By Raena Doty
Arts & Features Editor
On Jan. 25, the Beacon Awards - a ceremony to recognize outstanding inclusive excellence across campus, with keynote speaker Ilyasah Shabazz, Malcolm X’s daughter - were hosted in the Dwight Performing Arts Center.
Kenzler Joseph, president of the Black Student Union, and Ryanna Coelho, president of Tau Sigma National Honor Society at FSU, acted as the emcees for the event.
Joseph began by introducing the Greater Framingham Community Church choir, which sang the Black national anthem, “Lift Every Voice and Sing.” A copy of the lyrics was printed out and included in the event program so attendees could sing along.
President Nancy Niemi spoke next as an introduction to the Beacon Awards ceremony.
“The answer tonight is a resounding ‘yes.’ The question is the one that guides us,” she said. “Is the dream still alive? Is education fulfilling its promise?”
She said she knows the University is fulfilling its purpose as an institution of education because public universities like FSU educate almost 50% of the population, 40% of whom identify as first-generation students, and 40% of whom identify as Black and Indigenous people of color.”
She urged the audience to consider how much more accessible education has been made to students who previously could not access it “largely because they were not considered wealthy enough, white enough, or smart enough.”
Niemi said, “With the success that education clearly has had to date, the counteraction to it has gotten stronger. That counteraction tells us we are succeeding - that education is fulfilling its promise. It is fulfilling the dream that Dr. King urged us to keep foremost in our minds.
“Dr. King told us that the arc of the moral universe is long but bends toward justice, so as we listen, learn, and celebrate tonight, let’s reflect on how we can continue to make this dream a reality,” she said.
Jerome Burke, director of the Center for Inclusive Excellence (CIE), came to the stage next to introduce the 10 Beacon Award nominees and then announced the four winners: Kathleen Barnard, Rachel Avard, Santosha Adhibhatta, and Willow Versackas.
Kathleen Barnard, student engagement coordinator at the Henry Whittemore Library, said she won the award because she’s “always tried to be very dedicated to making the library welcoming to all students, all faculty, all staff.”
She added she’s always tried to include people from many different walks of life by collaborating with the CIE to do “Diversity Dialogue” programs that create room for students to start hard conversations, putting up bulletin boards for heritage months, and compiling information about prominent leaders from minority groups.
“I don’t want to ever hear that somebody doesn’t see themselves reflected in our collections or in the events that we’re doing,” she said.
Rachel Avard, professor of biology and Mary Miles Bibb fellow, said she won the award because of her use of inclusive practices in the classroom.
Avard added one example of inclusive practices is allowing students to take exams in multiple formats - either as traditional paper-and-pencil tests or oral exams. She said this can help students with attention deficit disorders, students who don’t speak English as a first language, or dyslexic students, for example.
Avard added she cares so deeply for inclusivity for two reasons - the first is that “it’s morally right. There’s no reason why anybody should be looking at a STEM degree and going, ‘I’m not smart enough for that.’
“And this might be a more selfish answer, but we live in a society where we’re trying to solve some of these insane, massive problems,” she added.
“If we’re looking at these incredibly complex challenges and disorders and things that we need to address and remedy, how are we going to do that if all of our viewpoints come from one type of person from one specific race, ethnicity, gender, background, socioeconomic status?” she asked.
Santosha Adhibhatta, professor of engineering, said she received the award for her contributions to inclusive pedagogy.
She added she’s worked at Framingham State for over eight years and only came into contact with inclusive pedagogy a year or two after coming to the University.
Adhibhatta said she faced barriers to her education because of her own status as a woman of color, and initially she wanted to become a chemical engineer but had to go into electrical engineering instead.
“That’s part of what honestly drives me, because I was like, ‘I know.’ I know what it takes to break the stigma,” she added.
Willow Versackas, a history major, won the award for creating the “History in the Making” initiative, which gave students the opportunity to sit down and talk about hard subjects like missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls, the Holocaust, American slavery, and the Iranian revolution.
Emma Laurie, program coordinator at the CIE, announced Versackas’ award and said, “By infusing an element of 'fun' into history, Willow effortlessly connects the past with contemporary society, leaving a lasting impact on the campus community.”
Burke emphasized that the award is given to community members who are doing more than expected.
“That’s what the Beacon Awards’ intention is - is to recognize those persons who, their job description doesn’t necessarily say, ‘This is what you should be doing,’ right?” he said.
Burke took over as the director of the CIE starting in the fall. He said when he came in, he wanted to improve upon what already existed in the University, including the Beacon Awards.
“I wanted to ensure that the work of [diversity, equity, and inclusion] is not just seen as division work,” he said. “It should be campus work.”
He added the Beacon Award committee was not working alone on the ceremony, and the entire Martin Luther King Jr. committee had a part to play. This committee collaborated with the Black Student Union in order to hear more student voices in the process.
Burke said the collaboration went extraordinarily well because everyone was willing to make sacrifices for the greater good of the event.
“What was rewarding is that I literally saw where each committee member was willing to give up something, right?” he said. He added seeing those sacrifices coming together for the event was the most rewarding part of the entire night.
Jeffrey Coleman, vice president of Diversity, Inclusion, and Community Engagement (DICE), said he hopes to see the event grow in the future, especially in terms of student engagement.
“Our students who participated this year - this is going to be something that they will remember for the rest of their lives,” he said. “The more we can create more of these experiences and invest in these experiences, I think we’re creating that ideal campus community that we’re looking for.”
After the award ceremony, Mia Ihegie, president of Justice. Unity. Inclusion. Community. Equity. (JUICE) announced keynote speaker Ilyasah Shabazz.
In her speech, Shabazz said her mother’s ability to stay hopeful and optimistic in face of her husband’s death is why she’s here today.
She added her mother “safeguarded” her father’s legacy, allowing it to survive into the present, but despite that, Malcolm X’s legacy has faced severe challenges due to societal misunderstandings.
Shabazz said people tend to place her father in opposition to Martin Luther King Jr., even though they were much more similar than they were different.
“Dr. King’s words still ring true - the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice. But we also need to add Malcolm’s addendum - it won’t bend on its own,” she said.