A passion for social justice

Civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. said, “The function of education is to teach one to think intensively and to think critically. Intelligence plus character -- that is the goal of true education.”

Four individuals, emboldened by King to ensure social, political and economic equality for all people, were honored by the University of South Carolina for their community service and social justice work at the annual MLK commemoration breakfast.

The 2016 Social Justice Awards were presented to Bobby Donaldson, associate history professor; Lemuel Watson, dean of the College of Education; and Alysha Baratta, a graduate student in geography. The staff member award was given posthumously to Thelathia Barnes Bailey, TRIO director at USC Lancaster, who died two days prior.

We caught up with the winners to find out what fuels their passion and the experiences that led them to their social justice work.

Bobby Donaldson

Donaldson is faculty principal at Preston Residential College and a scholar of Southern history and African American life. He is playing an integral role in the university’s recently established Center for Civil Rights History and Research to chronicle the contributions of South Carolina to the American civil rights movement.

Shaping experiences: “I attended an all-black elementary school in Augusta, Ga. There my librarian, Mrs. Eason, literally preached African-American history, especially civil rights events and personalities. While my older relatives shared life lessons about living and struggling in a segregated world, Mrs. Eason introduced me to the work of Mary McLeod Bethune, Benjamin E. Mays and John Hope Franklin. In the fifth grade, I was mesmerized by Franklin as he spoke at a local college. Early on, I developed a passion for history and the stories of those who pushed back, resisted and challenged the hurdles of injustice. That childhood passion continues in my research, teaching, advocacy and work in the community. And I'm very excited to assist the university in uncovering and documenting even more chapters in the history of civil rights in South Carolina.”

Passion: “Every day, I'm mindful that the opportunities I enjoy as a teacher and scholar on this campus are a consequence of generations of determined struggle. Here I am living on the campus of the flagship University of South Carolina — the very state where my family lived as enslaved people and sharecroppers in Aiken County. A picture of my great-grandfather, Smart Williams, sits on my desk. With a second-grade education, this World War I veteran remains one of the most informative and inspiring history teachers that I've had. I work to pass on the lessons he shared with me to my children and my students.”  

Alysha Baratta

As a graduate student, Baratta focuses her research and service on helping refugees relocate to and access social services in medium-sized cities. She has developed an innovate mapping technique to visualize how refugees navigate cities, volunteers with a local resettlement agency and started the Refugee Community Garden through Sustainable Carolina so that refugees can plant and enjoy fresh vegetables and herbs.

Shaping experiences: “As an undergraduate at the University of Missouri, I took a service-learning course with the local refugee resettlement agency and saw the multiple challenges of being a refugee placed in a smaller city in America. People plopped down in the middle of Missouri, family left behind or gone, with a completely different way of life, held to the rigors of American punctuality while experiencing unreliable public transit. I also did not have a car and relied heavily on co-workers or generous roommates to get around and of course, I had my fair share of frustrating bus experiences. Post-graduation, I lived abroad in various places as an English teacher for a few years, and observing how cities across the world make their residents mobile, and how other countries treat foreigners (me). I have no idea what it feels like to be a refugee in Columbia, but just understanding what it’s like to be a foreigner and without a car gives me great insight into how difficult, scary and emotionally draining just that part of their experience is. So I came to graduate school to ask them what it’s like and how it could be better. And that is what I’m always working toward.”

Passion: “There is no doubt that personal stories and personalities of both the refugees I have met and the people who devote their time to helping them motivate me. One father told me his motivation to come here: walking down the street in his city when bombs started going off, and when he looked down at his 4-year-old son covering his ears and saw the fear in his eyes, that prompted him to uproot his family and start the long, bureaucratic process to go anywhere but there. Any father in any nation would have that reaction to that experience — it’s a human moment. I see these human moments shared across boundaries every day — smiling about a baby doing something adorable, smelling and identifying basil. If I were in their position, I sure would appreciate a ride to a doctor’s appointment, or help navigating a government office, or even just a smile from a stranger. We’re all humans and are able to connect in some way.”

Lemuel Watson

As a scholar, administrator and leader in the education profession, Watson has worked to raise awareness about barriers for underrepresented groups in the field of education and the needs and challenges of underrepresented students seeking higher education degrees.

Shaping experiences: “My work is not just about the field of education, it is so much broader; it is about the enhancement and enlightenment of working with people who are committed to making our society a place where all feel a part of the greater good and valued from their uniqueness. Doing what is just and respectful for individuals is something my parents taught me. When I was a doctoral student at Indiana University, I looked up one morning about 1:30 a.m. while working on my research and became aware that I had four master’s students on my apartment floor, also working on classwork or papers, asking me questions or trying to engage me in a discussion. I asked them why they didn't just ask their professors, and their reply was that we don't have anyone else in our program or college who look like you. Therefore, I became dedicated to being a faculty member and scholar in higher education who is committed to being an advocate, mentor and researcher for underrepresented groups.”

Passion: “Loving people and caring for them comes very naturally to me. I grew up listening and sitting at the feet of wise men and women like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. I grew up in a community of differences and saw the respect that families had for one another. My parents and grandparents taught me who I was and to listen to that divine voice. I believe during our current times that we all need to project more of the essence of Dr. King’s notion of love and nonviolence. In our daily lives, we should strive to raise the consciousness to look beyond our outer shell and into the contents of our character as we teach each other about caring and loving all.”

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