COMMENCEMENT 2015 >>

McMullan Award winner puts emphasis on inclusion

By Megan McRainey | Emory Report | May 7, 2015

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Jovonna Jones has devoted countless hours to ensuring other students feel included and accepted at Emory through organizations like the Center for Women and the Black Student Union.

Jovonna “Jojo” Jones is no stranger to feeling left out, different and lonely. While it may be hard to believe that the leader and founder of an impressive list of Emory organizations and programs could ever feel like she didn’t belong, Jones says she has struggled on and off with those feelings since childhood.

“I sometimes felt, growing up, that I didn’t belong or that people weren’t welcoming me. It’s always been my mission to make sure others don’t feel that way,” Jones says. “Part of that is getting people comfortable with dissonance, to orient themselves around embracing difference and not letting it always be a negative experience.“

During her time at Emory, Jones has devoted herself wholeheartedly to helping others feel heard, motivated and accepted through her work with organizations such as the Center for Women and Black Student Union.

This dedication to inclusion has helped make Jones the 2015 recipient of the Lucius Lamar McMullan Award. The McMullan Award, made possible by a generous gift from Emory alumnus William Matheson 47G, recognizes Emory College graduates who show extraordinary promise for future leadership and rare potential for service to their community, the nation and the world. The McMullan Award includes $25,000 to be used as the recipient chooses.

“Jojo is absolutely amazing, and I think she is the true embodiment of the McMullan Award. I am always so impressed by all the work that she’s been a part of, ensuring that Emory is a welcoming place for all students,” says Chanel Craft-Tanner, assistant director of the Center for Women at Emory.

Easing transitions

Originally from Randolph, Massachusetts, Jones established her passion for helping others feel included well before college. During her senior year of high school in Boston, Jones worked with a program called Transitions to help incoming first-year minority high school students feel welcome and comfortable.

During high school, she also joined VISIONS Inc., a Boston-based non-profit organization that trains in diversity, inclusion and effective communication. She is still involved with the organization, serving on the board of directors and as a youth consultant.

Jones continued her personal mission at Emory as president of the Black Student Alliance. In 2013, she helped found the Black Student Union, a space dedicated for black student programming, organizing and community.

As a staff intern at the Center for Women, Jones spearheaded two programs to engage undergraduate women: I Am Woman, a wide-ranging discussion group; and Elect Her, a program to address the low numbers of women serving in elected positions in the Student Government Association (SGA).

“We had about 10 women run for elected SGA positions, which was awesome. We had done a survey before the workshop and not many were thinking about running. After the workshop, more undergraduate women felt like they could be engaged politically on campus. It’s nice to know that this project helped women see themselves as leaders and support each other in that,” Jones says.

Model community servant

Jones has combined her extensive community service with exceptional academic achievement. She majored in African American studies with a minor in philosophy and was awarded highest honors for her thesis, “Radical Sight: Frederick Douglass, Contemporary Photography and the Visual Folds of Black Subjectivity.”

“She is a bridge builder, the nucleus uniting various units of the Emory community in their efforts to affirm and execute a common vision,” says Dianne Stewart, associate professor of religion and African American studies. “Rarely do we see students at Jojo’s age with the maturity, discipline, focus and talent to both excel academically and emerge as a model community servant.”

Jones will pursue her Masters of Fine Arts in photography at Georgia State University this fall. While it sounds like an abrupt change in gears, she says her core mission hasn’t changed a bit.

“Even though I’m going to art school, I’m interested in using that time to prepare myself for a different framework for how I think about policy and issues. Ultimately I want to take that knowledge and use it for non-profit or policy work,” Jones explains.

And an eventual career in politics may also be in the cards, she says.

“I guess there are a lot of things I’m trying to intersect,” Jones admits with a laugh. “I want to use photography to get at the nuances of important issues through an artistic lens alongside the institutional. It’s hard

to transform the world when we depend on the same structures over and over again.”