daniella cook, aisha haynes, kyanna samuel, spencer platt

2020 social justice award winners

Faculty, staff, student honored for community service

A community organizer and equity scholar, a three-degree alumna, an education student leader and a professor with a strong record of mentoring younger colleagues are the recipients of the University of South Carolina’s 2020 Social Justice Awards and will be honored at the annual MLK Commemorative Breakfast Jan. 17 in the Russell House Ballroom.

The 2020 Social Justice Award recipients are (from left) education professor Daniella Cook, Center for Teaching Excellence assistant director Aisha Haynes, early childhood education major Kyanna Samuel and higher education professor Spencer Platt.

Cook, whose study of black educators in post-Katrina New Orleans explored the largest displacement of African American educators since desegregation, pursues scholarship that focuses on understanding how class, race, racism and power affect the lives of students, teachers and their communities.

Cook says her understanding of how a group of people working together can make change came about when she was a young girl, growing up in Cincinnati. Her parents had left Alabama and the Jim Crow South behind in search of better economic opportunities.

“When they moved up north, they worked with folks around them in our neighborhood association and stopped a highway from cutting through our working-class neighborhood,” she says. “So I grew up watching the power of ordinary people, everyday people, really making systemic impact. I realized how important it was to build relationships with people in your community.”

That has carried over to UofSC, where Cook designed and teaches “EDSE 500: Equity & Community Engagement” for those planning to teach high school. A significant component of the course is a 20-hour practicum in which students work with community-based organizations to tutor middle and high school students.

"The ultimate goal of the course is to shift the way we see communities,” Cook says. “My hope is that communities are positioned as an essential part of understanding the inequities facing our kids in schools and how to combat those inequities." 

In 2014, Haynes established the Dr. Aisha S. Haynes Endowed Scholarship Fund and awarded her first scholarship in fall 2019 to a rising senior in the TRIO programs. Haynes says she also was an Opportunity Scholar and from a low-income home.

“I think it’s important for students to see people who have gone through the same obstacles and challenges that they are going through and see them thrive and be successful,” she says. “I have heard from students who say that I inspired them to maybe create their own scholarship in the future.”

Haynes earned a bachelor's in integrated information technology (2004), a master's in educational technology (2006) and a doctorate in curriculum and instruction (2012), all from UofSC.

Haynes also has worked to overcome stuttering and has taken on a leadership role in the Columbia chapter of the National Stuttering Association. 

Samuel has been working on being a teacher since she helped her young cousins improve their grades.

“Ever since I was a little girl, I loved playing teacher,” says Samuel, a native of Columbia who plans to teach in a Title I school after graduating in May. “I have a lot of younger cousins and helping them with their schoolwork, I felt like this was my calling.”

She followed that calling to Tanzania this summer with a study abroad teaching program.

“I learned a lot about myself and about appreciating everything that I have,” Samuel says. “Over there, it’s a privilege to go to school. We take a lot for granted here and they love everything. Having a pencil made them happy.”

Platt created his two specific courses for education students that focus on social justice: “Equity and Access in Higher Education” and “Civil Rights and Education.” These courses provide future teachers with insights to help ensure that all students receive a quality education.

“One is understanding some of the challenges different groups might deal with in trying to gain access to public higher ed institutions,” Platt says. “In the civil rights course, we take a longer view and then we go into the abolition of that system and how that led into Reconstruction and then Jim Crow legislation and the civil rights movement.”

The goal, Platt says, is to give students a better understanding of the history of civil and human rights that can smooth the path to real social justice.

“It’s about helping folks go as far as their talents will take them, it’s about opening doors of opportunity and access, it’s about having more people have a slice of the pie, which includes growing the pie,” he says. “It’s not about displacing folks so new folks can sit at the table, it’s about building a new table together so more folks can sit around it and do good work and have fulfilling lives.”

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