Profiles of Black Excellence: Sharon E. Milligan

Sharon Milligan standing portrait in HRC

In honor of Black History Month, we spoke with some of our Black faculty members to find out what the month means to them and how they plan on observing it. 

Sharon E. Milligan, a Grace Longwell Coyle Associate Professor in Social Work, has graduate degrees in social work, public health and community development. Her undergraduate degree from Spelman College, a Historically Black College and University, sparked her curiosity about the conditions of women and children across the African diaspora. She has devoted much of her academic career to institution building.

What does Black History Month mean to you?

Black history is all-year-round and is also both U.S. and world history. Acknowledging the presence and contributions of all people is important for the advancement of a just world. Black history allows us to remember and celebrate the experiences of Black people within the U.S. As social work professionals, we have the responsibility to explain and challenge inequality experienced in Black history and contemporary times.

Is there an event, moment or individual in Black history that has influenced you personally or professionally?

I had the opportunity to build a relationship with Ruby B. Pernell, a professor at the Mandel School from 1968 to 1982. She was the Grace Longwell Coyle Professor Emeritus in Social Work from July 1, 1982, until she passed away in 2001. When appointed acting dean of the Mandel School from 1973 to 1974, she became the first African-American woman dean at CWRU.

Ruby Pernell headshoot

On the occasion of her birthday, Feb. 21, 1917, I want to share how Pernell professionally and personally welcomed me to the CWRU and Cleveland community. I arrived at CWRU just as she was retiring. She befriended me in ways I never anticipated I needed by sharing her experiences working on policy and community practice issues as a faculty member and as a social welfare attaché at the U.S. Embassy in India until 1968. Her engagement in policy issues in India, the Sudan, Egypt and Jamaica was amazing.

Pernell generously shared her experiences as a Black woman living and working across the African diaspora. I appreciated her wonderful gourmet meals and the conversations with a group of her Cleveland friends and colleagues of all backgrounds at her home in East Cleveland, Ohio. This 2019 blog post on Pernell from the CWRU archives tells more about her accomplishments in social welfare and social work.

What role should educational institutions play in ensuring Black history and culture are integrated throughout the curriculum?

I believe that if we want to accomplish an anti-racist and anti-colonial society we will teach Black, Indigenous and all histories that help us become connected people not only within the U.S., but also across the globe on which we live. A globe where we celebrate and acknowledge everyone keeps us interconnected to each other.

How do you plan on observing Black History Month?

All year, I attend events on- and off-campus on Black excellence. I work with others to connect young people to history that will affirm their capacity to live in an interconnected global space in the U.S. and outside of the country.

Share any upcoming talks, events or projects.

On Saturday, March 9, a group I was a charter member of, The Links, Incorporated, Western Reserve (OH) Chapter, will host a group of high school women and not-so-young women on the CWRU campus to have Conversations with... "Women Who’ve Lived and Worked Across the Seven Continents." The conversation with four Black women will be moderated by Eleanor Hayes and will take place at our Mandel Center, from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. The event is open to the public but you must register online.

The Links, Incorporated is an international nonprofit organization of women established in 1946. The membership consists of more than 17,000 professional women of African descent in 299 chapters in 41 states, the District of Columbia, the Commonwealth of the Bahamas and the United Kingdom. It is the nation’s oldest and largest volunteer service organization for women committed to enriching, sustaining and ensuring the culture and economic survival of African Americans and other persons of African ancestry.

As I participate in this event and others like it that include young Black people, I will be thinking of the generosity Ruby Pernell provided to me as a woman who lived and worked to bring people together to support each other in the U.S. and across the world.

See how the Mandel School is celebrating Black History Month