Fourth-year Architecture student Ashley Blackwell’s passion for social justice has led her to pursue work on a host of equity issues within the University and Charlottesville communities over the past few years.
Blackwell said her personal experiences before and after coming to the University shaped her interest in working as an agent for social change.
“My own socioeconomic background made my hyper-aware of these issues, as well as lacking a sense of belonging within the culture and tradition of U.Va.,” Blackwell said. “I wanted to create opportunities where low-income students could engage socially, but also take advantage of the professional and academic resources here.”
During her second year, Blackwell helped found United for Undergraduate Socioeconomic Diversity (UFUSED) — a CIO which advocates for inclusive college culture, specifically for low-income students, and seeks to identify gaps preventing supportive policy changes at the University.
Blackwell said the University’s isolating environment for minority and low-income students motivated her to create a more comprehensive support structure.
“There is this notion that if you are not affluent or of a certain race, you should just simply be grateful and not critical,” Blackwell said. “You realize when you start advocating for resources, your identity becomes politicized and people do not want you to speak out.”
More recently, Blackwell created the Access UVA Alumni Network, which connects students to resources, professional opportunities and events. The network works with organizations like the Rainey Scholars Program to facilitate the college transition process for low-income and first-generation college students.
“Looking back at first-year, I wish I had a group like UFUSED and the advantages that brings,” Blackwell said. “The fact that the University has not provided something like the Alumni Network makes me deeply question why the administration is not investing in creating these resources. The stress and efforts fall on the responsibilities of students [who] are already pulled in many different directions.”
Blackwell said working on social issues where multiple communities coexist, like in Charlottesville, heightens the importance of understanding relationships between communities.
“I’ve spent every spring and summer break [in] Charlottesville working with community organizations on education and economic development,” Blackwell said. “Through this, I have learned there is no such thing as living in a U.Va. bubble because the decisions the University makes are advantageous for some [and harmful for] those in historically marginalized neighborhoods.”
Mary Esselman Roberts, Program Assistant and Tutoring Coordinator for the Center of Undergraduate Excellence, played an instrumental role in connecting Blackwell with resources. However, Roberts said she also learned from Blackwell and her ability to work carefully with complex issues.
“I have been energized by Ashley’s creative, ‘Let’s get it done now’ approach to problem-solving and by the compassion that underlies all of her work,” Roberts said. “Ashley has been a relentless and courageous leader of positive social change at U.Va. and in Charlottesville. I can only imagine what she will do outside the U.Va. and Charlottesville community in the years to come.”
Post-graduation, Blackwell will pursue two prestigious fellowships — the Humanity in Action and the Emerson National Hunger. With Humanity in Action, Blackwell will travel to Warsaw to learn how World War II continues to shape social justice issues today. With the Emerson National Hunger, Blackwell will spearhead a local community project before working in DC on policy addressing issues like hunger, poverty and racism.
The fellowships parallel Blackwell’s deeply held belief in holistic social equity and will foster her previous work in community-based development.
“I am excited to be in a network of people [who] care about these issues rather than accepting this default world we have,” Blackwell said. “It will be interesting to see this work done both on the international level as well as at the policy level.”