A Roosevelt University graduate elementary education student and two undergraduate students are being recognized by the prestigious Matthew Freeman Social Justice awards program, which annually highlights exemplary work by students who further the University’s social justice mission on campus and in the community.
Jenine Wehbeh, 25, of Chicago (above), a graduate student in Elementary Education, long-time organizer in the region’s Arab community and the education justice coordinator for the Illinois Safe School Alliance, took Roosevelt’s top social justice award for 2014.
Honorable mentions went to Roosevelt undergraduates Rafael Castaneda, 22, a social justice major, president of the Association of Latin American Students and a native of Woodstock, Ill., and Gianna Chacon, 19, a political science major, community and campus organizer and native of Dixon, Ill.
The award winners were announced on Wednesday, April 2 during the annual Matthew Freeman Lecture and Social Justice Award Ceremony featuring distinguished lecturer Victor Rios, a sociology professor at the University of California at Santa Barbara and the author of Punished: Policing the Lives of Black and Latino Boys (New Perspectives in Crime, Deviance and Law).
“This award is given annually in memory and recognition of the deep commitment that Roosevelt University student Matthew Freeman had for social justice and making positive change a reality,” said Heather Dalmage, director of Roosevelt’s Mansfield Institute for Social Justice and Transformation.
“We had a lot of great nominees this year,” she added, “ but these three students best epitomize what Matthew Freeman believed in and stood for.”
As a Roosevelt student, Wehbeh has been organizing on behalf of youth, families and community groups at the Illinois statewide level in favor of school discipline reforms that would limit student suspensions and expulsions, increasing the likelihood that students will stay on track to get their education rather than be put in the pipeline toward prison.
“Our intention is to make it more difficult for a student to be removed from the classroom,” said Wehbeh, who is working for legislation in Springfield that would make it more difficult for schools in Illinois to suspend or expel students. She is also pushing for legislation that would require greater transparency, including keeping data on demographics and reasons for student arrests, suspensions and expulsions. Wehbeh has also worked as an organizer with Chicago’s southwest side Palestinian community, both through VISTA and the Arab American Action Network.
Honorable mention winner Rafael Castaneda, who will graduate from Roosevelt in May, has been instrumental during his time at the University in advocating for creation of a multicultural center and for strengthening of the University’s Latino Studies and Spanish programs.
“We need a place where we can come together as different cultural groups and connect with one another,” said Castaneda, who has been working with Roosevelt faculty members and administrators to develop a student space for multiculturalism, possibly opening in time for the 2014-15 academic year.
Castaneda was named one of McHenry County’s best local citizens under the age of 40 in 2012; he was on the board of the McHenry County Community Foundation, a not-for-profit providing scholarships in his local community; and he also volunteers with the Family Health Partnership Clinic, which assists McHenry County residents who can’t afford health care.
“It’s a great honor to receive this award and to know that hard work does pay off,” he said.
Honorable mention winner Gianna Chacon, a sophomore, has spent her college career at Roosevelt organizing students around environmental justice, poverty and women’s issues. She is a student organizer at the Illinois-Indiana Regional Organizing Network, a progressive coalition of student campus organizations throughout Chicago and the nation that focus on addressing state, local and national issues; she is the co-founder and student organizer with RISE, a forum for Roosevelt students to connect to environmental and social justice organizations on campus and throughout the Chicago area; and she is president of the Coalition of Responsible Education, a forum for school organizations to meet and build networks of allies and assistance aimed at improving Roosevelt’s commitment to social justice.
“I wanted to go beyond a small-town environment and to do more than simply volunteer to help others,” said Chacon, who aims through her activism on campus to get at the root of problems so that best solutions can be found and implemented.
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