2022 Unsung Hero Award Winners

The 37th annual Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Celebration Committee has announced the 2022 Unsung Hero Award winners.

The Unsung Hero Award is given to community members, students, faculty and staff who have made positive impacts on the lives of others but are not widely recognized for their contributions. The awards were created to honor Dr. King’s vision of creating positive change in a troubled world.

The award winners will be recognized at the 37th annual Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Celebration. The event will be held online on Sunday, Jan. 30, at 7 p.m. featuring keynote speaker Martin Luther King III. Registration for the celebration is open to all and available on the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Celebration website.

This year’s Unsung Hero recipients are:

Nathena Murray ’22 (Syracuse University Student)

Nathena Murray, a senior medicinal chemistry and neuroscience major in the College of Arts and Sciences, is a heavily engaged member of the Syracuse community both on and off campus.

Nathena Murray

Nathena Murray ’22

Murray has deeply impacted and inspired her peers through her involvement in various organizations on campus. She had made a lasting impact through her involvement with the Juvenile Urban Multicultural Program, known as J.U.M.P. Nation, where she and her collaborators work to decrease the high school dropout rate while increasing the enrollment into institutions such as Syracuse University. Murray also serves as a mentor for the WellsLink Leadership Program, where she oversees approximately five students and ensures that they are succeeding both academically and socially. Murray is a 2021-22 Remembrance Scholar, one of the highest honors bestowed upon students by Syracuse University.

“As a strong woman of color on campus, Nathena has not only changed students’ lives, but she has also inspired others to find their own voice and call to action by embracing their own identities and lived experiences,” says friend Jazmine Richardson ’22.

In addition to her work on campus, Murray is also actively involved in the greater Syracuse community. She volunteers weekly at the Rahma Health Clinic, which provides free healthcare to uninsured, under-insured and underserved adults within the South Side community. The clinic seeks ways to address and stem the disproportionate number of people who are admitted to hospitals suffering from preventable illnesses. She has served patients at Crouse Hospital, continues to serve several families with the CNY Eastern Farm Workers Association as part of their benefit advocacy team, and as a Remembrance Scholar has helped coordinate a clothing drive across campus for newly resettled Afghan refugees in Syracuse. Murray is a multifaceted leader within the community and has provided hope through her work in numerous organizations on campus and in the Syracuse community.

Peipei Liu ’23 (Syracuse University Student)

Chenhui “Peipei” Liu, a junior television, radio and film student in the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications, works to lift up and connect her fellow international students on campus.

Peipei Liu

Peipei Liu ’23

Liu embodies her motto, “Living to make this world a better place.” She is currently an editor at WeMedia Lab, a Chinese new media team that creates content to promote multicultural communication and build connections between international students and Syracuse University. Her commitment to this work began her freshman year, when she lived in Day Hall and was directly impacted by racist incidents that occurred. She worked with her resident advisors to create a campaign of positivity called #SUnite. Along with other residents, Liu wrote positive phrases, such as “Spread Love,” on stickers and posted them throughout the building. Later that year, Liu continued to advocate for inclusion and unity through an award-winning screenplay titled “Sun-Kissed Orange.” The play highlighted how those who are different from each other can still relate to one another.

Liu uses her passion for film, storytelling and communication in a wide variety of student organizations, allowing her to build bridges throughout campus. She is the cinemas assistant for University Union; a staff writer at The OutCrowd magazine, the University’s only student-run LGBTQIA+ publication; the interchapter chair for the Delta Kappa Alpha cinematic fraternity, where she brings her perspectives as an international student to promote diversity and inclusivity; and a mentor in the Orange Success Mentoring Program, where she helps her mentees to adjust to life on campus. Liu has also served as a peer educator at the Barnes Center at the Arch, where she was able to help international students, especially Chinese students, who face a language barrier in accessing support services.

In addition to her extensive involvement on campus, Liu also creates positive changes around the globe. In the first months of 2020, when her hometown of Wuhan, China, suffered from an extreme shortage of medical supplies, she assisted the WeMedia Lab staff members who organized the fundraising project “A Hand for Wuhan.” The initiative supported the purchase and delivery of personal protective equipment to hospitals in Wuhan. When Liu later experienced discrimination because of her Wuhanese identity, she advocated for herself and her Asian and Chinese peers by creating a “Fight Virus, Not Us” campaign, and she created a music video, titled “Embrace You,” with friends to spread love and support during this difficult time. She also created an Instagram account named “The Wuhan You Didn’t Know” as part of this advocacy work.

“Every time I watch this music video, it is so encouraging and powerful that my heart is filled with tears and warmth. I admire her courage to go out and speak for herself, and I see her social responsibility shine through this,” says friend Ze Zeng ’22. “As her close friend, I know Peipei indeed embodies Dr. King’s legacy.”

David Knapp and Joanna Spitzner ’92 (Syracuse University Faculty)

David Knapp, assistant professor of music education in the Setnor School of Music and School of Education, and Joanna Spitzner, associate professor of studio arts in the School of Art, have gone above and beyond in their support of The SENSES Project.

David Knapp

David Knapp

SENSES, which stands for “Studying an Environment that Nurtures Self Exploration in Students,” is a CUSE Grant funded project that seeks to increase sense of belonging by teaching sound recording to marginalized students in the Arthur O. Eve Higher Education Program (HEOP) and TRIO Student Support Services (SSS) programs. The project provides these students the equipment, instruction and space for self-exploration and expression through music and podcasting.

Both Professors Spitzner and Knapp volunteer their time and energy because they believe in trying a new and creative way to increase marginalized students’ sense of belonging.

Knapp was instrumental in setting up the Audio Lab and provided guidance on layout, hardware and software, as well as research design and methodology. He has also connected other key volunteers and supporters to the program. Willing to help in any way he can, Knapp also came in throughout the summer to help unpack boxes, move furniture and set up equipment.

Joanna Spitzner

Joanna Spitzner

Spitzner is the primary faculty partner for the podcasting program and has consulted on equipment, software and programming ideas. In summer 2021, she designed and implemented the first summer podcasting program and trained students and staff on how to use podcasting equipment and edit recordings. Spitzner also created The SENSES Project’s website, logo and other essential materials.

“Our team believes that Professors Spitzner and Knapp personify the spirit of the Unsung Hero Award, which recognizes members of the campus community who demonstrate selfless dedication to bring about positive change,” says Amy Messersmith, associate director for SSS. “A major goal of The SENSES Project is to create a ‘beloved community’ and facilitate campus unification by providing a solution-focused diversity and inclusion intervention that has the potential to improve the campus climate as a whole. Due to Professor Knapp and Professor Spitzner’s guidance and dedication, we are now moving towards this vision.”

Vince Cobb Sr. (Syracuse University Staff)

Vince Cobb Sr., media technology consultant and engineer at the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications, plays a vital role in the lives of Black students at Newhouse and in the Syracuse community—particularly on the South Side.

Vince Cobb Sr.

Vince Cobb Sr.

At Newhouse, Cobb oversees a vital part of the school called “the Cage,” where all of the multimedia equipment is stored. This space that has tripled in the last decade, and Cobb now manages a team of more than 30 student workers who track the school’s cameras, audio equipment, tripods and lights. He is also responsible for research and development of new and emerging technologies and plays an important role in keeping Newhouse students current with industry standards in their production courses. This is also where he trains classes of students as they learn to become multimedia storytellers. Cobb’s connection to the Orange family runs deep, too—three of his four children graduated from Syracuse University.

Cobb has a reputation for being student-focused and for creating a welcoming, supportive and safe space for all students, and for Black students in particular. He acts as a mentor, creates listening sessions to ensure they are seen and heard, and helps them secure jobs. Cobb also serves on the school’s Inclusivity, Diversity, Equity and Accessibility Committee, advising on schoolwide policies and programs, as well as creating some of his own over the years. Liz Curinga, a computer consultant at Newhouse, says he has helped create dialogue between faculty, staff and students that increased mutual understanding. “Vince Cobb makes it his mission to ensure students feel a sense of community here on campus,” she says.

Cobb’s understanding of engineering, skill at new media technology and care for his community extend beyond the doors of Newhouse. For example, he has worked with the Genesis Health Project based within the University since 2005, which focuses on the health and wellness of the African American and minority communities. He created the Youth Advocacy Mentoring Program, which supports dozens of inner-city students in the areas of math and science through tutoring and campus visits to Syracuse University to reinforce the importance of education. Cobb also volunteers as a youth basketball coach for the Amateur Athletic Union.

Using his professional expertise in recording technology, Cobb has empowered marginalized students and community members to make their voices heard. In the community, he created the Inner-City Media and News Team, which paired Newhouse students of color with junior-high and high-school students as they wrote scripts, reported the news and conducted production and editing workshops using a full production facility that he built himself and set up at his local church. At the church, Greater Evangelical Church of God in Christ, he serves as the media and technology director and deacon. He has trained multiple generations to use camera technology, and also broadcasts services to a broader audience. On campus, he has recently become involved in The SENSES Project, which seeks to increase sense of belonging by teaching sound recording to marginalized students.

During a recent professional-in-residency program at Newhouse, Cobb went above and beyond his job description to serve the community. Media industry leader Natasha Alford, a Syracuse local, remembered Cobb from her time at Nottingham High School and requested his involvement by name. Cobb was instrumental in setting up visits to three local high schools; an op-ed writing workshop at the South Side Innovation Center, which attracted more than a dozen community leaders; and a talk Alford gave at Cobb’s church, which he broadcast on social media.

“A father of four, Vince is a man fueled by faith, driven by a mission to serve, uplift and support his community, and a champion of the freedom afforded by education,” says Professor Melissa Chessher, interim associate dean for diversity, equity, inclusion and accessibility at Newhouse.

Institute of Technology at Syracuse Central (ITC) Varsity Football Team (Community Youth)

A group of 17 varsity football players from the Institute of Technology at Syracuse Central (ITC), a Syracuse City School District high school, embodies the essence of Dr. King as its members have the distinct courage to create positive change in a troubled world.

Football team

ITC Varsity Football Team

After a heartbreaking football season, these young men decided to turn their pain into purpose. They began the 2021 season 0-3, and then won five straight games and made a historic run as the first football team in school history to win a playoff game. They were well disciplined, coached and nurtured by the best every week. But just when they were at their highest point, they suffered their most difficult loss, and their season ended before they could make it to the championships.

While that could have been the end of their time as a team, defensive all-star Isaiah A. Goodrich, one of the team’s leaders on and off the field, decided to take a chance and invite his teammates to volunteer with him at his church’s Thanksgiving Turkey Giveaway. He thought it would be an opportunity for them to bond, be together again and “show the community that we are more than just athletes, we are scholars, and we truly care about what happens to the kids and families in our community,” he says. Sixteen players, along with Head Coach Cedric Stevens, responded to his invitation, and they all arrived in their jerseys ready to engage with and serve the very community in which they were born and raised. They helped distribute more than 400 meals that day and were very well received by the other volunteers, so much so that they were asked to come back again.

The team members who volunteered are Carlos Almeyda, Aydan Archie, Jordan I. Crouch, Miguel Cruz, Isaiah A. Goodrich, Shiloh W. Mantock, Gregory O’Selmo, Prince E. Perry, David Rodriguez, Abraham B. Saywon, Tre’Juer M. Sledge, Tyshawn Taylor, Nathaniel Teska-Prince, Adrian J. Thornton, Daron Torrence, Ashton Williams and Avery Williams.

Many of these young men also served at the Annual Bike Giveaway Setup in December. Taylor, the team’s lead all-star wide receiver, vowed to continue serving forever. “I have never been asked to do something like this before. It made me feel so good helping other people and being with my teammates. I hope we can keep doing it next year, our last year together,” he says.

Taylor’s wish came true. In just a few short months, members of the team worked together to create a lasting legacy and impact among those who look to them as role models. Goodrich once again reached out and pulled some of his teammates together to develop and implement the “Athletes for Community Engagement” (ACE) program in an effort to inspire and celebrate the academic accomplishments of other young athletes in the City of Syracuse, and to encourage them to be actively engaged in their communities. As part of this program, they launched Kicks for Kings, which raised close to $1,000 in one week to buy brand-new sneakers, personalized sweatshirts and other items for five middle-school athletes who made significant progress on their report cards last marking period, and who may demonstrate a need.

“Young people have always led societal change, and I believe that these young men, this next generation, will demand and create the necessary change we need in this city as they lead by example. Dr. King would be ever so proud. As an educator and African American woman, this gives me real hope for the future,” says Octavia Wilcox, retired Syracuse City School District principal and administrator.

Ocesa Keaton G’15 (Community Member)

Ocesa Keaton is a licensed social worker who uses her degree and tireless effort to engage and empower the citizens of Syracuse.

Ocesa Keaton

Ocesa Keaton G’15

Coincidentally, Keaton not only shares the same birthday as Dr. King, but also his belief that one should “make a career of humanity” and “commit to the noble struggle of equal rights.” She is a vocal community member that advocates for equal access for Syracuse’s most marginalized community members. Her approach is centered on the belief that poverty is not a morality issue, but a broken systems issue. Leading the efforts of the anti-poverty initiative Greater Syracuse H.O.P.E., Keaton helped create 49 new jobs in neighborhoods with the highest rates of concentrated poverty. Additionally, she collaborated with CenterState CEO and the City of Syracuse to help create the “Syracuse Build: Pathways to Apprenticeship” initiative, which is a paid training program that prepares minorities, women and veterans for a career in skilled trades where they are traditionally an underrepresented group.

During the initial days of the pandemic, Keaton did not let having lupus prevent her from helping her community, and constantly found ways to be of service despite her condition.  She worked alongside several community agencies to coordinate food giveaways and neighborhood check-ins. She used the information gathered from the neighborhood check-ins to create the COVID-19 Experience Survey, which helped pinpoint the immediate needs of distressed Syracuse neighborhoods during the early days of the pandemic.

Keaton’s choice in volunteer projects also reflects her belief in building strong communities. She is a member of the Junior League Community Collaboration Committee. She also helped create a new supply closet for the Samaritan Center and participated in STEM Day for Dr. King Elementary. Additionally, she is a member of the Soulful Saturday Book Club that launched a free book library at Café Sankofa, featuring black women authors. Keaton believes that literacy is key to building self-sufficient and stable communities. She has been involved in efforts to inform community members of their voting rights, rights as workers, and disability advocacy. Keaton is as equally passionate about her family as she is about the community. She is a godmother to her two younger cousins and attends parent-teacher conferences, basketball games and any activities they participate in.

“Ocesa inspires hope in myself and others because she will defend Syracuse against anyone who speaks negatively over the future of this city,” says relative Helen Kinsey. “Ocesa has taken the negative statistics and attitude about the community and used them as fuel to show our youth and her peers what is possible. I could not be prouder of my niece’s work and dedication to the community.”

Beverly Oliver (Community Member)

Beverly Oliver has been serving the Onondaga County community for over 35 years, meeting one of the most critical needs in our society: high quality early child care and afterschool programming.

Beverly Oliver

Beverly Oliver

Oliver is the founder and operator of the After School and Early Learning Program (LASP) located at C. Grant Grimshaw Elementary in LaFayette. The rural town of LaFayette and the Onondaga Nation include a Title I school system that has a high percentage of children from low-income families. Across the country, there are disparities in what groups have access to quality early childhood programming. According to the National Association for the Education of Young Children, early childhood is a uniquely vulnerable and valuable time in the human life cycle. Because of Oliver, children and families in LaFayette and the Onondaga Nation have had accessible programming that lays the foundation of healthy development, creating promising trajectories for all later learning and development.

LASP began as a small program that utilized spaces in community centers and churches. Today, Oliver operates a full, wrap-around program that offers preschool programming, afterschool and summer programming with a focus on inclusion, equity, kindness and compassion.

High quality childcare services are scarce, and that has only worsened during the pandemic. Extraordinarily, Oliver made a courageous decision to remain open over the past two years, where she continued to provide critical services to children and families in Onondaga County year round. In a time where she had planned to retire, Oliver has continued to serve, taking on additional shifts to make sure all programs are covered. She also organized a professional development opportunity for the LaFayette Central School District where participants sharpen skills in recognizing stress in young children and learn supportive strategies to address the increased mental health needs of children that have been magnified by COVID-19.

Oliver has also worked with the children under her care to make sure their voices are heard. In the spirit of listening to and learning from others, she organized a group of children to attend the After School Advocacy Day in Albany, New York, charting a course of action. Oliver lifted the voices of the children, creating an opportunity for them to develop self-advocacy skills and express their needs in the state capital. As a result, the LaFayette Central School District received a grant to support five years of after school programming.

Oliver’s commitments extend far beyond LASP. She is involved in numerous community organizations and all of the LaFayette School District schools. “Oliver’s strong connection to the deep understandings shared and her participation in all community activities is an additional testament to her devotion to honoring the community,” says Simone Gonyea, principal of the Onondaga Nation School.

Oliver has also worked closely with Citizens United Revitalizing Neighborhoods and Light a Candle for Literacy in Syracuse, providing children positive developmental experiences through pen pal programs, recreational camping and art activities. Children from both Syracuse and LaFayette came together to further understandings of how we all live together while valuing diverse living environments.

“Mrs. Oliver and her work reminds us that we all have a responsibility to our nation’s children,” says Colleen Cameron, professor of practice in human development and family science in the David B. Falk College of Sport and Human Dynamics and a volunteer with LASP. “The courage to create positive change in the world requires one to be altruistic, and a kinder and more compassionate society exists because of Mrs. Oliver.”