Kaleb Bakari Autman keeps a clear crate overflowing with books in the corner of his bedroom.
“Studying the work is just as important to me as going out in the street with a bullhorn and protesting,” said Autman, a Northeastern Illinois University freshman who attended Westinghouse College Prep. “In an average week I’m spending anywhere from five to 10 hours a week just in books, reading, and that’s not enough. It’s something I take very seriously. I must know what my ancestors have written down before I can go out in these streets and fight because a lot of the time—most of the time—we are demanding the same things. So being literate in the work as much as possible is deeply important to me. It’s like the idea of Sankofa; you have to reach back into the past and bring it to the present to know where you want to go. I must know what my ancestors did, so being fluent in the history and literature is deeply important to me.”
Autman is one of the first recipients of the George Floyd Social Justice Scholarship that was created in response to Floyd’s death and the deaths of Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and numerous Black Americans who were tragically and senselessly killed. Their deaths sparked mass protests throughout the country and around the world last summer—in the midst of a global pandemic—as demonstrators called out systematic racism, inequality and injustice, and urged communities to put forth intentional programs geared toward a greater focus on social justice.
“Social justice, at its core, is love in public. Mariame Kaba says something to that extent,” said Autman, who served for seven months as the National Communications Associate for March for Our Lives, a national nonprofit founded after the 2018 mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla. “I also see social justice as thinking about how I can do the most with what I have for the masses in my community.”
Northeastern’s George Floyd Social Justice Scholarship is a resource for its students—the majority of whom are people of color—who are dedicated to pursuing leadership roles in the multifaceted, intersectional work of social justice. Through contributions to the NEIU Foundation, the University is building an endowed scholarship with an initial fundraising goal of $50,000.
In the first year of the George Floyd Social Justice Scholarship, the University awarded $5,000 each to three outstanding students: Autman, Timothy Jefferson and Donovan McKinley. While all three students are now connected by this scholarship, they have their own unique views of social justice and have taken different paths to promote equality in their communities.
Jefferson is a freshman who plans to major in business. He came to Northeastern from DRW College Prep. In addition to earning the George Floyd Social Justice Scholarship, he also earned Northeastern’s Social Justice Leadership Housing Award, which provides one year of free housing in The Nest on-campus apartments for students who participate in a series of leadership workshops centered on social justice.
“I was honestly a little hesitant to apply for the George Floyd Scholarship, mostly because of self-doubt,” Jefferson said. “The talks I've had with my mom about it made me reflect on my life and the impact I’ve had on people, along with the impact the world has had on me. It made me realize I had to see things through another perspective. It's important that this scholarship exists at NEIU because it gives students like me the ability to fully cultivate and bloom in this scary world as it is. It can truly make the difference between seeing roses or thorns.”
Jefferson has been involved with Kidz Express, an organization on Chicago’s West Side that serves underprivileged youth through education, mentorship and job opportunities, for nearly a decade.
“Kidz Express has kept me and my friends out of the streets and away from the violence in the neighborhood through team-building activities, trips, etcetera,” Jefferson said. “The impact the program has had on me is astronomical. I can safely say without the program, I would either be in the streets like some of my family members or possibly another victim of gun violence in my neighborhood. This is also the same case for many of the other children in the program, because its main purpose is to serve the youth of the South Austin area, one of the most dangerous neighborhoods in Chicago.”
Jefferson added that the scholarship is helping to ease the financial burden that would otherwise have impacted his educational success. Likewise, the housing scholarship has given him some peace of mind, feeling that he is in a space on campus that is less dangerous and provides him with more opportunities than he would otherwise have in his neighborhood. Through his education, Jefferson hopes to make a positive impact on his community by uplifting voices and providing more meaningful opportunities to others.
“To me, social justice is one of the core values that keeps society together,” Jefferson said. “Social justice allows for those without a voice to be heard, and it's the bulldozer that knocks down the pillars of injustice and discrimination. It’s imperative because, as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said, ‘Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.’”
McKinley, who is pursuing his master’s degree in Couple and Family Counseling, came to Northeastern from California.
“I was drawn to NEIU because I wanted to attend a university that was affordable and provided a supportive space for students,” said McKinley, who was born and raised in San Diego. “In my grad school interview, I was impressed with how much dedication and passion the professors showed to the students.”
McKinley is a participant in the American Association of Marriage & Family Therapists (AAMFT) Minority Fellowship Program. This competitive fellowship is awarded to students who are committed to research about—and service to—racial and ethnic minority and underserved populations.
“I’m a first-generation, Black-Mexican, gay man with a stutter,” McKinley said. “When I was younger—and still to this day—these different aspects of me have been weaponized by people who don’t care to understand me. I’ve learned that all of that is OK, because I know and understand that these are my ‘superpowers,’ my driving force toward excellence and freedom. For me, earning this scholarship is me being celebrated for all of who I am and having an understanding that my life and educational experiences have the potential to impact those that have not yet understood their own power.”
McKinley wants to use his education to give back to Black, Brown and LGBTQ+ communities.
“I applied for the scholarship because I believe my Black queer life matters, like I know the Black life of George Floyd mattered to his friends, family and community,” McKinely said. “I reflected upon all the aspirations and goals he had for himself that we’ll never know about. I know I wouldn’t be able to be where I’m at without the support of my communities. Our resilience and ability to not only imagine but also pursue our dreams when at times the world wants us to fail is so beautiful to witness and be a part of. I feel like the scholarship is important to have at NEIU because it’s a way for us to recognize folks doing amazing work in their academic and professional lives. It’s building a bridge toward mentorship and understanding that we’re going to have a great impact on the community post-college.”
The George Floyd Social Justice Scholarship builds upon Northeastern’s long-established history of activism and empowerment of the next generation of conscientious organizers, educators, social workers, scholars, business leaders and elected officials.
Northeastern President Gloria J. Gibson, like many, was deeply saddened by the deaths of Floyd, Taylor, Arbery and others last summer.
“There is not a day that goes by that I do not worry about my sons and my brother living as Black men in America and the potential danger that could befall them because of the color of their skin,” Gibson wrote in June 2020. “So I speak from both perspectives, the professional and the personal, when I say that I am deeply grieved by the death of George Floyd—deeply grieved.”
Gibson continued, “Our ‘new normal’ must be a full and sustained commitment to justice and equality. This is one step toward that larger goal, and it starts with me, it starts with you, and it will be implemented through all of us, working together. As we support the educational promise of our aspiring socially conscious leaders, we acknowledge their talents and potential to change the world.”
Autman, who continues to work with The #LetUsBreathe Collective, has notes on index cards spread across his desk, reminders of lessons he’s learned and things he’s still curious to research.
“The deaths of Michael Brown and Trayvon Martin showed me that in this country, at any point, my body could be taken,” Autman said. “Trayvon Martin was my Emmett Till. I remember taking my mom’s laptop, which barely worked but it was what we had, and listening to the George Zimmerman phone call. I didn’t know where I wanted to go, but in that moment I felt like I needed to be running toward something. It awakened in me, at a young age, that I needed to fight to run toward Freedom Land. Social justice says we have a hand in the world we inherit. I live in the legacy of George Floyd, and if I didn’t push toward change at Northeastern and beyond, I wouldn’t be doing the work of my ancestors, or actually uplifting George Floyd’s name and his contributions to this world. I have a responsibility to speak truth to power and educate and be educated about this work.”
Top photo (from left): Kaleb Bakari Autman, Timothy Jefferson and Donovan McKinley