Local social justice work recognized at annual Spring Celebration

Photo Credit: Van Brunt Visitors Center
Thu, 05/11/2023 - 11:28

The Institute for Ethnic Studies' annual Spring Celebration was held March 30 in the Van Brunt Visitors Center at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln (UNL). In addition to celebrating several of our faculty members’ noteworthy research accomplishments, a significant portion of the event was dedicated to honoring the efforts of students, professors, and community members who have worked for social justice.

The Leo Yankton Award for Indigenous Justice, which includes both an honorarium and a Pendleton blanket, is given annually to individuals who have contributed significantly to Indigenous justice in the spirit of community member Leo Yankton’s own dedicated activism. Mr. Yankton was a local Native warrior who died too soon on his quest for social justice, which included championing Indigenous People’s Day and protesting the Dakota Access Pipeline.

Renee Sans Souci and Joy Castro

Tom Gannon and Daelyn Zagurski.

The first recipient was Daelyn Zagurski (Ho-Chunk), a fisheries and wildlife major at UNL who has volunteered with the Nebraska Wildlife Rehab in Omaha and the Spring Creek Prairie Audubon Center. She is the current president of UNITE, the Indigenous student organization at UNL, and her undergraduate research includes work on the Genoa Indian School Digital Reconciliation Project.

Joy Castro and Renee Sans Souci

Joy Castro and Renee Sans Souci.

Local community member Renee Sans Souci (Umonhon) was the other recipient. Renee has been a Teaching Artist with the Lied Center since 2009. She has spoken at numerous conferences and workshops on such topics as Native languages, water and environmental science, Native science, the history of Indian education, and the ongoing crisis of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, Girls, and Two-Spirit People. She was also featured in the 2020 PBS American Masters Series on Susan LaFlesche Picotte. As one of the co-leaders of the Niskithe Prayer Camp, Renee is currently involved in the ongoing fight against the Wilderness Crossing Housing Development.

Each year, the Institute also gives the Rafael (Ralph) Grajeda Graduate Student Support Fund Award to a graduate student pursuing coursework and research in Chicanx/Latinx studies and a graduate degree in English, in honor of Rafael “Ralph” Grajeda, a beloved teacher, mentor, and scholar in those fields who co-founded the Institute in 1972.

This year’s winner was Katie Marya, a Ph.D. student in the Department of English where she studies Latin American poetry, creative writing, and translation. She has also completed degree requirements for a graduate specialization in Ethnic Studies.

In addition to her own work as an extraordinarily promising young poet whose award-winning first volume of original poetry Sugar Work was published last year and noted in The New York Times, Katie is a poetic and cultural translator of Puerto Rican and Latin American literature. She is completing her second book manuscript of original poetry, DRUM, as her dissertation, and translating for publication a book of poetry by Nicole Cecilia Delgado, one of the most important Puerto Rican writers working today.

The Rev. Dr. Michael W. Combs Awards are given annually to support undergraduate and graduate students and faculty members who follow in Dr. Combs’ footsteps as change agents for social justice and racial equality. A concerned and passionate advocate for historically excluded groups, Dr. Combs was a scholar of African American politics, constitutional law, and judicial politics and a beloved teacher, mentor, and leader who taught for 40 years at the University of Nebraska. Dr. Gwendolyn Combs initiated and generously supports this award, and Dr. Combs and members of the Combs family attended the Spring Celebration.

This year’s winner of the Combs undergraduate student award was Nyagoa Deng, a political science major with minors in human rights and humanitarian affairs and global studies who will graduate in May 2024. Nyagoa has demonstrated excellent leadership as the President of the Afrikan Peoples Union at UNL, as well as in her work as a mentor for students of underrepresented groups through the Buffett Foundation and the non-profit organization ROSS Leaders, which was founded by a South Sudanese activist to support new student leaders.

Alice Kang, Eli Ornelas, and Gwendolyn Combs

Alice Kang, Eli Ornelas, and Gwendolyn Combs.

This year’s winner of the graduate student award was Eli Ornelas. Eli is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Sociology who formerly served as a graduate TA in Ethnic Studies. An award-winning teacher, he has taught "Ethnic Studies 100: Introduction to Ethnic Studies" and "Sociology 217: Sociology of Race and Ethnicity," and he served as a panelist on the public-facing colloquium, “What Is Critical Race Theory, Anyway, and Why Do Politicians Care?”

Eli’s nominator praised his “unwavering dedication to social justice in and out of the classroom,” and his dissertation, which offers a “critical discourse analysis of the most often used introduction-to-sociology textbooks and journal articles published over the past twelve years in [the] discipline’s flagship journal American Sociological Review” to critique how the discipline of Sociology itself, which “has historically served as a tool of empire,” is presenting issues of race to new students and among scholars.

Alice Kang, Abla Hasan, and Gwendolyn Combs

Alice Kang, Abla Hasan, and Gwendolyn Combs.

This year’s recipient of the faculty award was Dr. Abla Hasan, an Associate Professor of Practice in the Department of Modern Languages and Literatures. Dr. Hasan earned her Ph.D. at UNL in 2013 and joined the faculty that year. Since then, she has taught a remarkable 78 courses, launched the Arabic Studies program at UNL, and developed all of the courses in Arabic language and culture that UNL currently offers. She regularly teaches "Women’s and Gender Studies 250: Sex and Gender in the Arab World."

Dr. Hasan has demonstrated extraordinary community engagement in her work as a leader in the Arab American community in Lincoln, including her efforts to bring Arabic as a heritage language of instruction into the Lincoln Public Schools, and her many guest-speaking engagements with various faith communities in Lincoln to raise awareness of interfaith commonalities and to engage in productive conversations about the Islamic community and faith.

The Institute for Ethnic Studies honors the excellent work of all these award recipients and is grateful for their impact on our community.