The Project Director of Wednesdays in Mississippi, Pauline "Polly" Cowan was born in 1913 in Kenilworth, Illinois, a Chicago suburb. The daughter of the only Jewish family in town, she experienced first-hand how it felt to be excluded from social circles: her Jewish heritage served as a marker for discrimination. Her parents were not traditionally religious or observant, but she did practice the principles of prophetic Judaism and devoted her life's work to them: do good, seek justice, and rescue the oppressed. Polly attended Sarah Lawrence College, started a master's degree in Sociology at the University of Chicago and married Louis G. Cowan in 1939. In the years before America entered World War II, she and her husband did what they could to rescue German Jews from persecution and extermination.
Polly began working for her husband, a radio and television producer, from the early days of their marriage, and she became a producer for numerous TV and radio shows. After Lou left his own independent production company, Louis G. Cowan, Inc., and moved to CBS where he was first Vice President for Creative Affairs and later president of CBS Television, Polly began a new career, including helping Ellen Straus create Call for Action, a radio service intended to help publicize such problems in New York City as inadequate housing and health care. She also served as a consultant with the Committee for Civil Rights in Metropolitan New York and the National Women's Committee for Civil Rights. She was a member of the League of Women Voters and the Citizen's Committee for Children of New York. In 1963, Cowan joined Height as a volunteer at the NCNW to actively work for civil rights. The two women forged a working relationship and a close friendship that lasted until Cowan's death in 1976.