WSU music professor receives the Bayard Rustin Excellence Award

Aaron Agulay

Washington State University assistant professor Aaron Agulay has been honored with the Bayard Rustin Excellence Award for his commitment to the LGBTQ+ community. A virtual ceremony was created to mark the occasion. 

This award recognizes individuals or groups who serve as advocates and activists for equity, inclusion, and social justice, and/or work toward the advancement of the LGBTQ+ community.

It is named after Bayard Rustin, an American civil rights leader best known for serving as an advisor to Martin Luther King, Jr. and helping to organize Freedom Rides, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and the March on Washington.

Chris Dickey, assistant professor of tuba and euphonium in the WSU School of Music and chair of the President’s Commission on Gender Identity/Expression and Sexual Orientation, said during the virtual ceremony that the Commission’s executive team voted unanimously to give the award to Agulay.

“Aaron Agulay’s record for both his leadership and advocacy is both commendable and inspiring,” Dickey said. “His impressive work truly embodies the Rustin spirit and shows a commitment to the advancement of the LGBTQ+ community.”

Driving cultural change

Jacqueline Wilson, assistant professor of bassoon and theory who nominated Agulay for the award, said she has witnessed his commitment to equity and inclusion many times since she arrived in the School of Music in 2020.

She points to Agulay’s work as a member of the Elson S. Floyd Cultural and Performing Arts Signature Series Committee, which takes an innovative, artistic, and interdisciplinary approach to recognizing diverse artists and communities. Just this week, the series hosted Joy Guidry, a non-binary Black bassoonist and composer, for a couple of performances on the Pullman campus. 

Agulay, who teaches voice in the School of Music, also serves as the chair of the School’s Diversity and Culture Committee that recently implemented a climate survey to assess equity and inclusion progress.

“Aaron led the committee through an analysis and the development of an action plan to drive culture change in the School of Music that has already resulted in promising initiatives,” Wilson said.

Inspiring people to take action

Agulay said receiving the Bayard Rustin Award is an honor and validates his feeling that the work he is doing in the WSU community is making a noticeable difference.

“Honestly, my work would not happen without the programs and people already in place at WSU—all whom support those of every pronoun by providing resources for personal growth, development, and learning,” he said.

Agulay views his work as an artist and performer as a method to further equity and inclusivity through the arts and cultural expression. He said that with the right combination of performers, lyrics, and instruments, music can build group identity, stir strong emotions, engage audiences, and inspire people to take action on social justice issues.

“We are currently living in a time when society is greatly divided,” Agulay said. “Music is constantly thought of as a universal language through which society can come together, coexist, and bond. Through bonding, we can co-construct with one another and heal.”

Lifting up the community

The Bayard Rustin Award is the first of several WSU MLK Spirit Awards to be announced in the coming weeks.

The MLK Spirit awards are given annually to students, faculty, staff, alumni, and groups who embody the spirit and vision of Martin Luther King Jr., according to Allen Sutton, executive director for the Office of Social Justice Education & Outreach in the Division of Student Affairs.

“The MLK Celebration and the Spirit Awards call upon the ‘better angels of our nature’ to learn and grow to be an equitable and inclusive Coug family,” Sutton said. “We are focused on honoring those leaders who lift us up as a WSU community.”The winners of the MLK Distinguished Service Awards and the Community, Equity, and Social Justice Award will be announced on March 17.  

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