It Was Not A Mistake for Her To Choose This Field

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To know Lisa D. Cook is to know her story. A professor of economics at Michigan State University (MSU), she ascended to the heights of economic policy by becoming the first Black woman to be appointed by the Federal Reserve Board of Governors– all without losing sight of the next generation. A feat that many, including me, can only aspire to.

Raised in Georgia by a family of firsts, she grew up desegregating schools, which left her with scars of systemic and overt racism. In college, she made history as Spelman’s first Marshall Scholar, which led her to attend Oxford University. After traveling across Africa, she found herself at the bottom of Mount Kilimanjaro, alongside an economist no less, unsure of her path and what lay ahead. At the end of her climb, she decided to pursue her doctorate in economics at the University of California- Berkeley, where she studied Russia’s economy under Nobel Laureates.

Her career in macroeconomics has spanned thirty years across academia, public policy, banking, and industry. In the U.S. alone, she has served as a senior adviser in the Treasury Department and a White House Aide to President Obama. Within the Federal Reserve System, she has worked for four of the twelve regional banks — New York, Chicago, Minneapolis, and Philadelphia, eventually joining the Federal Reserve, Banking and Securities Regulators Agency Review as part of the Biden-Harris transition team. She is the most recognizable Black woman in economics today, yet it is her dedication to emerging economists that remains unparalleled within the profession.

I first met Cook at a research seminar in 2017 at American University. She wore a black suit and white pearls. At the time, she was presenting her seminal paper, Evidence from African-American Patents, which took her nearly a decade to publish. Using a dataset she constructed herself, Cook showed, for the first time, that high levels of violence against Black Americans reduced innovation. Although she was surrounded by adoring colleagues, she chose to sit next to me — a novice in the field. It was at that moment, a friendship was born.

In 2019, Cook and I co-authored “It Was a Mistake for Me to Choose This Field,” discussing our lived experiences and the evidence of discrimination and bias against Black women in economics. Despite our generational gap, Cook and I have navigated eerily similar circumstances in the profession. Perhaps that is why over the years our friendship has evolved into sisterhood — because we are, in many ways, related through these shared experiences.

As an educator, she has mentored me closely, eventually inviting me to apply to the American Economic Association Summer Program (AEASP), a prestigious summer institute that prepares underrepresented minorities for graduate programs in economics and related fields. The program is one of the primary reasons why many minority students, including me, consider graduate study. Under Cook’s tutelage, AEASP cultivated an environment where my peers and I mutually understood the depth of the questions we wanted to ask and provided the support we needed to succeed beyond the program. As director of AEASP, she became a catalyst for increased diversity within the Federal Reserve System. Quentin Johnson, a former coordinator of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion at the Federal Reserve, stated that her leadership led to an influx of minorities entering the Research Assistant program. Today, many AEASP alumni, including myself, are now in graduate school in economics, public policy, and/or business.

Moreover, Cook also provided early support towards Black women-led initiatives aimed at bringing more minorities into economics, including my own, The Sadie Collective, which is the first non-profit organization to address the dearth of Black women across economics and related fields. I remember when I first shared the idea with her and how she did not discourage me. During the first conference, Cook agreed to speak, remarking how being in the room with hundreds of Black women was life-changing. The creation of such organizations are due largely in part to Cook, whose visible career of public service, in addition to her mentorship, has empowered an entire generation to do the same.

The truth is Cook’s appointment to the Board of Governors does not feel like an empty promise.

Throughout her career, she has represented the phrase inclusive excellence well. As the former president of the National Economic Association, a network of Black economists, her legacy is intertwined with the shifting tide in economics, one characterized by efforts to reckon with the ways racism undermines our economy and the profession itself. Her rise in discipline also mirrors that of the first African-American economist, Sadie Tanner Mossell Alexander, who faced similar backlash after she made history. Both women knew that the price of fighting for economic justice was steep, but still chose to fight anyway.

I am a product of Lisa D. Cook’s legacy. Between her illustrious career and servant leadership, I am, alongside many others, convinced that she will lift up her community while serving her country well. For Cook, it was never a mistake to choose this field, and I now know that because of her, I can also say the same.

Follow Anna Gifty on Twitter and Instagram @itsafronomics

Read more about Dr. Cook’s historic confirmation here