Therapy Ninjas: Converse College Alum Goes Behind Bars to Serve Prison Inmates

By Courtney Hammett, Converse College

Molly Glibbery Austin never imagined that, a few years after graduating with honors from Sullivan Foundation partner school Converse College, she’d be spending a lot of time in prison. But she has found a calling within the walls of the Florida Department of Corrections (FDC), where she provides music therapy for male inmates.

Before her graduation in 2015, Austin was involved in Delta Omicron, Model Arab League and academic coaching, and she served as president of Musicians Helping Others. “Converse is always home,” and “I miss it every day,” she said. “The Music Therapy program has really blossomed.”

So how did it lead to prison work in Florida?

“It’s kind of a crazy story,” she said. After completing a music therapy internship in hospice, she worked for two years at an eating disorder clinic. Then, she worked towards a Master’s of Music degree in Music Therapy at Florida State University, which she completed in December 2018. While there, she learned that the prison system needed music therapists to volunteer their services.

Related: This LGBTQ scholarship is the first of its kind in the SEC

The position went from volunteer to part-time to full-time, as the FDC developed one of the first holistic mental healthcare programs of its kind. Austin conducted research for her graduate thesis in the prison, and she hopes more research like this will be done in the future.

“It’s pretty innovative for prisons to have such complex mental health treatment,” Austin said.

The program involves individual therapy, group therapy, classes, yoga, music and art. The idea is to help patients “in the least restrictive environment possible,” with care suited for the individual. The Residential Continuum of Care provides the appropriate amount of supervision and guidance, judging which inmates pose risks to themselves or others, which need extra help to get to appointments, and so on. Various professionals weigh in on treatment plans, so Austin is playing a part in her patients’ futures.

How does she work with prisoners who have done awful things? Some crimes, like those involving children, are hard to overlook. “Maybe you can prevent this from happening again,” she said. But, she added, “It’s tough sometimes.” She used to avoid looking at inmate records—therapists aren’t allowed to ask, but charges are public and accessible. “I can know as much or as little as I want,” she said.

However, she couldn’t avoid hearing about charges, and sometimes knowing them could help address symptoms. So she developed a process where she gets to know the person first, then looks them up at the right time. There are plenty of tragic cases in what she calls a “convoluted legal system,” which prompts her to want a law degree sometimes. For the senseless cases, compartmentalizing to separate the person from the crime is key. Working with her patients is mostly great; Austin likes them and has “always been drawn to help people who are underdogs.”

The hardest part is motivating patients to want treatment. That’s the genius of music therapy. “We’re therapy ninjas!” Austin said. When working with music that her patients enjoy, “they don’t realize it’s work.”

Related: North Carolina Wesleyan College joins the battle against human trafficking

Through the process of institutionalization, inmates may lose their identity and sense of self after a long time behind bars. Some may also lose cognitive ability. Music therapy helps them regain their personhood, Austin said. Even something as simple as choosing a song or instrument is a humanizing event. “They can be individuals today,” she said. “They can have a choice.”

When they learn a chord on a musical instrument, they get praise and feel validated and excited. They feel human.

From day one, Austin said, “the goal is to prepare for release” and to “prevent recidivism.” American prisons are notorious for their revolving doors, wherein petty crime leads to a snowball effect. “What I’m doing is [primarily] for the welfare of my patients,” she said. But society at large also benefits. With therapy and education, many inmates are eventually able to lead fulfilling lives on the outside. In the meantime, the men are learning to cope with their situation and are less likely to harm themselves or others.

This article has been edited from the original version appearing on the Converse College website.

 

 

George Mason University Volunteers Rush to Help Afghan Refugees

By Damian Cristodero

After three tours of duty in Afghanistan as an Army Ranger medic, Keith Jochem said he knows the Afghan people as caring, welcoming and generous.

His wife, Shazia, is from Afghanistan and grew up in Kabul, from where her family fled the Russian invasion in the 1980s.

That is why Jochem, a police lieutenant at Sullivan Foundation partner school George Mason University, jumped at the chance to volunteer to help when a group of 174 Afghan refugees, fleeing the Taliban takeover of their country on a U.S. government flight, sheltered for 24 hours at Northern Virginia Community College’s gym in Annandale, Va., on Aug. 20-21.

“It was heartbreaking,” Jochem said. “You have to put yourselves in their shoes. What if something happened here and you had to gather some of your clothes and documents and your family? You go to a different country, you don’t know the language, you don’t know the culture, you’re thrown into a gym, and that’s it.”

Related: George Mason University alumnus recognized as racial justice leader

Jochem was one of 29 volunteers with Mason ties who gave of their time at Northern Virginia Community College (NVCC). Volunteers came from the Emergency Operations Group, University Police, the Office of the Provost, Information Technology Services, the Office of Business Services, and the regional campuses.

Dave Farris, executive director of Safety and Emergency Management at Mason, put out the call after Tom Mayhew, his counterpart at NVCC, notified him that the state had activated NVCC as an emergency shelter.

Under the terms of an agreement between the schools and the state, when either Mason or NVCC is activated as a shelter, the other lends a hand.

“It worked out fantastic,” Mayhew said. “We couldn’t have done it without the Mason folks.”

Though NVCC was the lead agency, Farris said Mason’s volunteers pitched in wherever necessary—whether it was setting up 500 cots, managing donations or helping manage the 150 volunteers that showed up, including more than 100 from NVCC and many from the local Afghan community.

“The turnout from the Afghan community was unbelievable, and it absolutely couldn’t have been possible without them,” Farris said.

Mason alum Roya Nasrahti, a communications officer with Mason Police, is part of that community, having come to the United States with her family from Afghanistan when she was young.  “I believe the Afghan volunteers and refugees felt more comfortable speaking with me because I spoke the same language,” said Narahti. “I also felt a sense of trust and assurance between us.”

Farris was sure that comfort was appreciated. “They were extremely tired,” he said of the refugees. “As we walked around initially handing out, food, water and clothing, it was obvious they had been through some terrible events.”

Related: Rise and Thrive inspires and mentors teen girls to become leaders

Jochem also speaks some Farsi, and his medical background was valuable. His wife, Shazia, an ER nurse and Mason alum, found a babysitter for their three kids and joined her husband.

For Jochem, seeing the Afghans in distress, including the many children and babies in the group, was jarring.

“Their culture is deep in giving and making sure everyone else is taken care of first before themselves,” he said. “I still have contacts in the military in operations in [Afghanistan] that I spoke with on the phone a couple of days ago. They said what you see on the news is 10 times worse in reality.”

The reality for the refugees was that their travels, after a 13-hour flight from Afghanistan, were not over in Virginia. At 8 p.m. on Aug. 21, the last bus pulled away from NVCC for a ride to the Dulles Expo Center, where the refugees waited for a flight to Texas and processing.

“I know they’ve been through a lot,” Nasrahti said of the refugees. “The people have been extremely traumatized. We opened our doors and hearts to let them in and keep them safe.”

This article has been edited slightly from the original version appearing on the George Mason University website.

University of Alabama Student Writes Book to Help Kids “Build a Bully-Proof Vest”

By Jamon Smith, University of Alabama

When University of Alabama sophomore Noelia Voigt was asked to advocate for anti-bullying after winning the 2021 Miss Connecticut Collegiate America pageant, she decided to seize the opportunity to write a children’s book on the topic and help create an antibullying app.

Published in August, her book, “Maddie the BRAVE,” is written for elementary-school children and features a confident main character, Maddie, who shares positive self-affirmations.

“The book teaches how to build yourself a bully-proof vest,” said Voigt.

BRAVE, an acronym developed by the Collegiate American pageant system for its anti-bullying theme, stands for Building Respect and Values for Everyone.

Maddie Whittsett, who died of suicide due to bullying, inspired the book, Maddie the BRAVE.

The book’s central character is based on Madison “Maddie” Whittsett, a nine-year-old girl from Birmingham who died by suicide in 2018 after being bullied. Voigt heard about Maddie while writing her book in early 2020. She was moved by Maddie’s story and sought permission from the family to use her name.

A portion of the book’s proceeds are donated to The Maddie Foundation, and the rest of the proceeds are used to cover the book’s printing costs.

Related: University of Mississippi researchers search new ways to help people who stutter

The second antibullying project Voigt worked on is an app called Bullying Buddy. She translated it into Spanish and did much of the data testing.

“It’s a one-of-a-kind app that has the emergency bullying button that can be activated manually or by voice. It immediately starts recording bullying—if you’re being bullied or watching someone else being bullied. It stores the recording in an encrypted database so there’s evidence of it that cannot be tampered with, because a lot of times there is no evidence.

“Also, the location of the child will be made available when it’s being recorded so whoever else has this app will know where the child is. There are also therapy resources, a call 911 button if someone is seriously endangered, a connection to the National Suicide Hotline, a bereavement resource for parents who’ve lost their children to bullying, and an information station, which can do things like help parents who are raising a bully figure out how to fix it.”

Noelia Voigt

The app is now available for download.

“Because of technology, bullying has gotten a lot worse,” Voigt said. “At the beginning of the pandemic, people thought it would taper down, but a lot of people were not able to get away from it because they were doing school online. So cyberbullying absolutely skyrocketed. The CDC now considers bullying an epidemic in the U.S.

“I just really hope to reach as many young kids as possible to promote BRAVE and Bullying Buddy because maybe it will help to start breaking the cycle of bullying,” Voigt said. “I hope to instill in them the importance of being kind, sticking up for themselves and other people, and building that bully-proof vest through positive affirmations. I am here to educate and protect the kids, not only in the U.S. but internationally as well.”

This article has been edited slightly from the original version appearing on the University of Alabama’s website.

Student Project at Rollins College Aimed at Preserving Local LGBTQ History

By Elsa Wenzel, Rollins College

A beloved bookstore. A go-to local cafe. A softball team. The varied places where queer communities have flourished in Central Florida is the focus of groundbreaking new research by students at Sullivan Foundation partner school Rollins College.

In history professor Claire Strom’s History of American Sexuality course, students have been uncovering little-known local history about important places in the LGBTQ+ communities through a partnership with the LGBTQ History Museum of Central Florida, where Strom sits on the board. For their final projects, the students were given the option of writing a research paper or working on an exhibit.

“It is important to remember our community is fragile, our history is fragile, and so we have to work to preserve that,” said David Matteson, associate curator of education and outreach at the Orlando Museum of Art and president of the LGBTQ History Museum’s board of directors. “That’s a big part of what I hope to instill in the students through this project, realizing that history is not just what is contained in the more established narratives, but about everyday people and what we fight for.”

Related: This LGBTQ scholarship is the first of its kind in the SEC

Under the guidance of Strom and Matteson, history majors Heather Borochaner, Devorah Burgess, Margaret Stewart and Erika Wesch have spent the past several months researching and curating one-of-a-kind exhibitions for the LGBTQ History Museum. They’ve enjoyed a rare level of responsibility as undergraduates, sifting through many thousands of original documents. Their exhibitions are on display both on the museum’s website and at The Center Orlando, a local nonprofit dedicated to promoting and empowering the LGBTQ community and its allies through information, education, advocacy and support.

“The ability to create an exhibit from beginning to end is something most undergraduates don’t get to do,” Strom said. “The students modeled excellent civic responsibility in designing exhibits that tell an important part of Orlando history.”

Coming Out with Pride
Margaret Stewart, a theatre and history double major, sorted through numerous photographs and event programs to create an exhibition that will be installed this fall. It focuses on the exponential rise of Orlando’s Come Out with Pride organization and annual event. Her research shows how sponsorships from Disney, Macy’s and other corporations helped mainstream the annual celebrations, which rose from 15,000 participants in 2006 to 200,000 in 2019.

“The LGBTQ community throughout history has often had their own world, their separate space, especially in the early 20th century,” said Stewart, who plans to earn a Ph.D in history and work in a museum or as a professor. “The Come Out with Pride parade is bringing this space out into the public.”

Stewart refined her mastery of primary sources to write placards offering historical context. She explained how grappling with material showing the 2016 Pulse nightclub shooting’s effect on Come Out with Pride underscored the gravity of the project.

“The LGBTQ community deserves to be on display, to have this huge celebration of identity and love,” she said. “Come out with Pride shows how they opened that to the world, and they’re not afraid. It’s important to display to the community because it honors a huge facet of the Orlando community and a huge cornerstone for people here.”

Erika Wesch explains her research to guests on opening night of the Queer Spaces exhibition at The Center Orlando. (Photo by Scott Cook)

Queer Spaces
Burgess and Erika Wesch researched two local storefront pillars that provided decades-long support for queer communities near Rollins’ campus. The fruits of their research came together in the Queer Spaces exhibit they debuted at The Center Orlando earlier this month, demonstrating the breadth of LGBTQ gathering spaces—beyond bars and nightclubs—that cultivated community and empowerment.

Wesch dove into the history of Out and About Books, a Winter Park, Fla. bookstore that graced North Mills Avenue from 1992 to 2001. She had full creative control in choosing from more than 1,000 documents, including a video interview with the store owner, Bruce Ground.

Related: George Mason University graduate student advocates for those with “invisible disabilities”

“Having my name attached to an entire curated exhibit in a museum is such a cool thing to put on my resume,” Wesch said. “It’s also such a Rollins thing—to do a museum exhibit for your final class and have it actually published. You have all these opportunities since you’re in such a close-knit environment.”

Burgess hopes to pursue a museum career and pointed to skills she gained through this hands-on experience in storytelling, writing and research for her exhibit on the Power House Cafe off Park Avenue. Founded in 1970 by Saviz Shafaie, an openly gay immigrant from Iran, the Mediterranean eatery has long embraced LGBTQ customers and activists even in the face of resistance.

“At least once a week during my years at Rollins, I walked by Power House Cafe, oblivious to its history and significance to the community,” says Burgess, who is excited to bring the little-known story to light.

Team Sports
As an intern with the LGBTQ History Museum of Central Florida, Borochaner is scouring local photographer and community ally Stephen Roberts’ collection of more than 60,000 photographs, which document 20-plus years of recreational sports teams, another venue for queer people to gather, express themselves and build community.

Borochaner is organizing and creating archival metadata for photos of local teams, including the Central Florida Softball League and the Orange Blossom Tennis Association, which will eventually help build an online museum exhibit. Borochaner’s experience as editor-in-chief of The Sandspur—managing high volumes of data, curating content and organizing stories—was the perfect preparation for her internship.

“I am very interested in archival work and serving a museum, so this internship was right up my alley,” she said. “During my time at Rollins, I had also been a volunteer at the Winter Park History Museum, so this is something I’ve been playing with for a while. I’m hoping this experience will help me get my foot in the door and continue doing similar work in a professional environment.”

This article has been edited slightly from the original version appearing on the Rollins College website.

This LGBTQ Scholarship Is the First of Its Kind in the SEC

Food access, sustainability and conservation have become mainstream conversations worldwide. And while these issues are broad, too often, representation within these discussions is not, according to the University of Kentucky (UK), a Sullivan Foundation partner school.

To address the problem, the UK College of Agriculture, Food and Environment has launched the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Queer (LGBTQ) Agricultural and Environmental Sciences Fund—the first of its kind in the Southeastern Conference. The fund was created with the intention of diversifying Kentucky agricultural and environmental industries.

The lack of diversity across agricultural and environmental leadership is compounding the immense challenges facing our planet. For rising leaders, this dilemma is all too real.

Related: Rollins College alumnus “Papa Viva” creates safe haven for families affected by AIDS

“As a minority in the state of Kentucky, I’ve experienced different encounters based upon my gender, race and sexuality,” said Iyahna Wilson, an agricultural education student at UK. “As an openly lesbian Black woman, I have participated in protests, held spaces for individuals like myself, and reflected on the experiences that I have encountered. At the University of Kentucky, as a minority it can be hard to express yourself if the spaces aren’t there for you.”

this photo shows Iyahna Wilson, a queer student who is excited about the new LGBTQ scholarship being offered at University of Kentucky

Iyahna Wilson

Understanding these student experiences, University of Kentucky staff and faculty are taking decisive steps in fostering more inclusive spaces and an equitable workforce.

“I hope the creation of this scholarship shows our students that everyone belongs here, and we are dedicated to their success,” said Mia Farrell, assistant dean and director for diversity in UK’s College of Agriculture, Food and Environment. “While we know more can be done, this is a big step in the right direction.”

Thanks to a grant from JustFundKY, a nonprofit advocacy group for LGBTQ Kentuckians, a commemorative artwork has been commissioned to promote this new scholarship. The print, titled “Ag is for All: Diversity Feeds the World,” was created by queer Kentucky artist Wylie Caudill. Those interested in receiving the artwork may email their request to Seth Riker.

Related: Elon University social entrepreneurs help black-owned businesses find new customers

“While we know this scholarship will lessen financial burdens for our students, we also hope Wylie’s artwork will leave a lasting impression in the spaces it is posted,” said Carmen Agouridis, associate dean for instruction in the College of Agriculture, Food and Environment. “Tomorrow’s solutions will require unique passions and skills from all backgrounds. And everyone should be able to contribute as their authentic self.”

Students like Wilson agree. “Thankfully, I have a cohort that allows me to express myself without judgement,” said Wilson. “I believe that individuals who are underrepresented should be allowed to express, experience and engage comfortably at their university.”

Those wishing to support this newly created scholarship may donate via University of Kentucky’s Network for Good website.

This article has been edited from the original version appearing on the University of Kentucky website.

UK Alum Creates Scholarship Foundation for Black Students with GPA of 2.0 or Better

By Akhira Umar, University of Kentucky

As a journalism student at Sullivan Foundation partner school University of Kentucky, Aaron Porter struggled to make ends meet. Now that his career is thriving, he and his cousins have started a scholarship foundation to ease that burden for a new generation of underprivileged Black scholars.

In the first months of 2020, Porter and his cousins, Darrell Williams and Andrew Porter, began researching and planning how to create a scholarship fund. By Dec. 1, they launched the Lawson Porter Scholarship Foundation, named after their grandfather, who instilled generosity within the family.

Related: Elon University social entrepreneurs help Black-owned businesses find new customers

The nationwide scholarship is aimed at helping Black academics like themselves afford higher education, wherever that may be. Unlike many other scholarships that are merit-based and designated for certain majors, this scholarship is open for students of all fields of study with a GPA of at least 2.0.

Porter noted that financial availability is an issue for many Black households, so this scholarship is widening the accessibility of financial aid.

Aaron Porter wants to grow the Lawson Porter Scholarship Foundation to provide a support network for Black students who face the challenges that confronted him in his own college days.

“Being someone who had limited resources, being someone who had to take student loans, being someone who has debt as we speak, we really wanted to focus in on how we can create an avenue for Black students in all aspects of college and learning,” Porter said. “Kind of give them an opportunity to not have to worry about ‘can I pay for this?’ or ‘can I pay for that?’ or ‘can I do this?’ or ‘can I do that?’ They can just go and be students.”

Porter came to campus as a quiet, out-of-state kid who hardly knew anyone and didn’t know what to major in. From semester to semester, he was always left wondering if he’d be able to continue at UK. In fact, without an unexpected grant one year, he was sure he would have to return home to attend community college in Indianapolis.

Despite these obstacles, Porter grew to become a leader on UK’s campus. He became a resident advisor, a singer in the UK Black Voices Gospel Choir and president and vice president of UK’s chapter of the National Association of Black Journalists. In 2019, he also won the NAACP UK Chapter Citizen of the Year Award for his work with the Black Student Advisory Council.

Porter is now a public affairs assistant for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service for the state of Mississippi. Despite taking up this new job and its added responsibilities, he knew it was still important to keep giving back.

Related: This Black-owned food delivery company helps make Black-owned restaurants more competitive

“Aaron is one of the best humans I know. His passion for social and racial justice, his love for his community and his unwavering faith are front and center with him always,” said Carol Taylor-Shim, director of UK’s Office of Equity, Inclusion and Social Justice and one of Porter’s mentors at the university. “Aaron always honors and protects the humanity of others; it is the center of who he is. What a gift he gave us by choosing UK, and we are far better for it.”

The Lawson Porter Scholarship Foundation’s Facebook page focuses on important figures from Black history, such as Alexander Twilight, the first African-American to graduate from college.

The dedication Porter has for supporting his fellow Black peers is something he shares and regularly discusses with his cousins. Black awareness and appreciation determined who the recipients of their scholarship would be, along with every other aspect of the foundation. Everything on the foundation’s website, from the logo to the color palate, is “Black-inspired, Black-imagined, Black-created,” Porter said.

The application process also requires applicants to create a submission piece that “captures some form of Afrocentric history” in order to combat the lack of Black history that is taught in education systems.

“What is most impressive about Aaron is that self-recognition was never at the heart of his work. He was always concerned about paths of opportunity he was creating for other students, particularly students of color who are marginalized in predominantly white institutions,” said Mel Coffee, a former School of Journalism and Media faculty member and current director of the Capital News Service Broadcast Bureau at the University of Maryland’s Philip Merrill College of Journalism. “Aaron had a fluid relationship with students and administrators that allowed him to create positive dialogue and change. He’s the student I loved having in class, a colleague I admire in his post-student status, and a man I am proud to also call my friend.”

Although the scholarship foundation is still in its infancy, Porter said they have already received donations from across the nation, including friends, family members and complete strangers. While he’s putting his journalism experience to use as the scholarship foundation’s social media content manager, he looks forward to the day when he’ll be able to disperse scholarship funds as the foundation’s treasurer. He hopes his work will allow him to help others just as his support system had done for him.

“You may never know my name, you may never know who I am, and I’m okay with that,” Porter said. “But if deep down I know that I made an impact on society somewhere, I think that really drives me, and that’s what drives all three of us to do the work that we have committed to doing with the scholarship foundation. I’ll take pleasure in that seven days a week and twice on Sunday.”

For more information about donating to or applying for the Lawson Porter Scholarship Foundation, visit https://thelpsf.org/.

This article has been edited from the original version appearing on the University of Kentucky website.

North Carolina Wesleyan College Joins the Battle Against Human Trafficking

North Carolina Wesleyan College, a Sullivan Foundation partner school, has partnered with JOY International and its mission to rescue, restore and reintegrate children, teens and women affected by human trafficking around the world.

The College will host its first NC Wesleyan Barefoot Mile fundraiser on Saturday, April 10, where faculty, staff and students will walk to raise awareness of the effects of human trafficking.

JOY International is a nonprofit organization based in Conifer, Colorado, that has helped over 2,000 children, teens and women. JOY works closely with law enforcement to find, prosecute and prevent sex traffickers around the world. After a rescue, those affected are placed in carefully selected and equipped homes to help promote healing and a positive future.

Related: North Carolina Wesleyan’s Afterschool Tutoring Initiative is a big win for education majors and local school children

Human trafficking is the fastest-growing and second-largest crime internationally. Globally, two million children are targeted and exploited each year in this $150 billion-dollar industry.

While human trafficking is a worldwide issue, it occurs locally as well. The U.S. Department of State estimates that 14,500- 17,500 children, teens and women are trafficked into the U.S. each year.

The NC Wesleyan Barefoot Mile will be hosted by Refuge Campus Ministries in partnership with JOY International, BraceChange and PATCH, Inc.

North Carolina Wesleyan College hopes to be a catalyst in the fight against human trafficking by raising $15,000. Various levels of sponsorship are available for any business or individual wanting to help contribute to this goal. Your contribution can help at least one person escape from the bondage of human trafficking. For more details and to register, visit joy.org/barefoot-mile-events.

Due to COVID-19 precautions, the on-campus event is limited solely to NC Wesleyan students, faculty and staff; however, community members can sign up to walk virtually between April 4 and April 10.

To help promote the event, two self-defense classes for women will be held on Friday, April 9, at Rise Church in Rocky Mount, N.C. Community members can participate from 5:15–7:15 p.m., and Wesleyan students can join from 7:30–9:30 p.m. Event organizers are also hosting a virtual silent auction for businesses to donate items if they’re unable to partner financially.

“The call from those with no voice needs to be answered, and JOY is doing just that. I hope you will join me and these other ministries and organizations to fight for those being trafficked and exploited,” said Natalie Larson, an NC Wesleyan student and the event’s organizer. “I pray our goal will be met, and, through this initiative, God will receive all the glory!”

This story has been edited slightly from the original version appearing on the North Carolina Wesleyan College website.

George Mason Graduate Student Advocates for Those With ‘Invisible Disabilities’

By Colleen Kearney Rich

In March 2020, just as the pandemic was beginning, Christine M. Condo, a graduate student at Sullivan Foundation partner school George Mason University, published an essay in the Washington Post that changed her life.

Thousands of people reacted to the piece titled, “‘You don’t look autistic’: The reality of high-functioning autism.” Some of those comments were from people saying, “You just described my life,” which was something Condo had aimed for as an autism advocate. But it still surprised her.

“It was really the first time in my life that the person I am underneath all this was actually seen,” said Condo, who is pursuing a master’s degree in English with a concentration in professional and technical writing. “I still get emotional talking about it because it was so incredible.”

Related: Fast-growing restaurant chain commits to hiring more employees with autism and differing abilities

She said that not only is autism misunderstood, it’s largely underdiagnosed, especially in women, people of color and in other cultures. Many have a stereotypical view of what someone with autism looks like—often a white male. It was partly this stereotype that drove Condo to write the essay.

“I was getting tired of the comments, ‘You don’t look autistic,’ because I felt like it really minimized the experiences that I’ve had my whole life and the amount of work that goes into that disguise and how psychologically painful it can be to have to hide who you really are,” she said. “I decided somebody needs to say something because this is happening everywhere, and people don’t realize it.”

It turns out Condo was that somebody. When she talks about the “disguise,” she is speaking about the challenges of appearing “neurotypical,” which can be physically and emotionally exhausting.

“So many of us are faking it,” she said.

Condo wasn’t diagnosed until 2015. She made it through public school systems and two bachelor’s degrees in writing-related subjects, one at James Madison University and the other at University of Maryland, without anyone realizing that there was something wrong with the way she processed information. She suspected it, though.

“I started becoming aware that my information processing was very, very different from that of my classmates,” she said.

As an undergraduate, Condo, who describes herself as hyperlexic, struggled with trying to prioritize what information was important when studying. So she attempted to master everything. A full course load was a challenge for her.

“It’s been a journey,” she said of finally getting a diagnosis. “And the more I learn [about autism], the more I think about my struggles growing up, when I thought I wasn’t trying hard enough or I wasn’t paying enough attention.”

Condo has made it her mission to change the dialogue about autism. In fact, her research and her thesis are devoted to this topic.

Related: George Mason University senior works with children impacted by cancer

“My focus has been on how language helps create the world we live in,” she said. “People with autism in this country have been defined by stereotypes for the last 30-plus years. If we can change the way people talk about autism, we can change the way people think about autism.”

She also writes and talks about what she calls the “Autism Paradox.”

“We can simply just stop hiding our autism, but then we won’t be employable,” she said. “Or you can do what I do, which is hide your autism. And then people are like, ‘Well, you’re not really autistic. You don’t need any accommodations.’”

Her concerns extend beyond autism to what she calls “invisible disabilities,” which she believes is probably one of the next hurdles for the United States.

“There’s been a lot of progress on getting accommodations for physical disabilities,” she said, “but there’s this huge cohort of people like me with invisible disabilities or whose disabilities aren’t apparent, such as low vision or hard of hearing. There’s no place for us in the disability laws.”

She added, “We still live in a culture where the onus is on the person with the disability to make sure that able people are comfortable around them.”

Still, Condo considers herself lucky. She has a partner and a family who support her and her advocacy work, including her sister, Andrea Kendall, who is a licensed clinical social worker “who gets it” and has become the “go-to therapist for teens and young women with autism.”

Condo and her sister are working on sharing her research at future conferences. That’s one of her goals for the year. Another goal was to publish two more articles, which she did. One of those was published in February in The Washington Post: “I’m autistic. I’m hoping I can wear a mask for the rest of my life.”

Related: George Mason University alumnus recognized as racial justice leader

Mason’s Department of English and Condo’s other professors also appear to get it. Not only have they been able to address Condo’s requests for accommodations, she has worked as a graduate teaching assistant for a multidisciplinary course taught by English professor Heidi Lawrence and as an intern in the department.

“Working with Christine is a delight—she always adds insightful dimensions to class discussion, is an incredibly talented professional writer, and has built a career in professional writing that is inspiring to her classmates,” Lawrence said. “It has been so inspiring to see the advocacy work she has taken on in addition to her always-exemplary class and program work. We are lucky that Christine is in our program!”

This story has been edited slightly from the original version appearing on the George Mason University website.

Elon University Social Entrepreneurs Help Black-Owned Businesses Find New Customers

By Patrick Wright, Elon University

Go to college. Graduate. Find your dream job. That’s how things are supposed to work, right? But what if you reached what you thought was your goal and turned it down with no alternative in sight? Now, that takes boldness.

Doug Spencer Jr., a 2016 graduate of Sullivan Foundation partner school Elon University and a former Elon Youth Trustee from Washington, D.C., had already enrolled in his dream law school when a summer job at a law firm changed his mind.

“It didn’t fit—it didn’t feel right to me,” Spencer said. “I called [the law school] and told them, ‘Thank you, but I’m not coming.’”

Related: This Black-owned food delivery company helps make Black-owned restaurants more competitive

“I definitely wasn’t skipping through a field of daisies either,” added Danielle Deavens, a 2016 Elon graduate who majored in print and online journalism. She’d landed a job at Food Network Magazine after graduation and realized her dreams were somewhere else.

The search for a dream isn’t the only thing connecting Deavens and Spencer. They’ve dated since they met as first-year students at an Elon soccer game in 2012. Eight and half years later, they’re taking on a bold new business venture together—one meant to support and celebrate Black-owned businesses.

“You usually don’t work with the person that you spend the rest of your life with, and so being able to do both is at times hard, but it’s mostly the best job ever,” Deavens said.

Products from Black-owned businesses are prepared for shipping at Bold Xchange.

Together, the couple launched Bold Xchange, an online retail shop that markets products exclusively sourced from Black-owned businesses, in February 2020. Bold Xchange offers a convenient way to find Black-owned businesses across the country and promises fast shipping, no hidden fees, vetted products and thoughtfully crafted rewards.

Deavens and Spencer research and acquire products from brand partners, market them and handle fulfillment of every order themselves. It’s no simple task, but the opportunity to help good businesses break down barriers far outweighs the work required, the couple said.

“You’re reminded every day about how meaningful this is because you’re working with people who are also nourishing their baby,” Spencer said. “Their business is something they’ve put so much time into.”

Bold Xchange’s work with Black-owned businesses has already earned the company national attention. Since the online shop’s official launch in 2020, Bold Xchange has been featured by TODAY.com and partnered with Home Depot to curate a Black History Month box, containing Black-owned products, to be shipped to customers and influencers.

Related: This Algernon Sydney Sullivan Award recipient beat breast cancer and helps other Black women do the same

Deavens and Spencer also recently received a $50,000, equity-free Arch Grant to relocate Bold Xchange to St. Louis, Missouri, and use warehouse space there to grow their business further.

The most meaningful aspect of their first year of business, however, has been the opportunity to help Black-owned businesses thrive, even amid a global pandemic. “It’s so rewarding to talk to brand partners who say, ‘I had a banner year, and I couldn’t have done it without you guys,’” said Deavens. “That’s the dream—that you help somebody have a really great year.”

Bold Xchange was born out of a series of seemingly unrelated events. When Spencer passed on law school, he published a post about the difficult decision for a friend’s blog. His story garnered a great deal of attention and encouraged others to reach out to him for advice in making their own bold moves. That interest inspired Deavens and Spencer to start a blog of their own, “The Curatours,” which focused on young Black people doing notable work.

this is a photo of Danielle Deavens, co-founder of Bold Xchange and a social entrepreneur who helps black-owned businesses

Danielle Deavens

Around that time, Deavens was checking off presents from her Christmas list when a friend told her about a Black-owned formal-wear company that would be a great place to buy a pocket square for her father. Deavens enjoyed the shopping experience so much that she decided to buy all of her family’s presents that year from Black-owned businesses, but she was surprised by how difficult it was to find businesses to support.

Soon after, Deavens and Spencer launched Bold Xchange, combining their passion for sharing stories of Black excellence with their goal of supporting Black business owners.

“It was kind of born out of knowing these great Black-owned businesses existed, knowing it was a personal connection that led me to them, and wanting it to be a more accessible and simple experience,” Deavens said. “It all kind of started there.”

Related: Elon University student’s clothing brand combines positive message with entrepreneurship

The summer of 2020 gave the couple’s work new meaning, as cries for social justice rang out across the nation. In the weeks following the police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor—and the nationwide protests that followed—Bold Xchange saw a spike in visitors looking for ways to support Black-owned businesses. With the increased interest, the shop frequently ran out of inventory, and Deavens and Spencer even struggled to keep a supply of shipping boxes in stock.

But the success of their business wasn’t front of mind at that moment. Their focus was on making a statement. “We want to be a part of convincing people that this is something they should care about forever,” Spencer said. “So for both of us, it’s like, yes, we’re supporting these entrepreneurs, but how do we engage with people who are now paying attention and help them understand that this isn’t a fad, it isn’t fleeting?”

Doug Spencer co-founded Bold Xchange to create new opportunities for black-owned companies

Doug Spencer

Deavens and Spencer are continuing on with that message in mind, as they form strong personal connections with the Black business owners who help make Bold Xchange a success. They’ve spent time learning about their stories, their concerns and their dreams, and the couple hopes to see brand partners reach their personal and business goals through Bold Xchange.

“I think there are these headlines around what supporting Black entrepreneurship means, and those are really important, but we’ve gotten to see the human element behind that and the actual impact that we can make in real people’s lives,” Deavens said.

Just like the brand partners they support, Deavens and Spencer have learned that stepping out on faith isn’t always easy. And it doesn’t always work the first time—just ask them about the 2018 beta version of Bold Xchange. Two years later, however, they’re running a successful business together and looking to expand their operation. And all it took was a little boldness—boldness that doesn’t stop here.

“If we’ve done this in one year, where will we be in five? Where will we be in 10?” Deavens said. “We have really lofty goals for Bold Xchange, so to be able to start to see even some of those come true is incredible.”

This story has been edited slightly from the original version appearing on the Elon University website.

This Black-Owned Food Delivery Company Helps Make Black-Owned Restaurants More Competitive

Just one day after Donald Trump was elected president in 2016, twin brothers David and Aaron Cabello, sophomores at Shippensburg University at the time, decided to drop out of school and start a business that would support Black-owned companies in their native Philadelphia. That business turned out to be Black and Mobile, a food delivery platform exclusively for Black-owned restaurants.

“We wanted to help Black people and Black businesses,” David Cabello told Fortune in a recent article. “We didn’t know how we were going to do it, of course. We were 21 years old and broke. We just knew we wanted to help.”

Related: This Algernon Sydney Sullivan Award recipient beat breast cancer and helps other Black women do the same

As the brothers worked on their plans, they took on food delivery jobs with third-party platforms like Postmates, Uber Eats and Caviar. When the latter company hired David but not Aaron, the twins worked out a novel solution so both of them could learn the business. “We just used the same account,” David said in the Fortune interview. “I would do a five-hour shift, take a break, charge my electric bike, and then Aaron would go out there for five hours. We were doing 10-, 11-hour days. I’m sure they probably thought, ‘How is he delivering for that long?’”

In one marathon session, the Cabello brothers earned $1,100 in 30 hours. “I was, like, if I can make this much money delivering food on a bicycle, how much can I make if I owned a company?” David recalled.

this photo shows David and Aaron Cabello, founders of Black and Mobile, a third-party food delivery company that supports black-owned restaurants

David and Aaron Cabello

As of February 2019, Black and Mobile was in business and on the road, delivering food from Black-owned restaurants to customers all around Philadelphia. Their goal was to provide needed exposure for under-represented businesses in urban communities and help them become more competitive.

“It was slow going at first,” David recalled in an article posted on the Onfleet website. “I got hit by a car. We grossed $25,000 the first year. I didn’t know what I was doing. I kept getting stuck on the complex logistics of delivery.”

Onfleet’s technology helped the brothers better solve their logistics problems. Ironically, the pandemic of 2020 helped accelerate Black and Mobile’s growth. “Everybody wanted delivery,” he said. “In April, we tripled our volume.”

The Black Lives Matter movement also sparked interest in his company. “We advertised mostly organically on Instagram. That blew up.”

According to the Fortune article, the larger food delivery platforms might deprioritize or even refuse to deliver in some neighborhoods. Their high fees and technology requirements also pose a challenge to undercapitalized Black-owned restaurants. Many third-party delivery companies gobble up to 30 percent of a restaurant’s order with fees and commissions.

Related: President Biden’s executive order will provide more federal aid for anti-hunger nonprofits

“You would think big national businesses would have good customer service and not have such high sign-up costs and commission fees,” Shon Emanuel, the owner of Supreme Oasis, a Black and Mobile restaurant partner in West Philly, told Fortune. “Black and Mobile has less and takes less.”

Black and Mobile charges its clients 20 percent from each order or 15 percent for partner restaurants that use its services exclusively. And Emanuel said his sales have shot up by 35 percent to 40 percent since he started working with Black and Mobile. “Once we got on their platform, people were telling us, ‘We didn’t know you were Black-owned—we didn’t even know you were opened’ … People want to support Black businesses, and with Black and Mobile, you can support two for one.”

Black and Mobile now employs 200 people, with operations in Philadelphia, Detroit and Atlanta. But opening the Atlanta operation last year did not go smoothly. A local development company botched Black and Mobile’s app for that region, missing the deadline for launch and turning in an app that didn’t work, Fortune reported. The problems cost the company around $300,000 and almost drove the Cabello brothers out of business.

this photo shows fried chicken and other soul food from D Cafe, a Black-owned restaurant benefiting from Black and Mobile's food delivery service in Atlanta

D Cafe, a Black-owned soul-food restaurant in Atlanta, is one of Black and Mobile’s partners.

But a partnership with a new program developed by Pepsi saved the day. PepsiCo Global Foodservice has pledged $400 million to fighting both the impact of COVID-19 and racial inequality. Pepsi’s Dig In program is a “purposeful rallying cry to double down our support for Black-owned businesses, with a particular focus on restaurants,” Scott Finlow, global chief marketing officer of PepsiCo Foodservice, told Fortune. “It’s a program that’s holistic, sustained—vs. transactional—and focused on ensuring owners are equipped with technology and tools to make it through the pandemic and thrive.”

With support from Dig In-affiliated partners, Black and Mobile has been working to improve its Atlanta app. “It was the support we needed to keep going,” David said. “Fixing the tech side of it is our main focus. I think that’s all we’re missing at this point.”

Related: Past Algernon Sydney Sullivan Award recipient helps prepare girls of color for careers in science

Technology is often a sticking point for Black-owned businesses, Finlow said. “There’s a capabilities gap [between white- and Black-owned businesses], which comes from access to and cost of capital. The structural disadvantage that goes back generations has led to Black restaurants being undercapitalized and not necessarily having some of the tools that let them invest in the tech that’s increasingly required to work in an off-premises world—which is make-or-break capability today.”

Even after the missteps in Atlanta, Black and Mobile still generated $500,000 in revenue in 2020, a 2,000 percent increase from the previous year, according to Fortune. “Our goal for this year: a million,” David said.