The University Office for Diversity and Inclusion’s 2019 Diversity Awards are taking place at a pivotal moment in UNC's history.
Recent acts of anti-Semitism and monument vandalism have caused interim Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz to remind students of the "University’s long-standing commitment to fostering an environment where all students, faculty and staff can be free from harassment."
In an effort to remind the community of members who devote their student and professional lives to diversity and inclusion, the ceremony will honor winners on April 29, at the Current ArtSpace + Studio.
The award recognizes members of the UNC community who have devoted their time and effort to advance the inclusive climate of the University. It is given annually in these categories: faculty, staff, undergraduate student, graduate/professional student, alumni and intergroup collaboration.
The 2019 recipients of the award are undergraduate student Jermaine Bryant, master’s student Mariel Marshall, graduate Howard Lee, professor Deb Aikat, professor Evan Ashkin, O.J. McGhee and Diversity and Student Success in the Graduate School.
Deb Aikat, an associate professor at the School of Media and Journalism, is a winner of the Diversity Award for the faculty and an elected member of the Faculty Executive Committee. He was recognized for his work to assemble peaceful efforts to oppose the Confederate monument, Silent Sam. He was also chosen for the award because his research in advancing diversity, his efforts to foster diversity in teaching and public service, his contributions to creating a culture of inclusion at UNC and his initiatives to cultivate diversity at UNC and beyond.
Aikat said he has mixed feelings about receiving this award when diversity still remains a problem on UNC’s campus, especially in light of the recent defacement of the Unsung Founders Memorial and Guskiewicz's announcement Wednesday that anti-Semitic posters were distributed in Davis Library.
“Look across the campus. We are in national news for diversity issues. That’s not good,” Aikat said. “But it’s also good because we have created an agenda by which diversity is in the front.”
Professor Evan Ashkin of the UNC School of Medicine’s family medicine department also won the Diversity Award for faculty for his work with underserved members of the community. He founded the Formerly Incarcerated Transition program to help former inmates with chronic illnesses connect with medical services. He said the key point of the program is that it employs health workers who have experienced incarceration.
“That’s the reason the program is successful,” Ashkin said. “It has nothing to do with me, it’s all about having this diversity in that workforce.”
Ashkin said he was inspired to start this program by patients he saw after he established the Underserved Residency Track at UNC School of Medicine. This track is based out of a federally qualified health center in Caldwell County that serves a predominantly Spanish-speaking population, many of whom are undocumented.
“One of the reasons why we’ve done such a poor job in health care of connecting with these folks is a direct result of lack of diversity,” Ashkin said. “Because we have, for many reasons, mostly white, privileged faculty, without that experience, without that knowledge. So without that diversity, a lot of issues are invisible to us.”
Jermaine Bryant, a senior classics major, was chosen for the UNC Diversity Award for undergraduate students. He was recognized for his work with trying to make Latin and the classics curriculum more accessible for the mostly non-white students at East Chapel Hill High School.
“Classics, the study of Greek and Roman civilization, has been a traditionally white field for quite some time and has also been used, historically, as a sort of prop for white supremacy and a sort of justification … for neo-Nazis and the alt-right to try to harken back to these so-called ‘Western ideals,’” Bryant said. “And in fact, this discipline is more complex, more intersectional and multicultural than that.
Bryant also made national news in January, when his letter to the editor, titled “A monument to misplaced values,” was published in The Washington Post. The letter was a response to a previous letter that said Silent Sam did not hurt anyone on UNC’s campus, and its removal was not necessary. Bryant’s response argued that Silent Sam’s removal was a good thing for students on campus, and that it was important for the University to make its students feel welcomed and safe.
According to the Office of Undergraduate Admissions, 66 percent of the students who started at UNC in the fall of 2018 were white. At a time when white supremacy and inequality are constantly present on UNC’s campus, Aikat said, it is important now more than ever to recognize the importance of diversity and start to address the problems with inequality before they become problems.
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