Vivian Cook Loseth, who worked for the Youth Guidance nonprofit social service agency for nearly four decades and spent four years as its CEO, died on Sept. 2 at the age of 78 after suffering a stroke.
In tandem with Youth Guidance’s work to create school-based programs for at-risk students, Loseth also directed the Chicago Comer School Development Program (SDP) from 1990.
She was born on April 27, 1942, in Alabama to Booker T. and Leona Crawford Cook and attended Knoxville College in Tennessee before taking a job at the Illinois Department of Human Services' Division of Mental Health. That, in turn, led her to graduate school at the University of Chicago’s School of Social Service Administration. She earned her master’s degree in 1969, later earning a post-graduate certificate from Northwestern University's Family Institute.
While at the U. of C., she met a professor, Per Loseth, and married him in 1967. The two had a daughter, Eva; both survive her.
Loseth's work focused on improving educational outcomes for students marginalized by poverty and racism, training teachers, school administrators and parents in the SDP. Former President Barack Obama partnered with Youth Guidance during his time as a state and U.S. senator, inviting students to visit his offices. The Congressional Black Caucus recognized her work.
Almarie Wagner, who helped Loseth launch Youth Guidance's in-school counseling program, said it succeeded a more traditional therapy program wherein students would come in and be treated by a social worker.
"The idea was to go where where the kids were and to identify kids who were in greatest need and to do both individual and group counseling with kids," she said. "Then we began to work with teachers."
"It made a real difference in kids' lives, and they had strong research to show evidence that it changed both the success of the kids, but also it changed the culture of the school," Wagner continued. "It reached into the community, worked with families, did very active work with parents."
In 2007, the state chapter of the National Association of Social Workers named her "Social Worker of the Year," noting that she oversaw service programs at 50 public elementary schools involving 14,000 students through her work at Youth Guidance. She told the Herald that the award only inspired her to try harder.
Michelle Morrison, Youth Guidance's current CEO, said Loseth's most important work was making adults in schools themselves points of intervention in their students' lives.
"We kept continuing doing really important work on prevention and counseling — all the direct service work — but Vivian, in partnership with James Comer at Yale University, sought out and brought huge programs to Chicago and led its implementation," Morrison said. The idea that a school itself could be shifted and improved "was really innovative and incredibly hard work."
"She had a way of enlisting anyone in the things she cared about, particularly around the education of Black and Brown youth and social justice," Morrison said. "It was never just work for her. It was personal with everything."
In addition to improving educational outcomes, Morrison said Loseth was focused on ensuring parents knew their children were understood for their whole selves as students and that they themselves could get more involved at the schools. Youth Guidance also worked to reduce expulsions and to enhance in-school social-emotional support structures.
It was Loseth's experience growing up in the segregated South that inspired her life's work, Morrison said.
"She saw injustice in herself. She saw people be devalued and not given equal opportunity, not given access to the quality of education, the set of experiences they needed to have to have a fighting chance," she said. "She, I think, was very motivated by this idea that everyone has incredible potential and that everyone deserves a shot at it. She never gave up on anybody. She just believed so much in the potential in everyone."
Her parents and one brother, Booker T. Cook Jr., preceded her in death. Additional survivors include a sister, Barbara Cook Caldwell; a nephew, Gregory Boyd Caldwell; a niece, Cheryl Caldwell; cousins Nathaniel Davis Jr., Joyce Crawford Mitchell (John), Thomas Crawford and Lewry Crawford (Sandra); and several friends, colleagues and extended family members.
"Vivian has been an extraordinary woman, professionally and personally. I knew her for 50 years, and she was a larger-than-life personality," Wagner said. "She made a huge difference not just in Youth Guidance, but she really had an influence on many other organizations that work with kids. She had an impact on the public school system and what the challenges were for young people that they were dealing with, and she was also an extraordinary friend."
A memorial service is planned for next year at University Church.
This article has been updated.