The Wheaton College community honored a professor and a student this week for their contributions to creating a more diverse, inclusive and welcoming campus community.
The college’s second annual Martin Luther King Jr. (MLK) Legacy Awards were presented to Peony Fhagen, associate professor of psychology and chair of the psychology department, and Michael Ivory ’17, a student leader active in promoting intercultural understanding and equality through a variety of organizations and activities.
The awards were presented on Monday, March 6, in Cole Memorial Chapel as part of the college’s MLK Legacy Celebration. The event also highlighted creative works by students that reflected on civil rights themes and featured a keynote address by Evelyn Simien, a noted scholar in political science and Africana studies at the University of Connecticut.
Following a performance by the Wheaton Chamber Singers, which opened the event, President Dennis M. Hanno observed that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s inspirational leadership is especially important today.
“The ideas that he shared and the leadership he demonstrated are something that we can all look to for our own inspiration and guidance, particularly when times look dark and we are uncertain how we will move forward,” he said.
President Hanno added that every member of the community has a responsibility to play a role in moving forward and improving the campus climate.
“We must speak up about the things we see that need to be addressed,” he said. “It is our responsibility, everyone on this campus, to move forward by doing something about it.”
The creative works highlighted this year—and performed at the event—included song, spoken word and theatre. Cheyenne Bates ’20 received third place for her one-minute play inspired by the Every 28 Hours show held on campus in the fall; Anesu Makufa ’20 took second place with a poem titled “Welcome to America: Tales of an African Child”; and Genesis Moldanado ’20 won first place with her song, “Don’t Judge Me.”
Olivia Benissan ’19, current vice chair and incoming chair for the Intercultural Board as well as the president of the Black Student Association (BSA), presented the MLK Legacy Awards to Fhagen and Ivory.
“As a scholar and a faculty leader, Professor Fhagen has worked for years to create an inclusive community at Wheaton,” Benissan said, referencing Fhagen’s work in organizing the faculty development program, which focuses on ethnic and racial differences; co-organizing the faculty diversity workshop held over the summer; and co-chairing a task force charged with developing a strategic plan on inclusion and diversity.
Discussions of racial and ethnic differences are “some of the most difficult and important conversations a group can have,” Benissan said. “These issues are particularly crucial at this moment, and Professor Fhagen is leading the way in encouraging faculty to address these issues in our classrooms and among ourselves, where the work truly needs to begin.”
Dean of Students Kate Kenny, who co-chairs the Diversity and Inclusion Task Force with Fhagen, said the professor was the perfect choice for the award, given her service and the expertise she brings to the work as a scholar on racial and ethnic identity.
“She has stepped up and stepped in to assist with sharing her experience, knowledge and true care for how we develop ourselves as faculty and staff in order to best serve our student population,” Kenny said. “Her dedication, willingness to serve, and expertise has been instrumental in assisting us with increasing our capacity on campus in areas of diversity, understanding and inclusion.”
In a similar vein, Benissan said that Ivory, a political science major from the Bronx, N.Y., is “recognized by people across the campus as one of the most committed and active members of the Wheaton College community.”
A senior resident assistant, Ivory has a “well-deserved reputation for building community in many different places across campus” through his work as a co-facilitator for intergroup dialogues at the Marshall Center, a leader of the BSA and a leader and founder of the Queer and Trans People of Color (QT-POC) group.
Through his “thoughtful and persuasive input,” Benissan said that Ivory has “lived his whole Wheaton experience doing things for others, helping so many on campus view important issues from new perspectives, while positively shaping our community every step of the way.”
Speaking after the ceremony, Tai A. Feaster, assistant director of intercultural programming, said that Ivory stood out for his interest in issues of social justice and campus leadership from his first days as a student.
“He has always been one of the strongest proponents of social justice programming in the residence halls,” Feaster said, noting that he won the Programmer of the Year Award in its inaugural year. “The ideas that he put into action have really inspired his fellow RAs to do more with their programming, too.”
Those who know him also note his great sense of humor and positive attitude. Said Feaster, “He’s one of those people who, if you are having a bad day, you are not going to have a bad day after you talk with Michael.”