Roberts publishing, performing

When asked how she ended up at Cornell, Chicago native Heather “Byrd” Roberts ’09 says that Cornell stalked her.

“It’s somewhat true. I didn’t know who or what Cornell College was,” she says. “I didn’t know how they got my contact information, but once I learned about One Course At A Time, the Bachelor of Special Studies option, and its Division III athletics status, I was sold.”

RobertsAt Cornell and after, Roberts (she picked up the nickname Byrd in high school and now uses it professionally) has combined creativity in the arts, athleticism on the court, and leadership in whatever she does, leavened with a deep commitment to the community. Her B.S.S. in performance arts was an individually developed combination of creative writing and theatre performance. She also played basketball and volleyball for three years each on the Hilltop.

She says “my world exploded once I got to Cornell,” where she founded the poetry club Lyrically Inclined and in 2009 directed the first all-black female production on campus.

Upon graduating she took a job as a VISTA volunteer with AmeriCorps, working with the Davenport Civil Rights Commission in Davenport, Iowa. In 2010 Roberts returned to Mount Vernon as assistant director of the Office of Intercultural Life, and later as interim director of that office, which she credits for helping her succeed at Cornell.

“The entire reason I was able to make it through college as a student of color at a predominantly white institution was because of this office and the support provided that I didn’t even know I needed,” she says.

Typically, she extended her activities well beyond her day job, also serving as an assistant coach for the Rams volleyball team and coaching a college poetry slam team. She also began to incorporate her performance art with her commitment to community service by facilitating workshops for young people throughout Iowa, while continuing to write, perform, and pursue graduate studies.

While working at Cornell, she pursued a master’s degree in organizational leadership from St. Ambrose University, after which she moved back to Chicago. She now serves as programs manager at Young Chicago Authors, a literary non-profit known for the largest youth poetry slam festival in the world. She manages the group’s 20-week residency pro-gram, which sends teaching artists out to 16 different schools to deliver poetry programming. She also works with a team to deliver public programming around hip-hop, journalism, and poetry.

Roberts says 2016 was a break-through year in which she published her first chapbook, “Mahogany: A Love Letter To Black,” and created a show titled “HERstory of HIStory,” which explored black culture, life, and love, and which she performed at Cornell College in November 2016. She also developed her first solo 45-minute reading titled “inHERitance.”

“I have been blessed to find a home with the Poetic Forum Collective in Chicago, so the stage and I have become good friends,” she says.
Again in typical fashion, she is doing all of this while playing volleyball three times a week and bowling. What lies ahead? Poems, reading, touring, maybe another book, and more poems, she says, “Last year provided a breakthrough for me and in 2017 I want to be able to fly!”

Visit Heather Roberts’ website at