Cal Poly Ethnic Studies Chair Denise Isom Receives Cross Cultural Centers’ Annual MLK Legacy Award

Denise Isom, professor and chair of the Ethnic Studies Department, receives the 2020 MLK Legacy Award during the Cross Cultural Centers’ third annual Martin Luther King Jr. celebration, held Jan. 15 at Cal Poly. Photos by Cal Poly University Photographer Joe Johnston.
SAN LUIS OBISPO — The recipient of the 2020 Martin Luther King Legacy Award is a department chair who works with determination and devotion to create a more just, equitable and diverse Cal Poly campus.

Denise Isom, professor and chair of the Ethnic Studies Department, was honored Jan. 15 with the MLK Legacy Award. Cal Poly’s Cross Cultural Centers created the award last year to recognize a campus community member who upholds the legacy of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. by leading with love and hope to create a better campus for all.

“Those who nominated her described her as someone who works diligently to create a culture of care and radical love,” said Beya Makekau, interim director of the Cross Cultural Centers.

“I want to share a few words from those who nominated you: ‘Denise has truly been in the trenches and central to making change at Cal Poly,’” Makekau added. “‘She has made Cal Poly feel like a home for underrepresented students, staff and faculty. She is the embodiment of a hope for a better, more diverse future and takes every action to help realize that future.’”

Isom, who came to Cal Poly in 2008 and has led the Ethnic Studies Department for almost seven years, has created a space for underrepresented students to be heard and find support and community.

She has served as the interim associate director of Cal Poly’s Office of University Diversity and Inclusion; co-created the annual Teach In event, now in its fourth year; and co-created and co-leads the diversity and equity in teaching summer workshop for faculty. Isom’s recent honors include the College of Liberal Arts 2017 Diversity Award, the 2019 faculty award for Outstanding Contribution to the African American Community “Living the Dream” Award, and the 2019 Award for Excellence in Partnership and Service from the Cal Poly History Department.

Isom, who gave the closing remarks at the event, recalled a quote from King’s “I Have a Dream” speech: “With this faith, we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope.” 

“King sets us up for the reality of hope and struggle,” Isom said. “Hope comes not from wishful thinking but from struggle. It must be hewed. I believe our ancestors hewed their hope by imagining us, dreaming us up.

“The kind of work we have been doing on this campus has literally transformed this space. Yes, we are standing on mountains, a lot of us. Yet we keep winning. We have started programs, festivals, courses. People have come to this campus and not just survived but thrived.”

During its annual celebration honoring Dr. King, the Cross Cultural Centers also announced two finalists for the legacy award: Stan Yoshinobu, a mathematics professor in the College of Science and Mathematics, and Robert Flores, a professor and department head in the Agricultural Education and Communication Department in the College of Agriculture, Food and Environmental Sciences.

Yoshinobu was one of the founding members of the Love, Empathy, Respect campaign at Cal Poly, a grassroots initiative designed to reinforce to students that the university remains an inclusive community. He was also recognized for his inclusive teaching methods and commitment to create a more inclusive campus community in and out of the classroom.

Flores has served as advisor to the Latinos in Agriculture club for nearly 30 years, is a member of the Latino Outreach Council and serves on the board of directors for the San Luis Obispo-based Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. High School Memorial Scholarship Fund. Those who nominated him said he is known across his discipline for championing diversity and inclusion with a spirit of love and hope.

Denise Isom, professor and chair of the Ethnic Studies Department, receives the 2020 MLK Legacy Award during the Cross Cultural Centers’ third annual Martin Luther King Jr. celebration, held Jan. 15 at Cal Poly. Photos by Cal Poly University Photographer Joe Johnston.
Denise Isom, professor and chair of the Ethnic Studies Department, receives the 2020 MLK Legacy Award during the Cross Cultural Centers’ third annual Martin Luther King Jr. celebration, held Jan. 15 at Cal Poly. Photos by Cal Poly University Photographer Joe Johnston.

Contact: Matt Lazier
805-756-7109; mlazier@calpoly.edu

January 17, 2020

# # #

Related Content