I sat down yesterday to talk to the Edgar Beckham Helping Hand Awards committee to talk about what the awards are about, why these awards began, and a little more about who Dean Edgar Beckham was. The interview as follows is with Christian Hosam ’15, Nicole Okai ’14, and Evelyn Kim ’16. Also on the committee is Taylor Dauphin ’15.
For those who don’t know, what are the Edgar Beckham Helping Hand Awards?
Christian Hosam ’15: The Edgar Beckham Awards are awards that are designed for students, faculty, and staff who are doing dynamic social justice work on campus. It was started last year by Phabinly Gabriel ’13 and Luciana Pennant ’13, and it was really a fantastic show because I think what was going on was that it was a response to a lot of the negative things that were on campus at the time—in respect to racial profiling, academic discontent, and people feeling like they weren’t really affirmed in some ways. So the Edgar Beckham Awards are really a space for some positive affirmation.
How do you think these awards have contributed to Wesleyan’s campus—specifically towards students?
Evelyn Kim ’16: Well I know from when I first went I was a freshman, I think that as social justice is apart of every student of color’s life, whether or not you’re actively involved in it. And [the awards] kind of gave you something to strive for. Because before it wasn’t like these people who were being recognized—they weren’t striving for it because that wasn’t a thing that existed until then. But it kind of gave you something to strive for and something to look forward to.
CH: I mean I think that for the entire campus, a day towards the end of the year that really allows us to kind of come together and celebrate one another and honor one another is a really important thing to do. I think that one thing about this campus—the culture of this campus—is that it is so fast paced, that really having an opportunity to really kind of come together is really important.
You mentioned earlier that these awards were a sort of response. Could you elaborate more on why that was an impetus for creating these awards, and why they believed this would be an appropriate setting to celebrate this work?
CH: I don’t want to speak too much or Phabinly and Luciana, but I think that from their perspective—then I’ll talk about ours—you know, they really wanted to kind of have an opportunity to think about how we can sometimes in the midst of a lot of difficult dialogues going on around campus, really acknowledge that powerful work is still having us grow in sustaining this place. I think that what happens is that we are doing all of these talks and we’re having all these forums, and then really it doesn’t seem like anyone is really necessarily been listened to, so I think what these awards are for, for me and I think for us that are doing the work this year, is to say we hear you, we see you doing this really good work.
How have the awards changed from last year to this year?
EK: Well last year there were a lot more awards since it was the first of its kind, but you know if we continued to have all these awards, every single year, there will just not be enough people to give awards to. So we lowered the number [of awards] and we made specific types of awards, for example there is the Foot in the Door Award, which is for freshman who are doing really good work and taking good first steps. Then there are like inspiration awards, awards for different fields, like in the arts, in the sciences, academic excellence in general.
CH: And the last award is the Campus Inspiration Award which is one open to students, faculty, and staff. So we will see who wins that next Sunday, it’s actually going to be really exciting.
Who determines who wins what awards?
CH: For almost all of the awards, with one exception which we’ll keep to ourselves, there is an alumni committee that determines who gains the awards. So how it works is that the Alumni of Color Council chair, the Wesleyan Latino Alumni Network chair, the Black Alumni Council chair, Asian Asian-American Pacific Islander chair, and the Vice-Chair of the Alumni Council come together—and they make the decisions out of the nominations that we get. So we oversee the nomination process, then we forward them to the alumni who make the final decisions. An important thing to keep in mind, especially with the student awards, the alumni all graduated more than five years ago, so there is no bias.
Who is the alumni recipient, and can you talk more about why she’s receiving the award?
CH: The alumni recipient—the honorary recipient—as well as the keynote speaker is Daphne Kwok ’84, who is the first ever Asian-American member of the Board of Trustees, as well as I think a recent appointee to the council for Asian American Pacific Islanders around the country by President Obama. Daphne Kwok is someone who is reflective of what I think Wesleyan can be. I know her quite well—she was a Board of Trustee member, so like it’s kind of weird when you have the opportunity to interact with someone that really shows a commitment to students on campus years and years after they’ve left. And this being her first year as being a trustee emeritus, we thought it would be really appropriate to have her come back and be an honorary recipient of the award.
A lot of people groan at the sound of the $20 cost of the ticket. Why so high?
EK: Well we’re basically having a full catered, really fancy, really nice event to celebrate all these people, and I think if they were to know the cost that is behind this, twenty dollars is nothing. And also if you think about it, a lot of people spend twenty dollars just to go out to eat on a regular day, or more. And we’re getting really nice food, we get to dress up and have a fun time with our friends, and just enjoy a really celebratory night.
CH: So on one level, it’s the practicality of it is really interesting. For a four course dinner with the caterer we’ve gotten, and this is most caterers across the board actually, a meal like this will cost about fifty dollars. And that’s not including the awards, but it’s still a steep savings in terms of cost for the amount of food we’re getting.
Nicole Okai ’15: The cost of the ticket is definitely not to cover the event. Twenty dollars is way too low to cover the event. I guess I would push people to see what they would spend money on because we really didn’t think to make it as high as possible, some of the prices were higher last year, and we wanted to try and do something where would not be completely putting ourselves somewhere where we would be in the red or losing money, but we’re trying to having something leftover for the Edgar Beckham Fund, so the people next year have something to keep the event going. So twenty dollars does seem reasonable, and we thought about people who wouldn’t be able to afford it nonetheless, if it’s a financial reason, so we did say that they contact Persephone Hall or Christian. Well, if they contacted one of us, we would direct them to Persephone Hall so she could work with the people who need financial help.
CH: Because we do have a limited number of sponsorships. So if you do feel like it is too much but you want to come, please reach out to us because we think it is an important event for people to attend.
NO: And there are some departments that are sponsoring either the majors in their department or advisors that are sponsoring their advisees.
Where is the rest of the funding for the awards coming from then?
CH: Well, it’s coming from a number of places. So Nicole mentioned the Beckham Fund a little bit. Now the Beckham Fund was something that was established when Dean Beckham passed away. However, its purpose was really unclear and so when Phabinly and Luciana came up with the idea of these awards, that fund came up to people’s attention. So now that money is now being used. However, and this is why ticket sales are so important, every year, to put on an event of this level and caliber, the amount of money we take out of the Fund is going to be more and more. So it’s important for us to have that kind of cushion for it to keep it sustainable year after year. And I think that’s really why we think ticket sales are not something we think that is unreasonable. We also get a number of departmental sponsors, including SALD, the African American Studies department…
NO: The Office of Equity and Inclusion.
CH: They have really stepped up as a fantastic sponsor and has really committed to continue to be a fantastic sponsor. So really there are a number of places on campus we have been able to draw from.
NO: And SBC.
So you guys are on the committee, how did that form? And what were your responsibilities as students versus other partners in other departments?
NO: So I believe Phabinly and Luciana reached out after they were done planning it last year in the spring—they sort of reached out to different channels to see who would be interested in working on this. And so, I, and I think everyone else, just responded to that and we ended up being—Christian, Taylor who isn’t here, and myself, and then Evelyn express interest later and we brought her on in the fall. And it’s sort of just like—I didn’t attend the event last year but I heard about it and I heard how wonderful it was and how people were really excited that they got a night to not only dedicated it to people who do great work here, but also to just dress up and just like, be fabulous. So it was nice to get that going. And I think like our roles as students as we’re working with people like Gretchen in SALD and Andrea in Admissions is to sort of keep the vision of what the awards represent alive, and keep that student perspective where we can tell that something over twenty dollars would be too expensive for students or we can tell that this type of food would be better for students than others. Just like, even little things like that.
Is there something else you all may want to add?
EK: I mean, last year, I went as a freshman and I wasn’t going to go because I wasn’t trying to spend twenty dollars—or twenty five dollars, however much it was—so Phabinly sponsored my ticket. And I went, and it was really—I really enjoyed myself, it was really fun, it was cool to see everything going on and interact with all these people that I didn’t really know or just see alumni and faculty, people I have never really interacted with and hadn’t been involved with. And I didn’t necessarily meet everyone, but it was cool to be shown this—kind of sounds cheesy, but kind of being shown this new world, you know? And that’s why this year, even if I hadn’t been on this committee, I would have—and will be—shelling out twenty dollars. Because even though we’re on the committee, we’ve committed to paying for our tickets too.
CH: I would love to talk about, also, Edgar Beckham himself. I think it’s something important to do—Edgar Beckham was the first African American dean of the college. He as a lecturer in German when he first got here, and he really was committed to not only diversifying Wesleyan, but also making sure that it lived up to its commitments to social justice. And in fact, a really funny story I’m not sure everyone knows about, if people know about the Fisk Hall Takeover, where students really occupied Fisk Hall in 1969, it was Edgar Beckham who really slipped them the keys so they could get in the door so that space would be available to them. To really organize, but also be safe and protected in some ways. So there was that backing of activism even then so he’s a precursor to a lot of work that we really want to look up to today. So I think his namesake is really important as well.
NO: And I think that’s important to sort of honor right now, as Wesleyan stands in 2014, because a lot of students may feel that when they do participate in activism and they are active on campus, they don’t necessarily have the backing of the administration of other people who have more power than they do. So students that feel like they are sort of sticking their necks out and going at it alone and forgoing the homework that they have to do and the other responsibilities that they have as academics here, so it is great to honor someone who was in a place of power who did say, I’m going to go out on a limb and help you as a student. I think the event may on the surface seem like almost something that can be marketed by Wesleyan, like “oh come to this dinner where we honor diversity.” But I think deep down that it is important to spend time being in the same room, meeting new people, getting to talk to people who do work that you either work alongside them, or you may not really participate in, but you’d like to, and getting to see that different side. And now as we’re dealing with a lot of different events since I’ve been here as a freshman—with the need blind change, with sexual assault, with Public Safety issues, I think it’s really important for people to think about their commitment to helping Wesleyan becoming a better place. And I think it’s important to note that what we’re trying to promote is not you need to pay for a ticket to come here, it’s you need to come.
For those of you who are interested in attending the awards ceremony, here’s some more information: