Valronica Scales felt the call to work toward social justice while working in Chicago with low-income students and families.
Some were undocumented. Some spoke no English. Most were people of color.
“Because I spoke fluent Spanish, and had lived abroad for a number of years, I became their instant translator. It really helped me to understand their lived experiences, and how those intersected with the Chicago Public Schools,” says Scales, a doctoral student in the Department of Counseling and Higher Education.
“Our goal was to get them into college, and sometimes that was not the goal of everybody,” she adds, incriminating a “bureaucracy” that sought otherwise. “I would not be lying to say that role was very challenging and very difficult.”
For Jasmine Ivy, the mission has existed as long as she can remember.
Her father, Turon Ivy, has served for decades as an equity-minded principal at schools across Chicago – including hers while she was a student at Chicago International Charter Schools Bucktown.
Meanwhile, she says, many people mistakenly believe or assume that the desegregation of schools ended rcism and the oppression of students of color.
“The opportunities are there, but is it always a fair and equitable road to get that degree? No, it is not,” says Ivy, an M.S.Ed. student in Higher Education and Student Affairs. “The lessons that my father gave me are the lessons I want to share with everyone else, and something I’ve always admired is how he made sure that all students were given the same opportunities. I never think about it – I just do it.”
Ivy and Scales are the recipients of the 2021 Phyllis Cunningham Social Justice Awards, which provide $1,000 scholarships in acknowledgment of their continued efforts to pursue social justice initiatives.
Cunningham (1927-2012), a revered and deeply valued member of the NIU faculty from 1976 to 2003, applied her fierce commitment to social justice toward working tirelessly to meet the education needs of individuals of all walks of life and corners of the world.
Doing so created a lasting impression on her students, who in 1996 established a research award in her honor. After the professor founded the Phyllis Cunningham Social Justice Institute in 2010, the award evolved into an endowed scholarship.
LaVerne Gyant, professor of Higher Education, remembers Cunningham fondly.
“From the first time I met Phyllis, she was encouraging her students to think, teach and include issues of social justice in all their work. She believed that student activists were organic intellectuals and should be involved in the community wherever they were,” Gyant says.
“Phyllis once shared with a group of us that, ‘All soldiers won’t be saved in working for justice. So who will you be when you are keepers of the gate?’ This quote had a major impact on so many of her students to this day,” Gyant adds. “And when I think of the work that Jasmine and Valronica are doing, they are soldiers working for social justice.”
For Scales, who grew up in North Carolina, the passion kindled during her undergraduate years at Elon University as a Watson Scholar, student ambassador with the Multicultural Center and a resident adviser.
“It just became ingrained in me,” Scales says, “that when we’re working for the betterment of students, we’re working for the good of everybody.”
When she enrolled in graduate school at Loyola University in Chicago to pursue her master’s degree in Higher Education and Student Affairs, she was surprised and grateful to discover that the institution’s Jesuit values “fit hand-in hand” with social justice.
Loyola’s commitment “really aligned with who I was and what I wanted to do,” she says, adding that her arrival there, about 15 years ago, came at a time when “social justice was still becoming the ‘buzz word,’ and people were mistaking social justice for community service.”
“For me, it was really important that everyone understand what social justice meant, and that equity and inclusion were a big part of social justice. Shared language and understanding became the backbone of my work,” she says.
“Shared language prevents misunderstanding and creates trust to move forward toward the goals we want to achieve,” she adds. “When we’re using different vernacular and different language to talk about the same issue, we’re not going to be on the same page. And if we’re not transparent about what it is we’re working toward, all of the work and all of the things we’re working toward will be damaged.”
During her seven years Washington University in St. Louis, one of her eventual responsibilities included overseeing the Social Justice Center while also advocating for and leading the task force charged with the creation and development of the Center for Diversity and Inclusion.
Opening the center served a critical need, she says.
Although the university is wealthy, with an endowment of more than $8 billion, the campus is located in a part of St. Louis with a low socioeconomic status.
Supporting and connecting with those neighbors popped “the bubble,” she says – or, in other words, working for the good of all: “It was there that I really learned the importance of restorative practices and how important they are to social justice, to healing and to helping communities move forward,” Scales says.
“It was very exciting that the institution actually listened to us, and took stock in what we were saying,” she adds. “Educating students, faculty and staff who don’t have these lived experiences is really important to me.”
Her current role as director of Resident Life at the University of Maryland includes oversight of programs that teach diversity, equity and inclusion to not only students but professional staff as well.
Scales has been championing those causes off-campus since 2010 as a member of the Association for Student Conduct Administration: “It’s one of the most rewarding experiences I’ve been a part of,” she says.
She remembers originally finding a leadership that was mostly white; a quick look through the ASCA Board of Directors website reveals just how diverse it’s become.
“Making spaces has been a big part of my role as an educator, and as a Black woman in the field, to share lived experiences in spaces that not judgmental,” Scales says. “When you’re coming to a conference, and being able to sit with someone who identifies with you – with whom to process these experiences I’ve had – then those are the times when you can be vulnerable, that what’s said there stays there.”
Ivy’s path, meanwhile, is in her blood.
“I come from a family of educators,” the Chicago native says, “and education has always been a big part of my life.”
And after working at a special education cooperative during high school, she figured that specialty would become her major. However, she says with a laugh, “the whole lesson planning thing is not for me” even if the population was.
Coming to NIU in 2014 to earn a bachelor’s degree in Rehabilitation and Disability Services, she glimpsed her future – and her passion – in Higher Education and Student Affairs. It would allow her to help, to guide, to mentor and, she hopes, to become a hero to those who need one.
Part of that vision resulted from her membership (and eventual presidency) of the NIU chapter of the Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Incorporated. She also found community and leadership roles with the Campus Activities Board, the John Henrik Clarke Honor Society, the Black Student Union, the Succeed and Success Plan and E.B.O.N.Y. Women, where she now serves as graduate adviser.
Yet another part of her roadmap toward Higher Education and Student Affairs came from meeting Monique Bernoudy, assistant vice president for Academic Diversity, Equity and Inclusion at NIU, who offered Ivy a space to work, learn, serve and grow.
“Both of those gave me the idea that this is the place I want to be,” Ivy says. “I really want to work in mental health in a college setting, and in thinking about what route was the best for me, I am looking to now looking to work in the social justice field.”
That could include something similar to NIU’s Office of Academic Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, where she now is a graduate research assistant leading workshops on cultural competency training and coordinating the university’s Diversity Dialogues program.
It’s also where she’s helping to administer a campus-wide survey.
“We’re solely targeting the students just to see their feedback – to get their voice on the current climate,” she says. “Do they feel welcomed? Included? Safe? That’s really important for us to know now in this current political climate.”
Her future also could bring a second master’s degree in Clinical Mental Health, and maybe someday becoming a professor: She co-teaches HESA 502: Equity, Diversity and Social Justice in Higher Education with Gyant, her favorite professor and one of her mentors, and already loves conducting research.
No matter where the path might take her, Ivy is certain of her purpose – and grateful for the recognition and support found in the Phyllis Cunningham award.
“For me, this was just another positive reinforcement of the work that I get to do. That the work is never for me but that it’s always for my community. That the work I do is important, and it matters,” Ivy says.
“My work is hard, it’s stressful and it wears me out, but this is another reminder for me to keep going, to just make sure that my voice is heard,” she adds, “because when my voice is heard, all of my ancestors’ voices are heard. My community’s voice is heard, and everyone who looks like me – their voices are heard. Somebody has to stand up, and ultimately, that’s what I want to do. I want give every person a voice and empower them.”