3 with social work ties receive Burnside Watstein LGBTQIA Awards
Four members of the VCU and Richmond community were honored March 31 with the annual Burnside Watstein LGBTQIA Awards – three with connections to the School of Social Work, continuing a tradition of recipients from the school.
Awardees are Julian Kevon Glover, Ph.D., of the VCU Department of Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies; Melissa-Irene Jackson; Beck Oh; and Van Vox. Here are more details about the last three, all of whom are members of the SSW community.
Melissa Irene-Jackson: ‘If other people believe in us, we believe in ourselves’
In a divisive society where members of the LGBTQIA community are dealing with “so much fear and anxiety,” Melissa-Irene Jackson carries the hope of unforeseen outcomes.
“Oftentimes when folks are coming to terms with who they are, the fear is so strong that it feels insurmountable,” says Jackson, a 2018 M.S.W. alum who has worked as the manager of social work at the Virginia League for Planned Parenthood. “And there’s a reason so many people in this community struggle with thoughts of self-harm in their life, because the world isn’t really a nice place. And the truth is, we have no idea what will go right in our lives, it’s easy to add up all the things that can go wrong, to itemize those. … It’s impossible to know the things that will go well.”
During graduate school, Jackson was approached by a VCU College of Health Professions affiliate faculty, Patricia Carcaise-Edinboro, Ph.D., about the need to provide programming for VCU students in health disciplines to ensure better understanding and care for LGBTQIA patients. Jackson initially assumed she was being consulted rather than being asked to speak.
“So she was like, ‘What month is good for you? Clearly you’re a good fit.’ That really caught me off guard,” says Jackson, who is a resident therapist for the LGBTQ+ adult counseling and wellness firm Queerwell, and is focusing on licensure prep this summer.
“I decided I’m going to say yes to every opportunity to do work for the community or to advocate or speak somewhere or to consult. And I’m at a point now where I’d have to turn things down because I’m too busy. You know, if other people believe in us, we believe in ourselves a lot of times. Opportunity finds us that we couldn’t have thought of for ourselves. And it starts by believing in ourselves and not apologizing for who we are.”
Jackson has also worked with PrideRX, a pharmacy student organization that provides a space for LGBTQIA+ individuals and allies at the VCU School of Pharmacy. She sees a desire for inclusivity in the students she meets.
“There’s a really consistent theme among future doctors, dentists, pretty much anybody who’s on the rise in health care,” she says. “It seems like everybody just wants to do right by their patients. They care a lot about getting these things right. And that seems to be a shift. There’s way more of a hunger for it.
“We know that sometimes people get kicked out of doctors’ offices, and that seems to be changing with the rising generation. And so I’m always glad to get those invitations to come talk to future providers, because it’s so important.”
That type of care is crucial for people with a fear of the health system and who have faced discrimination against their identities, Jackson says.
“A lot of LGBT folks, and especially trans and nonbinary patients, feel this baseline anxiety and fear of finding a therapist or a doctor,” she says. “We have data that shows that, especially, trans and nonbinary people actively avoid seeking medical care if they’re sick or injured out of fear of mistreatment, because it’s so widespread.
“The whole idea is that we go to the doctor expecting to be treated with dignity. Most of the harm that occurs is well intentioned, it’s not malicious. I’m glad that they’re not being treated maliciously, but it’s a lot harder to correct the well intentioned harm, right? There’s also a power dynamic in play in care relationships.”
Queerwell’s therapists are LGBTQ-identified, Jackson says, providing a safe space where clients do not have to “overly explain themselves,” and where there is a foundational understanding. “A lot of the people who seek therapy are not looking for therapy in relation to their sexuality or their gender. Sometimes that’s the only thing in their life that makes sense,” Jackson says. “But if you are looking for a therapist, someone who doesn’t understand that important piece of who you are … having to educate someone about your lived experience is not therapeutic.”
Jackson says the Burnside Watstein Award is gratifying as validation for good work and also to recognize the legacy of its namesakes, Chris Burnside – who spoke at the ceremony – and Sarah Watstein, former Equity VCU co-chairs.
“I don’t think anyone doing this work does it for the accolades, but who doesn’t like to know that people recognize and appreciate the work you’re doing?” Jackson says. “I like to think that most of the time the work I’m doing benefits people. It’s nice to help steer that inner compass to get that external validation: ‘OK, I’m doing something right.’ …
“Chris, and people like him, when he was coming of age, refused to take no for an answer and lived his life with dignity: ‘This is who I am and I’m not going to apologize for it.’ I often find myself saying in community spaces that we’re standing on the shoulders of the people who have come before us, who have suffered.”
Jackson attended the awards ceremony with her parents and her wife, Catherine Paul. Jackson was introduced by Liz Canfield, Ph.D., associate professor and associate chair in the Department of Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies. Canfield helped advise Jackson as a student and later officiated her and Paul’s wedding – the couple met in the M.S.W. Program at the School of Social Work and graduated together in 2018.
It all brought back memories of Jackson’s nearly 15 years at VCU, starting as an undergraduate – and working through depression and an eating disorder – earning a post-baccalaureate degree and working as a research specialist before earning her master’s.
“I feel like I’ve lived five different lives, where I was in my life and the things I used to suffer with. And now life’s pretty good,” Jackson says. “A lot of that has to do with the people in my life who have supported me, trusted me, challenged me. Liz is one of the most important people in my life. In a small way, the award just uplifted all of those things, because it’s impossible to imagine my life without my experiences at VCU.”
Beck Oh: ‘making students feel seen, affirmed and valued’
Beck Oh was doing what she always does as interim program manager for the VCU Office of Multicultural and Student Affairs (OMSA) – creating affirming, welcoming spaces for students who might not otherwise have a place to feel safe and connected.
And this time, one of those students took the time to nominate Oh, an M.S.W. student in the VCU School of Social Work, for the Burnside Watstein Award.
“It was definitely a surprise for me,” says Oh, whose pronouns are she/they. “I was deeply honored when I learned that a student I had met in September 2022, at an event featuring two queer Latine musicians, had nominated me. It’s been very meaningful to get to know them, see them come to multiple events, and also to know that a queer, Asian student was the one who nominated me.
“As a queer Asian American, I am deeply aware of what it’s like to be a minority in queer spaces, and I also know that I cannot, as an individual, represent the expanse of identities within the LGBTQIA+ community. However, I believe it is my obligation to make students of color, who don’t look like me, feel affirmed and find community. It’s why I am committed to building relationships with people and inviting speakers, who can make our students feel seen and understood in a way that I cannot.”
Programming for inclusion
Oh started with OMSA as a graduate assistant in 2021-22 before moving to a full-time position. Working to build relationships between VCU and local Indigenous tribes, Oh has attended pow-wows with the Chickahominy and Rappahannock tribes and has invited six Indigenous women to lead programs, such as an event where students learned how to make their own beadwork keychains.
“We want to not only help VCU community members learn about the history, cultures and continued existence (and resistance) of Indigenous people, but also make Indigenous students feel seen and celebrated on campus,” they say. “My goal is to organize a pow-wow here at VCU sometime in the next year.”
Some of events Oh is most proud of are:
- Queer Solstice Supper, a holiday dinner that more than 100 LGBTQIA+ students attended. “We wanted to especially celebrate the students who may not feel safe or fully accepted when they go home for the holidays,” Oh says. “I’m so grateful that folks from the School of Social Work actually volunteered to help serve food, including Dr. Elizabeth Cramer, who was one of my professors at the time.”
- Sickening! A Queer Halloween Affair, a party at the Institute for Contemporary Art attended by over 200 students, which included a costume fashion show and drag performances. “My goal was to provide a space for students to experience the joy and freedom that I believe is inherent in queerness, in the midst of all the hate that they may see on the news or when they go home to their families. What better way to do that than have the students see drag performers like Melanin Monroe perform with so much fearlessness and artistry?”
- Trans-spiration: A Conversation with Trans Mentors, a panel discussion featuring older trans people, where they discussed finding community, navigating the workplace and getting older while being transgender. “A lot of times it can be hard to imagine what life looks like when you get older, as marginalized people. … Will I be happy? Will I have people who love and accept me for who I am? My goal was to give trans students the opportunity to meet older trans people, and learn that it is fully possible to live a life of self.”
- Black & Queer @ VCU, a discussion and mixer for LGBTQIA+ Black members of the VCU community. Four Black and queer VCU staff members served as panelists and discussed exploring identity, religion, family dynamics, dating and more. “Black and queer people experience specific joys and obstacles that are not experienced by non-Black members of the queer community. I wanted to provide a space for students to meet peers, staff and faculty who have had similar experiences.”
As a social work student in the clinical track, Oh says her training “makes me value the importance of making students feel seen, affirmed and valued. Sometimes that means me taking the time to learn someone’s name and asking about what their hobbies are, or what challenges they’re facing. And sometimes it means recognizing that I need to create spaces where they can meet people with similar life experiences.”
Oh says support for the LGBTQIA+ community can take a few different forms, from event programmers adopting a similar mindset for inclusion, to volunteer opportunities.
“I would encourage other folks who do program planning to think about how various aspects of an event can make students/people of color feel either welcomed or marginalized – from music playing in the background to the food you order to the identities of any speakers you invite,” they say. “We definitely welcome volunteers to assist with events like Lavender Graduation, a ceremony for graduating LGBTQIA+ students, and the Queer Solstice Supper.”
Van Vox: ‘Humbling, affirming, validating’
For Van Vox, it was another stressful day as the project specialist for Marsha & Marian’s Neighbors, a grant-funded shared housing program that is administered through the VCU School of Social Work. And she would be crying soon enough.
The reason for the tears, though, was the completely unexpected affirmation and appreciation for all the hard work and commitment to the project and the population it assists – youth with the lived experience of houselessness who partnered to design the program.
Vox had just learned she had been named one of the recipients of the 2023 Burnside Watstein Award, an annual VCU honor that recognizes those who make a significant difference in the lives of LGBTQIA+ faculty, staff, students, alumni and local community members. The awards ceremony was held Friday, March 31.
“I had absolutely no idea,” says Vox, whose pronouns are she/they. “It wasn’t even on my radar that it was a thing, much less that I’d be chosen for it. The email notification popped right before I was meeting with a landlord. I’d had a really challenging day. For whatever reason I chose to open it. I didn’t even get through the whole email before the tears came. It was humbling and affirming and validating and all the things.”
Vox is a two-time VCU graduate, having earned a B.S. in sociology in 2011 and a master’s in social work in 2020; they also hold a certificate in gender violence and intervention from 2020.
Vox says they did not know the specifics of the award nomination and assumes “this is courtesy of the work I’m doing now, and I’ve been (advocating) for a decade.”
Leading Marsha and Marian’s Neighbors
Marsha and Marian’s Neighbors is funded through a significant Virginia Housing Trust Fund Homeless Reduction Grant and serves youth 18-24 with the lived experience of housing instability/houselessness who identify as LGBTQ+ and/or are pregnant or parenting. Vox says she started with a folder in Google Drive containing a few documents that represented the “labor of young folks who were brave enough to radically imagine something better than they’d experienced.” From there, Vox and team built a fully functioning program that provides homes, education, research and resources for 20 individuals.
“We are rooted in values, community care, and restorative justice,” Vox says. “I’m leading my team and our young people, and I’d say my role is to show up in whatever way the program, my team and my youth need.
“I write policies. I make hard decisions when I need to about those policies. I drive U-Haul trucks and lift heavy (stuff). I deliver food. I mediate roommate conflict, which I realized today means I’m finally using those couple’s counseling skills from grad school. I tell my youth really cheesy dad jokes when they need it. I answer the phone for my team after hours when I know they don’t need something but they needed me to answer and hold space for them to just be.
“I truly believe the biggest difference I can make for anyone is just showing up, and the most important thing a social worker or human can do for another human is to show up for them. It’s an honor to be able to show up for the folks I love, and it doesn’t take much to love folks when you believe that people are inherently worthy of love.”
Vox says the work of the project team – peer navigator Jae Lange, resource advocate Zainab Kamarah, M.S.W. intern Camryn Bosko and B.S.W. intern Atlas Agustin – “is revolutionary because we’ve created something so special and humane, and we’re meeting people where they’re at in a way that’s not being done in the housing world. And I know that using the language of ‘meeting people where they’re at’ is almost meaningless without context because it’s social work buzz words.
“This is all messy,” she says, “and the most important thing I’d say we’ve done is rejecting the status quo and radically imagining a space where the ultimate goal is upholding the dignity and worth of every human being we serve in all the ways they show up. We’ve done that and are doing that. It shouldn’t be special, and it is. Every human being deserves to know and be reminded of how much they’re worth.”
Vox’s award is affirmation for the work they have been doing – the type of work that often had unfavorable outcomes in the past.
“I’ve never done anything in an effort to be recognized or to get something external out of it,” they say. “And, being affirmed like this is so significant. I’ve spent my entire life fighting just to exist. I’ve lost jobs because I chose to stand up for my community. I’ve been tokenized and exploited for being who I am. I’ve been told I’m too much and somehow not enough.
“I’ve never been valued in the work in a meaningful way. If you’re told those things for long enough, there’s pieces that start to believe it. All I’ve ever wanted was to be seen, and I’ve not only gotten that in the work I’m doing now but am being recognized for it in a community setting, and that is everything.”
Supporting Marsha & Marian’s Neighbors
You can donate to the project online.
Previous Burnside Watstein recipients from the School of Social Work
- 2008: Alum Rachel Kopelovich (Douglas), M.S.W.’08
- 2009: Alum Tarynn Witten, M.S.W.’03
- 2013: Professor Elizabeth Cramer, Ph.D., LCSW, ACSW
- 2016: Alum Brenda Kriegel, M.S.W.’79, LCSW
- 2018: Alum Afton Bradley, M.S.W. ’13
- 2019: Alum Caroline Richards, M.S.W.’22