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2024 MLK Awards two who support community

On Monday, January 15, people throughout the world recognize the birthday and celebrate the legacy of one of the most inspirational leaders in modern history, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Here at Tidewater Community College, we are proud to recognize two employees of the college who embody the spirit of unity and love that Dr. King exemplified in his life. 

Jennifer Valentine Rouse, 2024 Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Distinguished Service Award winner.

Jennifer Valentine Rouse, City Council representative from Virginia Beach and Assistant Professor of Sociology and Department Chair of Social Sciences at Tidewater Community College’s Virginia Beach Campus, and Leia Lassiter-Hunter, TCC graduate and assistant at the TCC Community Feed in Norfolk are TCC’s 2024 Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Distinguished Service Award winners.

A native of Virginia Beach, Jennifer holds an undergraduate degree in English literature from Virginia Wesleyan University and a Master of Science degree in sociology from Virginia Commonwealth University. At VCU, she was awarded the L. Douglas Wilder Graduate Scholar Fellowship and, most recently, she was recognized with the Inside Business Top 40 Under 40 award in 2023. An active member of Virginia City Council, Jennifer holds seats on the Housing Advisory Board and the Active Transportation Advisory Committee. She is also a liaison to the Minority Business Council, the Public Library Board, the Atlantic Park Community Development Authority, and the Something in the Water Festival.

Jennifer credits her family and her husband, Virginia State Senator Aaron Rouse, with enlarging and enhancing her knowledge of and appreciation for the work of Dr. King.

As she recalls, “I learned about Dr. King in my own home from my parents. We had biographies of influential African American figures in American history, and as a sociology major, for me, Dr. King is the premier example of a public sociologist. Not everyone knows this, but Dr. King was admitted to Moorehouse College in Atlanta at the age of 15 and earned his bachelor’s degree in sociology. So, sociology influenced his ability to see society and identify how to make changes that were needed to make equality a reality for people.

“In my classroom, I incorporate Dr. King’s teachings very explicitly because he was a sociologist. I also reference his writings about living through the turmoil of the civil rights movement to recognize some of the violence the public was witnessing. Dr. King has a very famous quote, where he says, ‘A riot is the language of the unheard.’ I have had my students grapple with that and what we recognize is that Dr. King didn’t justify riots; he’s not advocating for them, not excusing them, but he thought that to move forward peacefully, you have to hear what people are saying.

“His idea of non-violence is the preserving and protecting of humanity that’s in all of us, that we’re worth valuing, that we need to look after each other and that we need to do good for each other. I think, reflecting on his writings, they can’t help but move you to action. And you realize, this is not just one holiday, it’s really an ethic that we can work towards building, towards what he called a Beloved Community.”

Jennifer not only gives back to her Virginia Beach community through her city council work but also through her volunteer work in her church and by working with her husband, Aaron’s non-profit, Rouse’s House, which provides food and school supplies to those in need.

Leia Lassiter-Hunter, MLK Scholarship Award Winner

Leia Lassiter-Hunter, TCC graduate and assistant at the TCC Community Feed in Norfolk is the other recipient of TCC’s 2024 Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Distinguished Service Award.

Leia received an Associate of Science degree in Social Science in December of 2023. She plans to pursue a bachelor’s degree in psychology, with a minor in African American history.

While a student at the Norfolk campus, Leia worked as an assistant at the Community Feed and the Norfolk Student Resource and Empowerment Center, making sure that students had the resources to flourish not only in school, but in the larger community as well.

Leia sought out financial help for her fellow students, helping them with college and personal needs. She also researched local organizations and businesses that can assist students in various fields such as art, environmental issues, and small business opportunities.

Reflecting on the legacy of Dr. King, Leia recalls that “I first learned about Dr. King in my home through my parents and in elementary school. The foundation of my learning included the Montgomery Boycott and the ‘I Have a Dream’ speech. As Black people we have immense gratitude for the works of those like MLK because their activism kept and keeps faith and hope alive in our community.  Like most Black households, my parents and grandparents always made sure I had the best education possible. They wanted to make sure I had a foundation they did not have, so I could make it as far as possible in this world. This aided in not only schooling, but also in me being able to see the injustices the African American demographic still faces. Like Dr. King, when you see an injustice, do something!

“I work to make sure the community most prone to food insecurity, mostly African American neighborhoods, have access to fresh AND healthy foods. I donate to and I am apart of both NAACP (NSU Unit) and Color of Change. Lastly, I always buy Black owned. These actions are influenced by Dr. King because like him, when you see an injustice or discrimination, you take action rather than look the other way. This action can be as small as just giving support or as big as dedicating your own time and energy.

“Although Dr King is the first activist most think of when you say ‘civil rights,’ I think of all of the strong Black people, especially the strong Black women, who molded me, gave me the keys to enlightenment, like Dr. Kings teachings, and who paved the way for me to have accomplishments under my belt, including this one.”

We are proud to honor the memory of Dr. King through recognition of the work of Jennifer Valentine Rouse and Leia Lassiter-Hunter. Their dedication to helping others is a direct reflection of one of Dr. King’s timely observations: “Life’s most persistent and urgent question is ‘What are you doing for others?’”