MLK Spirit Awards honor those making WSU a welcoming place

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Twenty-two members of the Washington State University community systemwide are being honored this month with MLK Spirit Awards. The MLK Spirit Awards celebrate the life, legacy, and spirit of Martin Luther King Jr. by recognizing people who are dedicated to diversity, equity, inclusion, and social justice (DEIJ) and continue King’s work in an extraordinary way. 

The awards are given annually by the WSU MLK Program. Recipients will be honored during the WSU Black Excellence Dinner on April 29 at 5 p.m. in the Elson S. Floyd Cultural Center on the Pullman campus and will be livestreamed.

Chioma Heim, academic advisor in the Department of Psychology and a member of the MLK Spirit Award selection committee, said the winners have done amazing work to make WSU and Washington state more welcoming places for everyone.

“They are contributing in ways that will have long-lasting impacts in our communities,” Heim said. “They deserve to be recognized and celebrated.”

The MLK Spirit Awards encompass several recognitions: Distinguished Services Award; Community, Equity, and Social Justice Award; Elson and Carmento Floyd & William and Felicia Gaskins Social Advocates of the Year; and Bayard Rustin LGBTQ+ Excellence Award.


Distinguished Service Award

Recipients of the Distinguished Service Award have demonstrated a commitment to human rights and social justice in one or all the following areas: advancement and community service, inclusive and equitable practices, and altruism and community service. 

The 2023 winners are:

Advancement and Community Service

  • Thabiti Lewis, professor, Department of English, WSU Vancouver
  • Praveen Sekhar, associate professor, School of Engineering and Computer Science, WSU Vancouver
  • Heather Reyes, advisor, CAHNRS, WSU Pullman
  • Merrianneeta Nesbitt, assistant director, Office of Social Justice Education and Outreach, WSU Pullman (posthumous)
  • Joel Kemegue, senior majoring in English, WSU Pullman
  • Elwis Johnson, Jr., alumnus and financial Advisor, Johnson Wealth Advisors, Lakewood, Washington

Inclusive & Equitable Practices

  • Laura Lavine, chair and professor, Department of Entomology, WSU Pullman
  • Julian Ankney, instructor of English and coordinator of Native American Programs, WSU Vancouver
  • Anita Peralta, program manager, Integrated Program in Biomedical Sciences, WSU Pullman
  • Teann Manser, sophomore majoring in biochemistry, WSU Pullman
  • Office for Access and Opportunity, Student Affairs, WSU Pullman

Altruism and Community Service

  • Kauser Gwaduri, coordinator, MOSAIC Center for Student Inclusion, WSU Tri-Cities
  • Darryl Singleton, assistant professor, School of Music, WSU Pullman
  • Trymaine Gaither, special assistant to the provost for inclusive excellence, WSU Pullman
  • Amari Lowery, senior majoring in psychology, WSU Pullman
  • Hispanic Business Professional Association, Spokane, Washington

Community, Equity, and Social Justice Award

This award recognizes individuals and groups that work toward a climate of inclusive excellence through activism, advocacy, academic endeavors, mentoring, program creation, public service, research, or teaching.

The 2023 winners are:

  • Connie Nguyen-Truong, associate professor, College of Nursing, WSU Vancouver
  • Colette Casavant, director of student success, CAHNRS, WSU Pullman
  • Antonio Fajardo-Mora, junior majoring in psychology, WSU Pullman
  • Valarie Cheathon, alumna and founder of I AM STEM ABLE, LLC, Sacramento, California

Elson and Carmento Floyd & William and Felicia Gaskins Social Advocates of the Year

Former WSU President Elson S. Floyd and his wife, Carmento, were both well known for their advocacy and care for students. William and Felicia Gaskins, both alums, had long professional careers in the community – Bill worked as a pharmacy director at Pullman Regional Hospital and Felicia worked in international and diversity education at WSU.  

This award recognizes individuals that have excelled in DEIJ work at the interpersonal, unit, or institutional level. Nominees demonstrated a sustained commitment to DEIJ through advocacy, collaborative partnerships, programming, research, service, and/or teaching.

The 2023 winners are: 

  • Allen Sutton, executive director, Office of Social Justice Education and Outreach, WSU Pullman
  • Marwa Aly, doctoral student in chemical engineering and bioengineering, WSU Pullman
  • Stephen Bischoff, alumnus and director, Office of Student Equity, WSU Pullman

Bayard Rustin LGBTQ+ Excellence Award

Bayard Rustin, an openly gay man who was forced to work behind the scenes of the Civil Rights Movement due to his sexuality, was a civil rights leader best known for serving as an advisor to Martin Luther King Jr. and organizing Freedom Rides, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and the March on Washington. This award recognizes two individuals who embody Rustin’s spirit.

The 2023 winners are:

  • Josie Cohen-Rodriguez, LGBTQ+ student life and community coordinator, WSU Pullman
  • Kyle Schofield, doctoral candidate in clinical psychology, WSU Pullman

Jessica Samuels, assistant director and retention counselor in Multicultural Student Services and a member of the MLK Spirit Awards selection committee, said everyone being honored is very deserving, and noted that some award recipients have been engaged in DEIJ work at WSU for many years.

“A lot of times the work they do is thankless,” Samuels said. “It is important that we acknowledge the many years of service these individuals have given to the university.” 

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