Attorney and Memphis City Councilman JB Smiley urged the capacity crowd at this year’s Unity Luncheon at Middle Tennessee State University to embrace this year’s Black History Month theme of “resistance” to confront the inequalities that remain throughout our society.
“Resistance is the best tool and has always been the best tool to tear down systems of oppression and inequality,” Smiley said during his keynote remarks to the 250 attendees at the 27th annual luncheon inside the Student Union Ballroom. The event honored a new crop of “unsung heroes” from the Midstate community who have improved the quality of life of their neighbors and communities.
“Like many of us are doing now, we have our head down. We’re not paying attention, we are becoming numb to injustice,” Smiley continued. “You have to decide where you will stand, you have to decide if you will sit on the sidelines and be lukewarm or whether you will stand on the side of justice.”
Hosted by the MTSU Office of Intercultural and Diversity Affairs, this year’s event featured special award presentations to the following honorees and their respective categories as chosen by the university’s Black History Month Committee (expanded bios of the honorees are at the bottom of this story):
• Vanessa Alderson (Contribution to Black Arts)
• Marva Lucas (Education)
• Michael McDonald (Advocate of Civility)
• Joe and Sybil Rich (Community Service)
• Stacy Windrow (Excellence in Sports)
• Christopher Rochelle (Unsung Staff Award)
A short recap video of the event can be seen below:
Before Smiley gave his address, MTSU President Sidney A. McPhee addressed the audience, lauding this year’s honorees for their service and selflessness while also noting the recent discovery of a racist message found in a campus dormitory. He reiterated the university’s commitment “to maintaining a culture of inclusion, where all students and employees feel welcome and valued.”
“When events like this occur, we need individuals, like today’s ‘unsung heroes’ who are willing to step out of their comfort zones to challenge the status quo, not afraid to address the issues of today,” he said. “Individuals who put others ahead of themselves and who will give willingly of their time, talents and love for one another, to assure that the generations who follow will find a country, a state and a community that is stronger and more united.”
McPhee noted that a university campus provides “a place where people of all races and ethnicities, rich or poor, can come to exchange ideas and freely discuss the issues and challenges of today.”
“But we must also acknowledge that our campus, like the world around us is far from perfect — we must work every day to ensure that our students, our alumni and the community we serve are provided the tools and the opportunity to make the world a better place,” he said.
Smiley, meanwhile, noted the upheaval that continues back in his West Tennessee city following the brutal traffic stop beating death of Memphis resident Tyre Nichols at the hands of several police officers who were subsequently arrested and charged with second-degree murder after the incident was captured by a street camera.
Smiley, founding member of Smiley and Associates PLLC, told the audience that Tuesday, Feb. 7, was the first Memphis City Council meeting since Nichols’ death, a gathering that drew national media crews from outlets such as CNN, MSNBC, the Associated Press and others. “And it was emotionally draining. We talked about creating change with systemic issues.”
Smiley noted the critical efforts of prior generations to fight for civil rights and liberties, including that of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who succumbed to an assassin’s bullet in the city of Memphis in 1968 after he came to the city to speak to sanitation workers who were striking for better wages and working conditions. Such work must continue, he said.
“The only way we get to the promised land that Dr. King talked about … right here in this state, where the wealth gap is nonexistence, where race does not play a part in the type of justice you receive, where police do not over-police Black and brown communities, where the quality of education is not defined by income, or race, or zip code. The only way we get there is resistance.
“We have work to do. … Whenever you are told ‘that’s just the way it is,’ resist.”
In closing, Danielle Rochelle, director of the Office of Intercultural and Diversity Affairs, charged the audience, which included MTSU faculty, staff and administrators, to “take the words you’ve heard today and use them in your everyday life. Use them to encourage your neighbors, your colleagues and your students each and every day.”
Master of ceremony for the luncheon was Tony Strode, interim undergraduate admissions director, while singer/songwriter Sheena Nesbitt provided musical entertainment, including leading the audience in the singing of “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” sometimes referred to as the black national anthem.
Student Government Association President Jada Powell led the audience in recitation of the True Blue Pledge while SGA Chief of Staff Michai Mosby and Robert Carey, SGA election commissioner, announced the honorees.
Below is more information about this year’s Unsung Hero honorees:
• Vanessa Alderson (Contribution to Black Arts): Alderson is a proud NAACP Silver Life member and works as an educational assistant at Randolph Howell Elementary STEM School. She served as the 1982 Miss Black Middle Tennessee State University and was recognized and honored at Columbia State’s 2020 Black History Program honoring African American Crowned Queens. She worked with the assistant vice chancellor for federal relations in Washington, D.C., during President Barack Obama’s administration.
• Recently retired MTSU professor Marva Lucas (Education): Lucas served as an MTSU professor and chair of the University Studies Department in University College. Her personal and professional ambitions always included providing encouragement and assistance by managing programs that focus on the needs of the at-risk student population.
• Michael McDonald (Advocate of Civility): The Murfreesboro resident and MTSU alumnus was the first Black student body president at the university. He has served as a law professor who specializes in the areas of constitutional law, criminal justice, and due process and equal protection under the law. He was a member of the inaugural Teaching Tolerance Advisory Board of the Southern Poverty Law Center. Most recently, he was named a member of the Rutherford County Juvenile Justice Center Oversight Board Commission.
• Joe and Sybil Rich (Community Service): The Riches have a passion for serving others. The MTSU alumni credit their humble beginnings to deep family roots, strong faith and family core values, and compassion for others in need. Their commitment to performing acts of kindness is evident in multiple areas of community service, such as cooking meals for the elderly, delivering non-perishable food items to those in need and visiting area nursing homes, to name a few. They work tirelessly to serve those within the community, whether they know those whom they help or not.
• Stacy Windrow (Excellence in Sports): Windrow is a triathlete, two-time ironman, a six-time half ironman and has completed numerous sprint and Olympic triathlons, 10-plus marathons, and 50-plus half-marathons. Several years ago, she and husband Vincent Windrow, MTSU’s former associate vice provost for student success, established the Windrow Family Book Fund that provides scholarships to deserving Honors College students. She also serves as the co-chair of the Physical and Mental Health committee of the Rutherford County Alumnae chapter of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority Inc.
• Christopher Rochelle (Unsung Staff Award): As a member of the Black History Month Committee and as assistant director of the Charlie and Hazel Daniel’s Veterans and Military and Family Center, Rochelle works tirelessly to assist not only students but also faculty and staff. “He has a contagious enthusiasm that encourages those around him to work harder and achieve their goals,” said award presenter Robbie Snapp. “His dedication to his work, family and community, in addition to being the all-round go-to guy for so many things, makes him deserving of this award.”
For more information about 2023 Black History Month activities, visit https://mtsu.edu/aahm or email Danielle.Rochelle@mtsu.edu.
— Jimmy Hart (Jimmy.Hart@mtsu.edu)
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