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Each year, Arizona State University honors leaders in the community for their commitment to servant leadership in tribute to Martin Luther King Jr.’s admirable contributions to the world. From fighting to end hunger to encouraging representation in theater, this year’s awardees are exceptional examples of how voices can speak out to disrupt the noise and demand change.
St. Mary’s is the world’s first food bank, and it tackles hunger in Arizona through distribution, children’s feeding programs and employment preparation. Meanwhile, Dontá McGilvery is an ASU Theatre for Youth PhD candidate who has devoted his life to serving marginalized communities and telling their stories.
The two recipients will be presented with their awards at the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Breakfast Celebration on Jan. 24 to conclude a week of festivities honoring King.
St. Mary’s Food Bank is committed to serving the Arizona community through volunteerism by bettering the lives of Arizonans in need, one meal at a time.
Tom Kertis, president and CEO of St. Mary’s, will be accepting the award on the organization’s behalf. Kertis began his involvement with St. Mary’s in 2003 as a donor and volunteer, joined the board of directors a decade later and became CEO in 2016.
“We're here to fill a void in our community,” Kertis said. “We’re providing great food to help these people grow and develop, these children grow and develop, and so therefore we’re there to fill this basic human need.”
The organization distributes food to almost 500 nonprofit partners including food pantries and homeless shelters that represent 13 of Arizona’s 15 counties. Beyond food distribution, St. Mary’s also oversees children’s feeding programs and a community kitchen.
St. Mary’s hands-on approach to ending hunger includes not only distributing food, but also combating poverty through employment assistance at its community kitchen. Here, those who experience barriers to employment can learn food skills and receive food service training. The organization also offers job placement assistance and support to graduates of the program.
“At St. Mary’s, we are very fortunate that we have a lot of people who volunteer to help make our community stronger, just like Dr. King engaged the community by rallying people toward a common goal,” Kertis said. “St. Mary's over the years continues to rally people to fight hunger in our community. I think there's some similarities, some parallels there.”
As a pastor, student and changemaker, Dontá McGilvery takes initiative in marginalized communities to promote representation while simultaneously combating misrepresentation.
McGilvery is a Theatre for Youth PhD candidate at ASU who hopes to amplify the voices of people of color using theater as a platform, especially for children.
“We have to acknowledge a child’s education, and we have to value their education,” McGilvery said. “Not just by putting on cool productions, but by showing them that these productions they are involved in and they are creating themselves can also be a response to the deeper things of life that even adults don’t quite understand.”
McGilvery is the founder of Sleeveless Acts Drama Company in Phoenix. Sleeveless Acts is a nonprofit that strives to combat systematic inequality in the drama industry by telling stories that otherwise might have been left unheard.
In the spring 2019 semester, he will teach a course he created at ASU titled African-American Theater that explores the work of African-American playwrights. He also serves as the director of drama ministry at the First Institutional Baptist Church in Phoenix, where he oversees drama productions.
“I would like to do this so I can inspire future theater artists to go into the world understanding that life is bigger than our own stories,” McGilvery said. “I want to disrupt the curriculum we receive in most universities that’s very much dominated by a white narrative.”
As a student at Southern Methodist University, McGilvery studied social justice. This was an experience to which he credits becoming entirely aware of the systemic roadblocks that oppress certain populations, primarily in regard to people of color.
From participating in a civil rights pilgrimage in the U.S. South on three separate occasions to traveling abroad to study the conflict between Israel and Palestine, McGilvery developed an understanding of social conflict that he says “awakened his consciousness.” When he returned to school, he founded the Dallas Improvement Association to provide resources to local families and schools in need.
During his time at SMU, McGilvery voluntarily lived on the streets of Dallas for a year to research the increase of homelessness and study its impact on students. This unfolded into what he calls “Project Homeless,” a study program offering volunteers of the Dallas Improvement Association to do the same.
“I’m inspired by the oppression I see,” McGilvery said. “Those who are oppressed and dehumanized in all sorts of ways are the people who inspire me to keep going (…) to help be the voice for the voiceless and help the voiceless use their own voice. That includes women, that includes people of color, that includes youth, that includes those who are incarcerated.”
McGilvery is an agent of change committed to bettering the community as a whole and creating an equal platform of opportunity — on the stage and beyond. Eventually, he hopes to become a professor so he can continue to preach the importance of representation in theater.
Ultimately, he said it’s seeing the faces of the lives touched by his service that motivates him to continue and confirms that he’s taking on both the right and necessary actions for the benefit of his community.
“It’s really not about me,” McGilvery said. “It’s about the people who are encouraged through what I can offer.”
For more information about ASU events honoring King, go to asu.edu/mlk.