King award winner: Laura Taylor
Laura Taylor is more than just one of Champaign-Urbana's top educational leaders.
Taylor, the assistant superintendent for achievement and student services for Unit 4, is also the founder of the school district's social justice committee.
Between 25 and 45 people gather each month to learn about social justice and how to apply social justice principles in every day life. The group established programs for teachers and others to learn about racism, issues of sexual orientation, poverty, immigration reform and students who speak English as a second language.
And when Taylor served as principal of Urbana High School from 2006 to 2012, she established a similar social justice committee there. The group created a video encouraging minority and low-income students to take honors classes. It led to the establishment of a social justice class, and building signs were erected in Spanish for the benefit of students who speak that language. The group also launched a media project aimed at stopping discriminatory language.
Taylor will be recognized for her social justice efforts as the winner of this year's Outstanding Achievement Award at the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Countywide Celebration Friday at the Hilton Garden Inn in Champaign.
Taylor, 46, and her husband, South Side Elementary School Principal Bill Taylor, have three children, Jill, Nick and Lindsey.
Taylor talks about social justice, the legacy of King and what winning the award means to her.
Q: Are you looking forward to the ceremony on Friday?
A: Yes, There are a lot of people who have helped me with the social justice committee, and they are all really excited. We're all happy that the group is being recognized.
Q: What does the social justice committee do?
A: We look at district improvement through the social justice lens. Community members, students and parents can all come to our meetings every month to learn and to participate. We understand social justice as a continual commitment to thoughtfully consider and actively challenge societal norms that privilege some and not others. And then when we make decisions, we try to do it within the social justice framework.
Q: What does social justice mean to you?
A: Social justice is making sure that you take into account the structures and the ways that we do things that help some people over others. When we look at things, we notice how they are designed for certain people and make sure they are designed for all people.
Q: What got you interested in social justice?
A: I was an education major for three years at the University of Illinois. I was going to be a teacher, and I started working an internship at the Cunningham Children's Home. After that experience, I decided I wanted to work with students with special needs. The UI didn't offer the degree I wanted at the time, so I got into photography and flipped to an undergraduate degree in fine arts. In that field, I found myself doing art related to social justice. In my photography, I was focusing on race relations. One of my favorite photographs was of a homeless man in Chicago in poverty. When I came back to education, I decided that my work would be devoted to ensuring that no matter who you are, we will do the best for you.
Q: Who is your hero in the world of social justice?
A: There's not one person. My heroes are the people who are dedicating themselves now to making social justice a reality here in Champaign-Urbana.
Q: Can you give a specific example of how Unit 4 is making progress in social justice?
A: A simple example I can give is how we have changed making homecoming floats. In many high schools, float building takes place at someone's house. The kids who had access to that work were the kids who knew the people at that house. If we are coming from a social justice lens, that's probably not okay. We brought float building back to the school or to some place where all the kids have access to participate.
Social justice is more about who is in power and who is making the rules. The people in power tend to make the rules. We need to work toward the day that all of us can be part of what schools have to offer.
Q: Can you give an example of something that needs to happen in the next 10 years in social justice? How will we know we have achieved this?
A: The achievement gaps will have decreased dramatically in the schools. This is an issue all over the country.
When we have true equity for all people, that's when we will have achieved our goal.
I also hope that more people will get involved with social justice and apply it to whatever they are working on.
Q: Is there a way this award will help inspire people to work for social justice?
A: I think it is already happening. This award is bringing attention to what we are trying to do in Unit 4 schools, and it is inspiring other people to reach out and want to be part of that.
Q: As an educator, what can young people learn from the life of Martin Luther King Jr.?
A: Young people can learn about perseverance and tenacity. They can learn to stand up for what they believe.
Q: Has Martin Luther King Jr. inspired you in any way?
A: I believe he has inspired anyone who has done any work in social justice. This is hard work, and some people resist it. He took many risks for people who were facing resistance.
Q: What was your reaction when you learned you were receiving this award?
A: I was grateful because it brings attention to social justice.