Ashley Blackwell’s Casteen Diversity Award Acceptance Speech

Ashley Blackwell

Acceptance Speech Given by UVa 4th Year Ashley Blackwell, 2015 Recipient of John Casteen III,  Diversity – Equity – Inclusion Leadership Award

This is the complete, annotated transcript of Ashley’s acceptance speech at the award ceremony on March 27th, 2015.

Special thanks to Professor Walter Heinecke for transcribing.

See the full video here, via UVa Students United.

[Ashley Blackwell]:

I’m deeply honored and just shocked to have received this award.  And I really want to thank the Office of Diversity and Equity and my friends and mentors and colleagues who put together this nomination.  I’m really shocked to be up here and standing in front of you today because I just would’ve never imagined having this opportunity and this recognition just considering the work that I do with communities that are often deemed peripheral to the university community, like low-income populations, communities of color, as well as Charlottesville residents.

And it’s really difficult for me to ignore the fact that this award is being provided to me during a time in which these values of diversity, equity, and inclusion are being called into question across our community due to the issues of gender, race, and class that have been made prevalent through national media attention in the recent months, but also throughout our history as President Sullivan outlined at the start of this recognition luncheon.  And these issues, especially those of race and class, have been central to my experience as a low-income student, as a biracial black and Hispanic woman at this university.

And while I was going through the college application process, my family was experiencing housing instability.  We were unable to afford a home.  And as a result, we were living in friends and family’s spare rooms and basements.  And so as I was receiving offers from universities outlining what the tuition and loans package would look like, at times that were two or three times the amount of my annual income that my family was receiving.  I knew as soon as I saw AccessUVA’s full aid grant guarantee that I was going to be able to be a college student and break the poverty cycle because of this opportunity.  And I can’t thank John T. Casteen enough for it. [Applause.] And the fact that he’s been so active in really promoting diversity and increasing diversity exponentially over time has really changed the landscape of what the University of Virginia represents to a lot of students from this background.

However, I had this romantic notion that as soon as I entered college, I would automatically break the poverty cycle and that my family’s financial circumstances would no longer be an issue.

However, we were continuing to experience housing instability.  And I was helping my mother navigate through workforce and housing opportunities here in Charlottesville and found that that’s my first – had my first orientation to how the university impacts the Charlottesville community in terms of raising the cost of housing and encroaching upon low income and African American communities through the student housing developments as well as the wages, of course, that are provided to workers that push many of our workers across our community to take on two to three jobs just to be able to afford the basic necessities of life [1].  And so this is something that I’ve been grappling with as a student here.

The fact that I’m standing before you today, trying to break this poverty cycle, as part of an institution that perpetuates, this cycle in our communities of color and low income populations across the Charlottesville community and the region.  So this is what’s inspired me to really develop programs, yes, for students through United For Undergraduate Socioeconomic Diversity (UFUSED) to address some of the gaps in the support structure for low-income students, but also to work with the Charlottesville community with the local Office of Economic Development to address barriers to employment for low-income residents.  As well as with Piedmont Housing Alliance to advocate for affordable housing in our community because it’s essential that we understand the effects that the university has on the Charlottesville community because it’s not just – these people are central to really making this university thrive and run effectively on a daily basis.  And so something else that I realized was that there were a lot of cultures and traditions that were offsetting to myself as well as many of my peers who also came from similar backgrounds.

We tend to put on a pedestal this southern white elite culture through traditions like Girls in Pearls and Guys in Ties, as well as Foxfield where students get dressed up in really nice clothes and go to these horse races, as well as our whole entire Rugby Road where we have mansions that are devoted to predominantly white, predominantly affluent students in our community.  And changing and challenging these cultures and traditions is central to the work that UFUSED does in order to create a space and create new traditions so that students from a variety of backgrounds can really create a sense of belonging here and be connected to this community.

And so with that, I think it’s important to fully manifest this vision of diversity, equity, and inclusion by making diversity more than a buzzword and an actual lived experience here and by making inclusion and equity reflective in our policies as well as our cultures and traditions.  And we can do this through a number of key kinds of policy changes as well as traditional and cultural changes.  And so I think that it’s central to recognize the role that history has in shaping this university.  I do think the President’s Commission on Slavery is incredible for trying to make this history central.

However, I encourage them to move beyond just creating static memorialization structures through buildings and plaques and really understand how our policies, cultures, and traditions today continue to disenfranchise many of the communities of color and low income populations in our community, sure, as students, faculty, and staff, but also as Charlottesville residents.  And this disenfranchisement is further evident through the lack and decreasing student enrollment rates for racial ethnic minorities as well as the lack of faculty members who are black, who are Hispanic, who represent communities of color.  And we must also reevaluate what our budget priorities are.

I know that the Board of Visitors recently approved the Affordable Excellence model [2].  And as I said to you, I really was offset as a college applicant and a prospective student, by many of the tuition prices and the loans I was expected to take out.  And it would not have been an option without  the AccessUVA Full Grant Aid Guarantee.  So I think it’s important to, yes, restore AccessUVA  full grant aid guarantee [3] to ensure that we are making low income populations central to this university and communities of color, but I also think it’s important to lower tuition and really reevaluate our priorities as they’re reflected in our budget at this university [4].

We must also advocate for transparency, accountability, and representation on the University’s Board of Visitors to include student, faculty, staff, local Charlottesville residents, and as UVa Students United, a local student group here, have advocated  for a public comment period to ensure that residents and all of the different members who are part of our community are able to provide input into the plans that are being made because I know recently, there was a lot of lack of transparency in terms of this Affordable Excellence model being passed where students were locked out of the buildings where these meetings were being held.  So I think it’s really important to make sure that this is truly accessible, truly transparent, and it’s inclusive of all community members’ comments and thoughts about how we can move forward and reevaluate our priorities here.  So I wanted to reiterate that these are all policies and cultural and traditional changes that many student organizations, from Black Student Alliance to Latino Student Alliance, United For Undergraduate Socioeconomic Diversity as well as the Minority Rights Coalition and just a bunch of community members in our local Charlottesville community have been advocating for for years, and most recently in these past months.

And I wanted to simulate what representation on the Board would look like and what passing these policies would look like right now today.

And so I move to reframe the President’s Commission on Slavery in order to, yes, ensure that we create memorials, but also to ensure that we are critically examining the policies, cultures, and traditions that we have today that continue to disenfranchise low income and communities of colors.  Does anyone second this motion?

[Audience]: Second.

[Ashley Blackwell]: All in favor say, “Aye.”

[Audience]: Aye.

[Ashley Blackwell]: All opposed say, “Nay.”  All right, we have approved to move forward with reevaluating our policies and priorities here to make sure that we are not disenfranchising low-income populations and communities of color.  I also move to conduct active recruitment efforts of students who come from communities of color and are from low-income populations, as well as actively recruiting communities of faculty and staff who represent historically marginalized populations.  Does anybody second this motion?

[Audience]: Second.

[Ashley Blackwell]: All in favor say, “Aye.”

[Audience]: Aye.

[Ashley Blackwell]: All opposed say, “Nay.”  All right, we will move forward with this plan.  I also would like to move to reevaluate our budget priorities and restore Access UVa Full Grant Aid Guarantee to show our commitment and reinvestment in the low-income populations as well as lowering tuition and maybe next time we’ll consider completely free tuition in higher education here at the University of Virginia.  Does anybody second this motion?

[Audience]: Second.

[Ashley Blackwell]: All in favor say, “Aye.”

[Audience]: Aye.

[Ashley Blackwell]: All opposed say, “Nay.”  We will move forward with this.  I look forward to our next meeting where we’ll discuss free tuition at the university.  I think that these are policies that need to be considered as we really reevaluate what it means to be diverse, equitable, and inclusive at the University of Virginia.  And I hope that we consider innovative models and reallocation of resources to make sure that these communities that are often deemed peripheral are made central to what it means to be a part of this university’s community of trust.  Thank you so much, again, for selecting me for this incredible honor.

[End of Audio]

Duration: 13 minutes



  1. Keeping Our Promises, The Living Wage Campaign at the University of Virginia. This is an excellent, thorough report updated in 2012 that documents the University’s relationship with direct and contracted non-academic employees and the consequences of paying poverty wages.
  2. Affordable Excellence presentation, University of Virginia Board of Visitors Finance Subcommittee. This proposal was introduced and passed at their meeting on March 24th, 2015.
  3. What Is AccessUVa?, Restore AccessUVa campaign. “AccessUVa is the University of Virginia’s financial aid program. Originally, the program replaced ‘need-based loans with grants in the financial aid packages of lowest-income students – those students who are Pell eligible and whose family income is equivalent to 200 percent of the federal poverty line or less and whose family assets do not exceed $75,000.’ Changes made [by] the Board of Visitors in the summer of 2013 removed this component of the program. Students admitted in the 2014-2015 academic year will not receive all-grant packages, and will instead be required to take out loans to meet financial need.”
  4. Anything but Affordable and Excellent, Point-by-Point Refutation of the Affordable Excellence Model, UVa Students United. These two pieces highlight the perils of a high tuition, high aid financial model and provide additional data and resources on tuition rates and accessibility.


About Ashley Blackwell – Anne E. Bromley, for UVaToday

In her second year, Ashley Blackwell, who is majoring in urban and environmental planning in the School of Architecture, founded the group United for Undergraduate Socioeconomic Diversity, which “has changed the landscape for low-income students at U.Va.,” wrote her nominator, fellow student Cierra Brooks. UFUSED works to generate dialogue about socioeconomic issues and encourage greater comprehensive support of students from low-income backgrounds.

Blackwell, a Rainey Scholar and an AccessUVa financial aid recipient, also created the Rainey Scholars Mentorship Network with the goal of connecting first-year students to academic, organizational and professional opportunities, Brooks wrote. The Rainey Academic Program brings a cohort of first-year AccessUVa students to the Grounds for the third summer session to take courses and workshops aimed at easing their transition to academic life. Among her many activities, Blackwell is raising funds to create a $2,000 scholarship for low-income students that would enable them to pursue unpaid summer internships and have access to otherwise-unavailable professional opportunities, Brooks said.

Carol Anne Spreen, a former associate professor in the Curry School of Education and faculty adviser to UFUSED, wrote in her supporting letter that she had the opportunity to closely observe Blackwell’s leadership. “She is exceptional at understanding and working within and across diverse environments,” Spreen wrote, including class, race, gender and politics.

Blackwell has also worked to address gaps in support services offered to local populations, including homeless and low-income people and even in Appalachia, where she organized a book drive for a school. “In these organizations Ashley’s contributions have been significant – representing and advocating for affordable housing, transportation, social services, child care and other needs for the truly disenfranchised,” Spreen wrote. During an internship at the Piedmont Housing Alliance, Blackwell researched best practices for housing counseling and asset-building programs. While working at the Office of Economic Development, she addressed barriers to employment for low-income residents in Charlottesville and recruited more than 300 residents to take advantage of the office’s transportation assistance to get to job opportunities. She also participated as the youngest fellow in Charlottesville’s Neighborhood Leadership Institute, seeking to understand and improve the impacts U.Va. has on surrounding neighborhoods.

“Her leadership in these issues extends beyond our own community into all aspects of her academic and professional life,” Brooks said. “Her passion and her work have improved the lives of people within and beyond our own community.”


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