By Abby Weingarten
Jada McNeill wants New College students to know that they are not alone as they navigate a time of racial injustice, health crises and economic turmoil. As someone who has spent much of her career working to improve all three issues in communities of color, she understands.
“There has been a lot of racial tension with the events that have happened in the past week, and we’re also in a global pandemic, and we don’t know what our future is in terms of what the fall is going to look like. I’m trying to help create events that deal with that,” said McNeill, the assistant director of the office of Student Activities & Campus Engagement (SA[u]CE). “We want students of color to talk about these issues that bother them, whether it’s COVID-19 or public health disparities or just being a person of color in the United States. We can help create spaces for them.”
A recipient of the 2019 President’s Volunteer Service Award, McNeill came to New College two years ago, bringing with her a wealth of experience in community outreach and public health. She holds a bachelor’s degree in psychology from the University of Tennessee, Knoxville; and a Masters of Public Health (MPH) degree from Tennessee State University. She also interned at the American Lung Association and was a research study interviewer at Vanderbilt University Medical Center.
McNeill and her colleagues at SA[u]CE strive to create a supportive community where students can “make a positive difference, develop healthy and meaningful relationships with others and are empowered to take action, learn about themselves, and develop leadership and lifelong skills.”
Her latest project has been a collaboration with the Center for Diversity and Inclusion at Ringling College of Art and Design (part of the Cross College Alliance along with New College) to create Community Healing Spaces. This virtual program throughout the month of June includes a series of diversity-focused activities, educational workshops and interactive dialogues.
“This is providing space for students of color so they can have a dialogue—as well as have some kind of therapy session—about what’s going on in the world,” McNeill said. “It’s a virtual experience but, when our campus is open, we have students who hang out in our office and just want to vent. It’s a safe space. We make sure we are a listening ear and give them the necessary resources they need to move forward.”
McNeill is currently working on developing resources and events for the fall, including a program called “Race, Power and Politics” that will invite speakers to discuss issues like “the historical context of democracy, cultural disparities among minorities, and police brutality,” she said.
For McNeill, her own personal experiences have also influenced her programming and mentoring on campus.
“Growing up as a black woman, I’ve had multiple interactions dealing with microaggressions as well as just overall racism,” McNeill said. “I’m trying to take what I wish someone had told me at a younger age and tie it into my programming for students.”
McNeill grew up in Memphis, Tennessee—the city where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was killed in 1968. Every year, on January 18, the massive celebrations in Memphis of King’s life and work were incredibly powerful, and they shaped McNeill’s worldview.
“Being around that history was really impactful, and just understanding what people have done throughout history to get basic human rights is inspiring,” McNeill said. “It’s really important to teach non-black people that there is a history that we’ve dealt with, so that they can see how some of the events have happened (and have led to situations like the death of George Floyd).”
McNeill is inspired by the actions people are taking to combat racism in the streets of Sarasota—and all over the world—right now. She is also actively involved in working with Sarasota’s diverse Newtown community, and in the process of helping Newtown create more job training opportunities with various organizations. And she is supporting Newtown events such as Big Mama’s Collard Green Festival, and serving on the board of The Newtown Nation nonprofit.
Before taking over the role of assistant director of SA[u]CE a year ago, McNeill started at New College as the volunteer coordinator for AmeriCorps VISTA (a national service program designed to alleviate poverty), and she supervised operations for the New College Food Pantry. She coordinated volunteer opportunities for students, faculty and staff, with the focus on service opportunities related to poverty alleviation through addressing food insecurity.
She is always encouraging New College students to get involved in local causes and serve communities in need.
“When you’re in college, you’re trying to figure out your values and your beliefs. So when it comes to diversity and multicultural issues, it’s important for students to have these conversations and interactions while in school,” McNeill said. “We’re building up our students to go into the real world once they graduate from New College.”
For more information on SA[u]CE, call 941-487-4501 or visit ncf.edu/campus-life/sauce-office.
Abby Weingarten is the editor/writer in the Office of Communications & Marketing.