From a nearly lifelong interest in the impact of social systems to teaching workshops on cultural competency to spearheading a support group for women of color on campus, Cheyenne Coote is emerging as a leader in social justice.
Back in May, UW-Madison’s Multicultural Student Center recognized her at its Multicultural Leadership Awards, bestowing her with the Excellence in Social Justice Award. Coote, a sociology major, plans to graduate in May and is interested in pursuing a career involving educational equity.
What brought you to UW-Madison?
I came to UW-Madison through a program called Posse, a national scholarship foundation that helps colleges and universities recruit students who are typically underrepresented (students of color, low-income, or first-generation college students) in order to bring transformation and innovative leadership to their campuses. UW-Madison always recruits students from the most cities, bringing in Posse scholars from Los Angeles, Chicago, New York and Washington, D.C., which is where I’m from. UW-Madison stood out to me because of the wide variety of major programs and extracurricular activities it offered.
Why have you chosen sociology as your major?
Ever since about 8th grade, I’ve been interested in looking at how social systems affect people’s everyday lives, from where they live to the places they attend school. Documentaries like CNN’s “Black in America,” which looked at how factors such as racism and classism affected the daily experiences of African Americans, always intrigued me.
This fascination continued when I entered into high school at a mostly white, private, all-girls school. The demographics were completely different from any other school I had attended and made me think about how school resources and access to a quality education dramatically differed for black and white students, even those who lived within the same geographical area.
After taking Sociology 134 at UW-Madison, a class which basically looked at the sociology of race in the United States, I realized that I love sociology and declared it as my major my sophomore year.
What role has the Multicultural Students Center played during your time at UW?
Interning at the MSC has definitely been a major highlight of my college experience. I’ve met really great people interning there and can wholeheartedly say that everyone who works there, from the permanent staff to the student interns, is invested in ensuring that students of color are affirmed and supported through the work that we do. [It was especially evident] given the racially charged incidents that occurred on campus last semester and the online movement that came about to highlight these issues with the #realuw hashtag.
Tell us about your work in social justice.
As a social justice intern, I’ve designed and facilitated workshops on racism, white privilege and social justice with various student organizations on campus as well as University Housing. Depending on the request, sometimes I do a workshop with other interns and sometimes I facilitate them on my own. Organizations reach out to us for a number of reasons, ranging from wanting to learn how to be more culturally competent to seeing how they can better serve students of color as part of their mission. While the MSC can’t magically change things overnight, we do help to give people the tools they need to start thinking about what they do currently that works and what can be changed in the future.
More recently this past semester, two other interns and I started Sisters in Solidarity as a support group for women of color on campus. We envisioned SIS as being a healing space for women of color and have had some really great discussions on topics such as cultural appropriation and self-care. I’m looking forward to seeing how SIS will evolve next semester.
What does it mean to earn the Multicultural Leadership Award in Excellence in Social Justice?
I’m passionate about doing work that centers on women of color because the experiences and struggles we face are oftentimes ignored or subsumed under those of men of color. Even though planning for Sisters in Solidarity was stressful at times, I knew the work we were doing was worth it because there aren’t a lot of spaces on campus that specifically target and support women of color. I feel really humbled to have gotten the award and it felt good to know that my hard work was recognized.