Karen L.S. Wilkerson (’97) received the 2021 NIU College of Law Excellence in Service and Leadership Award. She was honored during the NIU College of Law’s 18th Annual Minority Reception on February 24, 2021 for her exceptional leadership and appreciation for her unwavering commitment to public service. This annual reception was co-hosted by Dean Cassandra L. Hill and The Honorable Vincent F. Cornelius (’89), who also co-founded the event.
Early in her career, Karen was a prison guard for the Department of Corrections Juvenile Center. She then worked for NIU’s TRIO Program where she helped kids matriculate from middle school to high school to college. She also worked for a facility in Rockford as the therapist for the first juvenile sex offender treatment program in the state of Illinois.
Karen has always known the importance of being an advocate for our youth and these experiences were critical influences in her decision to pursue her law degree. During law school, Karen had to balance family, work and student life. She started the organization for Law Students Who are Non-Traditional, participated in Moot Court and won the Spirit Award, and was an active member of the Black Law Students Association. In 1995, she started BLSA’s annual Thanksgiving Luncheon which is still enjoyed by many across campus today. However, one of her most meaningful accomplishments was organizing a highly successful bone marrow registry drive. This drive added over 600 new names to the registry; but more significantly, over 400 of those were from minorities, for which the registry is always in desperate need. She received the Outstanding Woman Student Award for her numerous accomplishments as a student.
Karen opened her own firm in 2003 becoming the first African American owned law firm in DeKalb. For six years she specialized in family, civil, and criminal law. She tackled a number of difficult issues including the DeKalb School District’s discriminatory hiring practices of minority teachers/staff and the discriminatory disciplinary policies of minority students. She also served as Chair of the City of DeKalb’s Human Relations Commission where she handled discrimination complaints made to the city by citizens against the police, landlords, businesses, etc.
Since 2010, Karen has been the Supervisory Regional Counsel for the Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) since 2010. She represents 11 counties in the northern district of Illinois. She supervises attorneys and paralegals and is responsible for protecting abused and neglected children. Some of her cases have been high-profile cases in the news.
Karen has been an avid supporter of active alum of the NIU College of Law. She has been a member of the NIU College of Law Alumni Council since 2011, and she serves as a mentor to students, speaks to student groups, and volunteers at numerous events and receptions.