Dinah Clottey has long considered Michelle Obama to be an example of what is possible.
Growing up in south suburban Blue Island, just 12 miles from Obama’s South Shore childhood home, she saw the former first lady as a role model—one who inspired her to pursue a transformative education on the Hyde Park campus.
Having moved to the U.S. in 2007 amid a historic presidential race, Clottey’s first memory of the Obamas was hearing Black adults express doubts about their political future—doubts informed by their own experiences with racism and colorism. A little over a year later, when the Obamas stood poised outside the White House for the world to see, young Clottey was ecstatic.
“As a Black woman, and as a dark-skinned Black woman in particular, I’m just not used to seeing people like me on television or doing the types of things Michelle Obama has been able to do,” Clottey said. “It's because of her that I believed I could get into a good school like UChicago. It didn't matter that I’m Black or what resources I had. I knew I could still make it happen.”
Born in London, Clottey moved to Chicagoland at seven years of age with her mothers Karen and Tosha and her two sisters, so that Tosha could be closer to her family. For as long as Clottey can remember, her mothers instilled in her and her siblings the value of education. Tosha had not attended college and always struggled to find work, while Karen had sacrificed so much by taking their family in when they first moved to America.
Ultimately, both women wanted their daughters to have the best chances they could to chase their dreams. Fifteen years after moving to America, Clottey has found her purpose: advocating for social change through multimedia production.
Since being admitted to the University of Chicago College as a Questbridge and Odyssey Scholar in 2018, the sociology major has already compiled an impressive list of accomplishments: spearheading new campus traditions, starting her own fashion line of socially-mindful, handmade clothing, and campaigning for Vice President Kamala Harris. Earlier this year, she was even among a group of college students from around the country selected to meet Michelle Obama for a televised discussion.
In January, Clottey was also named the undergraduate winner of the UChicago 2022 Diversity Leadership Award. That recognition, she said, is a result of her transformational experiences in the College, including her involvement in the Organization of Black Students (OBS), which she has led as president, and the Center for College Student Success (CCSS).
“Dinah’s unwavering commitment to social justice and advocacy has been expressed in truly creative ways in our campus and neighborhood communities,” said John W. Boyer, dean of the College. “She has focused every opportunity available through the College to pursue meaningful change in important social issues, and reflects the combination of civic and academic leadership in our students today.”
The Odyssey Scholarship Program provides a path to education for talented students who otherwise would not be able to afford one of the world’s top universities. Odyssey Scholars help increase the range of perspectives in the UChicago community and deepen the conversation about the world’s most pressing topics.
“Walking into UChicago, I was a lot more timid and shy than I am now,” Clottey said. “Being in these roles has made it easier to advocate for other people, as opposed to me just advocating for myself.
“Keeping that ‘why’ in mind has enabled me to push through a lot of the anxiety that I have when it comes to opening my mouth. I've been able to just do it anyway, despite whatever fear I feel.”
Amplifying underrepresented voices
In 2019, Clottey was elected president of OBS, a student-led group committed to addressing the educational, cultural, social and political issues that afflict the Black community in Chicago and at large. During her term, Clottey helped organize the George E. Kent Lecture, an annual event honoring the late Afro-American literature professor. Working with her fellow OBS members, Clottey invited esteemed Black speakers to come to campus, including poet and activist Nikki Giovanni.
Clottey’s proudest achievement within OBS, however, was establishing the inaugural Black Convocation, in partnership with the African and Caribbean Student Association. Held for the first time in Rockefeller Chapel on Oct. 5, 2019, the welcome ceremony celebrates Black students, graduates and faculty. Since its initiation, Black Convocation has been held every year with growing participation, even through virtual and hybrid formats during COVID-19.
Seeing how Black students have reacted, Clottey said, has given her a unique sense of fulfillment.
“It feels really good for that to be a starting point, and for Black students to continue that tradition into the future.”
In addition to her work with OBS, Clottey works as a student coordinator for CCSS. As a first-generation low-income (FLI) student, she said that the Chicago Academic Achievement Program played an integral role in developing her confidence and helping to acclimate her to the College’s academic rigor before classes began. It also inspired her to support future incoming FLI students.
“The CCSS helps to provide resources such as books, technology, tuition/housing costs, food and more so that FLI students can come to the University on a more equal footing,” she said. “CCSS has helped to make me feel like I belong here, and it's been so amazing to be part of the work they do to lessen this gap.”
Clottey additionally follows her passion for socially impactful media work through both podcasting and fashion design.
In the summer after her second year, Clottey and executive producers Lena Diasti and Hope Houston revived and rebranded “Kinda Sorta Brown,” a dormant podcast which had been founded by students in the Harris School of Social Policy. Recognized last year by Spotify and NPR as one of the top college student podcasts in the country, the show offers a conversational deep dive into the intersection of identity, policy and action by tackling deeply-rooted issues in the experiences of communities of color across the U.S.
As the podcast’s outreach manager, Clottey is in charge of finding guest speakers and coming up with episode concepts that fit the podcast’s quarterly themes. For one of their recent episodes on Black feminism, Clottey worked to tie Africana speculative fiction to science fiction.
“Who knew you could make those things merge?” said Clottey. “We got to be so creative with it, adding some really cool storytelling-type vibes. I really love that ‘Kinda Sorta Brown’ has been an outlet for that. And there's been so much I've been able to learn about other communities, whether that's the Asian community or the Indigenous community. So, it's just been really cool.”
She found another outlet for her creativity in the summer of 2020. As Black Lives Matter protests peaked amid the pandemic, Clottey turned to fashion as a form of social uplift, starting a handmade clothing brand called T’Kor Couture.
Clottey had learned to crochet when she was 12 by watching YouTube videos, but began to advance her skills during quarantine. Now with over 10,000 followers on Instagram, T’Kor Couture is a one-of-a-kind, ethically sourced clothing line that showcases the boundless dimensions of Black culture. Using vibrant colors, oversized silhouettes and crown symbolism, Clottey draws inspiration from notable Black creators like artist Jean-Michele Basquiat and playwright Ntozake Shange.
Her passion for Black fashion inspired her senior thesis topic entitled "The (R)evolution of Black Fashion: Black Dress at Predominantly White Institutions.” Her main research method consisted of interviews with Black college students to examine what dress can tell us about how Black students are moving through predominantly white institutions. She hopes to continue growing the business after she graduates as a creative way to stay civically engaged.
T’Kor Couture was also selected to participate in the 2021 Polsky Accelerator Program, which helped Clottey jump-start her brand and think of herself as an entrepreneur and a self-starter.
On the campaign trail
As part of her lifelong mission of advocacy, Clottey joined the Leaders of Color cohort at the Institute of Politics (IOP) during her first year. They took a trip to Des Moines, Iowa, in the summer of 2019 to work as the communications fellow on Kamala Harris’ diverse, female-led team, prior to the 2020 Iowa caucuses.
Working from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. on the campaign every day, Clottey orchestrated many of the door-to-door canvassing responsibilities, as well as collaboration between the press and Harris’s communications team. This work, which also allowed her to meet then-future President Joe Biden, is what initially sparked her interest in communications, media and television.
“I saw that there were other avenues for advocacy beyond law and becoming a politician,” Clottey said. “I could still deal with civic engagement, but do it more in the media space, and do it more creatively.”
The following summer, Clottey worked as a communications intern at All In Together, a nonprofit that equips American women with actionable, nonpartisan civic education. In this role, she used social media and newsletters to advance political and civic participation among voting-age women. She also played a part in organizing virtual webinars that featured guests like Reps. Ayanna Pressley and Nancy Pelosi.
These experiences, Clottey said, not only helped her discover her passion for media, but also taught her the value of working with a tight-knit, inclusive, diverse group of women.
A trip to remember
Throughout her endeavors, Clottey has continued to model herself after Michelle Obama. Late last year, her dream of meeting her lifelong role model came true.
Sifting through her inbox one day in October, Clottey came across an email from the Center for Identity and Inclusion promoting a livestream event featuring the former first lady. She clicked the flier at the bottom of the message, which contained an application for one UChicago student to join Obama for a television special. It was due the same day.
Without a second thought, she applied. On Nov. 8, she was flown out to Washington, D.C., to participate in a televised special with Obama, moderated by actress Yara Shahidi and produced by BET in collaboration with Penguin Random House.
In the episode, Obama, Shahidi and a diverse set of college panelists from 13 other schools discussed the themes in Obama’s memoir, “Becoming.” Meanwhile, back in Hyde Park, over 1,300 members of the UChicago community tuned into the livestream in support of Clottey.
When it was Clottey’s turn, she asked the former first lady what she would say to those who feel like they’re stuck in a small space, or who feel like fear is holding them back from the larger world.
“It’s all about practice,” Obama said. The key, she added, is being able to step up to the precipice, continuously walking through and past it.
As someone interested in representation and media, Clottey described being on the set was an unforgettable, out of body experience. She recalled watching the behind-the-scenes crew—most of whom were Black—make the show come to life backstage. That opportunity, along with the rest of her time at UChicago, helped reinforce one of Clottey’s key motivations: making more space for Black people and other marginalized communities.
Whatever she chooses to pursue after graduation, from fashion to screenwriting to starting a YouTube channel, Clottey resolves to remember the unique struggles that many dark-skinned Black women face.
“I have these big goals and dreams for myself,” she said. “But at the end of the day, it's lonely at the top if you’re not bringing people with you. The only reason I've been able to keep going is that I think about my sisters, my cousins, my friends, or just people from my neighborhood. You are so talented, so creative, so intelligent; I want to make space for you to do whatever you love.”