Jovonna Jones

AAS Grad Still Fighting For Social Justice

By Nathan McCall

Typically, when newly minted college graduates toss their caps in the air, most of them head home to chill for the summer. Some even take off for as much as a year of so to travel.

Not Jovonna Jones.

After graduating from Emory in May, Jones, an African American Studies major, returned to her home-place, just outside of Boston and continued doing what she had done throughout her tenure at Emory: Working to change the world, one initiative at a time.

It was Jones’ commitment to social justice issues that sent her out of her undergraduate career with a splash. “JoJo,” as she is affectionately known, was awarded the 2015 Lucius Lamar McMullan Award for her dedication to leadership.

After graduation, she took all of maybe a week to rest on her laurels. Aside from reading and spending catch-up time with family, Jones promptly began working with a nonprofit organization called the Legacy Project, which is run by Visions, Inc.

A philosophy minor, Jones worked with teenagers, ages 14 to 20.

“We taught them about social activism through the arts,” she said. “There were only three of us holding it down, but it was awesome. It was really cool learning this as I go.”

In implementing the program, Jones, who worked as a coordinator and facilitator, combined two of her passions – social activism and photography. She sent students into public places to take pictures and explore the dynamics of “street harassment.”

“Street harassment--cat-calling, police violence, attacks on Trans people, etc.--hinges on entitlement,” she said. “To harass someone on the street is to try to assert your power or claim over their body, space, time, and attention. The street is a public space. Street harassment then becomes another tactic of taking up and dominating space, particularly out of fear or just plain hatred (which, arguably, also stems from fear). Street harassment is probably one of the most common forms of normalized violence in public spaces.”

Jones said the exercises forced students in the summer program to think more consciously about how people inhabit and operate in public spaces. It forced the young people to confront issues, she said, such as: “What does the space look like so that we can figure out how to transform it. I thought this would be a cool opportunity to see what happens.”

“What's interesting to me is that street harassment draws out the power dynamics and oppression we assume only happens in 'private' spaces: homes, businesses, schools, prisons, etc. Street harassment happens in so many forms and out in the open. People can't hide from it. People can't act like they don't see it. And, if they really don't see it, they have to interrogate why. If they call themselves to be anti-violent, they have to ask themselves why they don't see the violence that happens right on the road in front of them, day and night.”

At Emory it was that kind of insight and intellectual curiosity that led members of The College of Arts and Sciences to select Jones as this year’s winner of the 2015 Lucius Lamar McMullan Award. The award grants $25,000 to a College senior who demonstrates leadership and a commitment to community outreach.

Indeed, Jones demonstrated that commitment, over-and-over in her four years as an Emory student. She worked as an intern at the Center for Women. She helped found the Black Student Union and rejuvenated the Black Student Alliance. She did all that while also researching for two fellowship programs.

Initially, upon learning that she had won the Lucius Lamar McMullan Award, which came as a total surprise, Jones said she was unclear what she would do with the $25,000. She spent the summer figuring it out.

“Surprisingly, I have been able to do a lot!” she said with a chuckle.

First off, she sent her parents on a much-needed vacation - to Aruba. She said they had not been on a vacation in a full decade.

Moreover, she also invested a portion of the money, and treated herself to a new iPad.

And not surprisingly, Jones also she used a portion of the funds to help finance her penchant for social activism. When she learned that her family's church was active in trying to win the freedom of a member’s son, a young black man who had been locked up for 22 years, JoJo donated money to help with that effort.

The man, Sean K. Ellis, was convicted in 1995 of murdering a Boston police detective. His defense lawyer spent several years collecting the evidence that recently led a judge to order a new trial. The judge issued a ruling, concluding that former Boston police commissioner William Bratton and then-Suffolk district attorney Ralph C. Martin 2d wrongly allowed three detectives to play key roles in the murder investigation.

The judge also concluded that prosecutors did not provide Ellis’s defense lawyers in the early1990s with all of the information collected by detectives, including reports detailing how a Boston police officer said another member of the force was responsible for Mulligan’s killing.

Ellis was released in June on $50,000 cash bail, which was collected by his family and supporters, such as Jones.

For Jones, the case resonated, particularly in light of BlackLivesMatter and other movements designed to shed light on inherent biases in the nation’s criminal justice system.

This Fall, Jones will venture into new explorations that, she hopes, can complement her commitment to social justice. She will enter Georgia State University to begin pursuing a Master of Fine Arts degree in photography.

“They happen to have a really cool program that’s able to give a lot of attention to students,” she said. “And I wanted to be in a place that is nurturing.”

She believes the location of Georgia State, in the heart of downtown Atlanta, would help provide a kind of urban laboratory for her to develop her photography skills and experience what she called “a courageous vulnerability when it comes to art.”

As well, part of her decision to attend Georgia State relates to an acquired affinity for Atlanta.

“I just like the city,” she said.