As Vice President of Community and Educational Partnerships at the Chicago Children’s Museum, Saleem Hue Penny ’01 envisions “a world where children are respected, lifted up, and valued, our childhoods are embraced, and we don’t stray too far from those lessons that childhood teaches us.” Both his work and service have tremendous range – from museum to prison, community center to hospital. But he still returns to a common touchstone: “ambassador for play” and “defender, preserver of childhood.”
“What we as the United States of America do and do not value about children is something that I’m very keenly aware of,” Penny said, explaining that the United States is the only United Nations member that has not ratified the Declaration of the Rights of the Child. “To say that we, as political leaders, cannot unequivocally say children’s lives matter – why is that so hard?”
A parent of preschool twins himself, Penny designs and leads community engagement initiatives and access programs at the Chicago Children’s Museum. “When you design something well, whether it’s an exhibit, a program, or a play structure,” he said, “whatever the thing is, it can live on past you.”
Beyond work at the museum, Penny writes poetry and music, and he volunteers with several community organizations. Penny is a 2019 Cave Canem Fellow and received a Pushcart Prize nomination in 2017 for his poem “Sunset, Before,” a poignant juxtaposition of power and vulnerability as the spectre of a white mob looms on an interracial couple. He leads writing salons in Cook County Jail with ConTextos, where he uses personal memoir writing as a violence prevention model. And through Open Heart Magic, he performs interactive, therapeutic bedside magic for hospitalized children. “I just want to suspend disbelief for a little while and feel that magic is still in the world and that there’s still something that could bring people together.”
Penny recently had the police called on him while he sat in his car with his napping son in front of the condo he owns. “If you don’t create something from this, it eats you alive,” Penny said, so he channeled that experience into “Napping While Black,” his forthcoming dialogue project with the Sweet Water Foundation. “We have a lot of conversations about teens and the police and about adults and the police, but we don’t have a lot of conversation about children birth through five and the police.”
Warren Wilson College was the first place where Penny said he felt he had intellectual freedom. “College was the first time where somebody said, ‘Here’s a blank piece of paper, and there aren’t lines on it, and here’s a charcoal crayon, a can of whip cream, some silly putty, and a pencil. Go.’ I already had the bravery, but not necessarily the confidence to try.” A Chemistry major, Penny stretched even further in grad school, earning master’s degrees in both Psychology and Social Work.
“I hope people don’t take their time [at Warren Wilson] for granted,” Penny said, adding that Warren Wilson’s strong community is a very rare thing. “The majority of what I do is try to create community wherever I am. But there’s never been one like the College. People rise to the occasion because of how this place has shaped them.”
- Vice President