Meeting the Moment: Prize Recognizes Work Toward a Just Community

Adelle Patten ’21, Israel Palencia ’23 and T.J. Elliott ’21

(l-r) Adelle Patten ’21, Israel Palencia ’23 and T.J. Elliott ’21 drove the conceptualization and creation of the Black Lives Matter mural on campus.

Davidson College recognized three students and a staff member with the Spencer-Weinstein Prize for Community and Justice for sustaining dialogue on campus and fostering connection in an age of polarization and division.

The prize, created by close friends of the college Carole and Marcus Weinstein, is awarded annually.

The 2020-2021 recipients are T.J. Elliott ’21, Israel Palencia ’23, Adelle Patten ’21 and Yolanda Gilliam, associate director for diversity, equity and inclusion in the Office of Alumni and Family Engagement.

“The recipients of this particular year, who are so focused on all the current issues that matter to [Marcus and me] about race, nondiscrimination, fairness, equitable behavior—I congratulate the four of you and look forward to meeting you in the near future,” Carole Weinstein said at the recent Board of Visitors virtual meeting.

More than Art

Elliott, Palencia and Patten led the creation of the Black Lives Matter mural, an intricate design constructed with thousands of tiny ceramic tiles and located on campus near Alvarez College Union. They aimed to end the fall 2020 semester—following a year that saw protests and important work around racial equity and justice—with a project that displayed the collective values of the student body and the greater campus community.

“I was inspired last summer, seeing people creating street murals and art as a way to protest peacefully,” said Elliott, a Bonner Scholar who has played four years of football at Davidson. “Being recognized in this way tells us people are watching and paying attention to what students are saying.”

Elliott reached out to Patten, a studio art major, MacDonald Community Scholar and Fonville Scholar, who designed the mural.

“The timing was perfect,” she said. “I had been behind the scenes, and this was a way to confront the trauma people were enduring. Davidson can be unintentionally segregated, and the project sends an important message to those in the Davidson bubble and in surrounding areas.”

Palencia has two more years on campus and plans to continue leading efforts related to the project and its message. The students did not intend for the mural to be permanent, mainly because permanent structures take a lot of time to implement, and the students wanted to get the mural up quickly. Their hope is to keep it up through the end of 2021; after that, they’re considering selling groupings of tiles and using the profits to support related non-profit work in the area.

“We had great support from the college, which allowed us to get this done efficiently,” said Palencia, a Posse Scholar, Bonner Scholar and class of 2023 student government president. “We led it, but it was definitely a community effort. I think the Spencer-Weinstein Prize at its core aligns perfectly with what we were trying to accomplish—embrace opportunity and bring justice to all people.”

Finding a Passion

Yolanda Gilliam has been a part of the college’s alumni and family engagement team since the fall of 2013. She loves working with Davidson grads from all backgrounds, where she finds opportunities to advocate on their behalf and help move important initiatives forward.

“I get upset on behalf of other people all the time,” Gilliam said. “My job and recent antiracism and DEI work provide great ways to harness that energy. From our alumni of color to our oldest generations of alums, people tend to have ideas about these groups, and I’ve been able to speak up when needed. Sometimes that means positioning myself as a gatekeeper, and other times it is helping to elevate the voices of minoritized populations.” 

Gilliam has never met a stranger, a trait passed on to her from her father, and that has been one of the keys to getting the job done well.

“Many of the alumni volunteers I work with closely are older white men,” she said. “Once you talk to people, you realize there is always a point of connection. These relationships have become one of the best parts of my job.”

Gilliam’s DEI contributions have been celebrated over the past year, but she has been contributing quietly for years through conversations with leadership.

A long-time volunteer for Charlotte-Mecklenburg public schools and at the state level, she believes in contributing to her communities in whatever ways she can. Now, her Davidson position has been formally changed to reflect the importance of these contributions.

“This is my community, and I feel like it should be the best it can possibly be,” she said. “There has been a lot of DEI work happening in my office and across the College Relations division before it was popular, but last year, I finally said to myself ‘put up or shut up.’ I was talking a lot, but I wasn’t doing anything to push change. It was time to hold myself and all of us accountable if we were really going to be who we say we are as a division and a college.”

Today, Gilliam leads groups focused on antiracism and DEI work, both for her office and the division, and she has joined cross-campus conversations. She has attended trainings and earned a certificate through the Lenoir-Rhyne Equity and Diversity Institute. Gilliam highlights the importance of starting internally before taking the work to outside audiences.

“Examining our own policies and procedures first was key to being able to develop inclusive and equitable engagement strategies, and I think we’ve done a good job prioritizing the work in that way,” she said. “I have a lot of family members and friends who are not working in environments doing this work; we are lucky to have the option at Davidson. Truthfully, I had no plans to do DEI work, but I found I had a lot to say, and I found a passion there.”

About the Award

The Spencer-Weinstein Prize for Community and Justice, established by Carole and Marcus Weinstein and honoring the late President Emeritus Sam Spencer and his wife, Ava, recognizes students, faculty and staff working to foster dialogue across difference and build bridges for a more just community. The winners share a $10,000 prize. Carole Weinstein is a former member of the Davidson College Board of Trustees and currently serves on the Board of Visitors.

Additional Stories

Students Create Mural With Powerful Message

Published

  • May 10, 2021

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