Building Community Through Art and Service: Meet the 2024 Spencer-Weinstein Award Winners

The lobby of the Visual Arts Center

Davidson College recently recognized one student and one staff member with the Spencer-Weinstein Prize for Community and Justice, honoring their respective legacies of commitment to the Davidson community through art and service.

The annual award was created by close friends of Davidson College, Carole and Marcus Weinstein.

The 2023-2024 recipients are Bonner Scholar Mav Smith ’26 for her community leadership and dialogue-inspiring spoken word poetry, and Director and Curator of the Van Every/Smith Galleries Lia Newman for her pursuit of a more just community and world through collaboration and art. 

Mav Smith ’26

Mav Smith ’26

Lia Newman

Lia Newman, Director and Curator of the Van Every/Smith Galleries

Mav Smith ’26

When Mav Smith thinks about the people who have guided her most over the years, she thinks of teachers.

“The school system really put its arms around me,” she said. “Teachers were always a bridge between me and the professional world — they showed me how to advocate for myself beyond the classroom.”

After learning about Davidson through the Posse Scholars Program, she knew she wanted to be somewhere she could explore multiple disciplines and build connections with mentors across campus. 

This summer will mark Smith’s second year working as a servant leader with the Brenda H. Tapia Children’s Defense Fund Freedom Schools Program, where she mentors and teaches grade school students and new interns alike. The six-week summer program supports the long-term success of youth through the literacy-rich and culturally-rich curriculum. For Smith, it’s a rewarding way to build trust and community outside of Davidson. 

“You see these young people come in solemn and quiet, and by week six, they’re confident enough to speak into a microphone,” she said. “It’s an amazing group of young scholars.”

A Patricia Cornwell Scholar double majoring in English and Africana Studies, Smith came to Davidson with a proclivity for written word and performance. She participated in theatre growing up and often wrote lyrics to her own hip-hop songs, experiences that have helped her develop as a spoken word artist. 

While going through a difficult time as a middle school student, one of Smith’s teachers gave her a journal and encouraged her to channel her anger and pain into writing. She filled every page. Now, through writing and performing poetry, she’s learning to share that vulnerability with others. 

“A lot of people don’t realize how much writing can be a ministry,” Smith said. “Creative inspiration coming from pain always affects people. It creates connection, empathy and understanding. It’s beautiful but scary, and I’m learning to put that part of myself out there.”

In the fall, she worked with Campus Pride to develop a series of spoken word videos for National Coming Out Day and, last year, she performed a piece at the college’s  annual Celebration of Service. More recently, she performed original spoken word pieces at the Town of Davidson’s Martin Luther King Jr. Day Celebration and at the Smithville Community Coalition’s Black History Month Celebration in Cornelius. 

Smith performs "Who I Am" Spoken Word for National Coming Out Day

Every audience reacts differently to poetry, and Smith aims to understand the community she’s speaking to without compromising her vulnerability.

“There are some things people won’t fully get unless they’ve lived it,” she said. “It can be hard to convey personal information to different audiences. You can never truly understand another person, but it’s important to write authentically.”

Lia Newman

In her work on Davidson College’s Special Committee on Commemoration and through her partnerships with artists in the Davidson community and beyond, Newman has learned the best relationships take time to build. 

Through art, she encourages the campus community to confront difficult topics like poverty, war, immigration and Indigenous rights. A recent example is the exhibition Spaces of Comfort, the result of a two-years-long residency with internationally acclaimed artist Endia Beal.

“I wanted to bring in an artist with the goal that they would spend time with students and get to know our community before commissioning a piece,” Newman said. “I trusted Endia to find what needed to be discussed on campus.”

The more time Beal spent meeting with students, the more she understood how they interacted with one another, where they felt comfortable on campus and where they felt isolated. In the end, the exhibition focused on eight pairs of students who didn’t know each other. Beal then photographed each student in their paired partner’s space of comfort. 

Two students in each others' spaces of comfort. One male student stands in an art gallery and a female student is seated on a piano bench.

Spaces of Comfort by Endia Beal

Now installed across campus, the photographs depict the differences and commonalities between students from different worlds. 

“Endia would not have been able to make this work without students who were willing to engage and be vulnerable about their concerns on campus,” Newman said. “Davidson students are open to these conversations because they are invested in creating a more just world.”

As an adjunct assistant professor this semester, Newman teaches a course on purchasing art for Davidson’s galleries, which immerses students in the world of art curation and collection. The class recently took a trip to New York City to purchase two works for the college’s permanent collection. 

For the past four years, outside of her galleries and faculty responsibilities, Newman has played a large role in bringing a commemorative site to campus, dedicated to the enslaved and exploited laborers who helped build the college. Last year, the committee announced plans for artist Hank Willis Thomas, in collaboration with global architecture firm Perkins&Will, to create the memorial site and sculpture, With These Hands.

“I’ve been really proud of the way Davidson has approached this project with time and care,” Newman said. “We spent two years just studying how memorial sites function and how different audiences engage with them. The best memorials are ones where people can learn something while also having an emotional and empathetic reaction.”

Looking toward future artistic collaborations, Newman is especially excited to continue building relationships with partners on campus and beyond. The collaboration, Dúta Bahiisere Kus Rá’here (We Know Corn Together), began in 2021 with the outdoor installation Unshadowed LandFrom Indigenous artist Nicholas Galanin, the piece depicts the shape of the Andrew Jackson monument on Lafayette Square in Washington, D.C. The following spring, Davidson volunteers partnered with members of the Catawba Nation to plant native corn inside the monument’s shadow. 

“We’ve had so many great experiences and conversations around hard topics through art,” Newman said. “I love getting to support someone else’s artistic voice and bringing others together around it. I want our work to be grounded in building lasting relationships.”