A group photo of six people
Left to right: Burnside Watstein Award recipients Emmin Bickford, an alum and a counselor with The Properties of Light; Aaliyah Freeman, Caroline Perez and AJ Jain, representing the Triangle Club at VCU; Tre Straughter, administrative support coordinator with University Student Commons; and Carol Schall, Ph.D., associate professor in the VCU School of Education. (Thomas Kojcsich, Enterprise Marketing and Communications)

Recipients of 2024 Burnside Watstein Awards demonstrate service to LGBTQIA+ community and VCU

From marriage equality to pharmacy work, the honorees have championed diversity and inclusion.

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A faculty member who advanced marriage equality, a prominent student advocacy group and a pharmacy alum who founded PrideRx are among the 2024 recipients of the Burnside Watstein Awards, which recognize individuals who enrich the Virginia Commonwealth University community and make a significant difference in the lives of LGBTQIA+ faculty, staff and students.

“This group of recipients were chosen because they continue to embody the work done by Chris Burnside, Sarah Watstein and many of VCU’s LGBTQ+ community members before,” said selection committee member Josh Leidy, who is part of the Inclusive Engagement and Philanthropy team in the Office of Development and Alumni Relations. “They are advocates for the needs of our queer students and provide safe spaces for authenticity and growth.”

The 2024 Burnside Watstein Awards ceremony was held March 27 at the James Branch Cabell Library and was livestreamed via Zoom. VCU President Michael Rao, Ph.D., thanked this year’s honorees via video.

“You’re leading by example, and you’re making the LGBTQIA+ community and the VCU community a much better place for everyone,” he said. “Thank you for making our VCU community stronger, inclusive and more welcoming of every person.”

The awards program launched in the 2007-08 academic year and is named for Chris Burnside and Sarah Weinstein, the former co-chairs of what is now Equality VCU. This year’s keynote speaker, Melissa-Irene Jackson, was the recipient of the 2023 community member/alumni award; she is a therapist and consultant focusing on trauma-informed practice and LGBTQIA+ health and equity initiatives.

Jackson said when she came to VCU as an undergraduate student, she was the most depressed she had been in her life. She didn’t know that what she was experiencing at the time was gender dysphoria – she just knew that she was miserable, “and I didn’t know how to not be miserable.”

“I think about my younger self, and I feel sad for all that she had to go through,” Jackson said. “I feel grateful that she refused to give up and survived.”

A photo of a woman standing a a podium and speaking.
This year’s keynote speaker, Melissa-Irene Jackson, was the recipient of the 2023 community member/alumni award; she is a therapist and consultant focusing on trauma-informed practice and LGBTQIA+ health and equity initiatives. (Tom Kojcsich)

Now she is living on her own terms, describing her life as a “series of small kindnesses” from the people around her. Jackson said these “little things” built a foundation that makes the “big things” less intimidating, because it shows community members they are not alone.

“For those of you who are still trying to live on your own terms, don’t give up. We need you. The world is a better place with you in it,” Jackson said.

She added that community activism remains crucial to advancing the cause of equality – and that the award namesakes can serve as an inspiration.

“The only reason any of us are here today is because others have been fighting this fight for decades, one brick at a time. People like Chris Burnside and Sarah Weinstein,” Jackson said. “Those of you advocating along with me, please don’t stop. We need you, too, and we cannot do this without you.”

Here are recipients of the 2024 Burnside Watstein Awards:

Faculty Award

Carol Schall, Ph.D., associate professor at VCU’s School of Education and co-director of the VCU Autism Center for Education, and her wife were plaintiffs in Bostic v. Rainey, which advanced marriage equality in Virginia.

“Because of Carol Schall and the other plaintiffs in this lawsuit, since 2014, LGTBQIA VCU faculty and staff have been able to add their partners and their children to VCU health insurance plans. It is difficult to convey what a big deal this is,” her nomination read.

Schall said it felt strange to win an award for living her life authentically, but she felt grateful that she and her wife were able to use their story to promote inclusion in Virginia. While they were married in California, their marriage was not recognized in Virginia, which led to multiple instances of discrimination.

“We won that court case, but more importantly, we won the hearts and minds of fair-minded Virginians who said, ‘Yeah, you get to be who you are and love who you are,’” Schall said.

She noted, though, that the fight for equality is not over.  

“Courage is not fearless – instead, courage is seeing your fears, recognizing your powerlessness in the face of those who hate you, but living your life anyway,” Schall said. “And so if I can leave you with one thing: Be you, live your life, and to hell with everybody who hates you.”

Student Award

For the first time, a group – Triangle Club at VCU, the largest LGBTQIA+ organization on campus – is the recipient. Triangle Club promotes social/political awareness, volunteer opportunities, educational sessions and networking. Among its events are the upcoming Queer Prom on April 13.

“Our goal from the beginning has always been to provide a safe space for the [LGBTQIA+] community within VCU,” said club president AJ Jain, who accepted the award with fellow members Caroline Perez and Aaliyah Freeman.

Staff Award

Tre Straughter, administrative support coordinator for University Student Commons, has helped plan and implement programs in recent years related to Black History Month, LGBTQIA+ History Month and VCU’s Cultural Achievement Ceremonies.

“In everything that they do, they emphasize the power of exhilarating joy, love, community, freedom, creativity – considering these to be radical in reclaiming ourselves and living in an unapologetic manner,” their nomination read. “In doing so and in embodying this sentiment, Tre is a model for our students and for us all.”

Alumni Award

Olivia White, Pharm.D., founded PrideRx, a student organization in VCU’s School of Pharmacy that supports LGBTQIA+ individuals and allies. White, who self-describes as gender-nonconforming and a member of the lesbian community, joined the award ceremony via Zoom, as they are now a second-year clinical pharmacy resident at the Portland VA Medical Center in Oregon. 

White noted that by supporting and educating future pharmacy practitioners, PrideRx serves patients, too: They benefit from advocacy for equitable treatment, and they have an information resource when seeking gender-affirming pharmacotherapy.

“To create safe spaces one after another” is crucial, White said, “even if it is in the span of a hospital stay, a clinical appointment or even a few minutes at the consult counter in a community pharmacy.”

Community Award

Emmin Bickford, a counselor with The Properties of Light who earned their master’s degree at VCU’s School of Social Work, specializes in supporting neurodivergent and queer individuals.

“Emmin has continued to grow and flourish as they have moved from student to practitioner,” their nomination read. “Choosing to stay connected to the School of Social Work and VCU specifically, they have remained a resource for current undergraduate and graduate students who need support navigating systems and queer, trans/nonbinary and/or neurodivergent folks.”

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