History professor honored for her contributions to social justice

Selika Ducksworth-Lawton receives Martin Luther King Social Justice Leadership Award

Rosa Gómez

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Selika Ducksworth-Lawton, a history professor at UW-Eau Claire, is the fourth recipient of the MLK Social Justice Leadership Award.

At UW-Eau Claire’s 2021 Martin Luther King Jr. Celebration, Selika Ducksworth-Lawton was recognized for putting social justice at the forefront of her community’s culture.

Ducksworth-Lawton, a history professor at UW-Eau Claire, was the fourth recipient of the Martin Luther King Social Justice Leadership Award. 

The former UW-Eau Claire equity, diversity and inclusion fellow and current president of Uniting Bridges has been pioneering for social justice in every space she is a part of through her work as an educator and activist. 

“Without social justice we are not free,” Ducksworth-Lawton said. 

Ducksworth-Lawton said she credits much of who she is today to her parents; they taught her to not only work for everyone’s liberation, but also that every person is worthy of respect, she said. 

In addition to her family being a driving force in shaping her values, Ducksworth-Lawton also said that being Catholic is a major facet of her beliefs. She said the flexibility of the Catholic Doctrine allows her to act as the body of the Church. 

She quoted a Bible verse from the Gospel of Matthew: “Whatever you do to the least of my people, that you do unto me.” 

Along with Ducksworth-Lawton’s Catholic upbringing, she said growing up in segregation gave her a unique experience moving between all Black spaces and all white spaces. 

“My generation in the south was taught to be a bridge,” Ducksworth-Lawton said.

Stephanie Hoeksema, a fifth-year Latin American studies and elementary education student, said Ducksworth-Lawton has been an incredible mentor to her throughout her journey with political organizing. 

Ducksworth-Lawton acts as an educator not just in the classroom, but also with the students she champions and advocates for; she shares her institutional power and knowledge, Hoeksema said.

“I think Selika is special because she is so fearless in speaking and connecting her work as a historian to the present day and recognizing that we’re living in history,” Hoeksema said. “She recognizes that everything is so much bigger than herself, so she works to help build power in others.”

Hoeksema said Ducksworth-Lawton is a model recipient of this award because she embodies many of the same values as Martin Luther King Jr. –– he was a fierce advocate for standing up against injustice and Ducksworth-Lawton does this on a daily basis, she said. 

“I’ve been in these hyper-white spaces and if I can be a bridge, that feels like living out those six principles of MLK,”  Ducksworth-Lawton said.

In MLK’s book “Stride Toward Freedom: The Montgomery Story,” he laid out six guiding principles of non-violence in order to achieve social and political change in the United States. These principles seek to show that non-violent methods have the power to transform, educate and work toward justice. 

Ducksworth-Lawton said she is inspired by many Civil Rights figures, but also tries to learn from local leaders, in order to apply their disciplines to Eau Claire –– both in the work that she personally does and also how she empowers others. 

Ducksworth-Lawton is now a leader in her community — as an educator, a mentor and a mother –– that people are learning from, Hoeksema said. 

“I’ve learned from her that we have to make space for joy,” Hoeksema said. 

Hoeksema said that by existing in the same space as Ducksworth-Lawton, she has been able to recognize that feeling joyous within one’s marginalized identity is a way to reclaim and remember your power. 

When it comes to the work of community organizing and fighting for social justice, recognizing  the element of unpaid labor is important in order to be able to express gratitude, Hoeksema said. While it is a labor of love, it is also a labor of necessity as people of color have to continuously fight against injustice.

“I’ve been in this community for almost 28 years — you don’t run from racism,” Ducksworth-Lawton said. “I feel that I am needed here.”

Eau Claire, Wis. is a place where she has acted as a bridge to get students and community members alike involved in coalition building, Hoeksema said. 

Ducksworth-Lawton said she feels blessed to be able to surround herself with like-minded individuals who believe in advancing humanity.  

“Nothing I do is by myself,” Ducksworth-Lawton said. “I always work in a team because when we have many, we multiply our strength.”

Ducksworth-Lawton said while she is the recipient of the award, it represents the efforts of many other people who are working with her. 

It is important to continue striving for justice in all our efforts, Ducksworth-Lawton said. Community involvement is key in being able to set new norms, she said, but it is also critical that we start our journey of allyship through self-education and aiming to improve ourselves and all the circles we are a part of.

“We need to learn to be less conflict-averse,” Ducksworth-Lawton said. “Peace without justice is not peace.”

Gómez can be reached at [email protected].