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Mary Mitchell’s career of advocacy

In journalism, there exist individuals who transcend the boundaries of conventional reporting, with storytelling that showcases the ideals of resilience and advocacy.

Mary Mitchell, a Columbia College Chicago alumna, is a testament to the power of perseverance, compassion and the unwavering pursuit of justice. Despite challenges and obstacles she has faced along the way, Mitchell’s work exemplifies the transformative impact of using one’s voice to amplify the struggles and triumphs of marginalized communities.

Before she embarked on her journey as an award-winning writer, Mitchell experienced age and racial discrimination firsthand during her time as a legal secretary which pushed her to make the courageous decision to leave the firm in 1989 after 20 years of service. She returned to school the following year at the age of 41.

“I love meeting people, being able to have a voice, commenting on major events, those sorts of things attracted me,” Mitchell said. “I was really drawn to it for a negative reason; I was pushed into it but, I have a different legacy and it would not have been that way had I stayed at the law firm.”

Mitchell’s return to academia marked the beginning of a remarkable chapter in her life — one defined by determination and a steadfast commitment to advocacy. While completing her degree at Columbia, she also worked full-time as an intern for the Chicago Sun-Times. She balanced a tight schedule, meeting deadlines for her weekly classes while also writing two stories for the Sun-Times each weekend. Veteran journalist and former Chicago Sun-Times Editor-in-Chief Donald Hayner praised Mitchell for her vigilance in being a diligent reporter in her work.

“As a columnist, she had strong opinions, and she was fearless, but that commitment to fairness was always there,” Hayner said.

Armed with her B.A. degree in journalism and the writing skills acquired during undergrad at Columbia College Chicago, Mitchell embarked on a mission to shed light on stories of those who had long been silenced or ignored by mainstream media.

As a journalist, Mitchell recognized the power of storytelling as a tool for social change. Through her work, she sought to elevate the narratives of marginalized communities in the Chicago area, including issues such as amplifying black voices, prison reform and the #MeToo Movement.

Mitchell’s call to action and advocacy for others also does not stop short of herself. One of her first breakout stories was a five-part series on the now defunct Crieger High School. The series was an investigative report that focused on the displacement of students and staff and the stakes that came from a school closure. Despite that this story went on to win numerous journalism awards including the Award of Excellence from the National Association of Black Journalists, Mitchell’s editor at the time believed the story fell short and encouraged her to pursue something else.

“I went over [the editor’s] head to another editor and asked him, ‘What do you think about my idea?’ And he said, ‘Go for it,’” Mitchell said. “It really got me thinking, I got a voice that nobody else had!”

With each article she penned thereafter, Mitchell continued to use her platform to give a voice to the voiceless, challenge prevailing narratives and to hold those in positions of power accountable.

Mitchell returned to Columbia in April 2019 to talk with students and share her experiences in journalism for an alumni panel. One of the event organizers, Michael Wojcik, then-resident of the national alumni board, described Mitchell as authentic and inspiring.

“She brought issues to the table like city life, government and community disparities and found her ability to be her authentic self at Columbia,” Wojcik said. “While I was a student worker in the Alumni Relations Office, she was someone who everyone had their eye on before she even graduated.”

One of Mitchell’s most notable contributions to advocacy in journalism lies in her unwavering commitment to addressing the root causes of social issues. According to her longtime friend and fellow Chicago Sun-Times columnist Maudlyne Ihejirika, Mitchell is a once in a lifetime voice.

“When Mary was starting out, she was blowing people away with these stories, stories of caring for her elderly mother, a column about her sister falling victim to drug addiction, stories many marginalized communities can identify and don’t see reflected in the pages of a major metropolitan newspaper,” Ihejirika said. “This is a woman who isn’t afraid to talk about life.”

Mitchell’s advocacy extended beyond the pages of newspapers and magazines — she also actively engaged with other forms of communication such as radio and live television.

“At least 20 years ago, I was privileged to shoot a pilot TV show for WCIU called ‘U Go Girl.’ The panelists were me, Mary Mitchell and Bonnie DuShong,” said former CANTV Chicago board member Kathy Posner. “Mary was wonderful to work with and I have admired her confidence all these years.”

Through her involvement as president for the Chicago chapter of The National Association of Black Journalists, Mitchell empowered individuals to become agents of change within their own communities and was ultimately inducted into the NABJ Hall of Fame in 2020.

Today Mitchell stands as an inspiration for aspiring journalists and social advocates alike. Her journey from adversity to achievement serves as a reminder that age and circumstance should never be barriers to pursuing one’s passions and fighting for change.

On her road to retirement, Mitchell plans to write a memoir and use her story to motivate young people going down similar paths.

“I want to be able to share my information and knowledge,” Mitchell said. “I want to see our communities grow and be a better place to live than they are right now.” 

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