A group photo of eight people standing on a stage.
At the 2024 PACME ceremony: (from left to right) Faye Z. Belgrave, Ph.D., vice president and chief diversity officer; Austin Ezzard, a social work student; Kim Case, Ph.D., professor of psychology and affiliate professor of gender, sexuality and women’s studies; KáLyn "Kay" Coghill, a media, art and text student; Christina Davis, advisor and instructor in the Interdisciplinary Studies Program; Shawn Utsey, Ph.D., professor of psychology and acting chair of the Department of African American Studies; Brooke Berry, interim associate vice president for strategic initiatives, inclusion & belonging; and VCU President Michael Rao, Ph.D. (Thomas Kojcsich, Enterprise Marketing and Communications)

‘We are diversity’: Five VCU community members honored at the 2024 PACME ceremony

Shawn Utsey, recipient of the Riese-Melton Award, notes ‘how much work we still have to do. We cannot afford to become complacent in the face of injustice.’

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Shawn Utsey, Ph.D., is the 2024 recipient of Virginia Commonwealth University’s Riese-Melton Award, which recognizes contributions that advance cross-cultural relations. The announcement was made April 16 at the ceremony for the annual Presidential Awards for Community Multicultural Enrichment.

Utsey is among five PACME honorees for 2024. The PACME program recognizes VCU individuals and groups for making significant contributions to promote civility, build community, establish cross-cultural initiatives, advocate equity and nurture a welcoming and inclusive environment. The Riese-Melton Award is PACME’s capstone honor.

Utsey, a professor in the Department of Psychology and the Department of African American Studies in the College of Humanities and Sciences, said he was deeply honored by the recognition.

“What I do is based on an understanding that I have a responsibility to those who came before me and sacrificed so much so that I could move these spaces and create opportunities for others,” Utsey said.

The award was named after Walter J. Riese, M.D., who served as a professor of neurology and psychiatry in the School of Medicine, and Herman Melton, who worked at the medical center for more than 50 years. Riese fled Nazi Germany during World War I and championed the rights of African American employees at VCU. Melton was a scientist and inventor who worked at VCU for more than 55 years, assisting Riese and many others. Melton’s granddaughter, Loren Melton Glasper, attended the ceremony with family members to present the award.

“Congratulations to all of you all, because [my grandfather] would have been thrilled that you were here,” Glasper said. “He loved this institution, and we are so proud that an award still bears his name and that we are all here.”

VCU President Michael Rao, Ph.D., said diversity is one of the key characteristics of VCU that make it a great institution – “we are diversity,” he said – and noted that it is one of the most-cited reasons that students choose to attend VCU and say they feel comfortable on campus.

However, Rao emphasized that while the university is succeeding in many ways, there is still a lot of progress that needs to be made.

“Our future depends on inclusion,” he said. “We've got some work to do there, but with winners like this we've got a good shot at it.”

Here are the 2024 PACME honorees:

Academic and Administrative Leadership Award and Riese-Melton Award

Utsey, who is acting chair and past chair of the Department of African American Studies, researches how racism-related stress impacts the psychological and physiological health of African Americans. He has examined how trauma is manifested in the victims of racial violence. Utsey is a licensed clinical psychologist and has a private practice specializing in treating race-based traumatic injury.

“In his role as chair, he has been tireless in his advocacy for the department and its faculty, and he brings clear vision, empathetic sensibilities and strong leadership to this important department,” said Catherine Ingrassi, Ph.D., dean of the College of Humanities and Sciences. “He has fostered the vitality of this department, mentored Black faculty and students, protected the department's independence and increased its presence at VCU and within the community.” 

Utsey said validation for him comes from “the commitment I have to working toward the liberation of the Black community in all communities.”

“So let us use this moment not only to reflect on how far we have come, but also recognize how much work we still have to do,” he said. “We cannot afford to become complacent in the face of injustice.”

Faculty Award: Kim Case, Ph.D.

Case is a professor of psychology and an affiliate professor of gender, sexuality, and women’s studies in the College of Humanities and Sciences. Case is a social psychologist using mixed-methods to examine how diversity, equity and inclusion scholars and intersectional allies contribute to intentional creation of inclusive spaces within workplace and educational settings.

Ellen Carpenter, Ph.D., associate professor of psychology, said Case’s numerous academic works have been influential in their field.

“She has helped countless colleagues, myself included, to have the brave DEI conversations that have positively impacted our pedagogy, scholarship and service at VCU,” Carpenter said. “And rest assured her impact reaches far beyond VCU.”

Case said she would like to be known for “being afraid and doing it anyway.” She encouraged others with power within different spaces to use their voice to advocate for equity and justice, noting its importance “in our increasingly fear-based culture.”

Staff Award: Christina Davis

Davis is an advisor and instructor for the Interdisciplinary Studies Program and a two-time VCU alum, completing her bachelor’s degree in interdisciplinary studies with minors in anthropology and religious studies and an M.Ed. in educational leadership from the School of Education.

Zach Hilpert, Ph.D., director of the Interdisciplinary Studies Program, said Davis is a sought-out voice for Indigenous rights at VCU and across the state. Her statewide efforts focus on increasing access to higher education for Indigenous populations. She also is on VCU’s Land Acknowledgement Committee.

“Cristina Davis has relentlessly and persistently pursued equity at VCU,” Hilpert said. “Equity is an important word to remember, transforming her personal experiences into applied research projects and ultimately, university service.”

Davis said she joined VCU as a nontraditional student and working mother. She said as a student she searched for safe spaces and ended up creating some herself.

“I do what I do for my students, my colleagues, my family, and for those who have not yet found their voice, their place, physically, spiritually, and emotionally,” Davis said.

Tristen Sloane Presidential Award for Community Multicultural Enrichment (Student Award): Austin Ezzard and KáLyn “Kay” Coghill

Ezzard is a graduating social work student who has been involved with the Office of the President, Office of Student Success, Division of Student Affairs, the School of Social Work and more since his first year at VCU in 2020. He served as the president of Pi Lambda Phi's VA Omega Rho Chapter at VCU and is a VCU representative to the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia.

Kwame Walker, a VCU student and fellow member of Pi Lambda Phi, said Ezzard has won many awards, “but it’s all a testament to his work and his leadership and his drive to the VCU community.”

Coghill is a student in the Media, Art and Text Ph.D. program and a graduate teaching assistant, award-winning educator, practitioner and activist specializing in abortion doula work, community organizing, poetry and interdisciplinary scholarship. Their research centers on the digital resistance of Black women in hip hop, strategies against misogynoir and online gender-based violence. They also currently work as the digital director for me too. International

Liz Canfield, Ph.D, associate professor and chair of the Department of Gender, Sexuality, and Women's Studies, said Coghill is a talented and innovative scholar who works in activist circles, both locally and nationally, and shows themselves to be an impactful teacher.

The Tristen Sloane Presidential Award for Community Multicultural Enrichment is named after Tristen Sloane, who received the Riese-Melton award as a student at VCU in 2019 and died in 2022. Canfield said she mentored Sloane when they attended VCU and that they would have loved both of this year’s winners.

“I think that the three of them would have a wonderful conversation together,” Canfield said.