Civil rights leader recalls Cornell mentors

In January 2011 Isaiah McGee '01  was named director of the Iowa Department of Human Rights by Gov. Terry Branstad. McGee, who's served as a city councilman in the Des Moines suburb of Waukee, has also served on the Iowa Advisory Committee of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, the Generation Iowa Commission, and the Iowa Indigent Defense Commission. He and Megan Sherman McGee '01 have two children, ages 4 years and 18 months.

Q: How do you define human rights in the context of your new position?

A: Human rights are about empowerment, advocacy, and outreach. Iowa has an interesting history regarding these issues, leading the nation in some ways and struggling in others. Iowa's biggest assets are the strength and quantities of relationships that exist and the familial settings created as a result. However, to outsiders that can, at times, feel like a barrier. The challenge is, how do we empower underrepresented groups in Iowa to also feel included? I was able to navigate through these challenges, and I hope to help others do the same. 

Q: What person on campus had the biggest impact on you?

A: The faculty and staff at Cornell had a tremendous impact on me—from coaches to library staff, administration, food service employees, way too many to name. I'm bound to leave out some people, but John Harp taught me how to lead, Phil Lucas taught me how to laugh, Dick Peters taught me how to teach, Bill Carroll taught me how to write, Craig Allin taught me how to research, Lisa Hearne taught me how to sing, Eddie Moore taught me how to fight, Helen Damon-Moore taught me how to empathize—and I could go on!

Q: How did Cornell change you?

A: Cornell confirmed my outlook about the importance of involvement and helped me articulate the benefits of a well-rounded liberal arts education. I learned just as many things outside the classroom as I did in it. Cornell facilitated that experience by providing opportunities to expand, model, and explore my interest. The best thing about Cornell was it encouraged its students. No doubt, my post-college and professional opportunities were afforded to me as a result of my Cornell experience. 

Q: If you could go back and tell your 20-year-old self one thing, what would it be? 

A: Don't take a politics class at South Hall in January when you live in Olin.

Q: What qualities do you most admire in others?

A: People who are comfortable with being bold, and comfortable with who they are.

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