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Empowerment through representation: Deirdre Cobb-Roberts brings light to gendered racism in administrative ranks

Deirdre Cobb-Roberts has dedicated her career to researching ambiguous questions and amplifying voices that aren’t often heard. SPECIAL TO THE ORACLE

This story is part of a continuing series that features women leaders at USF during Women’s History Month.

Motivated to explain unknowns and find the authors whose works aren’t often shared, professor of social foundations Deirdre Cobb-Roberts dedicates her research to exemplifying voices of those who face the challenges of gendered racism.

She defined gendered racism as a form of oppression that occurs due to the societal inequalities of race and gender combined.

“I’m not just Black. I’m not just a woman. I’m not just a scholar. I am all those things at the same time,” Cobb-Roberts said. “Things like race, ethnicity and gender meet as a unitary or mutually exclusive entity, but they are also reciprocal, constructive phenomena that shape complex social inequalities.”

Wanting to pursue a career in academia and dreaming of being part of a research institution, Cobb-Roberts struggled to determine what she wanted to do as an undergraduate student.

“Ph.D. programs really train and teach you how to take a more theoretical or study-based approach to learning,” Cobb-Roberts said. “It also provides research or a scholar with the opportunity to impact social change, in my opinion.”

As time passed, she developed a keen interest in laws and policies, and wanted to study the impact they had on people.

She completed her bachelor’s in political science at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and went to graduate school to get her Ph.D. in the same field of study. However, she decided to change her major to educational policy studies after a sociology of education class shifted her perspectives on education.

“I immediately thought, ‘How can I pair my interest in education with policy and at my institution?’” Cobb-Roberts said.

Once she switched her major, she began noticing some inequalities between the coursework, faculty interaction and mentoring while still being a graduate student. Her observations and desires to take action were noticed by those surrounding her, and gave her the confidence her decision was valid.

“I had questions about why things are this way, why certain groups are impacted in a particular way? Why did they face this oppressive structure that exists in educational institutions?” Cobb-Roberts said.

“My adviser said to me one day, ‘Cobb, what it sounds like what you wanted to do is become a researcher, answer some of those questions and provide some solutions to some of those problems.’”

Striving to feature perspectives that are oftentimes omitted in literacy, something her adviser taught her about, Cobb-Roberts said she approaches her research at a strength-based perspective rather than a deficit.

Linda Perkins, professor of Applied Gender Studies at Claremont Graduate University, had Cobb-Roberts as one of her first doctoral students when she started teaching at the University of Illinois.

“My research is on the history of Black women’s higher education and Dee Dee worked with me as my research assistant for several years. I got to know her extremely well,” Perkins said. “I admire [her] for an array of reasons. She’s a brilliant, compassionate scholar who cares about her students and colleagues.”

Cobb-Roberts’ research has taken her to other places and opened doors for collaboration that she never expected to be open.

“My work on mentoring, specifically cross-cultural mentoring, was likely a contributing factor to my being asked to serve as a research mentor on a grand Caribbean Educational Research Initiative (CERI),” Cobb-Roberts said.

CERI is a higher education partnership between UWI and USF, collaborating on anti-racism efforts and decolonizing research methods.

“I currently work with Doctoral Fellows at UWI by providing mentoring and research advice/support and will travel there to co-facilitate sessions on cross-cultural mentoring and co-mentoring,” Cobb-Roberts said.

The ultimate goal of her research is to increase the knowledge base around educational opportunities, educational experiences and inequities within education.

“There’s value in multiple voices and multiple perspectives. I think we have to move toward becoming a lot more inclusive [conducting] research and [approaching] people about research and communities,” Cobb-Roberts said.

“A lot of times we don’t really know or fully examine the intertwining influences of sexism and racism to describe experiences of Black women in equations and administrative positions because we don’t enter the space as one identity. We enter with a multiplicity of identities.”

She explained that although she might share similarities with white female colleagues because they both experience sexism, there are differences in their identities because she and other Black women will face issues of racism as well.

Growing personally throughout her research, Cobb-Roberts also received a lot of support early in and throughout her career.

“My first teacher and my parents were the first ones to really push me to do more than I ever thought possible to do and provide me with that unconditional support,” Cobb-Roberts said.

She also has the support of her personal cheerleader and best friend, Robin Moore. The two met when they were 12 years old.

“What has really impressed me is how she’s taken different adversity and has been able to handle it. She takes it face on. She doesn’t run from challenges,” Moore said. “Actually, she thrives in challenges.”

Cobb-Roberts, who Moore refers to as Dr. Dee, always has a plan that allows her to not crack under any kind of adversity, something Moore admires about her. Along with her commitment to taking on challenges, Moore said Cobb-Roberts is also humble.

“She doesn’t ever want the shine of the spotlight to be on her. She’s very impressive, but she will never tell you that,” Moore said.

Being her best friend, Moore gets to experience first-hand how much Cobb-Roberts cares about her students. She said she admires the amount of time she spends caring for every one of them, even after leaving her classroom

Dedicated to her students and her work, Cobb-Roberts continuously pushes for all perspectives to be heard.

“The ultimate goal is to increase the knowledge base around educational opportunities, educational experiences and inequalities within education,” Cobb-Roberts said. “I hope people take away from my work that these are important.”