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Wednesday March 22nd

University names 2022 MLK Unsung Hero Award winners

Dr. Nate Thomas III, standing between Dr. Leah Cox and Provost Chris Clemens, receives the Unsung Hero Award during the 41st Annual Martin Luther King, Jr. Keynote Lecture and Awards Ceremony on Feb. 22, 2022 in the Carolina Union Great Hall.
Buy Photos Dr. Nate Thomas III, standing between Dr. Leah Cox and Provost Chris Clemens, receives the Unsung Hero Award during the 41st Annual Martin Luther King, Jr. Keynote Lecture and Awards Ceremony on Feb. 22, 2022 in the Carolina Union Great Hall.

For the last four decades, the MLK Unsung Hero Award has been given annually to around one to two UNC faculty, staff or community members who have demonstrated a commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion through their work in the community. 

E. Nathan Thomas III, UNC School of Medicine’s vice dean of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, and Kellye Whitaker, SmartUp program manager, received this year's MLK Unsung Hero Award. 

They were awarded for their longstanding dedication to inclusion at UNC.

Criteria to be nominated include furthering and strengthening social justice initiatives, contributing to equity and diversity through advocacy and everyday work, and making a positive difference in the UNC community.

“While I received the (Unsung Hero) Award, what I truly recognize is that this work is predicated on many individuals at our staff level, student level, faculty level and our leadership level," Thomas said. "I could not have received the award if it wasn’t for them."

Dr. E. Nathan Thomas III

Thomas has been working at the University since March 2020, when COVID-19 lockdowns began. It didn't stop him from striving for a better environment for the UNC community, he said. 

But at the end of the day, Thomas said the award is really about his team in the Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion. He said his DEI work is a team effort, and appreciates the work of faculty, students and staff in navigating difficult spaces. 

"Without their support, and their desire to make a change, this would be a lot more difficult," Thomas said.

His work includes Forward Together, an initiative meant to strengthen UNC’s School of Medicine through research, DEI, education and administration, among other areas.

Zayna King, a graduate student at UNC Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center, said she met Thomas at a local government meeting.

They discussed his background and vision for diversity and inclusion at UNC. 

Within his platform, Thomas said in an interview with the DTH that it is important that people can be comfortable in spaces that allow them to operate at their full potential.

“If you're dealing with issues of marginalization and oppression, it creates spaces of trauma, it creates spaces of depression, anxiety and imposter syndrome,” he said.

King said that she has found support in working with Thomas as a member of the leadership team for the Students in Training, Academia, Health, and Research mentoring program.

“I could bring up an issue from a DEI standpoint, an educational, or even a professional issue, to him and I genuinely think that he would have my best interests at heart,” she said.

Claudis Polk, director of the Office of Scholastic Enrichment and Equity, said he met Thomas through a mutual mentor at Michigan State University in 2001. They've been friends ever since. 

When the vice dean of DEI position at the UNC School of Medicine opened, Polk knew Thomas would make a good fit.

“He ended up being one of the best candidates for the position," Polk said. 

Kellye Whitaker

Kellye Whitaker serves on the diversity and inclusion committee at the Kenan Institute, a nonpartisan business policy think tank associated with the UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School. 

“What I’ve often found in my business is that many business owners and landowners who need the work: it's not being filtered down to them," Whitaker said. 

Herbert L. Drayton III, a managing partner at HI Mark Capital, said he works closely with Whitaker on his advising board for his venture capital firm. His fund focuses on minority and women entrepreneurs who have been underserved and are underrepresented by the venture capital community.

He and Whitaker have worked together on a few different projects to improve minority representation in business. 

One goal they worked toward was identifying Black people in the community with aspirations to serve on non-profit boards. They noted one challenge in this was hearing non-profits wanted to diversify their boards, but couldn’t find applicants. 

Whitaker emphasized the importance of having a diverse group of people at the table in policy decisions — especially for policies that directly impact communities. 

“There's oftentimes not a lot of people that look like me (on chairs and boards)," Whitaker said. "Whether it's a female or whether it's a Black female, I understand the importance of having diversity in those settings.”

What is important to Whitaker, she said, is the work itself.

“I’m always doing the work but never really looking for anyone to pat me on the back," she said.


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