The 2021 Social Justice Awards honored Nicole Cooke, Toby Jenkins and recent University of South Carolina graduate Jay Urich for their work towards racial equality.
The annual awards ceremony, held on Thursday morning, is hosted as part of the university’s MLK Celebration, which commemorates the work of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. These awards "recognize individuals who exemplify the philosophies of King through random or ongoing acts of community service, social justice, or racial reconciliation," according to the university.
Traditionally, the ceremony is held alongside a large, commemorative breakfast, but this year was scaled down due to COVID-19.
The three award winners were presented with the 2021 Social Justice Award, as well as President Caslen's Coin of Excellence.
Dr. Nicole Cooke serves as the Augusta Baker endowed chair and associate professor for the School of Information Science. She is in her second year working at USC.
Cooke received the award for her work to diversify the field of librarians and her commitment to activism. Cooke said her idea of "cultural competence" is about being aware of others' differences and embracing them.
“Cultural competence is really at the cornerstone of what I teach. It represents the work that we have to do internally to be able to do the social justice work. In order for us to be able to interact and celebrate others, we have to know who we are as people, and we have to have that internal commitment and we have to maintain that commitment,” Cooke said.
Toby Jenkins was honored for her consistent advocacy of diversity in higher education. She is an Associate Professor of Higher Education and serves as Director of the Museum of Education. Jenkins spoke about transforming college campuses to be centers of belonging and inclusivity.
“We still have a lot of work left to do,” Jenkins said. “Even as we speak, new positions are developing, we’re diversifying our senior leadership to reflect this need. I think what’s a good thing is that we have made a public acknowledgment that we’re not there yet, but we’re committed to getting there.”
Jay Urich, who graduated from USC in December 2020 and played football for the school, created a nonprofit called Original Design. The group aims to support 10 and 12-year-olds in Columbia through supporting public health, faith and football.
"I am thankful that the message has really taken off because I think it's a message that really needs to be spoken about. The idea that we want Black lives to matter and matter is the minimum," Urich said. "That message is so important and I believe it's not just me saying that — it's all communities circling around that vision and that concept. It's been really cool to see how the community has circled around social justice and try to make this a better world."