Bobby Kunstman and Lisa Villamil, recipients of the 2023 MLK Unsung Hero Award, both came to Carolina in 2014. But in their eight years at the University, each pursued a different path in showing their commitment to diversity and inclusion.
Kunstman, former director of Student Life and Leadership and adjunct professor in the School of Education, used his expertise to guide student leaders and provide career development opportunities for his staff at the Carolina Union.
Villamil, assistant professor in the Hussman School of Journalism and Media, employed her skills in communication and data storytelling to help Native Americans protect their genetic information from exploitation.
Both received their awards Jan. 18 at the MLK Lecture and Awards ceremony in Moeser Auditorium in Hill Hall. The MLK Unsung Hero Awards, sponsored by the University’s Office for Diversity and Inclusion, go to staff or faculty members who show commitment to inclusion every day.
Villamil’s research focuses on environmentalism, social sustainability and cultural identity in rural and Native American communities in Appalachia and the American Southeast. One of the major projects she has contributed to, in conjunction with the Cecil G. Sheps Center for Health Services Research, is Creating a Culture of Health in Appalachia: Bright Spots and Disparities. This study for the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and Appalachian Regional Commission covered 13 states.
More recently, Villamil has worked with Odum Institute for Research in Social Science, Whole Community Health and the American Indian Center on the Southeast Native American Health Data initiative. The initiative is being done in collaboration with the Native BioData Consortium, the first nonprofit biorepository and research center located on sovereign land and led by Indigenous scientists in the United States.
The purpose of this biobank is to keep genetic samples and data local, foster trust in research and use that research to benefit Native Americans. The concerns of the group will sound familiar to those who have read “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks,” the story of how a Black woman’s DNA was used extensively in medical research for decades without her knowledge or consent.
“DNA of the Indigenous people of the Western Hemisphere is valuable to scientists because it’s different because the population was isolated for around 25,000 years,” Villamil said. “Scientists and health professionals who learn best practices for working with Indigenous DNA will help to unlock the potential of precision medicine to make dents in the health disparities experienced by Native Americans.”
Joseph Yracheta, vice president of the consortium board, nominated Villamil for the award.
“It has been an honor to work with Professor Villamil since 2019 on a variety of issues facing the American Indian and Alaska Native peoples of the USA and Indigenous people across the Western Hemisphere around research, genomic resources, indigenous data sovereignty and health improvement,” he said. “She has had a great and significant impact on the Southeast USA, where no one has yet brought these issues into focus for Southeast Native people.”
When Kunstman came to Carolina in 2014, he was the University’s first director of student life and leadership. The new position marked a change from a single adviser working with student leaders to a more comprehensive team approach.
“Bobby’s advising approach is focused on working collaboratively with students, empowering them to be able to best make decisions that not only address the challenges faced by students but work to build the institution into a better organization,” said Brian Lackman, associate director of student life and leadership, who nominated Kunstman for the award.
Since student leadership covered a broad range of groups, from elected representatives in student government to leaders of affinity- and heritage-based groups, Kunstman and his team guided them on practical issues like event planning while also helping them to develop leadership skills. He supported the Carolina Latinx Center to bring the first Latinx Heritage Month speaker to campus and partnered with the Carolina Indian Circle to present Native American Heritage Month events. He also centralized student-led civic engagement initiatives with a five-year plan focused on promoting democracy.
At the same time, Kunstman developed a strategic equity plan “to provide meaningful professional development for staff members to improve both their professional skills and their workplace satisfaction,” said Dawna Jones, assistant vice president of identity centers and community development at Duke University, who also nominated Kunstman.
Kunstman, who identifies as “half-Black, half-Cuban,” uses the “Star Wars”-influenced JEDI acronym to describe his approach: justice, equity, diversity and inclusion. When the death of George Floyd sparked protests against race-based police brutality across the country in 2020, Kunstman responded with a series of reading and discussion sessions that led Carolina Union staff members to action steps to build better relationships.
“Being home all the time at the beginning of the pandemic, I think we forgot how to practice empathy,” Kunstman said. “I wanted to help get us all to the same starting point.”
An Eagle Scout, Kunstman used his expertise to lead diversity, equity and inclusion for the Eastern Region (Order of the Arrow) Boy Scouts. Kunstman also served on the University committee reviewing the History, Race and a Way Forward commission’s recommendation for the removal of 10 names from campus buildings, an experience he found “personally challenging and personally rewarding.”
“When I think about Dr. King’s legacy and the struggle for civil rights, it’s been a long, toilsome journey,” said Kunstman, who is now Duke University’s assistant vice president for campus life. “Change doesn’t happen fast, but it happens.”