Four faculty members and a student have been recognized for their work on campus and in the larger community with 2023 Social Justice Awards.
The University of South Carolina created the Social Justice Awards to recognize individuals who have exemplified the philosophies of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. through acts of community service, social justice or racial reconciliation.
The 2023 selections include a student who seeks to provide educational support to elementary-age children who look like her, and education professors who have worked to create a diverse pipeline of future teachers with a focus on issues of race and equity.
The five will be honored at the university's annual MLK Commemorative Breakfast on Friday (Jan. 13).
Early childhood education major Julia Upton was looking for a way to practice her classroom management skills when she volunteered to work in the after-school program at Homeless No More — a nonprofit organization that works to keep families together while helping them find permanent housing.
What she found working with young, impoverished learners was more than she had expected.
“Being around students who are low income and who are Black and who speak the way I speak at home really made it easier for me to connect with them,” Upton says. “Now I see that being a point of consistency for them and being a person who can show them different opportunities and options they have in life has really kept me in the position that I've been in longer than I expected.”
A native of Spartanburg, South Carolina, Upton joined USC’s Apple Core Initiative while she was still in high school.
That program seeks to increase diversity among South Carolina’s pre-service teachers. Upton also is a part of the Early Childhood Education Urban Education Cohort, which is for students who demonstrate the desire and potential to focus on issues of race as foundational to their junior and senior year courses.
Upton also has worked with the Culturally Sustaining STEM Institute to help grade school students learn about the accomplishments of Black scientists, engineers and mathematicians. With that organization, she has spent the past two years working in Georgetown, South Carolina, teaching fifth- through eighth-grade students about the accomplishments of their Gullah/Geechee forebears in the sciences.
“Traditionally in education we are not taught to recognize the major contributions, both historically and currently, made by Black and Brown individuals in the STEM fields,” Upton says. “Working with these students in Georgetown I got to see firsthand the power of shining a light on the expertise that their mothers, uncles and relatives have as master gardeners and herbalists.”
Upton also has been active on campus, talking with USC leaders about how Black students can be better supported during their time at South Carolina.
“Julia possesses the perfect combination of being strong in her convictions, constantly dedicated to deepening her insights and knowledge, and able to interact with others through courageous conversations,” education professor Rabbi Meir Muller said in his nomination of Upton for the MLK Social Justice Award.
Three College of Education faculty members have been recognized for their courageous work in anti-racist social justice.
Eliza Braden, Meir Muller and Kamania Wynter-Hoyte — all associate professors — were honored for their collective work in founding and leading the Urban Education Cohort; the Local School Collective; Race, Equity and Advocacy in Childhood Education (REACH); and a variety of social-justice focused events.
The programs help pre-service and in-service teachers develop skills for incorporating social justice principles in the classroom.
“It makes evident the reality that social justice work is best done in collaboration with others,” says Carolina Distinguished Professor Gloria Boutte, the associate dean of the College of Education for diversity, equity and inclusion who nominated the three for the MLK Social Justice Award. “They operate as a team courageously and innovatively impacting hearts and minds as they work with students and educators within and beyond the University of South Carolina.”
Braden, associate professor of elementary education, says her goals are to prepare her students to be the kind of teachers everyone — including her own mother — wants for their own children.
“I was considered a student who was less proficient in reading, in literacy,” Braden says of her own experience as a young student. “However, there were so many literacies that were around me within my community, within my church, within my social sphere that could have been used to make concrete connections between reading and writing.
“Those connections were never made, and I'm grateful that I had a mother who knew the capability of her child and who advocated on my behalf.”
Teaching teachers to be aware of those culturally relevant connections is a big part of the work of the Urban Education Cohort, which brings together education students who want to learn more about racial justice, says Muller.
“Every child in our classroom needs a mirror. They need to see their own culture in their teaching materials, on their walls, in the books they read in the curricula,” says Muller, who also earned a master’s and doctorate at USC. “We want teachers to be able to provide those mirrors — and windows so all children can see other cultures as well — and shine a light on every student's culture.”
The programs these faculty members helped create also provide students a way to discuss and be prepared for uncomfortable conversations around race.
“When you're uncomfortable, that means you're growing,” says Wynter-Hoyte. “Teachers might say, ‘I don't want to get political,’ but there's politics in everything and there are policies that impact educators.
“We have to be aware of it and how to fight against it. Because if we're not aware of it, then it's just going to sustain itself.”
Growing up in Sumter, South Carolina, Kendall Deas knows first-hand the importance of quality public education. That is why for the past eight years, he has worked as a researcher and advocate for improving public education in his home state.
“I know from my own personal experience what a strong public education foundation can do for you beyond a K-12 level,” said Deas, a faculty member and researcher in the African American Studies Department. “It's impacted me very positively in my life. And I want young people to have access to public education so they can gain entry into colleges and universities.”
Working with former USC faculty members and others in the state, Deas co-founded and now leads the Quality Education Project, a community-based, nonprofit research organization committed to public education advocacy.
“I have observed first-hand Dr. Deas’s embodiment through his work and leadership of the ideals of community service, racial equity, inclusivity and social justice,” Sherry East, president of the South Carolina Education Association, said in nominating Deas for the 2023 MLK Social Justice Award. “Dr. Deas has been a voice in local, state and national media outlets advocating for greater investment in public education. He has also sounded the alarm through these media outlets about the negative impact generous tax abatements to attract industry to our state have had on available funding for public education.”
Deas’s work with the project has included educational town halls for residents on the importance of voting in school board elections as well as encouraging them to run for office themselves, including how-to workshops on developing a platform.
“We want to motivate people in the community to have more of a voice in terms of advocating for quality public education,” Deas says. “We have to get quality people in positions of power to put forth policies that invest in public education.”
Deas’s research shows, for example, that economic development policies that favor tax abatements for companies bringing jobs to an area over funding for public schools have cost the state more than $2 billion over the past five years.
“While it is important to pursue job creation and economic development, we can't do it at the expense of our public education system,” Deas says. “This is what the Quality Education Project has been involved in, getting policymakers to understand that there is a connection between having good schools and good jobs in the state. We have to pursue a more balanced approach between economic development and investing in public education in South Carolina.”
A Fulbright Scholar, he was awarded a 2022 ASPIRE-1 Innovation Grant by the university to fund his current research. He is being supported by the university’s 2022 Propel Research Mentorship Program to seek federal funding for his research from the National Science Foundation.