Political Activist Behind a Desk: Penn Professor Camille Z. Charles

Camille Z. Charles believes that where you live influences everything that happens to you and sets you up for the rest of your life.

Before joining the University of Pennsylvania faculty in 1998, Charles, a scholar of racial inequality, was conducting research on minority students at elite universities. She found that those who came from segregated neighborhoods weren’t faring as well academically as their white peers.

“Blacks and Latinos are underrepresented on these campuses and, when they are here, they tend to underperform academically, and we wanted to know why,” Charles says. “The ones who struggle the most come from racially segregated neighborhoods. But the ones that come from predominantly white neighborhoods don’t necessarily struggle at all.”

Her initial research began in 1996 when Douglass Massey, a Penn sociology professor at the time, approached her to collaborate with him on the project to study the academic trajectory of black students at highly selective institutions.

Charles was a junior faculty member in the Sociology Department at The Ohio State University. She joined the Penn faculty two years later and today is the Edmund J. and Louise W. Kahn Term Professor in the Social Sciences, professor of sociology, Africana studies and education and director of the Center for Africana Studies.

Charles took the project on as a “textbook racial inequality project.” Much of her research focuses on the causes and impact of residential segregation.

Three years later, her research was published in a book co-authored with Massey, Garvey Lundy and Mary Fischer called The Source of the River: The Social Origins of Freshmen at America’s Selective Colleges and Universities.

Charles knows whereof she speaks when she talks about racially segregated neighborhoods and underrepresented minorities at elite colleges and universities.

Her mother was an African-American from rural Alabama, her father the son of a Russian Jew and a Mayflower descendant. Charles was raised in Ventura, a small coastal city between Los Angeles and Santa Barbara.

“There were not any non-white people for miles,” she says.  “I learned later our house was a thumbtack on the police station map, not because they thought we were going to do anything, but because they didn’t know what might happen to us.” 

Charles grew up middle class. She was expected to go to college. It was a matter of where — not if — she would attend.

She started at Occidental College and later transferred to California State University where she graduated with honors with bachelor’s degrees in sociology and communication studies. She went on to earn both a master’s and Ph.D. in sociology from the University of California, Los Angeles.

When she began researching residential segregation in neighborhoods and preferences and attitudes about neighborhood integration, Charles says she felt that she’d come full circle. To understand what drives her research, it’s necessary to understand her attraction to Mr. Rogers — Fred Rogers — host of the PBS children’s show “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood” that ran from 1968 to 2001.

After her parents divorced, Charles remained in the family’s house with her mother. Public television was acceptable viewing in the home and “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood” her favorite program.

“I integrated my elementary school and Mr. Rogers was always a really good decent person who talked about being accepting and treating people the way you wanted to be treated, she says. “And I really loved the song.”

“It's a beautiful day in this neighborhood,
A beautiful day for a neighbor,
Would you be mine?
Could you be mine?”

~ Won’t You Be My Neighbor song

Won’t You Be My Neighbor? Race, Class and Residence in Los Angeles was Charles’ first solo-authored book, published in 2006.

She’s nearing completion on another book that explores black racial identity in the United States, tentatively titled The New Black: Race-Conscious or Post-Racial? Charles is also co-author or editor of numerous other books, articles and papers. Her co-authored follow-up to The Source of the River is entitled Taming the River: Negotiating the Academic, Financial and Social Currents in Selective Colleges and Universities.

Charles’ books have had important policy implications in America. She has been involved in several amicus briefs in national legal cases involving issues of social justice, race and class.

Closer to home, Charles has undertaken administrative roles on campus over the years to improve the lives of members of the Penn community.

She recently finished her tenure as chair of the Faculty Senate, the first African-American woman to hold the post. Her work on Penn’s Action Plan for Faculty Diversity and Excellence tops her list of accomplishments made while leading the Faculty Senate. She was also involved in creating greater access to lactation stations around campus, improving health benefits available to faculty, staff and students, “even the beginnings of paying more attention to issues around students’ mental health concerns.”

While director of the Center for Africana Studies, she led the effort to establish the Department of Africana Studies and worked to make the Center for Africana Studies Summer Institute for Pre-Freshmen credit-bearing.

For someone who says that she didn’t have any administrative aspirations beyond teaching classes, meeting students, grading papers and writing books, Charles says that she’s surprised herself.

“I think I figured out along the way that there are all kinds of ways to be an activist and to do something that matters for others,” she says. “The department and the Center will be here after I’m long gone.”

Camille, a married mother of two daughters, aged 15 and 11, has balanced career and family by erring on “the side of my daughter’s childhoods.”

However, she’s not looking forward to taking her oldest on college tours soon.

She says, “I’m trying not to be a helicopter mom.”

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