Clockwise from top left: Amanda Parks, Michelle Hawkins, Seth Leibowitz, Alex Wagaman and Andrew Daire.
Clockwise from top left: Amanda Parks, Michelle Hawkins, Seth Leibowitz, Alex Wagaman and Andrew Daire. (Parks photo by Irene A. Jacobs)

At annual PACME awards, recognition for those ‘who are willing to go deep’

Five from across VCU are honored for their work to promote civility, build community, advocate for equity and nurture a welcoming and inclusive environment.

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Alex Wagaman has worked vigorously to “go deep,” doing the hard work of advocating and creating a better life for people.

“Going deep is about demonstrating the sustained commitment to change,” Wagaman, an associate professor in the School of Social Work said Tuesday at Virginia Commonwealth University’s annual Presidential Awards for Community Multicultural Enrichment celebration. “You show up again and again and learn from your effort and continue to push. Going deep is about building the kinds of relationships in the work for change that holds you accountable and keeps you humble while also acknowledging your passion and believing in your capacity to do better.”

Wagaman was one of five recognized at Tuesday’s virtual PACME event, receiving the faculty award and the Riese-Melton Award, the latter an annual honor given to someone within the VCU community who builds bridges and increases diversity and inclusion.

Wagaman has been a strong advocate for the LGBTQIA+ community. She is the founder of Advocates for Richmond Youth, which works to help homeless transgender youth in Richmond. The effort has received national recognition and served as a model for reducing barriers to services for transgender youth.

“I am so grateful for the opportunity I have had to go deep with my work at VCU and in the Richmond community,” Wagaman said. “And it is honestly only possible because I have partners and comrades and colleagues who are willing to go deep with me and who have kept me grounded in our purpose when things felt hard.”

VCU President Michael Rao, Ph.D., said the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has awakened people about the need to help every human being. The VCU community has been a strong voice in advocating for people, he said, and the PACME awards are an important part of recognizing those efforts.

“This is one of my favorite events,” Rao said. “It is probably one of VCU’s most important events, because it really brings together all of the things we hold together as values. It gives us a chance to really recognize people who are exemplars of our environment.”

He said the university must continue to strive toward equality and a create a better world for everyone. With the effort, Richmond and the rest of the country can be a place for good and respect for all human beings.

Andrew P. Daire, Ph.D., dean of the School of Education, was another 2021 PACME recipient. Since Dare joined the university in 2016, he has worked to create opportunities for students from disadvantaged backgrounds in education. He has pushed to have more minority teachers in the classroom and integrate culturally responsive practices in VCU’s coursework. Daire has also increased the number of minority faculty, growing it to the largest number in the history of the school. He recently testified before Congress on educator diversity.

Daire said he is grateful to be in education during a time when diversity and inclusion are at the forefront nationally. He has advocated on the issue and been invited to many important discussions on diversity and inclusion.

“It’s about timing,” Daire said. “It’s about opportunity, and it’s about commitment.”

He added that he is pleased that leadership within the university has been supportive of his efforts. Advocating for diversity and inclusion would be harder without that support.

“The space and support that they have provided I do think contributes to any success that I have had within the school and within the community,” Daire said.

Michelle D. Hawkins, a program manager at the Institute for Contemporary Art at VCU, also was recognized Tuesday. Paul Rucker, curator for creative collaboration at the VCU School of the Arts, helped nominate Hawkins and said “she is a prime example of what you want to see in all humans.”

“She values people,” Rucker said. “She values all people and treats everyone with respect. With that respect, she treats everyone with fairness. In the process of being fair, she listens without judgement.”

Hawkins said she often prefers to work behind the scenes, because that it where she does her best work. She describes herself as a resource for others and an advocate. As part of that effort, she values diversity and supports different beliefs. She said she gained the value of hospitality from her mother.

“For me, hospitality embodies inclusivity,” Hawkins said. “It is treating others in a welcoming manner no matter their differences. Helping others is a great thing to do but helping others is the wisdom I have gained. And my own experiences have been very fulfilling. Being a service to others has allowed me to find value in my own work and experiences.”

Amanda Parks, a doctoral student in clinical psychology in the College of Humanities and Sciences, received this year’s PACME student award. Parks has been involved with the psychology department’s Marginalized Clinicians Advocating for Intersectional Change group. She also serves on the College of Humanities and Sciences’ Equity Diversity and Inclusion Committee.

Parks said she received the award because of her community. They are strong allies in the work that she is doing. Everyone works together to make the community a better place, she said.

“They encouraged me to be empathic and bold and to use my voice,” Parks said.

VCU on Tuesday also awarded a President's Inclusive Excellence Lifetime Achievement Award to Seth Leibowitz, Ed.D., executive director of health sciences programs and advising in the Department of Kinesiology and Health Sciences. Leibowitz has worked to create more diversity within the medical community. He has received national recognition for creating programs that enrich the lives of economically disadvantaged and minority students and help them reach their career goals.

He works hard to provide counseling and enriching experiences for students because he “wants to see their dreams come true.” Leibowitz acknowledged that many at VCU have worked hard to improve diversity within health care.

“The heart of VCU is our pre-health students,” Leibowitz said. “There are a lot of them. Many are first-generation college students and come from minority student backgrounds that are underrepresented in the health care workforce. They come to VCU because they want space in the professional programs on the MCV campus, and they want to serve patients like themselves.”