programs include partnerships with the Macon County Law Enforcement Training Center and collaborations with the local government and politicians.
It is an opportunity for experts, workers, and leaders in their fields to serve students and their education. In exchange, students will volunteer their time and will continue to understand and emerge as leaders.
“Every outcome must impact the community and the individual,” Morris said.
Another core value of this project headed by Morris is diversity—a discussion point throughout her academic career and professional journey.
“With each collaborating partner that I met with in planning to identify student participants, I wanted to be clear about building a diverse program,” she explained. “I need students who are struggling to make it to school, those who are high achievers, those who haven’t found their footing, and everything in between. That is diversity, equity, and inclusion. I don’t shy away from that because it’s our responsibility and it is also who I am.”
As diversity, equity, and inclusion are core values of Illinois State, Morris said that her time at the University taught her that it is OK to be first. As the first person in her family to receive these higher education degrees, Morris is always encouraging students to step outside their comfort zones and not be afraid to be “the first.”
“My education at Illinois State University taught me about focus, effort, and how to persevere,” she said. “Illinois State taught me how to be resilient and what it means to build a career and shift a family legacy.”
Morris claims that her life is a representation of her work. With two children and a supportive husband, family is at the core of all things she does both personally and professionally.
“My work is who I am, what I believe, and what I do,” Morris said. “It is a part of who I am, and I work on and do those projects that I believe in. I share my work with my family and support and volunteer my time in spaces that impact the lives of other kids, education, and the community.”
Morris claims that civic engagement is about truly impacting the communities and lives of others. And that is how her life is truly lived. The recognition and understanding of what civic engagement is has challenged her to be more vulnerable and realize that she needs to understand, embrace, value, and connect with other people to be successful.
She considers herself lucky to be able to work with driven students and play a role in their success, and it is her lifetime task to “honor people and to impact the lives of people and community through education locally, regionally, nationally, and internationally.”
To do this, Morris tells herself and her students this:
“You will fail. You will make mistakes. Your heart will probably be broken at some point. That’s the reality, but the deal is that tomorrow is always coming. Today will be behind you. Get up each day and give it all you have.”