The University of Wisconsin announced the winners of the 2021-22 Outstanding Women of Color Award in March.
The award honors UW faculty, staff, students and community members who are women of color. This year, the 14th cohort of the Outstanding Women of Color Award included six women — Dr. Cat N. Burkat, Jennifer Gauthier, Dr. Sheryl L. Henderson, Carola A. Peterson-Gaines, Carolina S. Sarmiento and Danielle Yancey, according to the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion website.
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These women were chosen out of a nomination pool of just under 50 women, according to Anju Reejhsinghani, who is the assistant vice provost for strategic diversity, equity and inclusion administration and the selection committee co-chair
The selection committee consisted of UW faculty and staff, previous award winners and community members. Despite their robust team, the selection process for this year’s award was difficult, Reejhsinghani said.
“Comments from some of [the previous recipients] were along the lines of, ‘You know, I don’t know that I would have won this award in my year given this incredible pool of talent that we have to consider,’” Reejhsinghani said.
Since the award’s establishment in 2007, over 80 women have been honored, according to the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion website. UW’s Outstanding Women of Color Award was inspired by the UW-System Outstanding Women of Color in Education Award, which was created in 1994.
The award is given out annually to women selected for their social justice activism, community service, research or teaching on race and ethnicity and community building, according to the Diversity, Equity, & Inclusion website.
As a woman of color herself, Reejhsinghani felt inspired by her role in the process.
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“It really gives me a sense that we have a very strong community of women of color here that continues to support and lift each other up,” Reejhsinghani said. “It’s helped motivate me further in my work in diversity, equity and inclusion.”
One 2021-22 award recipient was Jennifer Gauthier, who is the senior outreach specialist at the Division of Extension and an active member of the Menominee Nation, according to the event program.
During the pandemic, Gauthier brought culturally appropriate community health messages to tribal communities, according to the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion website. In her work, Gauthier conveyed the importance of social distancing to a community that values large gatherings.
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Gauthier, who is of Ho-Chunk, Oneida and Stockbridge heritage, enjoys her time with the Menominee Nation as it allows her to work with and for her community, she said. Being able to share their stories and experiences is what she loves most about her work, Gauthier said.
“There is so much knowledge out there,” Gauthier said. “It’s a reward to be a part of it and share it and to have people want to share it.”
Gauthier also teaches about gardening and product distribution in the Indigenous food system. Recently, she helped create a resource guide called Harvest of the Moon, which combines language and recipes to reconnect old Menominee food-ways.
Gauthier was shocked to find out that her colleagues and coworkers had nominated for the Outstanding Women of Color Award.
“I don’t know how to describe it,” Gauthier said. “But it was just unbelievable and overwhelming in the best way that you can possibly think of.”
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While Gauthier knows no one does social justice work just to receive awards, they still help motivate recipients and nominees, she said.
Another recipient, Carolina Sarmiento, felt the same. Sarmiento is an assistant professor at UW School of Human Ecology and an affiliate in the Department of Urban and Regional Planning. Like Gauthier, she felt inspired by the experience.
“For me, to get an award for the work that I do is really humbling, but it’s also, I hope, an opportunity to shed light on the real folks who are doing the serious everyday work,” Sarmiento said.
Sarmiento’s research focuses on cultural spaces for working-class communities of color, which are often destroyed by gentrification, according to the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion website.
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Sarmiento said she is currently working on a collaboration with Voces De La Frontera, a center that advocates for better worker safety and wages for immigrants. The goal of the collaboration is to help meet workers’ basic needs and protect their rights, which is especially crucial during the pandemic.
Like Gauthier, Sarmiento said she views this award as a recognition for women of color across the community and beyond, acknowledging those who work hard to better their communities every day.
“I think, and I hope, that this award provides some light on the folks who don’t get the awards and aren’t getting any recognition, but are really battling everyday not just to survive, but to build, shape and transform their homes, communities and neighborhoods,” Sarmiento said.