St. John’s Salutes Service Leaders at Inaugural MLK Agents of Change Awards Dinner

Award winners posing for photo at MLK Agents of Change Awards Dinner
February 1, 2024

Inspired by the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., St. John’s University honored four “change agents” on January 29 at a gala sponsored by the Office of Multicultural Affairs (OMA) designed to kick off Black History Month events across the Queens and Staten Island, NY, campuses. 

The first MLK Legacy Agents of Change Awards Dinner, held in the D’Angelo Center Ballroom on the Queens campus, celebrated three members of the University community: David N. Gachigo, M.B.A., Associate Dean of Student Affairs and Interim Vice Provost at St. John’s Staten Island campus; Duane Shippey, M.B.A. ’97A, Vice President/Client Service Manager, BNY Mellon; and graduate student Jazmyne Easley ’23CCPS, as well as health care entrepreneur Maurelhena Walles. All were recognized for their efforts in expanding opportunities for members of minority communities through social-justice initiatives consistent with Dr. King’s vision. 

The evening featured performances by the St. John’s Voices of Victory gospel choir, and the University chapters of the Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc. and Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Inc. Singer and musician Remy Martin ’16P, ’18GEd, a doctoral candidate in The School of Education, served as master of ceremonies. Author and motivational speaker Tinesha Cherry delivered a stirring keynote address. 

“We come together tonight not only to celebrate one remarkable individual but also the values he championed,” said Sharod L. Tomlinson ’22Ed.D., Assistant Vice President for Equity and Inclusion/Student Belonging. “Our honorees are agents of change not only here on campus but in their communities and throughout the world.” 

An enthusiastic crowd joined in celebrating the work of Mr. Gachigo, a longtime St. John’s administrator who was cited for his work in “embracing advocacy, equality, and positive transformation” during challenging times at the Staten Island campus, which will close later this year. Dr. Tomlinson called Mr. Gachigo “a true example of what genuine leadership looks like.”

Mr. Gachigo seemed humbled by the number of students from Staten Island who traveled to the Queens campus to salute him. “Mine has been a long St. John’s journey,” Mr. Gachigo said. “I am on campus number three. It is wonderful to get a chance to work with students every day and to see how we all pull together as a community.”     

The four honorees shared an eagerness to be role models for the African American community and beyond. As Vice President/Client Service Manager at BNY Mellon, Mr. Shippey is responsible for diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) efforts within the global financial giant. He is also a member of the firm’s Black employee resource group, responsible for creating networking opportunities for Black professionals and inspiring philanthropic initiatives supporting their communities. 

“I learned from my parents the value of always paying it forward, and always thinking about other people,” Mr. Shippey said.

The youngest of the honorees, Jazmyne is pursuing a Master of Professional Studies degree at St. John’s in Homeland Security and Criminal Justice Leadership. A volunteer in the E.P.I.C. Mentor Program, she helps first-year students transition to college and recognize the value of academic goals and service commitments. She advocates for student mental health initiatives and participates in several campus fundraisers, including Relay For Life® to benefit the American Cancer Society. “I would just say thanks to God for continuing to make me better today than I was the day before,” Jazmyne said. 

The final honoree, Maurelhena Walles, is the founder of the Manhattan, NY-based health and wellness advocacy firm Equity Design, Inc., which uses DEI principles to illuminate health care inequities. In 2017, she won the 60-meter dash at the World Masters Athletics Track and Field Championship in Daegu, Korea.

“Being an agent of change drives me because I know there needs to be change,” Ms. Walles said. “That’s the reason we do the work that we do.”

The evening began with a rousing declaration of purpose from Ms. Cherry, who was born to an addicted mother in a single-parent household. As a child, she was abused emotionally, physically, and sexually as she made her way through the foster care system in Detroit, MI.

Undeterred, she graduated from Grambling State University and spent 28 years with US Customs and Border Protection, rising to the second highest position in the Detroit, MI, field office. Since retiring from the agency, she has written the autobiographical I Was Born To Lose, But I Chose to Win; her second book, The W.I.L.L. To Lead is expected later this year, followed by A Glimpse of The Sun, a collection of 100 poems Ms. Cherry wrote. 

Assessing the continuing quest for social justice, Ms. Cherry said: “We are not where we used to be, but not where we need to be. Imagine, if you can, a world where we choose to be kind; where we all choose to be the change in the world that we want to see.”

Drawing upon her life experiences, Ms. Cherry urged the audience not to feel restricted by circumstances. “I know that sometimes challenges seem so big, complex, and deeply rooted that it feels like you are just throwing a pebble into the ocean,” she said. “But I am here to tell you that even the smallest pebble can create a ripple. If each person throws a pebble, those ripples kick up again to create waves, and those waves come together to create a tsunami.”

“We must all find the strength and the courage to speak up for what is right,” Ms. Cherry continued. “To speak out against abuse and neglect and to speak for those who have been silenced.”

View the St. John's University Land Acknowledgement