Members of the UO community honored at annual MLK Awards

MLK Awards winners 2020

More than 300 people from across campus and the community attended the Martin Luther King, Jr. awards ceremony and luncheon to honor King’s legacy and campus members who embrace King’s ideals.

Provost Patrick Phillips presented four awards at the Jan. 16 event in the Erb Memorial Union ballroom.

The Drum Major award, formerly the social justice award, was presented to Mercedes Langford, associate director of academic advising and student experience in Lundquist College of Business.

The inspiration for the Drum Major award is King’s words, “If you want to say that I was a drum major, say that I was a drum major for justice. Say that I was a drum major for peace. I was a drum major for righteousness.” At the UO, the award recognizes those who have made significant contributions for improving access and opportunity by dismantling barriers and putting into place policies, programs and initiatives that enhance opportunity and success for underrepresented populations. ​

Langford’s nominators pointed to her going above and beyond, whether launching initiatives, participating on committees or in her outreach efforts. She was described as being a mentor not only to students but also to staff.

Her collegewide series called “Diverse Narratives: Good Business Series,” showcased professionals from a variety of backgrounds who work in nonprofits, businesses and the community. She was an original member of the college’s Diversity Committee.

The LACE Award was presented to Janne Underriner, director of the Northwest Indian Language Institute. LACE stands for love, authenticity, courage and empathy. An awardee’s actions embody those concepts as they work quietly but effectively for change through selfless service.

Underriner has served native and non-native students, faculty members, staff and community members for more than 20 years. Nominators provided numerous examples of her work and devotion, from her caring relationship with Virginia Beveret, the oldest graduate of the UO who completed her doctorate in linguistics at age 90, to Underriner’s classroom teaching on native languages and language endangerment, advocating for the institute, meeting with reporters about native language revitalization, writing articles and conducting research and meeting with tribal leaders and state officials.

Two people received the Outstanding Diversity Practitioner award: Celena Simpson, assistant director of Pathway Oregon in the Tutoring and Academic Engagement Center, and Angel Dorantes, undergraduate advising and retention coordinator in the College of Education.

The Outstanding Diversity Practitioner award recognizes and celebrates colleagues on campus whose primary responsibility is in the area of diversity, equity and inclusion, but who go above and beyond the scope of their role. They are recognized due to their relentless support, advocacy and overall impact, both on and beyond campus

Simpson’s nominators described her as a “way finder, advocate, coach, mentor, and most importantly, someone who deeply cares about (students) — who they are, their context and history, and where they want to go.” She has been a leader with the Umoja Black Scholars Academic Residential Community since its inception in 2016; a longstanding member of the executive board of the Black Strategies Group; helped implement the University Enrollment and Student Services Diversity Action Plan; was an inaugural UO Search Advocate to improve the successful recruitment of diverse talent through search committees; and helped create a new training for student supervisors.

Dorantes nomination was spurred by his research, teaching and service, particularly on and for UO Latinx students, including co-authoring a peer-reviewed article used by university executives to “address issues, challenges and opportunities to better serve Latinx students at the UO.”

He served as the inaugural faculty advisor for the Latinx Male Student Alliance, which has grown from 20 to 60 participants since 2017, and has held college information workshops for more than 500 Latinx high school students. In 2018, he was awarded the Professional Advisor of the Year award and was then appointed to the All-Campus Advising Association Executive Committee to enhance advising universitywide.

In addition to the award presentations, the event included a welcome from Vice President for Equity and Inclusion Yvette Alex-Assensoh, musical performances, MLK tributes by students and faculty and staff members, and a call to action by President Michael Schill.

Schill spoke of both the university’s accomplishments and the need to continue its efforts.

“As a university, we recognize that while we have made incremental steps in the right direction, the struggle is far from over, and our work must continue,” he said. “Fostering equity and inclusion isn’t only the right thing to do, it makes our university better.”

Schill noted the current work of the Committee on Recognizing our Diverse History, saying the committee “is considering the many possible ways in which statues and artwork on campus can recognize people of diverse backgrounds and ways in which context can be provided for existing landmarks on campus that explains how our understanding of our political and cultural history has evolved over time. I would ask for all of your continued engagement and help as we look for ways our campus can serve as a learning environment for how we express and understand our diverse history.”

To close the event, 300 participants stood up and joined together to sing “We Shall Overcome” led by Andiel Brown, instructor in the School of Music and Dance.

—By tova stabin, University Communications