Tristen Taggart accepts the Riese-Melton Award at VCU's annual PACME celebration. (Photo by Tom Kojcsich, University Marketing)

Four recognized for their efforts to advance equity and inclusivity at VCU

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Tristen Taggart only prepared one speech. So at the end of Tuesday’s ceremony for the Presidential Awards for Community Multicultural Enrichment — after Taggart and the other honorees had already been recognized and as Taggart was being announced as the recipient of the event’s capstone award — Taggart gasped, perhaps more surprised than anyone. 

“I made it through my first speech without cursing — but damn,” a happy and somewhat overwhelmed Taggart said moments later. “The fact I have no idea what to say shows just how much this community means to me, because it’s really rare that I’m rendered speechless.”

Taggart, a junior studying gender, sexuality and women's studies and political science in the College of Humanities and Sciences, was one of four honored at Tuesday’s annual event celebrating those who advance equity and inclusive excellence at Virginia Commonwealth University. Christopher Brooks, Ph.D., an anthropology professor in the School of World Studies in the College of Humanities and Sciences; Barbara Payton, director of development for major gifts in the School of Dentistry; and the staff of the VCU Center on Health Disparities also were recognized.

The PACME ceremony was established in 1994 to recognize members of the university and health system community who promote civility and advocate for equity and inclusivity.

“If you think about VCU and what it really stands for, what we’re really trying to do, it's all about shaping society through social change, social justice and upward mobility,” said VCU President Michael Rao, Ph.D. “Ultimately, we want people to do well. We think back to about what the American dream really meant — and what it stood for — and what’s involved in that is really embracing all human beings.”

‘I am proud to be a part of that movement’

Payton, a longtime university employee who once served as executive director of the Medical College of Virginia Alumni Association, was recognized for her work at the dental school, where she recently created “The First 100,” a campaign to celebrate the school’s first 100 graduates of color and to build a stronger and more supportive environment for the next generation of multicultural students. 

A 1983 graduate, Payton said VCU has come a long way in creating a more inclusive environment.

“I really want to thank Dr. Rao for making multiculturalism and diversity an important element in [his] presidency and an important element at this university,” she said. “And I challenge all my colleagues to continue to work to assure that all voices of this university are heard and are a part of the conversation.”

Brooks, a member of the university faculty since 1990, said being on a campus and overhearing students conversing in different languages — Spanish, Chinese and Arabic among them — was a pleasure.

“It is a sign of where we are headed — and that is to become a more inclusive and diverse campus,” he said. “I am proud to be a part of that movement.”

Taggart agreed. The capstone award, the Riese-Melton, is presented annually to one PACME honoree for contributions to cross-cultural relations. Taggart, who uses the pronoun “they,” was recognized for their scholarship and activism regarding LGBTQ rights, and the rights of people with disabilities and those who have been physically displaced from their homes by economic deprivation or violence, said Judyth Twigg, Ph.D., a professor in the Department of Political Science.

Twigg called Taggart’s work “extraordinary.” Taggart said the credit should be shared.

“You all amaze and inspire me,” Taggart said. “You show me what happens when we work together to imagine more than what we were taught to believe in. I am honored to be a part of this community that we are creating.”