KU’s Black Alumni Network honors leaders and innovators, emerging leaders

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Article updated at 9:05 a.m. Thursday, Sept. 30 to add more info about Emerging Leaders:

The Black Alumni Network of the University of Kansas has selected the first seven winners of its new biennial Emerging Leaders Award, plus nine winners of the group’s longstanding Leaders and Innovators award.

The new Emerging Leaders Award is aimed at highlighting recent graduates who are poised to make an impact in their profession and their community, according to a post by Caleb Bobo in the public alumni Facebook group.


According to a news release from the Alumni Association, the first class of Emerging Leaders includes:

• Michael Austin, Lawrence, who earned his master’s degree in economics in 2016. Austin is a public-sector economist and policy researcher and president of Knowledge & Decisions Economic Consulting LLC. He previously directed fiscal policy for the Kansas Policy Institute and as the chief economist for two governors. He volunteers as a high school tutor and debate coach.

• Marcus Hollinger, Atlanta, a 2014 journalism graduate. Hollinger is senior vice president for marketing of Reach Records and co-founder of Portrait Coffee Roasters, an award-winning company that seeks to use coffee as a mechanism for doing good across Atlanta.

• Nicole Humphrey, Coral Gables, Florida, who received her bachelor’s degree from the College of Liberal Arts & Sciences in 2016 and her doctorate in public administration in 2020. Humphrey is an assistant professor of political science at the University of Miami who researches the impact of organizational structures and processes on gender and racial inequities. She also chairs the Student & New Professionals Section of the American Society of Public Administration.

• Craig Jackson Jr., Sacramento, California, who completed his master’s degree in higher education in 2014. Jackson is senior director of development for the University of California-Davis School of Engineering. He also co-chairs the diversity, equity and inclusion committee for development and alumni relations at UC Davis. For the KU School of Education & Human Sciences, he serves on the dean’s advisory board.

Paul Pierce II, Lawrence, who earned his bachelor’s degree in journalism in 2015. Pierce, a former assistant athletics director for compliance with Kansas Athletics, in July was promoted to associate athletics director for inclusive excellence to lead all diversity and inclusion efforts for staff, coaches and athletes. He participates in the Multicultural Excellence in College Athletics and Minority Opportunities Athletic Association.

• Margaret Pruitt, Silver Spring, Maryland, who completed her doctorate in molecular and integrative physiology in 2017 and her doctorate in medicine in 2019. Pruitt completed a fellowship at the Milken Institute’s School of Public Health and now serves as a resident physician at the George Washington University Hospital in Washington, D.C., and a member of the departmental council for diversity, equity and inclusion at the GW School of Medicine. She also guides high school students as a mentor and tutor.

• Joshua Robinson, Cedar Park, Texas, who received his bachelor’s degree in journalism in 2016 and his master’s degree in public administration in 2018. Robinson is a senior associate and network manager at Living Cities, an organization focused on building economically and racially inclusive cities. He also is an active member of the Austin Area Urban League and the Sigma Kappa Sigma Chapter of Phi Beta Sigma fraternity.

A video highlighting all the winners’ accomplishments will be released Thursday, Oct. 14, as part of the KUBAN reunion weekend. Check out all the reunion events, set for Oct. 14-16, at this link.

Here are the nine selected for the Mike and Joyce Shinn Leaders and Innovators Award, which has honored more than 80 people since 2006. It’s named for the late Mike Shinn, a 1966 School of Engineering alumnus who helped found the BAN and the Leaders and Innovators Project, and his wife, Joyce. All information is from a news release from the KU Alumni Association:

KU Black Alumni Network The University of Kansas Black Alumni Network’s Leaders & Innovators of 2021, left to right and top to bottom: Luke Bobo; Denise White Gilmore; Clantha Carrigan McCurdy; Phyllis Stevens Chase; Darren James; Aaron Thomas; Patricia Weems Gaston; Mark E. McCormick; Irvetta Williams.

• Luke Bobo, Shawnee, who received his bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering in 1982. Bobo is a nationally recognized speaker and writer on apologetics and public theology. He serves as vice president of strategic partnerships for Made to Flourish, an organization that provides resources and engagement opportunities to a national network of pastors. He is also a visiting professor at the Institute of Biblical Studies and a visiting instructor at Covenant Theological Seminary.

For his community, he serves on the boards for Carver Baptist Bible College, the Center for Public Justice and HustleUSA. For KU, he has served on the School of Engineering’s Diversity & Women’s Advisory Board and is a trustee for the Department of Religious Studies. He also served on the Alumni Association’s national board of directors, and he led the KU Black Alumni Network as president.

In addition to his KU electrical engineering degree, he earned a master’s degree in engineering, a master’s of divinity and a doctorate in education leadership.

Phyllis Stevens Chase, Kansas City, Missouri, who completed her bachelor’s degree in education in 1971 and her doctorate in educational administration in 1987. Chase is a professor and the PK-12 EdD Program coordinator for Baker University. During her career she has served in numerous leadership roles, including superintendent for the public school districts in Topeka and the cities of Kansas City, Springfield, Columbia and North Kansas City, Missouri.

She also has volunteered as a board member for many organizations, including Mercantile Bank, the United Way of the Ozarks and the Topeka Symphony.

Patricia Weems Gaston, Lawrence, who earned her bachelor’s degree in journalism in 1981. Gaston returned to KU in 2018 to become the Lacy C. Haynes Professor of Journalism after her career as an award-winning journalist. She served in many editorial roles for The Washington Post, where she helped produce the national, foreign, features, editorial and opinion sections. Before the Post, she was assistant international editor for the Dallas Morning News and part of a Pulitzer Prize-winning team that reported on violence against women.

Gaston advises the staff of the University Daily Kansan, mentors students through the Rising Scholars Program and serves on the KU Faculty Senate executive committee.


Denise White Gilmore, Hoover, Alabama, who received her bachelor’s degree in accounting in 1977. Gilmore is an advocate and leader on issues of social and racial justice and equitable community development. She is the senior director for the Division of Social Justice & Racial Equity in the Office of Mayor Randall L. Woodfin of Birmingham, Alabama. She leads multidisciplinary efforts to serve marginalized communities and helps preserve, rehabilitate and share areas of cultural significance. Currently, she leads the city’s efforts to continue the development of the Birmingham Civil Rights National Monument, which was created by former President Barack Obama in 2017.

She also serves on the strategic planning committee for the Alabama African American Civil Rights Sites Heritage Consortium and has served on the board for the Kansas City Affiliate of the Susan G. Komen Foundation. Gilmore is also an active and proud member of Delta Sigma Theta sorority.

Darren James, Lewisville, Texas, who earned his bachelor’s degree in architecture in 1992. James is president of KAI Enterprises, a design and construction services firm with eight offices across six states. Prior to KAI, James served as the architect and assistant director for construction at Texas Woman’s University.

In the Dallas-Fort Worth area, he serves as the president of Fair Park First, a nonprofit group that oversees equitable growth and development of a historic neighborhood in South Dallas. He also chairs the Dallas Black Chamber of Commerce, one of the oldest Black chambers in the United States. He has served on the boards of Big Brothers Big Sisters of Dallas and the Dallas Citizen’s Council and the advisory board of the KU School of Architecture & Design. He recently was named to D CEO Magazine’s “500 Most Influential Business Leaders in North Texas.”

Mark McCormick, Leawood, a 1990 journalism graduate. McCormick serves as the director of strategic communications for the ACLU of Kansas. He also serves on Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly’s Racial Equity & Justice Commission, on the board for the Association of African American Museums and as a trustee of the William Allen White Foundation at the KU journalism school. He has worked as a reporter for The Wichita Eagle, The Louisville Courier-Journal and the Springfield News-Leader. He is the author of “Barry Sanders: Now You See Him … His Story in His Own Words.” McCormick holds five gold medals from the Kansas City Press Club and was recognized as the club’s “Best Columnist” in 2009. He also served as the executive director of the Kansas African American History Museum.

Clantha Carrigan McCurdy, Natick, Massachusetts, who completed her doctorate in educational evaluation in 1995. McCurdy is the senior deputy commissioner for access and student financial assistance with the Massachusetts Department of Higher Education, where she manages the legislative budget for scholarships, grants, tuition waivers and student loans for current and prospective students.

She also serves as president of the National Association of State Student Grant and Aid Programs and on the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Advisory Committee of the KU School of Education & Human Sciences. Her honors include the Massachusetts Performance Recognition Award and the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators Service Award. The Eos Foundation recently named her one of the “50 Most Influential People of Color in Higher Education.”


Aaron Thomas, Overland Park, a 2000 College of Liberal Arts & Sciences graduate. Thomas is executive producer and CEO of Wyandotte Entertainment Inc. and an adjunct professor at the University of Southern California’s School of Cinematic Arts. He is also the executive producer of the popular TV show “S.W.A.T.,” airing on CBS. He has written for numerous other shows including “Soul Food: The Series,” “Friday Night Lights” and “CSI: New York.”

He mentors the next generation of writers and is a frequent guest speaker for the CBS Writers’ Program. He also helped create a mentoring program for television writers of color in the Los Angeles area.

Irvetta Williams, St. Louis, who earned her bachelor’s degree in architecture in 1987. Williams is the founder and lead consultant for iJay Enterprises, a firm that helps developers and municipalities navigate pre-construction and building code processes. She also is an expert in leveraging tax increment financing and community development block grants to develop residential and commercial projects across the Greater St. Louis area.

She has been involved with several professional organizations, including the Missouri Workforce Housing Association, the National Association of Minority Architects, the Missouri Association of Code Enforcement and the National Association of Housing & Redevelopment Officials.

She is an adviser to the KU School of Architecture & Design, and she served on the board of the St. Louis Community Builders Network and the Foreclosure Intervention Taskforce of the Urban League of Metro St. Louis.

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