Hina Mahmood, AM '13

Hina Mahmood HeadshotHina Mahmood, AM ’13, recently became deputy chief of staff at the Illinois Department of Human Services, but her values remain those of a community organizer.

“People most impacted by systems are our guide,” she explained. “Their stories and experiences should be centered. That’s a key principle of organizing—that’s my north star.”

Mahmood was drawn to the University of Chicago Crown Family School of Social Work, Policy, and Practice for the blend of clinical practice and policy analysis, and the value placed on listening to the experiences of vulnerable people to shape public policy. What she learned there, she said, helped her bridge her career from organizing to new arenas—philanthropy and government—and “add new tools to my toolbelt” to make an even bigger impact.

Her first five years out of college, Mahmood worked in a variety of positions including in constituent services at an alderman’s office, as an outreach and volunteer coordinator for a nonprofit serving survivors of domestic violence, and as a community organizer for parents of elementary school students in a diverse area of Chicago’s North Side. 

After a time, she began to consider graduate school. “I realized I wanted to be part of the social justice space,” she said, “but that I was missing some things, such as the historical context for different systems of oppression that I witnessed working in local government and nonprofit organizations.”

“Those were the things I needed more knowledge about and that’s what led me to Crown.”

At the Crown Family School, she found “rich coursework” she said and “incredible faculty” in the Master’s Program in Social Work, Social Policy, and Social Administration. A favorite professor, Charles Payne (now emeritus) worked closely with community organizing groups to change inequitable and ineffective school discipline practices. He wasn’t an “ivory tower” academic, she said—“he was an educator-organizer. Other faculty members also operated from that orientation.”

In one of her most rewarding classes, with associate professor Evelyn Brodkin, now emerita, she learned why the implementation of public policy, not its creation, is “90 percent of the work” and where so much good or unintended harm can happen, depending on the quality of that implementation.   

What she learned in that class “absolutely informs my day-to-day thinking,” at the Illinois Department of Human Services, she said.

But “hands down,” she said, “The best part of the [graduate] program was my classmates” in the Extended Evening Program, she said. All were coming to the Crown Family School with experience in a variety of human service fields “so that they could have a deeper impact on the work they were doing,” she explained. “We got to engage in really robust and complex conversations because the people in the room were practitioners who were doing this work.”

The two field placements in her social administration concentration also proved valuable, she said. In her first year, she trained and coached AmeriCorps members doing community health outreach for a federally qualified health center on Chicago’s West Side. There she practiced the active listening and motivational interviewing skills she learned in a Core class at Crown Family School and uses on the job to this day. But it was the second-year field placement that changed the course of her career. Mahmood applied to Woods Fund Chicago for the foundation’s “bold mission to advance racial equity and economic justice by funding community organizing and public policy advocacy that engages people that are most impacted,” she said.

After completing her degree, she was hired as a program officer at the foundation and considered it as an extension of her organizing career. Rather than set its own agenda, as many foundations do, Woods Fund considered community members the experts on the issues that mattered to them most—whether ending the use of cash bail and pretrial incarceration or strengthening protections for immigrants across the state, she said.  “We would find and fund projects that drew on the power of communities to fight the brutality of structural racism and economic injustice.”

When the president of the Woods Fund, Mahmood’s “mentor for life” Grace Hou, left to become secretary of the Illinois Department of Human Services, Mahmood herself became interim president at the foundation. Soon after, she joined Hou as her deputy chief of staff, eager for the chance to “bring community-based solutions to scale and have population-level impact.”

Addressing structural racism and economic injustice are two of the secretary’s priorities, she noted. “I’m really excited to be part of operationalizing that. What does it look like to invest in the solutions coming from the ground up to transform the state? I’m excited to move into that work.”

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