Last summer, University of Pittsburgh School of Education EdD student Amira McLemore Wolfson won a giant tube of gummy bears for having the correct and quickest answer to a question posed by her colleagues during a presentation in her first week of classes. Wolfson wanted to pass on this feeling of encouragement to her classmates as they embarked on their shared academic journey.
Thus, McLemore Wolfson started a tradition of her own. She and classmates in the 2019 EdD cohort began passing around a self-made, cardboard tube to celebrate each other’s spirit. Throughout the year, after witnessing a peer who successfully completed a class presentation, exam, or paper, the student who held the spirit tube would pass it on to another student they saw as doing good work.
However, this ordinary piece of cardboard took on unexpected symbolic significance in 2020.
In the wake of the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and many other Black Americans, the members of the 2019 EdD cohort were moved to take action for justice.
Taking the words and aspirations of the Pitt School of Education’s mission-vision to heart, the students organized a town hall vigil on July 12 that featured a virtual session followed by an in-person gathering at Schenley Plaza. Participants at the in-person gathering wore face coverings and stood at a safe distance apart due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
That evening the EdD students announced the creation of the Equity and Justice Spirit Award. Its name was inspired by the cardboard tube the students passed around in class.
Putting Equity and Justice into Action
The Equity and Justice Spirit Award Endowment is meant to support and celebrate Black students in the School of Education who plan to work as practitioners in a wide range of educational settings in K-12 education, higher education, healthcare, and more. This endowment will provide financial assistance to Black students in the School of Education at the undergraduate, master’s, or doctoral level to assist with payment for tuition, books, supplies, and other costs associated with their academic journey.
The EdD students have been raising money for the endowment through the University of Pittsburgh crowdfunding platform EngagePitt. Within a week, the EdD students exceeded their original goal of raising $5,000. Now the EdD cohort has set their aim high with an ultimate goal of raising at least $10,000, which will allow the endowment to exist for years to come. The campaign is scheduled to end on August 26, 2020.
“Modeled after the gummy bear award that I had received in class, this Equity and Justice Spirit Award fund is intended to pass that same encouragement and support to other School of Education students as a legacy to the hard work and commitment to equity and social justice in education,” says McLemore Wolfson.
As a Pittsburgh Public Schools’ Program Officer in the Program for Students with Exceptionalities, McLemore Wolfson is responsible for supervising special education compliance and monitoring programming at seven K-12 East End area schools.
Her role as an educator and as a mother of two children are what moved her to action.
“When I became aware of the murder of Mr. George Floyd, and watched the protests rage across the nation and in our city, I wanted to do something,” says Wolfson. “For my children. For other people’s children. Especially as it pertains to education and leadership.”
Fellow EdD student Marlon Mussington is often reminded of how few Black Americans are working or pursuing careers in education. The underrepresentation is why establishing an award for Black students within the School of Education “felt so right” to him.
“There are many factors that contribute to this lack of diversity in education, and cost is one of them,” says Mussington. “I want this award to assist African American students in their educational journey and to provide the financial support many of these students need but often struggle to find.”
A Student-Led Effort
“I am extremely proud of this group of students for their vision, perseverance, and collective leadership on this project,” says Thomas Akiva, an associate professor and the EdD director at the School of Education. “The EdD students bring an amazing light into the School of Education. We present the values of the mission-vision, and they hold us to those values. We challenge them, and they challenge us. It is an honor to partner with them in learning and in carrying out the mission-vision.”
McLemore Wolfson says that the first time she read Dean Valerie Kinloch’s new mission-vision for the school, she was “blown away” by the school’s commitment to holding itself accountable around the principles of equity, justice, and the well-being of all people.
Shederick McClendon, Assistant Dean of Student Engagement, sees the School’s mission-vision interwoven throughout this new initiative.
“In our School’s mission-vision, we say that we commit to student, family, and community success. This scholarship certainly provides an infrastructure to support student success,” says McClendon. “It is a perfect example of the EdD students bringing that to life since this gift to a deserving student could make a huge impact and contribute to their success.”
“In some ways, this award has already brought life to the School’s mission-vision,” he says. “The creation of the award demonstrates a commitment to educational equity, and our attempt to disrupt and transform inequitable educational structures by creating greater access and opportunity for a group of people who have experienced centuries of injustice.”
The 2019 EdD cohort believes that the proposed scholarship will be a positive initiative for the University and the School of Education, but most importantly, for the students.
“Who knows where this will go, or who it will motivate, but I’m so happy to know it’s happening right now, with the support of so many incredible people associated with the university and School of Education,” says Mussington.