Dr. Shawnee M. Daniels-Sykes – 35th Annual Black Excellence Awards Honoree


Dr. Shawnee M. Daniels-Sykes, Ph.D.
Mount Mary University

Shawnee Daniels-Sykes, Ph.D., a noted expert on ethics, morality and Black Catholic studies, is a tenured professor at Mount Mary University and has led a life of service within and outside the church.

Born and raised in Milwaukee, Shawnee lauds the sacrifices her parents—her late father Watson W. Sykes and mother Louise Sykes—made to give their children a sound education. She graduated from Harambee Community School in 1975, Divine Savior Holy Angels High School in 1979, Spelman College in 1983 with a bachelor’s degree in biology/biochemistry, the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee in 1986 with a bachelor’s degree in nursing, and completed a doctorate in religious studies at Marquette University in 2007.

She wrote her doctoral dissertation on fetal tissue research and vulnerable populations, which focused on the disproportionate rate of elective abortions in the Black community and the underground network that uses the organs and tissue remains from aborted fetuses to sell to companies for stem cell research and transplantation. A registered nurse by trade, Shawnee is the only Black Catholic female health care ethicist in the United States.

As a Catholic theological ethicist, researcher, and published author, Shawnee’s research interests include beginning-, middle-, and end-of-life issues, especially as related to institutionalized race, class and gender oppression.

Shawnee has developed and taught courses in bioethics, sexual ethics, social ethics, including systematic theology at Mount Mary University for 13 years. She is also an adjunct professor for the Institute for Black Catholic Studies at Xavier University of Louisiana. At Xavier, she teaches a graduate course, “Moral Questions in the Black Community,” during the summers.

In addition to being an author and nationally recognized speaker on issues of ethics and theology, Shawnee has directed Mount Mary University’s Honors Program for four years; she is a former chair of the faculty assembly, and has served on various committees at Mount Mary. She is a member of St. Martin DePorres Catholic Church, where she serves on the Parish Council. She also serves on the Quality Assurance Committee for the AIDS Resource Center of Wisconsin and the Board of Directors and the Program Committee for Catholic Charities in the Archdiocese of Milwaukee. A longtime member of the Ministry Council for the House of Peace, she is active in several learned societies, including the Catholic Theological Society of America, the Society of Christian Ethics, and the Black Catholic Theological Symposium. She is also a member of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc./Upsilon Mu Omega Chapter, where she serves as chaplain.

During 22 years with the School Sisters of Notre Dame, Shawnee was able to dedicate her life to prayer, service, and ministry to the world. She has been out of the Congregation for five years, and now lives with her mother and sister, as they “take care of each other.”

For years, Shawnee struggled with health challenges that she now manages with the support of a stellar team of health care professionals.

“I’m a nurse by training, but even with a healthcare background, initially there was a lack of attentiveness to my digestive challenges and voiced concerns. Finally, in my early 30s I was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease, an inflammatory bowel disorder. It took health professionals a long time to diagnose this. I found my way to Froedtert Hospital and am now a long-time patient there. My doctors are my mentors. They are wonderful people. Gastrointestinal surgeon, Dr. Mary F. Otterson is my friend and surgeon along with advanced practice nurse Sarah Lundeen. They have been my rock; they have been there for me whenever I needed them for help. I have personal relationships with my gastroenterologist, Dr. Daniel Stein and Kari Best, his physician assistant, too.

“First and foremost, I credit God for not only enduring this health challenge, but as a person of faith, I believe that I have this disease for a reason. It reminds me of my vulnerability and that we are all vulnerable as human beings. I have an invisible chronic disability that nobody knows about unless I tell them. It keeps me grounded and lets me know when I’m doing too much. As a Black woman and a high achiever, there’s always a tendency to give 110 percent. I’m really blessed to have wonderful people who I deeply cherish as my health care providers. Sometimes I wonder what it would be like if I didn’t have a background in healthcare; so many other people don’t know how to navigate the healthcare system and most importantly how to get to know their health care providers,” she said.

Shawnee’s focus is not only on taking care of herself, but also on others as she looks to the future.

“I want all children/young people, my relatives and my church family to know that they can achieve their life’s goals, while bringing about social justice and social transformation which are so essential for human life and human flourishing for all of us. I want all students to take education seriously and know that anything is possible if they put their minds to it. I don’t want them to let anyone tell them that they can’t do something. I care about the babies, including the ones getting hit by cars, getting senselessly shot, and dying. As a human family, we have got to stop and pay attention to the fact that our legacy is being killed off and too many times it is by us,” she said.